Recording rock art

Brian Allingham and Kyle Davis recording rock art at Lindis Pass.

Brian Allingham and Kyle Davis recording rock art at Lindis Pass.

Since the South Island Māori Rock Art Project began surveying and recording in 1990, over 600 Māori rock art sites have been mapped and photographed; of those, 300 were new and had not been recorded previously.

Te Ana Ngāi Tahu Rock Art Trust curator, Amanda Symon says the survey team has been steadily finding many new and previously unknown sites and while some are just drawing fragments, others are large sites featuring multiple figures.

Amanda says the work, carried out by just two part-time workers, is “utterly critical to the protection of existing sites and to discovering any further taonga.”

“The main data base of information used by developers is the New Zealand Archaeological Association, which has over 300 sites listed. However, some of that information is not as accurate as it could be. In recent times we had the case of ten known sites being registered as being two kilometres north of a planned large-scale irrigation project, when in fact, the sites were right in the centre of the development.,” says Amanda.

A group of tiki (human) figures at Opihi River Valley.

A group of tiki (human) figures at Opihi River Valley.

Now though, with the assistance of GPS, searchers are able to get an accurate location on any new find. In addition, photographs are taken of both the general site and details of every drawing. Sketches may also be drawn and the site is located on a map.

“In some cases, these records will be all that survives in future years as some sites deteriorate. The information reports that our team produces are taonga in their own right in that sense; and because the Trust is the holder of this information on behalf of Papatipu Rūnanga, once we complete surveying a block, we make a book of all recordings with maps and photographs, aerial images, a description of the artworks and a record of any archaeological discoveries found in or around the site, which is held by the Papatipu marae. We also hold a digital data base of tens of thousands of rock art images,” says Amanda.

The South Island Māori Rock Art Project (SIMRAP), is a tribal initiative to survey and record all of rock art sites possible within the South Island. The project has recorded sites from Murihiku (Fiordland) in the south to Kaikōura in the north and as a result, Ngai Tahu has the largest and most complete archive of southern Māori rock art images in the world.

The threat of losing some of those ancient drawings though, is very real. Already, 2-3 per cent of the rock art recorded by artist Tony Fomison in the 1960s, has now gone. That deterioration is ongoing and can be attributed to a number of causes, including general farming activity, stock, irrigation, graffiti and natural causes like the deterioration of the soft, porous limestone itself through wind and weather.

“While we can’t help a lot of that, we can make sure we have sound management strategies in place and we can keep our records as accurate as possible. The data collected through SIMRAP provides a firm foundation for all our work in rock art site management and conservation.”

But it’s not easy work. Brian Allingham of the Ngāi Tahu Maori Rock Art Trust is at the forefront of surveying and recording and has been consistently involved from the beginning.

Ngai Tahu Maori Rock Art Trust board member Wendy Heath and Kyle Davis at Lindis Pass.

Ngai Tahu Maori Rock Art Trust board member Wendy Heath and Kyle Davis at Lindis Pass.

“He is one of a lot of people who have committed time to the recording project but having spent the last 25 years in the filed looking for rock art Brian’s knowledge is outstanding…. He is a taonga in his own right,” says Amanda.

The team begins by setting out numbered blocks where rock art is known to exist (over 300 sites), then every block is visited, surveyed and recorded. It means systematically inspecting every piece of limestone in an area – often burrowing through blackberries and scrub to reach the rock.

“It’s a massive job that involves a lot of leg work,” says Amanda.
“Our team spends two days in the field and then perhaps another four days downloading images and collating and archiving information.”

Over the winter of 2014, the SIMRAP team archived over 10,000 images and negatives, which had been collected since 1990. This has created a detailed inventory that includes the making of high quality digital copiers of every image.

Amanda says more than 250 sites have been surveyed in North Otago and the team has produced around 14 volumes of information from the area. South Canterbury – “a massive area for rock art” – is now the focus and that will continue into 2015.

The survey and recording work is crucial to preserving the art, and has been supported by Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu for many years. It’s a long term investment but its providing a record of tribal culture that will be invaluable to future generations of Ngāi Tahu Whanui.