Engraving may depict British ship

Archaeologists discover depiction of 1818 British naval ship in Dampier Archipelago.

Domestic travel
WHEN WORLDS MEET: The engraving believed to be of the Mermaid on Enberby Island in the Dampier Archipelago, off the Pilbara.

WHEN WORLDS MEET: The engraving believed to be of the Mermaid on Enberby Island in the Dampier Archipelago, off the Pilbara.


Voyage of the Mermaid provided insights into Yaburara people's traditional way of life.


A TEAM of archaeologists has discovered a depiction of a British naval ship carved on to a boulder on an island in the Dampier Archipelago in the Pilbara.

They believe the engraving is a depiction of the Mermaid, the cutter captained by British naval officer Phillip Parker King in three of his four surveys of the Australian coast between 1817 and 1822.

The survey team that made the discovery in 2017 was documenting Aboriginal petroglyphs across the archipelago and included archaeologists from the University of WA working with partners at Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation and Rio Tinto Iron Ore.

The team included rangers from the corporation's land and sea unit and Professor Peter Veth, from UWA's Oceans Institute.

Lead author Professor Alistair Paterson said King's voyages were historic journeys of discovery, providing detailed maps of the Australian coast for the British Admiralty. The Mermaid spent just a week in the Dampier Archipelago in 1818- the first documented visitors since William Dampier in 1699.

Co-author Tiffany Shellam, from Deakin University, said on board with King were midshipman John Septimus Roe (who later became WA's first surveyor-general), botanist Allan Cunningham and Bungaree, an Indigenous man from Sydney who helped liaise with Aborigines they met.

"They observed Yaburara people while in the islands, describing their distinctive rafts and how they reacted to the arrival of outsiders," Dr Shellam said. "This voyage provided new insights into Yaburara people's traditional lifeways before the significant impacts that followed the colonisation of north-west Western Australia."

Professor Jo McDonald, director of UWA's Centre for Rock Art Research and Management, said the ship depiction had been scratched rather than engraved - the usual technique of Yaburara rock art found throughout the islands.

"The image closely resembles the Mermaid, suggesting a deep familiarity with its design and rigging," she said. "This image then joins other evidence left behind by King and crew along the Western Australian coast two centuries ago, like the 'Mermaid Tree' at Careening Bay in the Kimberley."

The research has been published in The Journal of Island and Coastal Archaeology.

Where to see rock art in WA

Elsewhere in the Pilbara, rock art sites can be found on the Burrup Peninsula, 190km west of Port Hedland, home of one of the world's largest collections of petroglyphs.

The site is one of the World Monuments Fund's 100 Most Endangered Places in the World. Ngajarli Gorge is especially popular for those wanting to see traditional engravings, which are up to 20,000 years old.

Further north, the Kimberley also has many collections of rock art. Along Gibb River Road, petroglyphs can seen along tracks leading to the gorges, including Adcock, Manning and Galvans gorges. On the Mitchell Plateau, Munurru-style art can be found at the Wandjina complex, about 700 metres past the King Edward River crossing, while the Warnmarri, or Brolga, complex is a further 4.5 kilometres to the west.

Rock art sites around the community of Kalumburu are also accessible. Take the short Anscar and Monster Rock Art Nature Walk just outside the community, or visit the Community Resource and Visitor Centre to book a tour.Visitors to Tunnel Creek may also encounter rock art on their way through the caves.