Wanna Munna Aboriginal Rock Art Site – Pilbara region WA

The main waterhole at Wanna Munna.  The rock art covers the surrounding rock faces and boulders.

In mid 2009 we explored the Pilbara region of Western Australia, travelling from the Pilbara coast to the Rudall River National Park in the Pilbara’s far east.  On our way from the famous and beautiful Karijini National Park to the mining town of Newman, we stopped at the Wanna Munna Aboriginal rock art site.

This site is indicated on some maps of the Pilbara, but proved somewhat tricky to find, as all sign-posting to the site had been removed.  After a couple of false starts, we drove down a rough dirt track and were soon surprised to encounter a 4WD driven by a young woman coming out the track.  We stopped, told her that we were looking for the art site, to which she responded that she was to, but had turned back after feeling uneasy heading off alone down a deserted bush track.  Anyway, we mustn’t have looked too terrifying because she turned around and followed us in.  After a couple of kilometres we found the site – a beautiful place, with a lovely waterhole and an abundance of petroglyph art (rock engravings).  While the rock art was reminiscent of that in the wider Pilbara region including the Burrup Peninsula near Dampier, we found the quality of the petroglyphs at Wanna Munna to be unsurpassed.  Many of the petroglyphs were obviously the work of master-artists.  Given that they worked on extremely hard surfaces and used primitive tools, it almost beggars belief that they could produce such detailed, intricate work.

I always love visiting rock art sites.  There is something quite special about standing in front of an engraving or painting, and wondering about the person who created the artwork.  Was it created hundreds of years ago, or thousands, or in some instances tens of thousands?  The oldest works are now barely discernable, as if they have been re-absorbed by the rock over time.  I tend to rush into each site, full of enthusiasm to discover what is there.  But the first thing you must do is slow down, to adjust the way you look at the rocks.  Once you have managed that, the artworks leap at you from the surrounding rocks.  What at first appeared to be a bland rock-face suddenly transforms into a gallery of treasures.  Slow down and look properly, and you realize that there may be hundreds of artworks around you.  Wander through with your head full of modern worries and you notice very little.  Nirbeeja and I spend hours exploring these sites.  We see other people walk in, look around and walk straight out, complaining that there is little there.

The sites also fill me with sadness because they represent a time now passed.  The culture from which they sprang is now largely lost.  You don’t see any new works at these sites, save for the occasional piece of modern graffiti.   Despite the efforts to maintain traditional culture, successful in some Aboriginal communities, less so in others, the way of life that gave rise to these art sites, and the meaningful role played in everyday life by the artworks, has now been largely lost.  Indeed, I fear that in many areas the meaning of the artworks has been lost even to the local indigenous peoples.  The sites now serve just as a reminder of the era when a once ancient culture prospered on our continent, before European settlement changed the human face of our country.

We now reside in a far different world, although there at the ancient site of Wanna Munna we were reminded again just what a small world it is.  It turned out that the young woman we met was a recent graduate in archeology from the ANU, living in Watson in Canberra, now over in the west working for BHP in Newman for a month.     Her job was to catalogue archeological sites at possible future mining sites.  This had been her rostered day off and she had gone exploring.  So we had a good chin wag with her about all sorts of topics, including news from home.

Wanna Munna artsite contained hundreds of petroglyphs on the rocks around the waterhole.  Many were representations of animals such as kangaroos and emus, some of people, others of plants, and some of quite unusual, enigmatic beings or creatures.  It was a beautiful art site and we would thoroughly recommend a visit for anyone interested in Aboriginal culture, who may be travelling through the Pilbara.

A very interesting figure.  We don't know what this represents

Sublime work when you consider the surface hardness and tools the people were using

Three boomerangsA whole face of the intricate carvings.  One of the best examples of petroglyphs we have ever seen

A striking figure with rays emanating from its head

Another ray-headed being, arm held up in gesture

There are petroglyphs on most of these rock faces.