Story: Māori rock art – ngā toi ana

Page 2. Rock art designs

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Types of pigment

Local geology and regional cultural diversity often influenced the way rock art was made, as well as its subject matter. Most South Island Māori rock art was painted in black carbon that was derived from soot then mixed with oil and other ingredients. Works in red paint and raw pigment are also fairly widespread in the South Island, often appearing together with black figures. Some compositions contain multiple colours deliberately applied in a single design.

Natural deposits of iron oxide in the land provided red pigment for mixing into paint, or for use in a dry form, and the colours recorded so far range from orange through to deep carmine.

Yellow, white and blue pigments were available from clay deposits and other minerals. Clay-derived white as a single colour was occasionally used on darker rock surfaces in the South Island. Blue is known at only a few Māori rock art sites and seems to have been very rarely used. Subjects in black and yellow are widely distributed in South Canterbury, but rare elsewhere.

Ink recipe

In 1918 a technique for making black paint for rock art appeared in the Journal of the Polynesian Society. ‘Branches of a resinous tree called the monoao were burnt, and the soot was collected in a flax mat and scraped into an ipu, or carved wooden basin. The gum and berries of other native trees were squeezed to extract their oil, which was added to the ipu. The oil from a weka was also added to make a pigment that was “not too thick or too thin”. The result was “an ink that would stand for ever”’.1

Relation to other Māori art forms

The subjects and designs of Māori rock art are closely related to those used in tā moko (tattooing), whakairo (carvings) and decorative designs such as kōwhaiwhai (rafter patterns). All these artforms represent an intimate spiritual relationship with tupuna (ancestors), and seek the protection of the atua (gods) through them.

Regional variations

Archaeological evidence shows that tropical Polynesian art styles introduced to New Zealand were modified gradually into regional variations. These were based on settlement patterns established by successive migrations. Birds, birdmen, fish, dogs and other animals are often depicted in South Island sites but appear to be rare in North Island rock art, based on current records.

Waka designs in carvings or red ochre appear at sites on the shores of Lake Tarawera and on shelter walls from the Rotorua district through to Kāingaroa. In the South Island numerous waka are pictured, but most are far more stylised than in the north, or depict mōkihi (traditional reed rafts) rather than carved wooden waka. Sites in Taranaki are carved with designs, and subjects such as footprints, that are not recorded anywhere else. Some carvings and paintings in the Lake Taupō and Tokoroa regions of the central North Island, however, are similar to those in the South Island. The rock art and tree carvings from the Chatham Islands also resemble South Island rock art.

Mail art

In 2012 New Zealand Post produced a series of stamps using artworks found in rock shelters in the central South Island. The designs include the Pouākai, or birdman (found at Pareora); a seated tiki figure in profile (Maerewhenua); two people poling a mōkihi or bulrush canoe (Ōpihi); Te Puawaitanga, thought to be a kiwi chick in its shell (Waitaki); and a taniwha, or supernatural being (Ōpihi).

Incised panels

Some black paintings had designs cut through them into the underlying limestone to expose the contrasting white. This rare but striking technique is mainly found in North Otago, where several subjects appear to depict Te Pouākai (the extinct giant Haast’s eagle). This suggests this technique is relatively old in New Zealand terms and possibly a local development.

Extinct birds

Obvious depictions of extinct birds are rare in Māori art. Perhaps the only undisputed example portraying moa features a group of three birds outlined in red with black infill, located in a small shelter in the Pareora River catchment in South Canterbury. A large black painting of an eagle on the roof of a cave in the adjoining valley also appears to date from a fairly early period.

  1. H. Beattie, ‘Traditions and legends collected from the natives of Murihiku (Southland, New Zealand).’ Journal of the Polynesian Society 27, no. 107 (1918), p. 149. Back
How to cite this page:

Brian Allingham, 'Māori rock art – ngā toi ana - Rock art designs', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 23 February 2024)

Story by Brian Allingham, published 22 Oct 2014