An ancient message carved in stone?

Perhaps, like me, you love riddles of the past, especially if actual artefacts can be produced to whet your appetite for speculation. If so, then ponder an ancient mystery carved in stone you can see just by taking an afternoon's drive from Hamilton.

First make for Raglan and proceed to Manu Bay, Waikato's surfing Mecca. When you tire of watching surfers relishing the left-hand break, head north from the launching ramp along the top of the beach. There under the cliffs you will find Raglan's famed Tattooed Rocks.

Some 27 of the beach's numerous hard, basalt boulders, ejected by eruption from the towering peak of nearby Mount Karioi, bear carvings clearly made by man long, long ago.

If you don't believe me, go and look at them yourself.

To call them "tattooed" may be a misnomer. Admittedly, among the designs are whorls that you might find repeated in some Maori and Polynesian tattoos but in fact the petroglyphs, or carvings, mainly feature figures called rebuses. (According to Collins English Dictionary a rebus [L= by things] is an "enigmatical representation of a name, word or phrase by pictures or figures suggesting syllables. Thus Harrogate might be represented by drawings of a harrow and a gate, for example".)

Among the Raglan rock depictions are stick-like human figures, what appear to be rudimentary letters, figures which might be just be numbers and a variety of strange shapes. They are somewhat similar to petroglyphs found in a cave in Irian Jaya which graphically depict navigational instruments and ships similar to Greek vessels that sailed centuries before Christ. Similar rock carvings with similar human figures believed to show observation of an eclipse have been found cut into the rock on Pitcairn Island.

The big questions of course are who carved these inscriptions and when did they do it. Come to that just what message do they convey? The puzzle deepens of course when you learn that other rocks found in the Raglan area bear anciently carved geometrical designs, two like that of a chessboard while a third has rebuses so clear they stand out as the possible distinct letter forms of an ancient language alphabet in the making. Then to cap it all there is ancient stone marker pillar set high above the rugged Ruapeke beach a few kilometres to the south.

Actually in the Tattooed Rocks one rebus, shaped like a reversed y, is also found as a letter in the Phoenician writing circa 1000BC. Another, an inverted v, is also the Sumerian script character for bread. Others are perhaps like the characters found in the Cave of the Navigators at McCluer Bay in Irian that the late New Zealander Professor Barry Fell of Harvard University identified as of Libyan written language origin.

All of which is very interesting given that the Maori people, like other Polynesians had no form of writing at all prior to European arrival in New Zealand. So these petroglyphs (rock carvings) would seem to predate their presence here. But does that mean an ancient people once lived here, or did they just stop off, laboriously chip away at rocks for weeks or months then sail away?

Undoubtedly these rock carvings have an important story to tell. Could it be that another people lived here at Raglan long before the Polynesians arrived? If so then we have a much richer, older history of New Zealand's beginnings than we have been led to believe.

Perhaps it's time for the archaeologists and history experts to dig deeper to tell us just what such ancient artefacts mean rather than largely ignoring them. You never know, we might just have to drastically rewrite the history books about our real beginnings.