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Maori Storehouses and Kindred Structures

3. Excavated Pits, Entered Through Hole on Top; Covering for Entrance, But no Roof

3. Excavated Pits, Entered Through Hole on Top; Covering for Entrance, But no Roof

This form is a true pit, and has been described as "a hole in the ground with a lid to it." In making such pits a hillside is not sought; a level site is better. The edge of a terrace and tops of ridges are good sites, but in loose soil, such as pumice country, they may be made almost anywhere. In making these pits a hole some 20 in. square is dug, and after being carried down a short distance the excavation is widened until a pit of the requisite size, say 4 ft. square or more, is formed. This is sunk to a depth of perhaps 5 ft. from the surface. The walls are vertical or curved and even, but are not lined, although fern-fronds of the harsher kind, as of rarauhe, &c., are used to cover the floor and to face the walls with when food is stored in the pit. In making the excavation the earth is put in baskets and passed up through the entrance-hole, whence it is carried away by an assistant.

To close the entrance of these pits a kopani, or lid, was used. A square frame of timber was constructed at the edges of the entrance-hole, and on this was placed a rude lid or cover. According to the depth of the pit, it might or might not be provided with a short ladder for descent, such ladder being a section of a small tree with notches cut in it for steps, the typical arawhata or ladder of Maoriland. The sides of this square entrance-hole were often lined with slabs of wood or tree-fern. We shall also see that in some districts these pits were made of a circular form.

Dr. Marshall, quoted above, remarks that some of these food-pits seen by him at Te Namu pa, Opunake, in 1834, were 7 ft. and 8 ft. page 86deep, and from that down to 4 ft. in depth. He adds, "I have since learned that each family had its own potato-pit, and that the exclusive rights of the several proprietors to the pits and their contents were generally respected, and never with impunity invaded." In speaking of the Wai-mate pa, lower down the coast, he says, "As observed before at Te Namu, potato-pits were found in all directions, and so numerous as completely to honeycomb the whole of the ground occupied by these pa. Here, however, they were fitted in many instances with trap-doors, which, being shut down, excluded the wet from without and allowed even the most incautious to walk over them in perfect security. Most of these holes were well stocked, and several of them filled with potatoes for consumption; those for seed being put in baskets carefully covered with fern, and stowed along the ridges of different houses or heaped upon whata in every corner of the pa."

Several names are applied to these pits among different tribes, but rua is the generic and most widely used one, albeit, as it may be applied to any pit or hole, rua kai, or food-pit, describes them better.

Williams's Maori Dictionary gives hapoki, a pit for storing potatoes; hapoko, a pit for storing potatoes; hopekiwi, a potato-pit; kopiha, a pit for storing potatoes; korotangi, a pit for storing potatoes. Koropu—a store, a hole for storing food in—is given in Tregear's Dictionary.

Among the Tuhoe folk a pit excavated in the same form as a rua kai, or food-pit, and used for the purpose of catching rats, is termed a kopiha kiore. It is also known as a torea. It should here be remarked that these pits made for the purpose of catching the native kiore, or rat, were formerly used in considerable numbers, and, as our forests are felled and burned, are thus often seen. As they much resemble in form the smaller food-pits used for storage purposes, the one may well be mistaken for the other. Rat-pits were so excavated as to be much larger at the bottom than at the top, so as to prevent the rats escaping.

The form of pit store described above is sometimes made on sloping ground, but not, as a rule, ground with a steep slope. The framework surrounding the entrance thus has a slope to it, hence the lid or door has the same pitch, which causes it to shed storm-water the better. Even when made on quite level ground one side of the entrance is often raised so as to impart a slant to the lid. A small ditch led off any storm-waters on a hillside. Many of these old hillside pits may be seen at the Bridge pa, an old native settlement long since deserted, just south of Te Korohiwa (south of Titahi, page 87Pori-rua). They may also be seen in great numbers in many other districts.

In his paper "The Ancient Fortified Pa," published in Volume xx of the "Journal of the Polynesian Society," Mr. W. H. Skinner has some interesting notes on food-stores. Of the pit stores he says, "Near each family's quarters (in a fortified village) were the underground rua, or pits, in which the kumara and other stores were preserved. These rua are a prominent feature in all Taranaki pa (fortified villages). They were usually 6 ft. to 8 ft. deep, and 8 ft. to 10 ft. wide at the bottom, but narrowing upwards to the entrance, which was about 2 ft. square, lined with slabs of the fibrous matter cut from the whekii tree-fern, which would last certainly over one hundred years. It was only the square upper part of the rua that was so lined to a depth of 18 in. or 2 ft. The rua mouth was covered over with slabs of the same tree-fern."

We have lately had an opportunity of examining some very well-preserved rua kai, or food-pits, at the Tunu-haere pa, which is situated on a spur on the right bank of the Whanga-nui River, and opposite the native village of Kaiwhaiki. This pa was abandoned in the latter "forties" of the nineteenth century. An illustration of it in Power's "Sketches in New Zealand" utterly fails to show the true form of the hill. At this place, within the old lines of the defences, are many old store-pits, some on sloping ground, some situated at the bases of certain small scarped summits of the spur. A person would descend into them by means of a log of wood cut into a series of steps, and in some cases steps were cut out of the earth within the pit when it was being formed. The well-like entrances to these pits are of rounded form and about 2 ft. wide. The depth of soil, from the surface down to where the chamber widens out, is in some cases as much as 3 ft., in others much less; but doubtless changes have been effected in such matters since the desertion of the place—as by erosion, trampling of stock, rooting of pigs, &c. The pit-chambers are dome-shaped as regards the upper parts, most being circular at the base, a few square, and one is semicircular in form. In no case is the original floor visible, all being covered to a lesser or greater extent with earth and other debris that has fallen in through the well-like entrance-holes during the past sixty years. These entrance-holes are at one side of the pit as a rule, not in the middle, as is often the case elsewhere. The walls seem to have been formed in a perpendicular manner for 2 ft. or 3 ft. upward from the floor, and then gradually and symmetrically converge in order to form the dome-shaped roof. Great pains have been taken in order to fashion these page 88domed chambers true to form and perfectly even and symmetrical in finish. In some cases the walls have become overgrown with moss, but in others they are free from any such growth, and are as even and sightly as though finished but a few months ago. The packed sandy soil looks as though it had been shaved with a thin knife, so smooth is the surface. And they have been abandoned for over sixty years! One of these pits was 8 ft. wide at the bottom, and about 6 ft. deep, not including the entrance-shaft. It had steps cut out of the solid earth by which to descend from the entrance. In another was an earthen partition across the middle of the pit, about 1 ft. wide or upwards, left when forming the chamber. This probably served to divide two different lots of kumara, of different sizes. It would also serve as a step. Its height was not ascertained, owing to the mass of debris on the floor, but it is probably 2 ft. or 3 ft. A semicircular pit examined had its entrance on the flattened side. These entrances would be protected from the weather by wooden slabs. A square-shaped pit measured was 9 ft. by 7 ft. Others, again, were somewhat smaller. In one case a pit has apparently been sunk on the narrow summit of the ridge, then the surrounding earth cut away so as to leave a square block 5 ft. or 6 ft. high standing isolated, and which represented the walls of the pit. In this case one would have to clamber up to the top of the earth-mound by some form of steps, and then descend into the pit.

Since writing the above notes we have received a communication from Mr. T. W. Downes, of Whanga-nui, informing us that he has made inquiries of older natives of Kaiwhaiki as to the purport of the earthen partition in the above-described pit. He was informed that this and other such pits were not used for the purpose of storing food-supplies in, but were excavated and used for the purpose of storing water in—to conserve water for the use of the inmates of these hill forts. In this particular instance the nearest water-supply is a creek at the base of the spur on which stands the Tunu-haere pa—a heavy climb for a laden person.

These water-storage pits are semicircular in form, with an opening on the top whereby persons descended, as shown in the illustration. In some cases the raised central piece, or low partition, was composed of earth, as in the one examined by us, the surface thereof being covered with wooden slabs in order to preserve its form: in other cases it was constructed of timber. A person descended through the mouth of the pit, and stood on the raised central part in order to fill vessels when procuring water, dipping it from one of the two compartments into which the lower part of the pit was divided.

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Water-storage Pit.

Water-storage Pit.

These water-storage pits at Tunu-haere are situated at the base of a mound formed, when the pa was scarped and terraced, by leaving intact a portion of the original summit of the ridge. The pits are excavated at the base of this mound, and rain-water falling on the mound was conducted into them, and so preserved for future use, the pit-mouth being covered with slabs of wood in order to prevent waste and contamination. In some cases the water-cisterns were filled by hand.

The above was not by any means a common usage, and seems to have been quite unknown in many districts. Te Whatahoro, of Wai-rarapa, informs us that he has heard of them as having formerly been used. We are indebted to Mr. Downes for sketches, as well as the above information.

Mr. Skinner informs us that this partition-like step is also seen in store-pits in the Taranaki district, but we do not know that water was ever stored in such pits in that district.

Mr. Field speaks of the kumara storage-pits of the Whanga-nui district as being beehive-shaped excavations in dry ground, usually on the tops of ridges, with a square opening just large enough to enable a person to descend into them. This well describes pits seen by us at Tunu-haere.

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Mr. Skinner informs us that the store-pits (rua) of the Taranaki district are almost invariably circular in form, dome-shaped, and having square entrance-holes. At Otumatua pa, five miles south of Opunake, many rua were excavated in rock; while on the Mikotahi Islet were many such dome-shaped pits, all connected with a central one by means of passages, and it is believed that some of these were occupied as dwelling-places in former times, the hut space on the islet being extremely limited. At one old pa visited by Mr. Skinner many pits were situated within the outer defence of the pa; short tunnels had been driven in to the base of a central mound, and a circular pit-chamber excavated on each side of the end of each tunnel, thus economizing space, so that all available building-sites could be utilized for huts.

In connection with the various circular store-pits used by some Maori tribes, the following extract from A. H. Allcroft's "Earthwork of England" is of some interest: "At Fisherton, near Salisbury, was found a group of curious underground pits of conical section, the entrance being by narrow sloping shafts which expanded below into circular chambers, from 7 ft. to 10 ft. in diameter. These seem to have been constructed in the Stone Age." Pits of various forms, says this writer, were made for use as storehouses, and to contain water.

Great care was always taken in the selection of the situation for pit stores, the driest soils and driest situations being sought, hence the edge of a terrace, the high bank of a river, and the tops of ridges were common situations for such stores. Some of these would be situated within the lines of defence of a village, but many of them were outside, and even at some distance from the hamlet. In the event of invasion by a numerous enemy such outside stores would be emptied if time permitted of it, and their contents placed in the pa.

All these pits and semi-subterraneous stores come under the name of rua, and the walls and floors were always lined with rushes or bracken, or some such items, ere the crops were stored therein; otherwise the tubers would be apt to decay, as much more care is necessary to preserve kumara than is the case with the potato. A lining of rushes round the slab or earthen walls of a pit is termed patutu. The rushes were laid in an even manner on a level piece of ground, and formed into a long mat by means of weaving two ties along the entire length of the row. This mat would then be rolled up, taken into the pit, and there unwound and placed round the walls, with the butt end of the rushes downwards. Such a lining was page 91of the best; grass not being used for the purpose, as it contains too much moisture, save in cases where the tubers are for immediate use. These mats of rush are rolled up and put away when the pit is empty, and thus serve for another season. When the mat is first arranged round the walls, pegs (pouturu) are stuck in each corner to keep it in position; and when a certain quantity of tubers are stacked up they hold the patutu or mat in place, whereupon the pegs are removed. In some cases slabs of wood are placed on the floor, upon which a layer of bracken-fern is laid, and on this again a layer of rushes, upon which the tubers are carefully stacked, each one being laid with care on the heap so as to avoid any abrasion or bruising. In some cases the layer of slabs seems to be dispensed with, and this would depend upon the nature of the soil, some soils being much drier than others. Lycopodium and fronds of Dicksonia squarrosa are often used as dunnage.

Taro (Colocasia antiquorum) and kumara were never stored in the same pit by the Maori, for he believed that the latter would be harmfully affected in some manner by such a usage. Nor were kumara and potatoes stored together. Taro and potatoes may be placed in the same pit, but not mixed together, being placed in separate bins. Te Whatahoro remarks that many years ago he heard Te Hapuku remark, when partaking of some sweet-potatoes, "Ha! He kumara whakaranu ranei ki te taewa, inahoki te ahua nei he maaro" (Have these kumara been mixed with potatoes, for they are hard?).

In an account of the Wai-mate pa (of "Alligator" fame), published by Mr. Seffern, occurs the following: "There were about thirty provision-rooms, in which were excavated cells which would each hold about 50 tons of potatoes. These provision-houses were entered through a waterproof trap from their cook-houses." This was in 1834.

Mr. T. H. Potts, in his "Out in the Open," speaks of food-pits he saw at Hikurangi: "The potato-pits are excavated in dry places, with a framed entrance of strong squared wood, over which are laid sheets of bark or broad flattened slabs of tree-fern. These well-stocked stores of food appear to be in charge of women; a long string of girls daily start from the pits, each damsel carrying a flax kit heavily laden with this favourite esculent." This was during a large native meeting held at that place.

In writing of storage-pits some word of explanation should assuredly be given as to the curious subterranean dwelling-places occasionally made and used by the Maori in former times. These page 92were termed whare manuku in the Wai-rarapa district. They were made by excavating a rectangular pit about 4 ft. deep, over which was erected a Inverted V Shape -shaped roof of timber, which was then covered with a thick layer of earth. Such places were sometimes occupied by very old folk who were past work. The floor of such places was often covered with a deep layer of dry sand, in which the old people would lie in order to keep warm, and which is said to have been a good substitute for bed-clothing. These dwelling-pits are said to have been warm places to sleep in. In the year 1849 two very old women were observed living in one at Wai-rarapa.