Nā Adrienne Rewi
It was a dull, overcast day in South Canterbury February last year, when I went visiting rock art sites with the team from Timaru’s Te Ana Ngai Tahu Rock Art Centre. I’d been wanting to do this for years and as I wandered across the long, grassy slope in silence, lagging behind the others, I couldn’t help imagining what the landscape might have looked like, 500-700 years ago, when Maori ancestors first came this way and sheltered under Dog Rock – so named for its snout-like appearance.
Bird-men, taniwha, insects, fish, waka, eagles and human figures float across limestone rock faces throughout Te Waipounamu (the South Island), especially in South Canterbury and North Otago. They’ve been there for hundreds of years and around 300 significant rock drawing sites dating back to at least the 16th century, lie within a 70km radius of Timaru.
It felt quite momentous to finally stand before them but I had mixed feelings. At first there was a flutter of disappointment that there were so few and that they seemed pale and barely recognisable; but after a few minutes of concentration, with Ngai Tahu Rock Art Trust curator, Amanda Symon showing us what to look for, the rocks came to life.
The Ngai Tahu Rock Art Trust was established in 2002 to support runanga and landowners in the care and management of the rock sites. Very little oral tradition about rock art has survived and the motivation of early peoples for creating them has been a matter of debate for over 150 years. “We don’t know much about the drawings – they’re very enigmatic,” says Amanda. “A lot of sites like this one are well known so we decided to move away to lesser explored areas, checking every likely boulder, every outcrop from Kaikoura to Fiordland.”
That process has paid off with some exciting discoveries.
“It takes experience to recognise rock art,” Amanda continues. “Most people would walk right past it. But just a few months ago we discovered so figures on greywacke rock up the Ahuriri River, which we hadn’t known about before. And close to here, at another known site, we also found a large face with a moko.”
Few of the known sites are open to the public and those that are, have been fenced off to prevent vandalism. But now that Te Ana is up and running, you can take a tour of two of the best sites with a Ngai Tahu guide.