Breaking new ground in ancient land

Director of The University of Western Australia’s Centre for Rock Art Research and Management, Professor Jo McDonald is shedding light on some of Australia’s most ancient settlements and earliest symbolic behaviour.

Professor Jo McDonald is one of the rare few who can say her work has changed history. Recently recognised for her outstanding contribution to Australian archaeology, Professor McDonald is best known for her research on Aboriginal rock art. However, she has also pioneered the direct dating of pigment art sites, helped Aboriginal communities attain Native Title and assessed rock art significance at both national and World Heritage levels.

On top of this, she has just uncovered evidence of human occupation during the last ice age in the Dampier Archipelago as well as Australia’s earliest domestic structures. In collaboration with the Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation and RioTinto, Professor McDonald and her team will use this discovery to build a better understanding of how humans used this sacred area.

Carving her own path

Despite being renowned for her research, Professor McDonald’s route to academia was not a direct one.

I’ve always been interested in rock art, but I spent much of my career as a consultant, as well as an archaeologist in private practice.

It was while working on a linkage project on the Canning Stock route in the deserts of Western Australia that she decided to change direction and apply for a Future Fellowship with the Australian Research Council. This was the turning point that led her to make her remarkable recent breakthroughs.

The wonders of the remote

Today, Professor McDonald’s office includes some of Western Australia’s most idyllic locations.

We’re currently working in a conservation park on the Pilbara Coast, so we’re camping in places where other people can’t go, surrounded by natural beauty and an extraordinary heritage record.

Although picturesque, the isolation of these locations brings unique hurdles for her and her team to overcome.

“We are working and camping on desert islands which we access either by boat or helicopter, so we have a strict OH&S plan. We call in daily and we’re always prepared in case something does happen.”

She maintains this confident attitude to remoteness when she returns to work and teaching at the University.

“Because it’s in one of the most isolated cities in the world, some people think UWA’s location is a problem, but I think it’s fantastic. Not only is it close to rock art, it’s globally connected. I’ve just completed a successful project in California and Nevada while working at UWA. It’s our strong global relationships that enable us to do the research that keeps us ahead of the pack.”

An extraordinary legacy

Professor McDonald’s project in the Dampier Archipelago is still underway but, like all her research, the aim is to make a positive and lasting impact.

I hope my work builds a better understanding of how magnificent our conservation estates are. It’s not just natural beauty, it is a 50,000-year-old cultural heritage. It’s an extraordinary legacy Australia needs to embrace and look after.

Eureka every day

For many, a career in research is a pursuit for that ‘eureka’ moment. But Professor McDonald admits she has been lucky enough to experiences these moments often.

That’s the joy of working in archaeology in Australia. It’s still a young discipline here, so we are privileged to work on ancient sites with Aboriginal people – where archaeologists have never been before – and we often find things that are even better than expected.

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