Learning from Pa

Pa have been consigned to history. They are distant memories, not active players in modern times. While the whare and marae are in common use (both as entities in themselves as well as via referencing in other forms and structures), the pa has not survived as well. They are of archaeological interest, not architectural. The best surveys of pa form and function is found in archaeological writings such as Kevin L. Jones’ The Penguin Field Guide to New Zealand Archaeology, not in architectural writings.

Archaeology is defined in the dictionary as ‘the study of human history and prehistory through the excavation of sites and the analysis of physical remains’. Jones’ Field Guide does not disappoint, being packed full of examinations of the physical remains of pa – identifications of what were once dominant structures through their faint remnants. Eroded shapes left on the land, a very gentle reminder of what was once there. Dimples and indentations, harmless now and often requiring textual convincing of what had been there.

Previously excavations themselves, pa are now excavated to reveal their original form so that we can tap their secrets and understand their stories. What were once scarps, ditches and trenches are now shallow dips and rolling contours, weathered away by years of neglect. No buildings remain – these are left to our imagination and computer modelling (resurrection via pixels).

The language of archaeology is clinical, as though a crime scene is being described. Artefacts are logged. Measurements are taken. Theories are put forward on what may have taken place and where. Evidence is recorded in a very descriptive manner – ‘the main platform which is triangular in plan (40x40x50m along the sides) with a long lower terrace (60×10-15m)’, or ‘the modern track appears to follow an ancient, revetted, sunken track for about 25m, with indistinct house floors on either sides, and emerges out on to a descending series of five stone-revetted terraces covering a total area of 80x40m.’ (Jones, pp.158 & 159)

Even the archaeological images come across as impassionate recording devices, more often than not aerial photographs placing the victim in the wider context of the crime scene. Presumably to make the scene even more understandable, these images are abstracted through line drawings that use specialised notation to describe the form of the pa. It is here that elements not visible in the aerial photographs are filled in – missing trenches, decayed enclosures, fallen defences.

This is, of course, a form of appropriation. Just as the land had to be measured, mapped, and fenced before it could be fully digested by the settler culture, so too must pa. They have been absorbed, rendered safe through mathematical, geographical, and archaeological exploration. There are no longer any traps or deceptions like those that advancing British soldiers had to face in the 1860s, no longer do we have to gaze from a distance and wonder what is occurring within. They have been scientifically laid bare before us.

But pa are not solely entities in themselves, they represent the wider engagement between cultures. Because pa are dead, resistance can be seen as dead. In the common view pa are places of conflict and resistance. Now that pa lie in ruins, so surely does the resistance that they represent. As Robert Ginsberg says in The Aesthetics of Ruins, ‘The ruin, we think is tamed, perhaps timid, surely timed, for it has seen its day and has sunk into the night of remnants.’ Pa are the architectural remnants of a struggle lost.

Read more…

Ngawha prison

Intersection of landscape and interior

Thompson house, Kohimarama

‘Wars Without End’ by Danny Keenan

Extreme Pa Makeover – the Cultural Contact Editions


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