Erosion damage at a Māori Rock Art site has given us the chance to help with a rare archaeological dig, uncovering some interesting finds hinting at life once lived there.
The Raincliff Rock Art shelter near Geraldine was used as a camp for food gathering expeditions in an area rich with bird life and fresh water kai. It is one of a number of rock art sites managed by the Department in South Canterbury.
Erosion under the cave drip-line to the walking track prompted a DOC application to Heritage NZ Pouhere Taonga for an archaeological excavation. The initial excavation took place in December 2018, with another planned for early 2019.
Senior Ranger Murray Thomas based in Geraldine said the rock art in this limestone cave has been damaged by erosion, but unlike elsewhere is easily accessible to the public.
The Department and the Ngāi Tahu Māori Rock Art Trust plan to install interpretation to tell the story of the site.
The 10-metre long excavation site at the outer edge of the cave revealed remains of a midden, material scattered from cooking fires, perhaps raked out in preparation for the next meal.
The dig was led by former DOC historic and cultural advisor Shar Briden, now at Absolute Archaeology, Dunedin, in conjunction with the Ngāi Tahu Māori Rock Art Trust, and the local Arowhenua Rūnanga. Funding came from the trust and DOC.
Besides offering up clues about the inhabitants, it also raised more questions. “Until items are analysed it’s difficult to draw conclusions” says Shar.
The first stage of the dig uncovered a 12cm moa bone, small bird bones (extinct NZ Quail and Kereru amongst others), a dog tooth, and rat bones.
Also found were flakes of argillite (a small broken argillite adze head was found there in 1970) and silcrete or quartzite flakes used as cutting tools. The site also contained fire-cracked rock, red ochre used in rock art, and fresh water mussel (Kākāhi) shells.
Shar will use Otago University’s lab and comparative collection of bones and other finds to help identification.
No direct dating of rock art has been carried out in New Zealand, so it is not known exactly when the art was created. She said “the site could be 500 years old or used as recently as 200 to 150 years ago”.
After analysis, excavated items are returned to the local Rūnanga.
Such digs are rare as archaeological research in New Zealand has typically focused on coastal sites. Due to erosion the focus was on salvaging exposed cultural material at the site.
Ngāi Tahu Māori Rock Art Trust curator Amanda Symon said the shelter was typical of caves used transiently during inland food gathering journeys from the coastal kainga home base.
The area would have been a rich food basket with wetlands, small streams and tributaries, and native forest offering up kai such as birds, eel and fresh water mussel.
“On the sheltered dry ground under the limestone overhang, there is evidence of a hearth for cooking, and of people doing things while camped like fixing tools” said Amanda. However, that part of the cave would not be disturbed and is fenced off.
Te Ana Ngāi Tahu Rock Art Centre guide Rachel Solomon whose Arowhenua ancestors would likely have hunted in the valley said she was very excited about the dig.
In general, Māori rock art may represent artistic expression, or convey a message, “for instance that it was a good spot for hunting Weka” she said.
Besides gathering things like medicinal plants and food before winter when the birds were at their fattest from berry eating, Māori used Weka oil to preserve the season’s bounty. The oil was also an ingredient in the rock art paint.
“I often take a quiet moment when I’m in this place, feeling/knowing that they were here. I’m here standing where they were.” says Murray.