Friday, April 8, 2011

Preserving Ancient Maori Rock Art

Twenty-first century digital technology meets ancient rock art at the new Te Ana Maori Rock Art Centre, that opened in the Category I historic Landing Services Building Timaru on December 10, 2010. I've always fancied the idea of archaeology and the discovery of something ancient, so from the moment I entered the centre (in February) and received a digital greeting from one of the kaumatua of Te Runanga o Arowhenua, I was hooked. I've wanted to visit some of the South Island's rock art sites for a long time and this turned out to be the perfect introduction.

There are around 580 recorded rock art sites within the Ngai Tahu rohe (district) and 250 of those are within an hour of Timaru; and the centre has been designed to raise awareness of these treasures and to ensure their preservation. It's an interactive experience that appeals to all the senses - and its the perfect learning experience for school groups. There are rock art sites all over New Zealand but the largest number have been found in the South Island, particularly in the limestone country of North Otago and South Canterbury. It's here that you'll find some of the oldest signs of human occupation in New Zealand and for Ngai Tahu, they are treasured taonga and a direct link to ancestors.

My photographs hardly do the centre justice. In fact it is an intriguing stop where you can discover the facts behind some of these mysterious renderings - most of which are on private land and inaccessible to visitors.
About 300 significant rock drawing sites dating back to the 16th century, lie within a 70km radius of Timaru (Te-Tihi-o-Maru) and their creators are thought to have been some of the earliest people to travel through the region. In a landscape peppered with rugged limestone outcrops, there are thousands of potential sites - small caves, overhanging ledges - and it's there that you might find bird-men, waka (canoes), fish, insects, and taniwha (monsters), etched, drawn and painted onto the rock faces.

Te Ana provides the perfect first encounter with these intriguing works. It features samples of actual rock art taken from sites early last century (some returned from museums around New Zealand), audio-visual displays and brilliantly-conceived information panels. Some of the rock art sites within the region have been badly damaged through natural degradation, vandalism and pollution, so the Te Ana Rock Art Centre is the perfect repository of information and history. All this while members of the Ngai Tahu Rock Art Trust (established in 2002), support local runanga and landowners in the care and management of the sites.

Ngai Tahu Maori Rock Art Trust curator, Amanda Symon says the new centre is about education and raising both awareness and funds for the further protection of sites in the field. Naturally, it is also about taking pressure off the sites themselves but for those who do want to experience rock art in the landscape, the centre has organised low-impact tours with Ngai Tahu guides to two sites close to Timaru. I've visited both and I would go again.

Traditionally, Timaru has always been one of the places we all drive through on the trip to Dunedin and further south. The Te Ana Rock Art Centre is expected to change that. Around 35,000 people a year are expected to visit the centre and local tourism officials are confident many will stay in the area several days. That will have a significant economic impact on the hospitality sector of Timaru and its neighbouring towns.

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