Mists of mythology surround rock art

ROCK OUTING: A South Canterbury Historical Society group at Hazelburn, with a large rock face across a valley 
behind them. Taken around September 1959, a note on the back of the photo says the outing was led by Mr A Formison 
to the Maori rock drawings in the Hazelburn area.
ROCK OUTING: A South Canterbury Historical Society group at Hazelburn, with a large rock face across a valley behind them. Taken around September 1959, a note on the back of the photo says the outing was led by Mr A Formison to the Maori rock drawings in the Hazelburn area.

Much has been written regarding the rock drawings found in South Canterbury.

Some students hold the view that the drawings are the work of an early Polynesian tribe, and others, while admitting that they may be several hundred years old, think that the work was continuous and later influenced by missionary contact. Mr H McCully, of Timaru, who has spent a lifetime studying Maori culture, said in a recent interview that the oldest drawings are probably those at Takiroa, above Duntroon. These are mostly boldly executed in red. Tamatea, a Maori ancestor, is credited with forming the cave there for the recognition of tuki-tuki (writing) brought from the distant land Irihia, beyond Hawaiki, the fatherland of the Maori, by Uru Whenua and his three brothers and painted on a stone called "Ko mako nui".

Mr McCully said that in the Otago University Museum there is a small black stone on which is engraved a headless human figure. This relic is undoubtedly talismanic, the figure being identical with drawings in local shelters, and on Easter Island script. The province of this relic is probably Waitaki.

"Tamatea is credited with forming the lakes in the interior on his exploring expeditions. With primitive peoples "discovery" easily became to "form". The stone relic is of more importance and warrants further inquiry regarding its relationship, if any, to the drawings. Some years ago I visited the drawings in company with a judge of the Native Land Court and representative Maoris, James Rickus and Henare te Maire, since deceased. After discussion the decision arrived at was the usual one -- that the drawings were the work of a tribe before Katimamoe and Ngai Tahu. In 1900 an early settler, Colin Campbell, told me that he had known the drawings on Hart's property for 45 years. Tracings of these drawings were made by Dr Elmore in 1913, and I assisted him. Reduced copies may be seen in the Otago Museum. Dr Elmore is usually spoken of as the enterprising American as he chiselled out blocks of limestone bearing drawings at Duntroon and elsewhere to take away. These are in Dunedin, but out of the setting their value is lost," Mr McCully said.

"The age of the drawings made before the arrival of Europeans is impossible to determine. Where the surface of the shelter is dry and free from scaling the drawings become covered with dust, and so preserve. A damp rag lightly applied is sufficient to remove this coating. Unfortunately, no analysis of the material used as pigment has been made to ascertain whether it was specially prepared for the purpose or simply the end of a charred stick. It is important that this should be known, because a prepared pigment implies work preliminary to executing the design the artist had in mind. A drawing like the one at Hart's, which is 80 feet in length, would require quite a lot of pigment, and the lines are, or were before being restored, so even in thickness that probably a pigment was used. Pigment suggests permanency and purpose -- a charred stick opportunism. Of the purpose of the drawings nothing is known, but there is reason to think that later tribes avoided them. "No Maori myth yet published offers more than a suggestion of the meaning of many of the drawings," Mr McCully said. "There is a fine drawing of a large dog with a human figure perched on its upright tail to be seen at Gould's, Raincliff. Along with the dog are fish heading in the opposite direction. This might represent the end of a successful voyage, the dog making for the land where he belongs, the fish returning whence they came. Another possible interpretation is that the dog may represent Tuahatu, a God in shape like a dog who protected those in danger of falling from rocks and trees."

A more suitable place for such a protector would be difficult to imagine, as only supernatural aid could save anyone unfortunate enough to fall from the cliffs nearby. This belonged to a friendly class of "taniwha", others helpful to man were celestial phenomena such as Kahukura in a rainbow.

"The Moa group at Frenchmen's Gully was found by one of Mr Ben Evans's boys some years ago. There are three birds in the group; the legs of one are missing owing to scaling of the rock surface; the other two are shown in a position of rest. The drawings suggest that the artist hunter wished to portray how he had watched and waited the opportunity to take them unawares, probably after dark. No chasing of relays of men are suggested here.

"Recently the drawings have received much publicity in an endeavour to show the old school was wrong in assuming that the drawings were all work of an early tribe," he said. "The old school holds the view that the drawings made before whaling days -- say 1820 -- are Maori work. The new school admits that the Moa group may be 300 years old and this simplified the matter, as only additions made since whaling days need to be discussed. Drawings used to show that some work is recent include a many-windowed house, a horse, a clergyman in clerical attire, allegedly a Maori artist's impression of Bishop Selwyn, of 1844. More evidence is required before this is accepted as Maori work. The boats and horses are recognisable as such, but the many-windowed house and Bishop Selwyn, complete with gaiters, must have taken some working out in the originals.

"Sir Julius von Haast, writing of the Weka Pass drawings, stated: `They are well finished and show clearly that they were the work of an artist of times long gone by, who was no novice in his profession,' Mr McCully continued. "It is when the Maori draws symbolically that we become lost. Anyone can recognise a Maori-type sail in a drawing if they are acquainted with its form, and no doubt the other drawings would be interesting if understood. The locality in which the many-windowed house is situated is notorious for interference, deliberate, and planned `to fool the fools that go to see such silly things'. Although warned the fooling has apparently succeeded. There are no drawings which might be described as halfbred -- half European and half Maori. They must be one or other.

"That the shelters were used by the Moa hunters is evident in period tools of unique type, and flake tools made from flinty modules struck from the walls, roof and floors of shelters containing drawings. The presence of such tools connects these shelters, which were camps. It might be argued, he said, that the drawings were done later, but as there is no evidence to support this view it is reasonable to suppose that the tool craftsmen were also the artist. Elsdon Best, in "The Maori" describes clubs found in the South Island as uncouth -- un-Maori like -- clubs which the North Island Maori would hold in contempt. There is certainly a great difference between the clubs of the earliest inhabitants and the mere and onewa introduced later by North Island invaders. The former are more like the clubs of the Chatham Islanders. From the comparative absence of weapons in Moa hunter camps it appears that they had little use for them before the Maori migration of 1350. A few hundred years after that date the Moa hunter had lost his identity, the hei tiki ornament of the Ngai Tahu taking the place of reel and other amulets of earlier dates. As the shelters have been used for almost 100 years, the floors of many have been lowered by tramping. Relics in stone and bone are more likely to be found outside the shelter than in the shelter itself. Now that the drawings have been copied, at considerable expense, and are available for study as a whole, it is time that this was done. To confuse the original drawing with work carried out a few years before the arrival of the copyist makes confusion more confused," he said. "The work of the vandals still goes on -- nobody can stop it. Until recently, no notice was taken of the cave drawings. Fortunately there are still some places where the meddler has not registered his visit and made additions. To visit such a place is a pleasure to those who regard the drawings as examples of primitive art comparable with those in Spain and France, notwithstanding difference in style.

"A month ago, with the object of ascertaining who the names of the shelters might belong to, I enlisted the aid of Maori friends and arranged a visit to the drawings. All the names were accounted for, the first, that of H Rawiri, indicating that the names were those of a party engaged on a mission with which my informants were well acquainted.

"Between 1870 and 1880 the Maori was breaking with the past and looking to the future. Te Maiharoa took a leading part in this change-over, as told to Herries Beattie by Tekau and recorded in "Tekau Talks". "Te Maiharoa devoted himself for some time to going about endeavouring to destroy the ancient tapu of the places of our ancestors so that the modern Maori need have no fear of them, but could dwell amid such scenes in peace and security." Te Maiharoa, after spending 12 years on this self-imposed task, died in 1886.

"Had the new school made inquiries they would have been given this same information, namely that the names were those of a party who went to the drawings on a mission, and witnessed its fulfilment," Mr McCully said. "Against this, the evidence that these names were printed in 1843 is worthless and the motive unworthy, They were not obsessed with blazoning their names through the fascinating symbols learned from Wesleyan and Maori Anglican and Maori Catechists, as stated."


The Timaru Herald