The stonefields of Ihumatao

July 26, 2013

In a city where the past is often readily cast aside, the remains of settlements that go back more than 700 years impart a certain serenity. This is augmented by the lack of people that visit the Otuataua stonefields (which sit within the wider area known as Ihumatao), and the understated manner in which the site’s significance is communicated.

Early European visitors commented upon the orderliness of Maori gardens; an impression that would have been strengthened by the use of stone for dividing up plots. Time has obviously obscured the previous organisation of the land in this area, although patterns are more evident here than in most parts of New Zealand.

An intriguing feature of the stonefields is the presence of round stone-lined depressions (pictured above), whose original function is difficult to determine.

As in other countries, stone structures (like walls or mounds/heaps, such as the one pictured below) served the simple role of just clearing the land of stone, so that it could be cultivated. There is also good evidence that some types of stone mounds assisted in providing additional warmth for the propagation of the warm-climate staple crops that Maori brought to Aotearoa (a practice that seems entirely logical to me, as a horticulturist).

At several points, stonework is combined with the natural occurrence of stone, such as within the photograph below – where this small wall has created a terrace on a slight dip. Whether this small structure is of Maori or European origin is difficult to tell, as it sits near the most concentrated remains of ancient settlements near the harbour’s edge.

An additional layer was contributed to this landscape by European settlers, who built beautiful drystone walls that are maintained in some parts. One of the most impressive of these walls is an undulating wall that follows the line of a hollow (pictured below), and which stands adjacent to remnant species of lavafield forest (such as karaka, hound’s tongue fern, mahoe and pigeonwood).

Other patches of remnant vegetation occur within this hybrid landscape, including the tussocks of A. banksii and A. solandri that adorn the rock stack in the photograph below, and communities of shoreline plants (like the flame-shaped grass, Austrostipa stipoides) that adorn the fringes of the Manukau harbour.