Raranga fragments found in Roxburgh Gorge cave

The experts gather to discuss the raranga fragments. Photo by Huia Pacey.

The experts gather to discuss the raranga fragments. Photo by Huia Pacey.

In 2011, a Department of Conservation worker conducting archeological assessments around Roxburgh Gorge discovered old raranga fragments in a secluded cave.

The two nearby rūnanga, Te Rūnanga o Ōtākou and Kāti Huirapa ki Puketeraki, were delighted with the discovery and agreed to put the taonga in the temporary care of Otago Museum. More recently the raranga was moved to the Otago University (Te Whare Wānanga o Otago) Applied Science – Clothing and Textile Sciences department.

Southern Region Pouarahi te Tai Tonga (Te Tira), Māori heritage advisor, Huia Pacey (Kāi Tahu, Tuwharetoa) facilitated the transfer at the request of Kāi Tahu ki Otago and representatives from the rūnaka.

In order to collect more information, the two rūnanga requested that Dr. Catherine Smith (Otago University textiles specialist and senior lecturer in Applied Science ) lead the formal analysis.

Dr. Smith, who has been at Otago University since 2004, says her interests in research and analysis is centered around Māori textiles. All of the textiles that she has researched while studying her PhD have come from areas around Te Waipounamu.

Dr. Smith feels humbled to be working on this raranga. She says it is a good opportunity to acknowledge the help she has received from Ngāi Tahu – “it’s a way of giving back,” she says.

She says that the raranga found in the Roxburgh Gorge cave is one of several that have been found in the Central Otago region.

Although the raranga is rare, Dr. Smith adds that Central Otago has ideal climatic conditions for the preservation of taonga.

Te Rūnanga o Ōtākou representative Rachel Wesley (Kāi Tahu, Kāti Mamoe, Waitaha, Kāi Te Pahi, Kāti Taoka), says that conditions have to be pretty spot on for raranga to survive outside for long periods of time.

“It has to be dry, relatively weather-proof and free from animals likely to use it as nesting material,” she says.

The two rūnanga and their whānau shared in-depth discussions prior to the recent transfer to the university. Some concerns were raised regarding the potential analysis of the raranga; sometime after, the rūnanga agreed that they would like the fragments sampled and analysed to determine what material the raranga was made of.

The found raranga fragment

The found raranga fragment.

“One recurring theme for the rūnaka has been to ensure they are in the best position to make informed decisions on the conservation and care of the taonga; once they know the plant species and the age of the raranga they can determine the best conservation and storage techniques required,” says Huia.

There are various identification techniques the university team could utilise. At the moment Dr. Smith is having conversations with rūnanga representatives to best decide which method they will use; some techniques are less intrusive as others and will not change the current state of the raranga.

Rachel says they (Te Rūnanga o Ōtākou) have been watching the raranga with interest ever since it was discovered around three years ago.
“The rūnanga has had some pretty intense discussions on the best way to glean information from the raranga, using methods that won’t cause any destruction.”

Dr. Smith tends to work with the identification technique known as Micro-computed tomography (MCT). This technique is non-destructive to the fragments and does not alter them and is therefore favorable. She says MCT is a form of CT scan using x-rays. This method would ensure that fragments from the taonga are preserved in their original state.

To determine the age of the raranga fragments, the technique known as Accelerator Mass Spectrometer Radiocarbon Dating (AMS) could be used. This method would involve taking a small sample of the raranga (approximately 5-7mm in length). This has caused some concern because it is a destructive method of analysis.

Any raranga is special and is considered taonga. Analysing raranga provides us with an insight into what life was like in the South Island prior to European settlers and colonisation.

Like any other taonga, raranga are embedded in Māori culture.

Rachel Wesley adds that the raranga act as a tangible connection back to our ancestors.

“We all grow up hearing stories of where our tīpuna went and why, but it’s something else to see a relic that comes from those times,” she says.

Around November, a request for joint ownership is likely to be presented to the Māori Land Court.

“I think this is a great example of the shared whakapapa and whanaungatanga between ourselves and our relations at Puketeraki,” says Rachel.

The final resting place for the raranga is unknown however, the team feels optimistic that the analysis results will indicate the best place for the taonga to reside so it is both preserved and accessible to whānau.