Caves as places of cultural identity: Maori rock art sites

Neville Ritchie, Regional Archaeologist, Department of Conservation, Waikato Conservancy, Hamilton, New Zealand

This paper is a slightly expanded version of a paper presented on April 28 1997 to the ACKMA conference held at Waitomo.

Speleologists and cave managers in New Zealand are well familiar with the spectacular speleothems and often rich sub-fossil deposits found in caves, sinkholes and other forms of subterranean chambers, but perhaps know less about or overlook the use of caves (more specifically, the entrance areas where there is natural light) and overhangs (rock shelters) by the pre-European Maori in New Zealand. Caves and shelters with evidence of cultural use are found widely throughout New Zealand but particularly in karst environments. They were used principally for shelter when in transit or as temporary campsites, possibly, to some extent, because they could be readily relocated by exploring, hunting, or warring parties and used as meeting places. Caves and overhangs were also used less frequently as burial places, particularly for secondary burials, i.e. as a final repository for human remains after initial burial at another site (where the flesh decomposed). Understandably these places are considered sacred (wahi tapu) and their whereabouts kept secret.

But of all human activity/archaeological remains associated with caves and shelters in New Zealand, Maori rock art has perhaps the most interesting and controversial history of research, in no small part due to the marked dissimilarity between the images depicted on rock surfaces, and other Maori art forms such as wood and bone carvings. Consequently many early investigators considered that the rock drawings were either made by a pre-Polynesian (i.e. pre-Maori people), or were pre-fleet (i.e. pre c1350 AD), or were the work of lost or vanquished Maori tribe(s). One explanation for why the motifs on Maori rock art (particularly those in South Island sites) vary so much from those on Maori wood carvings, is that very few of the latter which still survive are more than about 300 years old.

The drawing of images on rock faces is a trait shared by many cultures around the world and goes back several thousand years. New Zealand rock art researchers Trotter and McCulloch (1997) simply attribute the presence of rock drawings in New Zealand to the fact that "people everywhere like to draw [and the Maori were no exception]. As a canvas they used the smooth, light coloured surfaces of the walls and roofs of rock overhangs — usually of limestone — in which they sheltered during hunting trips." This is probably a simplistic explanation and other reasons could be put forward, but more empirical evidence based on archaeological research suggests that the great majority of South Island rock drawings were executed in the first 500 years of Polynesian settlement in New Zealand in the early hunter-gatherer period (often called the Moahunter Period).

During the past 30 years systematic studies have been made at many Maori rock art sites (mainly in the South Island), and a number of associated shelter floor deposits have been excavated and radiocarbon dated. As a consequence the role of "rock art" as a component of Maori culture is more clearly understood. The radiocarbon dates obtained from rock shelter deposits suggest that, from the outset, the earliest Polynesian settlers in New Zealand recognised the shelter afforded by natural overhangs and cave entrances and used them extensively for temporary accommodation. Many shelters, which are often in obscure and once-forested places, may have been discovered while tracking the moa, which, judging from the frequent presence of moa eggshell and nesting materials under rock overhangs and in cave entrances, regularly used such places for nesting. While the shelters were being used by hunting parties, some among them drew on the walls and ceilings using charcoal and sometimes red ochre which they must have brought with them. They also, on occasion, left food remains, such as shells and butchered bones; as well as stones and charcoal from cooking fires, all or parts of stone or wooden tools, wood chips, feathers, and artefacts made of flax or cordage, a notable example of the latter being the woven Maori backpack (with other items inside) found in a rockshelter at Broken Hill, Canterbury and now exhibited at the Canterbury Museum. It is possible drawings were also rendered on other suitable surfaces such as cliff faces, but if they were, they have not survived to the present day in these unsheltered situations.

There are two main forms of rock art in New Zealand — drawings, and petroglyphs where designs have been incised or pecked, or are carved in raised relief. The majority of the latter are two dimensional art works engraved into rock faces (typically in or around a cave entrance), but there are also examples of three dimensional 'sculptures', although the latter are in the main restricted to smaller portable artefacts. Drawings are far more numerous, constituting over 80% of all recorded Maori rock art. The main mediums are red ochre (made from natural iron oxide deposits) and charcoal (generally in the form of soot or powdered charcoal rather than drawing with the end of a charred stick). Occasionally a piece of rock was used to write on a darker rock surface leaving a white chalk-like image.

There are about 530 recorded Maori rock art sites throughout New Zealand. The majority (442 or 83%) are in the limestone areas of the South Island, particularly in North Otago, South Canterbury and North Canterbury. About 100 new rock art sites have been recorded in these areas in recent years during the course of a systematic recording project funded by iwi Ngai Tahu to record their ancestral art works before they disappear. Far fewer rock art sites are known in the North Island. The 89 sites in the North Island (17% of the total) are quite different from those in the south. Most are engraved, and where pigments such as ochre and charcoal have been used, they are often applied as a paint rather than used as a dry 'crayon'. They are also far more geographically widespread, generally not in clusters, and are found in fine-grained rocks such as ignimbrite and papa as well as in karst regions. The favourite subject of North Island rock art is the waka (dug out canoe) — a subject seldom depicted in South Island sites. Pecked-out spiral designs on volcanic rocks are also a feature of North Island rock art. Whereas there is considerable continuity in styles and motifs in the South Island rock drawing areas, there is much greater variability in the North Island. Trotter and McCulloch (1997) thought the marked regional variations may reflect a more settled agricultural lifestyle and more clearly defined tribal areas. Archaeological investigations and stylistic features also suggest North Island drawings are generally of more recent origin than their South Island counterparts.

The most common and easily recognised subject depicted in South Island rock art sites is the human form. Depictions of humans are stylised and typically presented as a frontal silhouette with flexed arms and legs. Facial features are never shown. Other recognisable animals - dogs, birds and fish - are usually drawn in profile, and most often face the viewer's right, and many are drawn with a "hollow body" (i.e. the internal areas are not coloured). There are, however, many notable and spectacular exceptions (see Trotter and McCulloch 1981, 1997). One of the best known is a group of moa in profile depicted on the wall of a rockshelter at Craigmore in Canterbury.

In most instances there is little or no attempt at composition, most motifs depict individual subjects and landscape features such as trees, hills, rivers, and lakes are not depicted. But many regional stylistic differences are recognised e.g. drawings of dogs in sites south of the Waitaki River tend to have their "tails down", whereas in rock art sites north of the Waitaki dogs are depicted with their tails in an upright stance. Many drawings contain iconic symbols and reflect regional styles - e.g. birds and animals are drawn in a particular way within different areas. Taniwha (mythical creatures) are another common motif, particularly in the Waitaki River area. Among the most well known of the more abstract South Island forms is the black design known as the 'Opihi taniwha' which featured on a New Zealand postage stamp in the 1960s. Although somewhat atypical, the "bird in egg" design drawn on a greywacke rock (now under Lake Benmore) shows the same "bulbed volute" style somewhat similar to that used in some traditional Maori house-rafter and gourd decorative designs. What some rock art motifs represent is "anybody's guess" - a case in point - the South Island 'birdman' motif: human-like figures with bird-like heads (Trotter and McCulloch believe they are simply drawings of birds drawn in the same frontal, limbs flexed style to the common depiction of humans as described above).

Some rock art sites in the western North Island feature "6-toed feet" incised into rock faces. These have been linked with the chief Te Rauparaha who apparently had 6 toes, and are regarded as a sort of "Te Rauparaha was here" mark. Another North Island rock art feature are distinctive "open spiral" patterns pecked, for the most part, into the surfaces of free standing volcanic boulders on beaches or in stream beds. These are thought to be a form of boundary marker. Design elements such as triangles, chevrons and concentric circles, more reminiscent of Maori wood carving, are also relatively more prevalent in the North Island rock art sites. Drawings of waka (canoes) and humans are often in close association evoking canoe ancestors, but relatively few of the waka drawings depict specific activities such as fishing or spearing fish from the craft.

It is difficult to precisely determine when an individual piece of Maori rock art was executed, despite technological developments such as radiocarbon accelerator dating whereby minute amounts of carbon (scraped from a rock art work) can be dated. Usually rock art is dated by analysis of stylistic differences and by association with archaeological deposits (sometimes drawings extend below the surface of associated cultural deposits in shelters) and are often broadly divided into "early" or "late". The drawings in "early sites" are generally more naturalistic or life-like whereas those in "later sites" are more stylistic and complex. Extinct species such as the moa and an eagle-like bird (often assumed to be the now extinct eagle Harpagornis) are also depicted in some of the"early" rock art sites. There is no apparent chronological variation in the use of red ochre or charcoal for drawing. Both mediums were used contemporaneously, and the colours are variously superimposed over each other. Evidence of continuity can be seen in shelters where sailing ships have been drawn over traditional depictions of traditional waka. Other post-European motifs (or graffiti?) include Maori names written in missionary-taught Roman capital letters, and depictions of horses with riders. There are recorded instances of some of the latter subjects being drawn by Maori when they were acting as guides for early European travellers.

Maori rock art sites in New Zealand are very much a threatened "species" — time is catching up with them. The drawings at many sites (particularly charcoal drawings) are already very difficult to see and/or photograph. This is due to several factors — surface weathering (the ravages of time), rock surfaces fretting or delaminating, and calcining where natural calcium salts (mainly carbonates) in aqueous solution gradually form an increasingly opaque layer over drawings and eventually render them invisible. Many can now only be seen if they are sprayed with water or are exposed to natural rain, but they "disappear" again as soon as the rock surface dries out. As a consequence, a water spray bottle is an essential tool for finding new rock art locations, otherwise the drawings are not apparent or only partially visible and are impossible to trace or photograph. Rock drawings also need protection from human interference, and animals (which rub against them and disturb and soil the cultural deposits). In the past, particularly in North Otago and South Canterbury, natural rock shelters with significant rock art were often dug out or deepened by farmers to use as haybarns or implement sheds. Limestone quarrying has also destroyed rock drawings in a few instances. Others have been flooded by hydro-dam projects.

All these threats are well recognised but are often difficult to mitigate. The majority of rock art sites, particularly those in the South Island, are on private lands (farms) and often in out of the way places. Protective grills have been installed in front of some of the better known sites to keep humans and animals away from the drawings (usually the mesh is big enough to poke a camera lens through), and in a few instances chemical binders have been used to stabilise rock surfaces, but there is little that can be done to prevent charcoal drawings "going white" as the calcine layer builds up.

Over the years some drawings have been "retouched", i.e. someone has drawn over or coloured-in motifs to make them more visible. Although this is frowned upon for cultural reasons as well as concerns about artistic accuracy and using different mediums e.g. black paint instead of charcoal, there is no doubt that in some instances it has preserved the images in-situ. One could argue, that without retouching the future looks bleak for NZ Maori rock drawings, they are literally going to fade away, and the only record of their existence will be the photographs and tracings which have been made of the drawings by various investigators over the years. If cavers come across examples of Maori rock art or associated deposits, such as those described in this article, it would be useful to report them to a local museum or the Department of Conservation. These agencies can ascertain if they have already been recorded or update existing records, and liaise with the appropriate iwi if necessary.

References/Further Reading

Trotter M & McCulloch B 1981, Prehistoric Rock Art of New Zealand, A.H. & A.W. Reed, Wellington, 2nd ed.

Trotter M & McCulloch B 1989 Rock Art, in Digging Up the Past, pp.46-47 in 1997 new edition.


Thanks to Brian Allingham, who is in charge of the Ngai Tahu rock art recording project, for a most helpful discussion on the subject.

The illustrated motifs are examples reproduced from Prehistoric Rock Art of New Zealand by Michael Trotter & Beverley McCulloch, 1971, 1st ed.

Maori rock art 1

Figure 1: Maori rock art
Row 1: Humans in profile
Row 2: Dog forms
Row 3: Dog form, & water craft
Row 4: Humans?, frontal depictions

Maori rock art 2

Figure 2: Maori rock art
Row 1: Humans, frontal depictions
Row 2: Flighted birds & 'birdman' figures
Row 3: Flighted birds & 'birdman' figures
Row 4: Naturalistic bird forms