The media love to manufacture a mystery, and the Kaimanawa Wall is a great example of this. Watch closely, as a perfectly natural rock formation becomes a megalithic structure…
In the 4 May 1996 issue of the NZ Listener, an article titled “Megalith Mystery: Are giant stones in the Kaimanawa Forest Park evidence of an ancient New Zealand culture?” (Chapple 1996:28-29) appeared. It centred on Barry Brailsford’s contention that the “Kaimanawa wall” was “the best (physical) evidence so far” of the pre-Maori “Waitaha nation” which he alleges flourished in New Zealand over 2,000 years ago. Shortly thereafter I was telephoned by Jim Mora of TV1 and asked to give a “traditional archaeological perspective” on the matter as part of an item on the Holmes Show arising from Brailsford’s contentions about the “wall”.
That phone call was the beginning of an amazing media frenzy which lasted for about a fortnight. The Department’s Taupo and Tongariro based field staff and I received over 100 phone calls about the “wall”, in addition to being asked to participate in several national and regional radio interviews (including three from Australia) and to appear on TV1 and TV3 news. During this time (mid May 1996) the “wall” was a major topic on talk-back radio. The issue drew a range of views right across the spectrum.
Until the late 1980s, Brailsford, then a Canterbury-based archaeologist and historian, supported the generally accepted view that New Zealand was first colonised about 1,000 years ago via a series of Polynesian canoe landings. He published two popular books, The Tattooed Land (1980) and Greenstone Trails (1983), which helped him gain an MBE for services to Maori scholarship. These books did not challenge the conventional theories of New Zealand’s first settlement based principally on historical and archaeological evidence, and to a lesser extent on Maori traditions. However, in the interim, Brailsford, at the invitation of some South Island Maori elders, has gone on to publish two further books, Song of the Waitaha (1994) and Song of the Stone (1995), and further books of a similar ilk are in the offing. These latter books, according to Brailsford, are based on “ancient knowledge given direction by his words”. They tell of “a Waitaha nation” — by Brailsford’s reckoning some 200 tribes reputed to have settled in New Zealand 2,000 years ago, only to be obliterated some 700-800 years ago by the arrival of a warrior culture. Incidentally, Brailsford, in part, equates the Waitaha with the “moa hunters”, a term widely used in the past to describe the earliest Polynesian settlers in New Zealand, but puts their arrival back at least another 1,000 years.
Criticism of Brailsford has revolved around his lack of evidence, beyond quotations from a few elders who claim Waitaha descent and recite a genealogy going back 70 generations, rather than the record of 40 generations or so claimed in most Maori accounts. He has continued to assert that certain hard evidence does exist, unrecognised, such as stone altars reworked from natural forms, “some of them over 100 feet tall”. Others see them as natural formations (Chapple ibid.).
But the Kaimanawa wall, according to Brailsford, is the real clincher, “the best evidence so far”, of a pre-Maori civilisation in New Zealand, partly because “in terms of Maori culture, there is nothing like it [in New Zealand]” (Brailsford quoted in Chapple 1996:29). From his observations, he contended the wall was too old to be European, and the style was not Maori.
Not surprisingly, Brailsford’s assertions, publicised for the first time in highly accessible national media (the Listener and the Holmes Show), sparked considerable public interest, with attention focused on the age of the “wall”, whether it was built or natural, and the possibility of a major re-write of the history of human settlement in New Zealand.
The “wall” is located at the toe of a relatively steep spur on the south side of Clements Mill Road within the Kaimanawa Forest Park (NZMS 260 map sheet U19 Kaimanawa, GR 864457). It is almost at road level and about seven metres back from the road, being visible without leaving one’s car.
The ignimbrite outcrop of which the “wall” forms part is covered with soil composed of a clay-coloured ash and fine pumice overlain by 30cm or more of humus. The composition and depth of the overburden was determined from the soil composition evident in a single small test pit excavated on the upper slopes of the spur. Without recourse to extensive testing, the average depth of the soil-ash-pumice appears to be about one metre. Nearby road cuttings have exposures, up to four metres thick, of layered pumice deposits from the AD 185 Taupo eruption. Therefore some form of preferential non deposition or erosion process, probably attributable to local topography and the steepness of the spur, has resulted in the relatively thin soil-pumice veneer over the outcrop. The test pit in front of the wall revealed a similar clayey pumice soil. A large red beech (Nothofagus fusca), estimated to be at least 70 years old, is growing on the outcrop immediately above the “wall”. Its roots have caused some displacement of the blocks which make up the “wall”.
Research, Inspection and Assessment
Following the request from TV1, I checked out available geological literature on the area, particularly with regard to ignimbrite and the nature of jointing in the rock, and researched past human activity in the area, in both pre-European and more recent times. As a first step in the process, the possibility that the “wall” was in any way connected with the nearby site of Clements’s sawmill had to be eliminated. The mill was established in 1937 by Jack Clements, a timberyard owner in Hamilton, and closed in 1963.
I first examined the “wall” on 7 May 1996, accompanied by Owen Wilkes (now with DoC Historic Resources in Hamilton), several Tongariro Conservancy field staff, and the TV1 news crew. Anticipating meeting only with Barry Brailsford, David Childress and the NZ Archaeological Association’s Taupo filekeeper, Perry Fletcher, at the site, we were surprised to find about 30 people gathered there. It soon became apparent that many of those present, following the media publicity, had come to see the “wall” with their own eyes. At times it was difficult to see the rock for the people milling in front of it.
I conducted a bit of a straw poll among those present — about 50% believed the feature was a wall or were unsure because “they couldn’t see how nature could create such perfect blocks” (symmetrical fractures).
The size of the “wall” varies depending on how one measures it. Brailsford (quoted in the Listener article) states that the four visible stones in the front were a uniform 1.9 metres wide by 1.6m tall, and one metre wide [deep]. “In one place you can insert an arm into a root-ridden cavity and feel the back face and the front face of the next tier”. Brailsford surmised, based on surface probing, that the wall was part of a stepped pyramid-like structure made of cuboid blocks stepping back up the hillside. He contends the “blocks” are evident (by probing) to a height of 6-7m above the base of the wall (i.e., the structure is at least 4-5 blocks high).
When I first saw the formation, I had no doubt that the “wall” was a small portion of a natural ignimbrite outcrop based on its general configuration and size, although I would be the first to agree that the remarkable symmetry of the blocks exposed at ground level at the front of the outcrop looked very wall-like at first glance, especially when the jointing pattern was obscured, as it was initially, by ferns, mosses and other vegetation.
However, it didn’t stand scrutiny. Close inspection immediately revealed several natural features such as perfectly matching micro-irregularities along the joints. In most instances, it was obvious (without recourse to measuring) that most of the fracture planes between the blocks were neither straight nor truly horizontal or perpendicular. In other words, the “blocks” which make up the supposed wall were not regular in size, nor perfectly worked building blocks as Brailsford implied (measurements taken by Owen Wilkes confirm the discrepancies).
On the contrary, the formation overall not only looked natural, there was nothing to suggest it had been modified, that the stone was stacked (with one exception the joints are not staggered) or that it had been used for any human purpose such as a platform, altar, retaining wall or loading ramp.
A Geologist’s Opinion
Because the issue was unlikely to settle down or be resolved to most people’s satisfaction without further research, Dr Peter Wood, a geologist with a specialist knowledge of local ignimbrites employed by the Institute of Geological and Nuclear Sciences at Wairakei, was commissioned by the Department of Conservation’s Tongariro Conservancy to give an independent professional opinion on the “wall”. By the time Dr Wood visited the site on Monday 13 May, a much larger area of the outcrop had been exposed through an illicit excavation in front of the formation by persons unknown during the weekend. I quote from his report (Wood 1996):
In my opinion the so-called “Kaimanawa Wall” in the Kaimanawa Forest Park is a natural rock formation. It is an outcrop of jointed Rangitaiki ignimbrite, a 330,000 year old volcanic rock that is common in the Taupo Volcanic Zone.
The regular block shapes are produced by natural fractures in the rock. These fractures (joints) were initially produced when the hot ignimbrite cooled and contracted after it had flowed into place during the eruption. Near vertical and horizontal joints are common in welded ignimbrites of this type. The forces of erosion, gravity, earthquakes and tree growth (roots) probably have all contributed to the movement and displacement of the blocks over time.
The apparent regularity and “artificial” aspect of the jointing is spurious. Most of the joints are not cuboidal. The eye is deceived mainly by one prominent horizontal joint which can be traced almost continuously along the outcrop into an area (recently excavated) where it is but one of an interlocking series of irregular joints. Even where the joints are most “block-like”, detailed inspection of the joint surfaces showed they were natural, with small matching irregularities in opposing surfaces which would not be produced by artificial block laying.
Previous Reports and Events Involving the “Wall”
Despite the publicity Brailsford’s recent claims about the “wall” have engendered, it has been the subject of at least one earlier non-conventional investigation. In 1990 Bruce Cathie, a former Air New Zealand pilot who uses mathematical calculations to explain UFO phenomena and the relationship of ancient sites (e.g. Stonehenge and the Great Pyramid) and world-wide cosmic energy grids, contacted Perry Fletcher after being shown photographs of the wall (Fletcher 1990). Cathie is the author of several books on harmonics and related topics. According to Fletcher (ibid.), Cathie checked the location of the “wall” (grid co-ordinates N103 650056) against his grid system and concluded “that the place had significance, and was of a much older time than that of any known civilisations”. Further discussion of Cathie’s contentions are beyond the scope of this paper.
The conclusions of the Department of Conservation investigation into the “Kaimanawa Wall” are straightforward and unambiguous. The “wall”, despite its remarkable symmetry at first glance, is a small part of a large ignimbrite outcrop created some 330,000 years ago. It is not a megalith. Neither the “wall” nor its parent outcrop appear to have been modified by human activity, but the possibility that some loose blocks have been removed from the front of the “wall section” (most likely in European times) cannot be totally ruled out. The “wall” is not a unique natural feature. Similar block-like jointing patterns are known to exist in other ignimbrite outcrops in the Kaimanawa-Taupo region.
Despite contentions by some visitors that the “wall” is aligned directly north-south, and therefore its orientation is or must be significant, accurate measurements revealed that it is orientated in a general east-west direction (trending 93 to 98 degrees true), making the face about five degrees off true north. While some might invoke divine providence to account for its position and general alignment, the more prosaic scientific explanation is that the proximity of the “wall-face” to true north is a coincidence, the result of natural processes (outlined earlier) and the topography which existed when the ignimbrite outcrop was formed.
The “stepped pyramid’ form of the structure which Brailsford deduced from probing merely reflects the natural steep ridge-like profile of the outcrop (as far as could be ascertained without extensive excavation). It is broad at the base and narrows towards the top of the spur.
Brailsford’s original contention that the formation is part of a pyramidal structure is wishful thinking based on surmise and spurious interpretation of the physical evidence. His contentions that it was built by the Waitaha (pre-Maori settlers) by some sophisticated and lost means of conveyance and construction are just right off the wall. There is no evidence at this location, nor any substantive archaeological evidence elsewhere in New Zealand, that the country was settled by anyone other than the Polynesian antecedents of the Maori about 1000 years ago.
In media statements, representatives of Tuwharetoa, the tangata whenua, stated they had “strong oral traditions” associated with the place. Such places are called kohatu. They refused to reveal more.
The public debate engendered by the “wall” resulted in the widest range of views being expressed publicly. Many (including a few Maori) were adamant or hopeful that the “wall” was evidence that an earlier people (i.e. non-Maori) settled these islands first. At the other end of the spectrum, the rock formation is regarded by some (of New Age persuasion) as a “power node” or special place in a greater universe.
As in other instances where maverick researchers have suddenly burst into print with extreme or poorly researched claims, the Kaimanawa wall incident highlighted a number of difficulties which arise for scientists when they are expected to draw quick and under-researched conclusions on the spot for the media. Likewise, the presence of the public before a scientific assessment has been satisfactorily concluded (or started in this case) is also an added pressure most scientists can do without. Laypeople can get the wrong idea about removing overlying vegetation, sampling, test pitting or similar activities which are often perceived as destructive. The tangata whenua’s expressed disapproval of any further excavation would have been a major constraint in this case if it had not been possible to confirm or refute Brailsford’s contentions without more extensive subsurface testing. However, one remains optimistic that had more subsurface investigations been deemed necessary to resolve the matter, the tangata whenua following further explanation and discussion about the situation, would have approved such actions as were required to set the record straight.
The Kaimanawa Wall incident is a classic example of a modern media “beat up”. The story had the right ingredients: a maverick researcher challenging conventional theories (in this case, the time and source of the first human settlement of New Zealand) with a claim that he had at last found something (the “wall”) which was proof positive of the settlement of New Zealand (and by implication the Pacific) by a pre-Maori people. With this inbuilt element of controversy, it didn’t matter to the media whether it was a wall or not, it was just great “public interest” material for selling newspapers or attracting viewers. Within the space of a couple of days it was a major news story. The Department of Conservation was inundated with calls. However, once we obtained independent corroboration, media interest waned rapidly. In general most media didn’t even bother to report the outcome.