Exciting news for those of us convinced that historical research has the power to inform and shape scientific investigations today. Researchers in New Zealand believe they have rediscovered the ‘eighth wonder of the world’, the pink and white terraces of Lake Rotomahana. These silica sinter deposits, the largest of their kind, were New Zealand’s greatest tourist attraction until 1886, when nearby Mount Tarawera erupted, covering the surrounding area with volcanic ash, mud and debris to a depth of 20 metres.
The terraces were long believed to have been destroyed or submerged deep in the lake; despite their popularity, their exact location was uncertain, since no government survey of the area had been completed prior to the eruption. However, a new examination of compass survey data in German-Austrian geologist Ferdinand von Hochstetter’s 1859 field diaries has led researchers Rex Bunn and Sascha Nolden to conclude that the terraces are buried on land, and could potentially be excavated.
As chance would have it, I came across a mention of the pink and white terraces quite recently, while reading through the works of German ornithologist and ethnographer Otto Finsch. He visited New Zealand for several months in 1881, in the course of a three-year research trip that took him across the Pacific from Hawai’i to Micronesia, then New Guinea and Australia. From an archaeological perspective, I am especially interested in his descriptions of the Nan Madol ceremonial complex on Pohnpei. However, in addition to his scientific work, Finsch was also a successful popular writer. He described his visit to the pink and white terraces in a regular column, ‘From the Pacific’, in the regional daily newspaper Hamburger Nachrichten (‘Hamburg News’).
Finsch’s first impression of the white terrace was of ‘a waterfall 100 feet high, descending in numerous cascades, covered with old snow’, with enormous clouds of sky-blue steam rising from it. He approached more closely and found that ‘the more one sees of it, the more magnificent it appears, and one could almost lose one’s mind trying to decide what to admire most: the stone formations, reminiscent of delicately granulated coral; the blue basins with their magical overhanging rims; or the water itself, its temperature gradually increasing from the bottom up’.
He was still more impressed by the pink terrace, in particular its ‘delicate peach-blossom colour, which gives the impression of snow bathed in evening sunlight’, and the ‘magnificent sky-blue water in the basins’. He described for his readers walking around the edge of the uppermost terrace and ‘gazing into its magical blue depths, from which wonderfully shaped formations like colossal corals look up from a sort of fairyland … this is exactly how one might imagine the abode of naiads, nixies and other water goddesses, and even Aphrodite herself could not have chosen a more magical place to arise from the watery element’.
If these natural wonders are again revealed to the world one day, it will be thanks in part to Finsch’s compatriot Hochstetter, and to the potent combination of historical and archaeological research.
Image credit: White Terraces, 1882, Auckland, by Charles Blomfield. Gift of Sir Guy Berry, South Africa, 1960. Te Papa (1960-0003-2).