Understanding the hydrological processes and soil-landscape evolution of Murujuga

How was water transported in ancient landscapes to form water holes necessary for human occupation and survival?

This scholarship is still open

Human occupation in Australia is known to extend more than 50 kya, during which time the Australian continent has experienced climatic extremes and undergone dramatic geographic change. Knowledge of how landscapes have evolved and their capacity for water transport and storage is needed to establish windows of opportunity for habitation and resource extraction, refining our understanding of Aboriginal occupation. This project aims to explore the hydrologic and soil-landscape evolution of Murujuga (Dampier Archipelago) on the Pilbara coast of Western Australia, a region of scientific and cultural significance, renowned for abundant and diverse Aboriginal rock art. 

This project will include the use of GIS and spatial analysis to study the hydrology of the landscape. Investigation of the properties of soils in different landscape positions will be required to understand the role of water and other environmental factors in soil development and in turn, the soil-landscape associations will inform on how water is distributed in the landscape. Fieldwork, including soil and landscape surveys and sampling, in addition to a variety of laboratory analytical techniques will be required. The expected outcomes will include improved understanding of the soil-landscape evolution and hydrological processes operating at Murujuga during the Quaternary, which will inform on past freshwater availability and habitat characteristics relevant to human occupation. The successful applicant will have the opportunity to collaborate with a wide range of researchers in a multidisciplinary team focussed on understanding the past landscapes and climate of Murujuga and the ages of rock art produced across the region. 

As part of this project the successful PhD applicant will:

  • Use GIS and spatial analysis to develop catchment maps and improve understanding of hydrological flowpaths 
  • Undertake fieldwork, including soil surveys, sampling and shallow geophysical surveys
  • Describe and characterise soil profiles, including using petrographic techniques such as optical and scanning electron microscopy
  • Conduct sample preparation and laboratory analysis using techniques such as X-Ray diffraction, ICP-MS and particle size analysis
  • Develop skills in geochronology, such as OSL (Optically Stimulated Luminescence) and radiocarbon dating
  • Develop environmental proxy records from soil profile analysis to inform on Quaternary hydroclimate and environment of Murujuga
  • Produce a conceptual model of the soil-landscape-hydrological system

Suggested readings:

May, S. M., Brill, D., Leopold, M., Callow, J. N., Engel, M., Scheffers, A., Opitz, S., Norpoth, M., Bruckner, H. 2017. Chronostratigraphy and geomorphology of washover fans in the Exmouth Gulf (NW Australia) – A record of tropical cyclone activity during the late Holocene. Quaternary Science Reviews 169: 65-84.

McDonald, J. Reynen, W., Ditchfield, K., Dortch, J., Leopold, M., Stephenson, B., Whitley, T., Ward, I., Veth, P. (2018). "Murujuga Rockshelter: First evidence for Pleistocene occupation on the Burrup Peninsula." Quaternary Science Reviews 193: 266-287.

van der Meij W. M., Temme, A. J. A. M., Lin, H. S., Gerke, H. H., Sommer, M. 2018. On the role of hydrologic processes in soil and landscape evolution modelling: concepts, complications and partial solutions. Earth-Science Reviews 185: 1088-1106. 

Research team leader: Matthias Leopold

Matthias Leopold is a soil geomorphologist focussing on soils and their properties for a better understanding of landscape evolution and soil functions. He is based in the UWA School of Agriculture and Environment. Matthias integrates knowledge from pedology and geosciences to improve understanding of geomorphic setting, subsurface and soil characteristics and hydrological flow paths, which in combination with dating methods, is important information to describe past landscape evolution relevant for archaeological research. Research will be co-supervised with geoscientists in the School of Social Sciences Centre for Rock Art Research and Management (Caroline Mather) and the School of Earth Sciences (Mick O’Leary). 

Funding and collaborations:

This project is funded by the ARC Linkage Project (LP190100724) “Dating Murujuga’s Dreaming: Scientific analysis of landscapes and rock art” between The University of Western Australia, The University of Melbourne, The University of Wollongong, Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation, Rio Tinto and Woodside.

How to apply

Interested in becoming part of this project? Complete the following steps to submit your expression of interest:

Step 1 - Check criteria

General UWA PhD entrance requirements can be found on the Future Students website.

Requirements specific to this project:

  • An excellent Honours BSc degree or MSc in physical geography, (hydro)geology, soil science or environmental science.
  • Preferred with some field and lab experience and fundamental knowledge in GIS

Step 2 - Submit enquiry to research team leader

Submit Expression of interest

Step 3 - Lodge application

After you have discussed your project with the research team leader, you should be in a position to proceed to the next step of the UWA application process: Lodge an application. Different application procedures apply to domestic and international students.


Domestic students

All domestic students may apply for Research Training Program and University Postgraduate Awards (UPA) scholarships.

The Australian Government's Endeavour Awards and Scholarships are available to Australian applicants for study in participating countries and regions.

International students

A range of scholarships are available from international organisations and governments. The full list, organised by country, is available on the Future Students website.

In addition, all international students may apply for International Research Training Program scholarships.

The Australian Government's Endeavour Awards and Scholarships are available to international applicants from participating countries and regions.

Indigenous students
Indigenous students are encouraged to apply for Indigenous Postgraduate Research Supplementary Scholarships.
Forrest Foundation scholarships
All international and Australian students who wish to study towards the degree of Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) at The University of Western Australia may apply for Forrest Scholarships.