The ultimate in buried treasure

Research — By on October 20, 2017 1:26 pm

Dr Sascha Nolden speaks with Sharon Stephenson about a fruitful union of arts with technology.

They were the eighth wonder of the world until the 1886 Tarawera eruption buried the famous Pink and White Terraces at Lake Rotomahana, south of Rotorua.

But it took a University of Auckland arts graduate, Dr Sascha Nolden, to uncover historical survey data that may well lead to their rediscovery.

It all started when Sascha (DipPerfArts 1998; MA in German with first class honours 2003; PhD – Dean’s list 2007) was curating an exhibition at Auckland City Library about German geologist Ferdinand von Hochstetter, who travelled to New Zealand as part of the SMS Novara expedition from Austria in the late 1850s and stayed on to conduct the first-ever geological survey in the provinces of Auckland and Nelson.

While doing research for the 2008 exhibition, Sascha tracked down Hochstetter’s field survey notebooks in Basel, Switzerland. These detailed the only pre-eruption survey data of the terraces.

“I had to completely digitise the notebooks in Basel, because I wasn’t able to bring them back to New Zealand,” says Sascha. “And then I set about translating the notebooks from the original old form of German, which had never been done before.”

In late 2015 he began to collaborate with researcher Rex Bunn, who used Sascha’s translation to reverse-engineer Hochstetter’s survey data to plot the possible locations of the once popular attraction. Their research placed the three terraces largely beneath land – and not at the bottom of Lake Rotomahana, where they were widely believed to have been buried.

“Evidence suggests the locations may have survived the eruption,” says Sascha. “We now believe the terraces are buried in 10-15 metres of ash, with the lower reaches of the white terraces under the lake bed near the shore.”

The new lake, he explains, is ten times the size of the old lake before the eruption – and also much deeper, at about 100 metres, compared with the pre-eruption depth of just a few metres.

The pair’s findings were published in June in the Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand to coincide with the 131st anniversary of the Tarawera eruption.

Their research came six years after GNS Science reported it had discovered part of the Pink Terraces at the bottom of Lake Rotomahana. But by 2016, GNS had dismissed those claims, concluding the majority of the terraces had been destroyed.

Sascha, who fits his independent research around his day job as a Research Librarian at the Alexander Turnbull Library, believes he and Bunn have come closer than anyone since the eruption to finding the terraces, which, without the pre-eruption survey data, were assumed to be lost. He says the next step will be to use ground-penetrating radar on the sites they’ve identified.

“This will reveal if silica is present and, if that’s the case, then the second phase will be core-drilling to retrieve rock samples.”

If the first and second phases prove successful, the third phase would be to excavate the area.

“We are working closely with the local iwi as to the next steps, as it is very much in their hands,” says Sascha, who will continue as an historical consultant and adviser on the project.

It’s not the first time humanities and science have worked together. “I have always worked closely with scientists in very productive collaborations, especially in the geosciences. I see my role as discovering and making accessible, but also contextualising, historical information,” he says.

Professor Emeritus James Bade, director of the Research Centre for Germanic Connections with New Zealand and the Pacific, said he was delighted with Sascha’s role in helping to establish the exact location of the Pink and White Terraces.

“With his archival skills and his ability to decipher the most idiosyncratic German script, Sascha has made material available that many New Zealand researchers had no idea existed.”

Note: Sascha’s PhD at the University, supervised by James Bade, focused on the correspondence over many years between Ferdinand von Hochstetter, who returned to Austria in 1860, and Julius von Haast (for whom Haast Pass was named), who had accompanied him on his geological expeditions in New Zealand and had become a valued friend.

This year’s paper was entitled “Forensic cartography with Hochstetter’s 1859 Pink and White Terraces survey: Te Otukapuarangi and Te Tarata”.

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