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Māori rock art – ngā toi ana

by Brian Allingham

On the walls of caves and other natural shelters around New Zealand are many remarkable works of art. They are by generations of Māori, from the first Polynesian settlers who arrived over 700 years ago, to their descendants who witnessed European arrival.

Who were the rock artists?

A unique artistic tradition

Ancient paintings and other markings on the walls of shelters and rock outcrops are found throughout the world. Aotearoa (New Zealand) has a rich heritage of Māori rock art, including designs that are unique to this country.

Pre-19th-century Māori rock art is widespread throughout the North and South islands, although about 90% of recorded sites are in the South Island. More than 95% of rock-art sites are on private land, and many more sites wait to be discovered.

Interpreting designs

The artworks often depict everyday subjects such as people, birds, dogs and waka (canoes). Some less-recognisable figures may be taniwha or other spiritual entities. Geometric designs such as spirals, concentric circles and chevron (zig-zag) arrangements also feature widely. More abstract designs are difficult to interpret as their original meanings have been lost.

First South Island iwi

It is not known exactly when the ancestors of Māori first arrived in Aotearoa, although it is generally thought to be within the last millennium. It is therefore difficult to say exactly when rock art was first produced in this country. The South Island may have been settled initially by Te Rapuwai, Hāwea and Waitaha iwi (tribes), with Ngāti Māmoe arriving in the 16th century and Ngāi Tahu around 1700. According to learned Māori in the 19th century, people from most or all of these iwi were among the artists who produced the rock art.

Dating rock art

No exact dating of New Zealand rock art has yet been carried out. Current techniques for dating pre-historical objects, such as radiocarbon dating, do not yet provide the level of precision required for meaningful research. Dates can sometimes be estimated by examining the images themselves. Paintings of extinct birds like moa and Haast's eagle (Aquila moorei) appear to be drawn from live observations. If so, those images are at least 500 years old, since that is approximately when those species became extinct.

Dating by context

Moa bones and tools have been found in the floors of many shelters containing Māori rock art. These indicate that some of the birds were consumed by the occupants. Much South Island rock art is thought to date from moa-hunting times.

There are many examples of Māori rock art with obviously later work overlaid on top. This may be due to successive migrations of people. Figures showing subjects introduced by Europeans, such as sailing ships, horses and writing in te reo Māori, are recorded in rock shelters in South Canterbury and North Otago. The combined evidence to date suggests that Māori rock art was practised over an extended period, from times when moa were observed through to the 19th century.

Shelters as art galleries

Rock art has generally been found in natural shelters such as caves and under overhanging ledges. Māori would temporarily occupy these shelters while travelling and on food-gathering expeditions. Shelters would also be used on a semi-permanent basis during seasonal food-gathering rounds, when local resources from forest, wetland and open country were harvested.

How marks were made

The large, fairly smooth and light-coloured surfaces of rock shelters or shallow caves, especially in limestone areas, provided early Māori artists with open ‘canvases’. Occasionally marks have been found in sites many metres above the ground.

Traditional Māori rock art was mostly painted and (especially in the North Island) carved, cut, scraped and occasionally chipped out of the surface of the rock. Creating art on these rock walls gave a freedom of expression that was not restricted by structural form or function. Some murals extend up to 20 metres under the overhangs of limestone outcrops.

Rock art designs

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.

    • 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

European responses to rock art

‘Unworthy of attention’

Until well into the 20th century, Māori rock art was popularly little known in comparison with other Māori art forms such as carving and weaving. Some non-Māori insisted that the rock artworks were all of recent origin, and not worthy of serious scientific attention. There were limited efforts to accurately record or preserve the country’s legacy of Māori rock art.

Unlike the cave drawings of Australia and Europe, many Māori artworks were on limestone faces that were exposed to the weather, and they were prone to fading. Few were fenced off from stock, which sheltered in the same overhangs that the image-makers chose for their work.

First copies of artworks

The surveyor Walter Mantell was one of the first Europeans known to record Māori rock art. In 1852 he sketched ‘rude figures’1 painted on an overhanging cliff face in North Otago. Later the scientist Julius Haast and ethnologist Augustus Hamilton made more comprehensive records. Hamilton was the first person to systematically photograph rock art, and his images were published in 1898. In the early 20th century an American collector, J. L. Elmore, made further records, now held in Dunedin’s Hocken Library.

None of these men, however, had the financial resources to make comprehensive and accurate copies of the actual work, instead preferring to select those images they found most interesting.

‘Improving’ the originals

Some recorders retouched paint on the original artworks to ‘improve’ them for photographic recording – outlining them in chalk, touching them up with modern art materials such as ink and crayon and, in at least one case, painting over the images with house paint.

‘Uncanny and frozen music’

Theo Schoon persevered, in the face of formidable difficulties, to record, interpret and celebrate Māori rock art. The government turned down his request for a car. He became ill working in exposed conditions during harsh southern winters. He sometimes had to support himself by labouring, or painting commissioned portraits for the farmers on whose land he worked. Yet he found the project deeply rewarding, both personally and artistically. ‘Again and again I have found the most surprising original creations – major artistic feats, which border on uncanny and frozen music’.2

Theo Schoon

New Zealand’s early rock art remained largely unknown, while elsewhere in the world prehistoric images such as those found in the Lascaux Caves in France greatly influenced artists such as Picasso. In 1945, however, an artist named Theo Schoon, who had gained an appreciation of non-Western art while living in Java, was struck by reproductions of rock drawings in the Otago Museum. He was engaged by the Canterbury Museum to copy drawings at Craigmore and Pareora in South Canterbury. Schoon was then commissioned by the Department of Internal Affairs to make copies of rock art in Canterbury, North Otago and Kaikōura.

Over the next eight years, often in extremely demanding conditions, Schoon painted copies of Māori rock art. He rendered them in his own unique style, and sometimes retouched them with crayon to make the shapes more distinct. He believed that at least some of the drawings were made with sacred ritualistic intent: ‘Like the priest, the artist was a link between man and the supernatural.’3 This view has subsequently been questioned by some archaeologists.

Artists respond

Theo Schoon encouraged New Zealand and European journalists to write about Māori rock art, and other artists, including Gordon Walters, came to share his enthusiasm. A. R. D. Fairburn, although better known as a poet, hand-printed rock art designs on fabrics which became fashionable for interior decoration in the 1960s. Artist Tony Fomison made further accurate records of rock art, painstakingly tracing some onto plastic. He identified five phases of design styles, organised by the extent of realism and the varied use of reds or blacks. His last period was the time after Māori had contact with Europeans.

Saving threatened sites

Rock art continued to suffer damage from vandalism, weathering and agricultural or industrial activities such as roadworks and hydroelectricity schemes. A notable action came in the 1980s, when the Elworthy family, in conjunction with others, placed covenants on their property at Craigmore to permanently protect its outstanding shelter art.

Archaeological study

From the mid-1960s archaeologists conducted rigorous scientific studies of Māori rock art, and more sites were placed under permanent state protection. Ancient Māori designs in rock art and other media eventually featured in modern art worldwide, and were regarded as a priceless relic of New Zealand’s prehistory.

    • Transactions and Proceedings of the New Zealand Institute 1 (1868), p. 6. Back
    • Theo Schoon, ‘New Zealand’s oldest art galleries.’ New Zealand Listener (12 September 1947), pp. 6–7. Back
    • ‘New Zealand’s oldest art galleries’, pp. 6–7. Back

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Brian Allingham, 'Māori rock art – ngā toi ana', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 15 April 2024)

Story by Brian Allingham, published 22 October 2014