Stories written in the whenua beneath our feet: Geoheritage, geoconservation and geoeducation

By Ilmars Gravis, author, Aotearoa Rocks

Towards the end of last year, I had the opportunity to make a presentation incorporating several subjects that professionally and personally interest me, broadly grouped under the umbrella of “geoheritage” for a geoheritage symposium included in the programme for the 2018 Geosciences Society of New Zealand Conference.

Find out more about the Geosciences Society of New Zealand

I would like to acknowledge the support of National Services Te Paerangi, Ōpōtiki District Museum, and Ōpōtiki District Library to enable me to attend the conference.

Often, I am asked to explain geoheritage, and I stress the broad interpretation of the prefix “geo” as Earth, and, in a more local sense, the place where we stand. I view the growing field of geoheritage research and studies as a multi-disciplinary field incorporating Earth sciences, archaeology, cultural history, and ecology.

I also see a potential growth area for the museum and heritage sector in promoting and facilitating geoheritage and geotourism ventures. While the traditional role for this sector may be viewed as collection and conservation of physical taonga, I suggest involvement by museums in collaboration with other community organisations such as libraries and local heritage societies, encourages a view of our cultural landscapes and associated geosites as a taonga in their own right. Having recently completed a degree in Earth Sciences and Environmental Science it is only natural that my initial area of interest in the geoheritage field related to Earth Sciences and the story of our whenua that the geological record presents.

Ilmars Gravis contemplates a 150,000-year story of erosion, underwater landslides, shifting continents, and massive tectonic forces shaping this spectacular outcrop at Otarawairere, Eastern Bay of Plenty. Source: Phil Pollock (2018)

However, it was while researching the volcanic stonefields and maunga of South Auckland that the connection between the geological history of the landscape and the cultural history written in that landscape really came alive to me.

Written in the landscape and the predominantly pre-European archaeological sites is a story of a dynamic, prosperous, and politically complex society shaped by the volcanic landscape on which it developed, and in turn shaped that landscape and its resources to its advantage.

Read Standing in the footprints of the bittern, Matukutūruru, Wiri Mountain, on the Aotearoa Rocks blog

Pre-European stone structures under investigation at the Wiri Oil Terminal site, 1983. Over 1250 structures were recorded in a 20ha. site. Apart from a small remnant of stonefields, almost all in this area have been lost to industrial development or quarrying. Source: University of Auckland Library, History of the University of Auckland Collection. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 h

The term geoheritage recognises the fact that a landscape and its people have a story to tell in the ongoing history of the community which can be told through sustainable tourism and education initiatives. Geological, cultural, and ecological features with effective interpretation can be used to provide an engaging and dynamic learning experience.

Providing a visitor experience that integrates the natural history of the land with the cultural and human history provides a highly valued visitor experience of local, regional, and international significance. A successful example of such a venture is the Māngere Mountain Education Centre, situated on the lower slopes of Te Pane o Mataoho – Māngere Mountain.

Māngere Mountain Education Centre, occupying the previous site of the Manukau County Council quarry at Māngere Mountain. Courtesy of Ilmars Gravis, (2017)

Modelled on the concept of a living museum, here one can “walk the present, discover the past”.

Visit the Māngere Mountain Education Centre website

The oral traditions relating to the cultural history of this area recognise the geological features of this distinctive volcanic landscape. As one of the most significant and visible features, Te Pane o Mataoho (Māngere Mountain) is the head of Mataoho, a giant associated with many of the volcanic features of Tāmaki Makaurau. The main crater of Maungawhau (Mt. Eden) is Te Ipu a Mataoho – Mataoho’s cup. Te Ihu o Mataoho refers to the nose of Mataoho which can be seen in the distinctive profile of Maungataketake.  However, the more recently used Ihumātao means cold nose. The entire volcanic field is sometimes known as Nga Tapuwae a Mataoho or the sacred footprints of Mataoho.

While we may lack direct evidence of the earliest settlement of Te Pane o Mataoho, the earliest archaeological evidence for settlement at nearby Maungataketake has been dated from the 12th century. Whakapapa passed down through generations tells the story of the arrival of voyaging waka from Hawaiiki, and the intimate history of the tangata whenua with Te Pane o Matoho.

Early local tribes in Tāmaki were Ngā Iwi and Ngā Oho, and from these tribes arose the tribes of Te Waiohua (Wai-o-Hua, the waters of hua), the original builders of pā (fortified settlements) centered on Auckland’s numerous volcanic cones.

In the late 1700s AD, Ngāti Whātua of Kaipara invaded Tāmaki and took possession of central Tāmaki, while Te Waiohua maintained their prosperous stronghold in the Māngere and Ihumātao areas. Archaeological and historical research suggests that the maunga was occupied for up to 600 years, and at its peak the wider area may have supported between 2000 and 3000 people.

Not only were the pā in this area significant, surrounding these volcanic cones hundreds of hectares of gardening and settlement sites stretched between Wiri and Māngere. Fertile and rich soil, along with numerous springs supplied a thriving population, described by some as a “Polynesian proto-city”.

Read Ihumatao and the Otuataua Stonefields: A very special area from The Listener, 03 June 2016

Susan Bulmer, an archaeologist whom spent much of her career studying this area described it as an indigenous urban development, “a city without a state”, and suggested this was a “unique development in New Zealand and in the islands of Polynesia from where the Māori came”.  

Read City Without a State? Urbanisation in pre-European Taamaki-makau-rau.) by Susan Bulmer (1993)

The value of what little remains of this heritage landscape is widely recognised by tangata whenua, researchers, archaeologists, and historians. Mana whenua and the Māngere community continue to campaign to protect this landscape from a proposed Special Housing Area at Ihumātao.

Find out more about this campaign on the Protect Ihumātao website

In a year where millions of dollars have been earmarked for celebrating Captain Cook’s Arrival in New Zealand, our pre-European cultural landscapes continue to be subject to degradation, urban encroachment, and wilful neglect.

Read What Ihumātao reveals about NZ’s protection of Māori heritage sites, The Listener, 31 January 2019

In South Auckland and throughout Aotearoa, quarrying has destroyed maunga and pā sites; roads and tracks have been driven through and over the top of archaeological sites and urupa; and agricultural development has all but obscured the rich layers of history preserved within our whenua. In addition, our archaeological heritage, which to a large degree is represented by sites and landscapes of significance to tangata whenua, is poorly served by the Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga Act (HNZPT) 2014. 

This is reflected in a recent article by Tim McCreanor, Frances Hancock, and Nicola Short:

“Established in 2014, HNZPT is charged with ensuring the ‘identification, protection, preservation, and conservation of. .  .  historical  and  cultural  heritage’ However, up to March 2017, it granted almost 97 percent (877 of 907) of applications for developments affecting Māori archaeological sites. HNZPT claims pre-application discussions can result in protective measures, but the Ihumaatao decision suggests the HNZPT Act 2014 almost exclusively favours  private  property  rights  and  developer  interests  over  protecting  the  values and benefits of our oldest cultural heritage places.” 

Read The Mounting Crisis at Ihumaatao: A High Cost Special Housing Area or a Cultural Heritage Landscape for Future Generations? Counterfutures No 6, 2018.

It should be noted that an archaeological authority usually allows for “modification or destruction” of an archaeological site. The requirement for site recording may result in “rescue archaeology”, where workers record and preserve significant finds in the shadow of developers for whom idle machinery represents a significant economic cost. This process particularly favours private land-owners and developers, whose primary interest is the tangible returns from economic development, rather than the intangible gains of cultural preservation.

Despite this poor record of protection, and to a large degree because of it, I continue to be motivated to advocate for the preservation, celebration of, and exploration of our precious cultural and heritage landscapes, and the story that is held by them in a geoheritage context. This story may be told through archaeology, ecology, geology, or human history; a geoheritage and geoconservation approach recognises the value of a holistic, integrated and engaging approach built on the strength of widely held community values that define our landscapes as a taonga in their own right.

Ilmars Gravis lives in Ōpōtiki in the Eastern Bay of Plenty, is assistant librarian at Ōpōtiki District Library, and volunteers at the Ōpōtiki District Museum and Whakatōhea Research and Archives Trust. He is author of the blog Aotearoa Rocks; a column in the Eastern Bay Life magazine on local natural history; and can be followed at the facebook page Māngere Bridge Rocks.