Higher Degree by Research Application Portal

TitleDesert to the Sea: Managing Rock Art, Culture and Country
SupervisorProf Jo McDonald
CourseDoctor of Philosophy
KeywordsLithic artefacts
Indigenous culture
Australian archaeology
residue analysis
arid zone
Project description

Plants and Animals in the archaeological record: Understanding deep time desert adaptations adaptations through shared indigenous knowledge

Human occupation of the Australian arid zone is known to extend through more than 50,000 years, during which time today’s deserts have experienced dramatic climatic and environmental change. Indigenous knowledge and understanding of these landscapes is deep and the Martu have names for the water sources across their cultural estates, curated through dreaming narratives. This project will focus on several significant deep time archaeological assemblages, augmented by contemporary collections of plants and experimental residues. 

The goal of this Project research node it to understand the ecology, biodiversity and land management practices around rock art site complexes to better understand how these nodes in the deserts were incorporated into people’s ngurra and managed as cultural landscapes. The PhD project will involve the analysis and interpretation of existing archaeological assemblages from Karnatukal (Serpent’s Glen) and Wirrili (in Birriliburru IPA) and Murujuga Rock Shelter in the Dampier Archipelago will help to better understand how these land management practises have changed through deep time and into the recent past. This will be facilitated by contemporary reference collections being made by the research node team with traditional custodians. Combining TEK and modern scientific approaches (including ethnobotany, anthracology, starch analysis and usewear analysis) will provide new insights into Aboriginal plant utilisation and plant food processing, providing better understand hunting and foraging practises and to assess how these activities have shaped the archaeological record. 

Opportunity statusOpen
Open date24 Apr 2024
Close date28 Jun 2024
Funding source

ARC Linkage Project 200300886

SchoolGraduate Research School

Prof Jo McDonald - email | profile

Please contact Prof Jo McDonald in the first instance by email.

If invited to apply, go to the courses tab, select Doctor of Philosophy and click on the 'enquire here' button.


Specific project requirement

Remote area fieldwork experience preferred

Additional information


As part of this project the successful PhD applicant will:

• Participate in establishing and building a modern comparative plant and animal reference collection using TEK information from around identified rock art site complexes based on ecological surveys in their vicinity. These reference materials will be used in the analysis of already excavated assemblages, and results included in community and CRAR+M databases;

• Formulate and execute on-Country workshops (with experimental components) during the Culture Camps with traditional owners and rangers and researchers. These workshops will explore traditional preferential selection, processing and consumption of plant foods, and experimental archaeology and ethnobotany to understand, site formation, seed/pigment processing and preservation of use-related residues;

• Extract and analyse use-related residue samples from in situ grinding patches at identified rock art sites in all three heritage estates of our partner organisations; and

• Functionally analyse (technology, usewear and residues) already-excavated stone tool assemblages and grinding patches from rock art sites in all three heritage estates of our partner organisations, to better understand resource use, mobility and other social drivers for rock art production.

• Work collaboratively in a multi-disciplinary environment which recognises the intrinsic value of indigenous knowledge systems, with capacity to do remote fieldwork with Indigenous partners on the project.

Course typeDoctorates

The Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) is a program of independent, supervised research that is assessed solely on the basis of a thesis, sometimes including a creative work component, that is examined externally. The work presented for a PhD must be a substantial and original contribution to scholarship, demonstrating mastery of the subject of interest as well as an advance in that field of knowledge. 

Visit the course webpage for full details of this course including admission requirements, course rules and the relevant CRICOS code/s.

Duration4 years


Desert to the Sea:  Managing Rock Art, Culture and Country