At 70 years of age, Alex Solomon (Waitaha, Kāti Māmoe, Kāi Tahu) is only now learning about the Māori rock art that has quietly existed in the vicinity of where he was born, raised and still lives today.
There are a staggering 761 rock art sites in Te Waipounamu (the South Island) and South Canterbury is home to over half of them. The drawings were carved by Māori into the limestone or painted with pigments rendered from soot and iron oxide.
Alex Solomon grew up near Temuka, but didn’t know of their existence until his daughter became involved in protecting this taonga.
“Today’s a very special day, because I get to take my dad to the rock art site that he’s never seen,” says Rachel Solomon (Waitaha, Kāti Māmoe, Kāi Tahu).
Leading her father into the first cave, Rachel explains that it takes time for the images to reveal themselves. “Look for black pigment, then it will start to appear out of nowhere,” she encourages.
When Alex’s eyes adjust to the light and an eagle-like image emerges from the ceiling of the cave, his reaction is one of quiet amazement.
Rachel explains that the drawing shows that Māori were here when the giant pouākai (Haast Eagle) flew the skies in the area. Moreover, the caves provided shelter in close proximity to a rich food source, in the nearby wetlands.
“The wetlands are your supermarket. You’re getting your ducks, and you’re getting any types of birds, and you’re harvesting those birds.”
The drawings are both a window on the past, and a trigger for the imagination.
“You can see there’s one, two, three… five birds sitting on the wing. Probably carrying their young,” exclaims Alex.
Tempting as it is to assign names to the drawings, Rachel prefers to let them speak for themselves.
“It’s classed as the bird man, but, is it a bird man?” she asks.
To make her point about allowing for multiple interpretations, Rachel indicates the impressively large drawing spread across the ceiling of the cave.
“There are thoughts around this being the creation story. This figure here being Papatūānuku – the Mother Earth.”
Other people, she says, think the three taniwha in the drawing may depict the convergence of the three nearby rivers, and that the image may be a warning to people passing through.
“I don’t even like calling it art,” says guide Rereahu Hetet (Ngāti Maniapoto, Ngāti Hikario, Ngāi Tahu, Ngāti Mamoe). “This is the science. This is telling you about the world out there and how they would see the world.”
The rock art drawings are estimated to be hundreds of years old and are a powerful gift from the ancestors to the generations that have come after them.
“A few generations lost out on learning about these,” says Rereahu. “With the mahi of Rachel and the team, they’ve been able to inform the next generation.
“I just can’t believe what I’ve just seen,” says Alex, “and knowing that this form of art was done years and years ago. Unbelievable.”