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Maori Storehouses and Kindred Structures

Cave Stores at Wai-totara

Cave Stores at Wai-totara

At the old Ihupuku pa, situated about a mile from the Wai-totara Railway-station, may be seen a remarkable series of old storage-pits and caves exemplifying three distinct types. They are situated on the summit and in the steep sides of the picturesque isolated hill that formed a fortified village of the Nga-Rauru Tribe in neolithic and also post-European times.

The storage-pits referred to are extremely numerous; there must be several score of them in all on the summit and sides of the hill. These pits are of three distinct types,—

1.Rua tahuhu: Deeply excavated rectangular pits, formerly roofed with timber, or timber and thatch, and earth-covered. Entered from the end.
2.Rua kopiha, or rua poka, [rua korotangi Ms. addition by Best]: Well-like pits, rectangular or circular, dome-shaped roof, and small hole therein through which persons descended into the pit.
3.Artificial caves in soft sandstone bluffs, of various forms.
page 95

Those of the first type were provided with a door in the front wall; those of the second with a lid-like trap; while the third type had a similar trap, but it was fixed in a slanting position of perhaps 80°, those of the second type being almost horizontal.

At the northern end of the pa is an interesting store-pit 9 ft. by 5 ft., with a dome-shaped roof, and divided into two parts by a partition 5 in. thick. This pit was excavated out of soft sandstone, as easy to cut as cheese, and the neatly formed partition is simply a part of the sandstone left standing. Of this partition, 2 ft. at the back of the pit extends up to the roof; the balance is about 18 in. or 2 ft. high. The pit walls are perpendicular, and the whole finished in a very neat manner. Another pit hard by is circular in form, and about 8 ft. or 9 ft. in diameter, and this also is divided by a similar partition. Some of the pits, of type 1, are 6 ft. deep and 18 ft. by 12 ft. in size; others, of type 2, have perpendicular walls and dome-shaped roof. All are very neatly formed, while in some both walls and roof are curved.

But the most interesting series is seen near the base of the eastern slope of the hill—the sunny slope; none are noted on the western slope, for the Maori ever liked to face his storage-places to the sun. In these soft sandstone bluffs and slopes are many cave stores of interesting form, numbers of which are in an excellent state of preservation; others are choked with debris and vegetation. Quite possibly some of these have been excavated in late times, since the introduction of the potato; but, inasmuch as all have been fashioned on the old patterns, these are as good as pre-European ones for purposes of description.

To describe some of these forms: One has a rectangular entrance-hole some 36 in. wide and 30 in. high, opening into a cave about 11 ft. long by 6 ft. wide at the bottom. The Sketch of cave roof is about 5½ ft. high at its highest part, and is dome-shaped; and none of the walls are vertical, save the front one, the back and end walls curving gradually to merge into the dome-shaped roof. This latter expression, however, is not quite correct, as the front wall is not curved or arch-like, as are the other three, hence a cross-section of this storage-cave is that given in diagram.

It will be observed that the entrance is not at the floor-level, but high up, at about the middle of the front wall. In no case was the entrance noted at the floor-level; in some cases the upper part of the entrance is flush with the roof of the cave. This possibly was designed page 96for the conservation of warmth, an important item in the storage of the sweet-potato, the principal cultivated product of the Maori in former times. Against the front wall, immediately below the entrance-hole, a block of the sandstone formation has been left intact, and jutting into the cave about 2 ft. at its base. In this buttress-like block steps have been cut, so that a permanent means of access to the floor of the cave was thus obtained. At the south end of this cave, at the floor-level, is a hole about 3 ft. by 2 ft., by means of which access is gained to a smaller storage-cave. This is one of the most interesting cave stores noted in the district.

A few yards northward along the slope is another such artificial cave that is oval in form, and measures some 11 ft. by 7 ft. or 8 ft. All the walls are curved inwards from the floor-line, and merge perceptibly into the arched roof, which is about 6 ft. high at its loftiest part. It must, however, be borne in mind that a certain amount of debris has collected on the floors of these caves, hence all figures concerning height may be queried. Not one of these stores is now in use, and they seem to have been in a state of "innocuous desuetude" for many years. In one case only is noted a piece of timber pertaining to the apparatus for blocking the entrance-hole, or door, that has survived.

The entrance to the above cave is situated high up, the top of it flush with of the roof of the cave. Across the middle of the cave, under the entrance, a block of sandstone formation has been left so as to form a partition, dividing the cave into two parts that might be termed "bins." This partition is about 16 in. wide, with vertical sides, and about 3 ft. high above the original floor. We are informed by local natives that the sweet-potatoes were sorted, and the large tubers stored apart from the small ones in such places. This cave, like most others, has been very neatly formed, and is most symmetrical in its proportions.

Just north of the above is one of the smaller well-like pits, with the entrance-hole at the top. It is rectangular in form, with a dome-shaped roof. Then comes another small one about 5 ft. by 5 ft.; then an oval one about 5 ft. by 4 ft.; these last two being cave stores.

An oval-shaped cave near by is about 10 ft. by 8 ft., and has a partition across the middle some 30 in. or 36 in. high, like those described above. The entrance of this cave is in a good state of preservation, and illustrates clearly how the entrance-holes to these store-caves were closed by means of little doors, or traps. Across the bottom of the hole a wooden beam still remains in position, and the page 97sandstone formation on the sides and above the hole has been cut away so as to form a slanting ledge about 6 in. wide. The trap-door or separate planks, used to block the aperture, has been laid on the beam and ledge, and, being at a high angle, the storm-water would run off it, while it would also be sheltered and protected to some extent by the projecting mass of sandstone out of which the ledge was cut. Local natives remark that slabs hewn off the trunks of tree-ferns, or flatted pieces of the trunks of Dicksonia squarrosa, were used for such traps.

Some of the entrance-holes to these caves were as small as 20 in. by 24 in., and all were probably rectangular originally, though some are now much abraded.

One rectangular cave, about 12 ft. by 8 ft., has half its floor sunk about 30 in. below the level of the other half. Another, about the same size, with a dome-shaped roof, has a partition-wall about 6 in. thick across the middle. A smaller cave has a low partition for three-quarters of its width, then the partition extends right up to the roof. Another is oval in form, about 11 ft. by 7 ft., and has half its floor some 2 ft. or 2½ ft. lower than the other half, while on the edge of the higher part a partition-wall of sandstone 4 in. or 5 in. thick rises to the roof for half the width of the cave, the rear half.

It is evident that the excavators of these caves formed the roofs thereof in dome-like form, because they had learned from experience that this indurated sand, or soft sandstone, stood better in that shape.

Thirty-seven of these caves and pits formerly used for storage of crops were seen on the eastern face of the hill, and there are probably more.

In the sandstone bluffs on the left bank of the Wai-totara River, a mile down the valley, there appear to be some more of these cave stores, but these were not examined.

This river is said to have been so named on account of its bed containing a large number of stumps of totara trees (Podocarpus totara). About one mile from its mouth some hundreds of stumps are seen standing up in the channel of the river, at low water. These stumps are apparently in situ, and, presumably, when these trees were growing the land was at a higher level above the sea; also the course of the river must have been changed here, as it now flows through what must have been a dense forest. Wakefield noted this phenomena in 1840, and remarks: "About a mile from the beach … was a deserted fishing-village, as the racks and fish-bones sufficiently described. In page 98the river at this place about a hundred stumps of large totara trees rose vertically above the level of the water, almost impeding the whole navigation… I concluded that the river had at some distant period changed its course, and flowed through a totara grove."

Mr. Cowan, in his "Maoris of New Zealand," describes a small artificial cave at Te Whetengu, near Roto-rua, that was used as a repository for sacred objects: "Just opposite the carved figure and close to the foot of the stone stairway is a singular and cave-like opening, a recess cut in the face of the cliff. It is about 4 ft. deep and about the same width, but the mouth is much smaller, about 12 in. by 15 in.; the sides are squared and shaped as if a wooden door once closed it. This cave, Rangiriri said, was the sacred storehouse of the gods, and in it was kept the image of the great war-god of the Arawa Tribe, Maru-te-whare-aitu."