Maori Carvings in Caves

There are very few places in New Zealand where you have the opportunity to see ancient Maori carvings from a time that are not only pre-colonial, but also prior to the existing iwi. Murupara is one of those few locations, with the caves just eight kilometres northwest of the town in the Kaingaroa plains forest area. It is believed that the carvings predate the local iwi Ngati Manawa and are most likely to have been done by an artist of a previous and now non-existant tribe, Marangaranga. 

A 1925 curators report from the Dominion Museum in Wellington explains that the carvings of the 16 waka, all pointing to the left, are of an unknown type and style to what was accepted as being traditional to that point. There are other carvings besides the waka. Because of the nature of the soft rock exposed to the elements, it is not known how much longer these carvings will last.

Maori carvings in caves

The following is an excerpt written in 1925 by H.H. Hamilton for the Dominion Museum, the link for the full transcript can be found here:

The Kaingaroa Plains consist of an elevated plateau stretching southwards for forty miles from the thermal lakes of Rotorua to Taupo, and bounded by the Rangitaiki and Waikato Rivers. On their eastern side the plains break down into long spurs and gulches running to the Rangitaiki River. These gulches are often narrow, and some of them remarkable on account of the canyon-like formation at certain parts. Vertical cliffs of no great height, and composed of soft volcanic rock, rise on one or both sides of the gully. The gullies are sometimes of considerable length, the one down which the old road to Fort Galatea passes being seven miles in length. Much of the plateau area has been afforested during recent years by the State Forest Service, and large plantations are gradually extending southwards. One of the preliminary acts in afforestation in this area is the burning off of the heavy growth of bracken fern to make way for the young seedling trees. On 9th September of this year the Forestry employees were burning off an area immediately to the south of the 35-mile peg from the main road across the plains from Waiotapu to Murupara. After the burn, two of the employees, Charlie Kereopa and Ronald Jansen, discovered the rock shelter containing the carvings, on the northern slope of one of the small gullies or gulches above referred to

trending toward the Rangitaiki River. The news of the find was communicated to the Rotorua officials of the Forestry Department, and eventually I visited the spot on behalf of the Dominion Museum.

PHYSIOGRAPHY.—The rock shelter containing the carvings is formed by a “butte” of rhyolite out-cropping on the slopes of a small stream-fed gully. (See Plates 1 and 2). This rhyolite forms a bed from 12 to 16 feet thick overlying a softer rhyolite tuff that has either been weathered out naturally or under-cut artificially by Maori occupants. The under-cutting varies from 4 to 10 feet in depth, and the back wall, about 8ft 6in in height, is practically vertical. The floor of the shelter, into which I had no opportunity for digging in order to examine the nature of its contents, consists of several feet of humus, probably derived from the decay of accumulated bedding materials, such as grass and bracken fern. The vertical wall under the over-hanging roof is about 80 feet long, but at the time of my visit the mouth was to some extent obscured by plant growth, and it was not possible to obtain a panoramic view of the carvings. By means of a series of measurements and sketches, however, the accompanying diagrammatic plan of the carvings was made, and wherever possible photographs were taken of the groups and of individual carvings.

THE CARVINGS.—It will be seen that the great majority of the carvings have a conventionalized Maori canoe as the motif. Certain other elements, such as chevrons, detached spirals, and unidentified markings, are subsidiary to the canoe motif. Apart from the actual design of the canoes, several interesting points will be noted. It can be said with some degree of certainty that the sixteen canoes from right to left are the work of the one carver, and probably were started and finished within a short period of time. They all stand out from the rock in raised relief, and have many features in common, one being that they are all heading the same way—to the left.

Like Maori canoe-models made at the present day, the carvings are evidently not to scale. The date of the carvings in the group to the left of the shelter is probably subsequent to that of the main group, and this later work is not in relief, the outlines being incised lines up to one inch in depth. Here again the work is evidently that of one individual, and it looks as if opposition had caused the artist to head his canoes to the right, directing them toward the other fleet; though it may equally well be that he drew his canoes in the way that came easiest to him, since it is a well known fact that unless a person has been trained to become ambidextrous it is easier, or more convenient, to sketch in one direction than in the other. If any fact of historical value is likely to be derived from the study of these carvings, I am of the opinion that it will come from the main group on the right of the shelter. There is a suggestive fleet-like formation of the canoes, as if a war-like expedition were being depicted, with scouts in front and the larger canoes in the rear.

STRUCTURAL DETAILS.—The majority of the canoes have a curiously exaggerated bow ornamentation. Either the sculptor was not well acquainted with the types of canoe ornamentation as we know them, or he was depicting a type of which we have no record. Before condemning his artistic ability, it would seem that we must extend our comparative researches into canoe types of other Polynesian islands. It may first be permissible, however, to suggest that the ordinary waka taua (war canoe) of the Maori is depicted. 

All of the canoes have the taurapa (stern piece) of the conventional type used in war canoes. On one of the carvings it is possible to trace the two vertical bodies that formed the strengthening backbone of thetaurapa. The scale-drawing will allow of comparison in sizes between the various canoe carvings, and it may here be noted that the largest carving is over 8ft in length, and 7in in depth of hull.

ORNAMENTATION.—Several of the canoes are decorated by spirals and double spirals, lightly graven on the hull, bow and stern piece. In one or two cases it is possible to recognize the representation of a rauawa(top strake) also decorated with spirals. The chevron patterns to be seen in several places on the cave wall are possibly the conventionalized representation of water. There are other patterns, but these are now so weathered as not to be identifiable with any degree of certainty. One of these may have been a human figure, or an image, but it is very indistinct. As the spiral and other known ornamental patterns are indicated, the carvings were apparently done by one acquainted with ornament such as has been known to exist for at least a century or so; and this, as Dr. Buck, who made an inspection on behalf of the State Forest Service, notes, indicates either that the carvings are comparatively modern, or that the fine ornamentation of the larger Maori canoes is an art that had developed much longer since than has hitherto been supposed.

PRESERVATION.—The rock out of which the carvings are raised is extremely soft and friable when exposed to the weather. The natural protection offered by the tall bracken fern and fuchsia trees has kept out the destroying elements, and the growth of moss and fern over the face of the carvings has further arrested decay.