Monday, 23 February 2015

In search of ancient New Zealand

There is no such thing as 'New Zealand as humans knew it a thousand years ago' - the migrating Maori did not arrive in their seagoing vessels before 1200. Further back, the two islands that make up New Zealand were pristine, completely unknown to man. So there was no ancient population, and therefore no ancient history. It's no good expecting to see a Stonehenge or an Avebury, or any prehistoric standing stones. There was nobody to set them up, and so they do not exist. The Maori worked mainly with timber, not large stone buildings, so there are no halls, castles or ancient temples to see either.

When I visited New Zealand for two months in 2007, I found this absence of really old structures faintly disappointing, even somewhat disturbing. It was as if 'history as we recognise it' began suddenly in the ship's log of Dutchman Abel Tasman in 1642 (a brief but bloody encounter that was not quickly followed up) or the careful mapping of the coastline undertaken by Englishman James Cook in 1769 (which was).

Living on an island with a very long continuous history - written and archaeological - going back thousands of years, I have a very strong sense of Deep History, of the endless succession of generations, and there is plenty to evoke it all around England, Wales and Scotland. Not so in New Zealand. It feels only just established, with the Maori having had hardly more than four hundred years to land, disperse, and settle down, before the first Europeans arrived to spoil everything for them, the initial trickle of whaling men becoming a flood of settlers in the nineteenth century. The Maori themselves hardly left a mark; and the European settlers arrived much too recently to build anything more ancient than municipal buildings and churches in the styles favoured by emigré Victorians.

Is there nothing old to see? Well, the Maori were sensitive to unusual rock formations, whether coastal or inland, and found some of them very special. There are many sacred places, some of which must be hundreds of years old, on for instance oddly-shaped headlands, or where the headland commands an inspiring view across a bay, as does this burial place off State Highway 35 at Hicks Bay in eastern North Island:


In South Island there is a weathered cliff near Duntroon, inland from the east coast north of Dunedin, and just off SH 83. The cliff is pocked with overhangs and shallow caves, and, sheltered in some of those, are some very old Maori paintings:


Nearby is this pair of curiously-shaped rocks, like strange stone animals. It's tempting to think that they are part of the site, protecting it perhaps:


Unusual rock formations crop up in other places in South Island. These are the Castle Hill Rocks, off SH 73 south of Arthur's Pass:


And this is the cave overlooking the Waiau River at Clifden, where SH 99 starts. You can imagine its possible use for initiation ceremonies:


These are all natural rock features that the Maori could make use of, and not actual constructions. And yet in the centre of Banks Penisula, southeast of Christchurch, is a very special natural fort that a local Maori tribe defended against aggressive Maori invaders as late as 1833. It's called Onawe Pa. It lies just off SH 75, a few miles short of the pretty town of Akaroa. Its situation can best be understood from this model of the peninsula in a little museum at Okains Bay:


It's the tonsil-like 'droplet' at the head of the big sea inlet called Akaroa Harbour. It's pretty obvious that the entire peninsula is an old flooded volcano, and that Onawe Pa sits exactly where the rock plug over the heart of the volcano must be. If the volcano ever bursts into life again, this will be a dangerous spot. I was highly conscious of that when visiting Onawe! Here are more shots from the Summit Road that follows the old crater rim:


Follow me now from where the campervan was parked (at the slender base of this near-island) to the topmost point.


There is a gap here, filled by the surging sea at high tide. Defenders would look across at attackers and expect to mock them with impunity. The ochre-coloured rocks here all have strange swirly or blobby markings that might have potent magical effect. They certainly recall the tattoos on the faces of Maori chiefs:


On we go.


What a commanding view the defenders had! Doesn't this next shot look like some ancient hill in England, with a grassy path winding up to the top?


At the very top is a pile of boulders, entirely natural, but seemingly arranged into a castrol or Last Redoubt, where the defenders would if necessary make a stand and die:


The Pa would also have had some less-solid, man-made structures for occupation and storage. It was a fortified village. It would seem impregnable to anything short of modern weaponry, but the 1833 defence did not succeed. The attackers came at low tide, and determination and (perhaps) treachery let them overrun the Pa. Most of the inhabitants were butchered. But there was no atmosphere of past tragedy on my visit. Only the sunshine and a light wind. It was the sort of peaceful place you wanted to linger at, but this wasn't possible. The travel timetable said not.

At Okains Bay, just a few miles away, there are more Maori things in and around a small museum, including pictures and old canoes:


I'm reminded of the fragmentary remains of the vikings, who also sailed far and wide, and settled distant lands, but failed to build anything much in a material that might last. No regard for posterity.

Maori legends were handed down orally. Which partly explains why New Zealand history, such as it is, was until quite recently almost entirely a European affair, and explained with a European voice.

That still allows the time before Captain Cook to be a story that the Maori might tell in their art and buildings. But the physical record is insufficient. If I had to live in New Zealand for any length of time, I think I would feel deprived of tangible and psychologically-comforting relics of the past - evidence of a continuous culture that I could relate to, just as one might relate to the many, many edifices and monuments of Ancient Egypt. I'd end up blaming the Maori for not building castles, manor houses, churches, shrines, and stone monuments of every sort - which would be unfair of me.

I wonder how modern New Zealanders feel about this?    

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