Pilbara ship engraving may depict British ship Mermaid in 1818

Ship engraving

A team of archaeologists has discovered a depiction of a British naval ship carved onto a boulder on an island in the Dampier Archipelago in Western Australia’s Pilbara region.

They believe the engraving is a depiction of His Majesty’s Cutter (HMC) Mermaid, captained by the British naval officer Phillip Parker King in his survey of Australia’s coastlines between 1817 and 1822.

The survey team that made the discovery in 2017 was documenting Aboriginal petroglyphs across the Dampier Archipelago (Murujuga) and included archaeologists from The University of Western Australia working on the Australian Research Council-funded project with partners at Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation and Rio Tinto Iron Ore.

The team included rangers from the Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation Land and Sea Unit and Professor Peter Veth, from UWA’s Oceans Institute. The research has been published in The Journal of Island and Coastal Archaeology.

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 – the first documented visitors since William Dampier in 1699.

Co-author Dr Tiffany Shellam, from Deakin University, said on board with King were Boongaree – an Aboriginal man from Sydney who helped liaise with Aboriginal people they met – midshipman John Septimus Roe (who later became WA’s first Surveyor-General) and botanist Allan Cunningham.

“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 the usual technique of Yaburara engraved rock art found throughout the islands.

“The image closely resembles the Mermaid, suggesting a deep familiarity with its design and rigging,” Professor McDonald 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.”

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