Some people regard Australia’s Outback as an empty landscape. So vast is its expanse, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by one’s smallness within it.
However, there is no emptiness in Professor Paul Tacon’s Outback. He loves it as a teeming place, one rich in sights, species and especially stories; thousands of them painted on the ancient rocks to record the narrative of the land, its people and the pivotal moments in its history.
As the founder of Griffith University’s Gold Coast-based Place, Evolution and Rock Art Heritage Unit (PERAHU), Canadian-born Professor Tacon is one of the world’s leading authorities on rock art and a champion for its protection and preservation. His work was recognised again recently when he was among nominees for the Griffith University Vice Chancellor’s Research Excellence Awards.
Interestingly, at a time when Australia’s rock art is under increasing threat as industry – particularly mining – and the human sprawl extend further inland, Professor Tacon is neither anti-development nor at the head of any protest campaign.
His call is for a shared approach, a nationally co-ordinated strategy allowing industry and its inevitable infrastructure to exist without compromising, or worse, destroying the precious cultural heritage of Australia’s rock art.
It comes down to two considerations, namely the value of the resources beneath the surface against the value of what is painted above it.
Sense of wonder
Seated behind a crowded desk and with just a few Aboriginal prints to break the monotony of books, files and folders, it’s reassuring to learn that the confines of Professor Tacon’s Gold Coast campus office do not stifle his sense of wonder. It’s clear that his work is his vocation, not merely his profession.
“I thought about becoming a medical doctor, but when I was at the University of Waterloo in Ontario I discovered that anthropology and archaeology interested me more,” he said.
Arriving in Australia in 1981 to join a research team on an archaeological excavation in Kakadu National Park, it was there that Professor Tacon first observed the Aboriginal rock art that moved his heart and inspired his mind.
After 14 years as principal research scientist for the Australian Museum, he joined Griffith University in 2005 and since then has extended his rock art studies into Asia.
“Every time I see a rock art site for the first time, whether I’m exploring a known site or thrilling at a new discovery, I think of how the ancient people painted on the rocks to declare themselves to the world,” Professor Tacon said.
“This was their way of announcing who they were, what they had done and seen. That’s a very powerful message of identity, place and history.”
Though Australia has more rock art sites than anywhere in the world, it has never established a national database or strategy for its documentation, conservation and management. If that continues, Professor Tacon fears there will be no way of knowing precisely how much rock art there is, or how quickly it is disappearing.
He is not alone in wanting to protect and celebrate what he describes as Australia’s crown jewels. Gold Coast ophthalmologist Dr John Kearney recently donated $10,000 to PERAHU and hopes others will follow his example.
“When I heard Paul describe the rock art as Australia’s crown jewels, it struck me just how valuable these sites are to the story of our nation, and how they must be preserved for all Australians to see,” Dr Kearney said.
While the natural world can be unforgiving towards rock art – destructive factors include rock degradation, sprawling vegetation, bushfires, altered water flow, mud wasps, termites, wombats kicking up dust and kangaroos and feral pigs rubbing against rock surfaces – human intervention remains the greatest threat. According to Professor Tacon, the situation isn’t helped when state protection laws remain weak.
“That’s why Australia needs a collective strategy, one that draws from industry, government, Aboriginal history and culture and groups like PERAHU, all geared towards compiling a thorough record of Australia’s rock art and then weighing up the best options for industry, development, tourism access and so on.”
Because the future of Australia’s rock art is not guaranteed, the possibility of its loss awakens Professor Tacon’s sense of wonder as profoundly as any new discovery.
“There is an ironic fragility to these ancient survivors and if they are destroyed, that’s it. Once they’re gone, they’re gone,” he said.
“Surely it is wiser to act now, to document and protect and manage what we have. That has to be better than the prospect, at some time in the future, of mounting a last minute strategy to salvage only what we have left.”