Art. LIII.—Maori Rock-engravings in the Kaipara District.
[Read before the Auckland Institute, 22nd November, 1910.]
It is with no little diffidence that, upon the suggestion of Mr. Cheeseman, of the Auckland Museum, I venture to submit to the Institute this short account of some rock-carvings which I accidentally discovered on an ancient pa near the small settlement of Haranui, in the Parkhurst district, Kaipara.
The pa is within a mile of the famous old pa of Otakanini. It is a fine one, situated on a ridge, with the mud-flats of the harbour on one side and a swamp on the other. The whole ridge shows (as is so often the case) evidences of excavations, ditches, &c., while the main part, which is raised above the general level, is cut off by a deep ditch, and has an outwork at one corner which commands the most accessible flanks.
On the main terraces are several rectangular excavations which indicate that they were the sites of wharepuni, or “warm houses.” It is on the side of one of these excavations that the designs are engraved in the soft sandstone. As there is a small modern cemetery just above, I was at first inclined to believe that they were of modern origin—that they were perhaps the work of some Maoris who had come there for the purpose of digging a grave; but, as the Natives whom I questioned pointed out, men engaged in such work were not likely to linger in the vicinity of a cemetery to waste
their time in such mahi noa iho. And upon examining the weathered surface and comparing it with that of the ditch, which still showed perfectly clearly the gouge-like impressions of the wooden ko with which it had been dug, I was convinced that the carvings were as old as the pa. Moreover, the cemetery is not more than ten or fifteen years old, and the condition of the engravings shows them to be very much older; and if they had been done in modern times there would certainly be traces of pakeha ideas—letters, or something of that sort. Furthermore, on the side of another similar excavation there was visible a trace of the same devices, and upon scraping away a considerable quantity of mould which had fallen in I found another series of very similar engravings. These, owing to the discoloration of the surface, I was unable to photograph.
The Natives of the neighbouring settlement of Haranui were able to furnish me with little information on the subject. They told me that the name of the pa was Oparuparu; that it belonged (as did all the old pas in this district) to the Waiohua or Ngaiwi Tribe; that it was taken by Ngatiwhatua, from the north, about the same time as Otakanini, but, while the latter was occupied by the conquerors, Oparuparu was destroyed.
The supposition that they are archaic inscriptions, such as have been so much talked of of late, may thus at once be dismissed. They are obviously and typically Maori, and their age cannot be more than one hundred to one hundred and fifty years.
As to their significance—if they have any—it is a mere matter of speculation. We read that the ancient Egyptians placed in the tombs of their dead the various articles supposed to be needed by the deceased in their after-life. At a later date they ceased to place there the actual articles, but instead painted or carved representations of them on the walls. This symbolism clearly was the first germ of the idea of a written language, and led naturally to the chronicling in picture-writing of the deeds of the deceased. The carvings and paintings which adorn the walls of the Maori runanga, or council-house, representing ancestors and their deeds, may perhaps be considered in the same light. The carvings in question are in an exactly similar position—namely, on the walls of a dwellinghouse. The only thing in the nature of a scheme which is visible in these carvings is the recurrence of the same device—namely, the conventional Maori face, which is the most prominent in both series. It will be noticed that these faces are of various sizes and proportions, and that some of them are curiously distorted. The only other symbols pertaining to man or human action are the two hands—if such they be—on the right side of the picture. Then several purely decorative designs are interspersed here and there, while the linear designs on the left are more like Moriori tree-carvings than anything else, but they are too much weathered to make anything of them.
This absence of any scheme or order is against their representing any events, for this implies a connection of ideas, and these ideas would naturally be set down in succession as they occurred to the worker. This want of order is also against their being purely decorative, since the Maori decorations are conspicuous for order and symmetry. Lastly, the fact that there are two series seems to indicate that they are not merely a mahi noa iho, or work of no account, done to pass the time.
There is only one other explanation which suggests itself to me. Mr. John Webster, of Hokianga, has described to me a ceremony witnessed by him, in which a tohunga, in consulting the oracle, drew unintelligible designs upon a piece of sandstone. This seems to me to afford a possible—though not a probable—explanation of the significance of these carvings.