Using museum collections to solve the Pink and White Terraces mystery

Using museum collections to solve the Pink and White Terraces mystery

‘The use of historical photos in conjunction with spatial technology, rather than relying on early maps and bearings, enabled us to independently infer the location of the terraces, and potentially their fate.’

Scientist and aspiring field art historian George Hook shares his story on how he applied new methodology to help pin down the location of the iconic Pink and White Terraces, lost to the world with the Mt Tarawera eruption of 1886.

A wonder lost

Recently, several research teams have sought to determine the location and fate of New Zealand’s Pink and White Terraces of Lake Rotomahana. When Otukupuarangi and Te Tarata disappeared from view in the powerful eruptions of Mt Tarawera on 10 June 1886, the country lost the ‘eighth wonder of the natural world’ – a magnificent geothermal feature that attracted numerous 19th-century tourists, including artists like Charles Blomfield and photographers such as Alfred Burton.

There were many losses on that tragic day. Along with the disappearance of the Terraces, more than 120 people perished in New Zealand’s worst volcanic disaster. Before and since the eruption, the area has been a site of spiritual and geological importance. Since 1886, the possibility of finding the Terraces has intrigued many investigators. If the locations could be determined, might it be possible to reclaim this natural wonder for future generations? So began the quest to rediscover the Terraces.

Charles Blomfield, Pink Terrace, 1886. Te Papa (1943-0009-1). The waka with four people in it gives an idea of the scale of Otukupuarangi, the Pink Terrace. The peaks of Mt Tarawera are visible in the distance.
White Terraces, 1882, Auckland, by Charles Blomfield. Gift of Sir Guy Berry, South Africa, 1960. Te Papa (1960-0003-2). The hot spring pool feeding Te Tarata, the White Terrace, is located in the steaming crater at the top.

Destroyed, buried, or drowned?

The massive Rotomahana Crater excavated in the 1886 Tarawera eruption was much deeper and larger than the original lake, and much of the original shoreline and many of the lake’s geothermal features were either blasted out of existence or unrecognisable under volcanic debris. When the crater filled with water over a decade or so, the surface was also much higher as the lake’s outlook was blocked. The absence of a professionally surveyed pre-eruption topographical map therefore made it difficult for early investigators to determine where exactly the two terraces might have been located and hence their fates.

Different methods but no consensus

Since then, numerous methods have been applied to locate the missing Terraces, including early scientific surveys, comparative studies of before-and-after photographs, photogrammetry, forensic cartography, underwater surveys using remote submersibles, and the use of ground-penetrating radar and LIDAR (light detection and ranging). Despite these prolonged investigative efforts, the locations have resisted definitive inquiry, thereby inspiring or confounding researchers. Claims have been made, which have then been refuted and replaced with counter-claims, only to be further rebutted.

Consequently, there is no consensus as to whether the Terraces were lost under the lake bed, survived on land under volcanic debris, or were totally destroyed in the eruption. This all culminated recently when an 1859 field map by the Austrian geologist Ferdinand von Hochstetter and a 1959 sketch map by the Auckland physicist Ronald Keam were used by different research teams to justify conflicting claims about the fate of the Terraces: a ‘battle of the maps’ that played out in published articles (see References 1 & 2).

Ferdinand von Hochstetter’s gridded field map prepared for the cartographer August Peterman, 1859. Hochstetter collection, Basel (HCB 3.5.10). The dashed red line between the two terrace springs has been added.
Ronald Keam’s map of Lake Rotomahana pre-1886 eruption, as determined by photogrammetry, 1959. Reprinted with permission from Elsevier and reproduced by Tony Mander.

Investigating with PeakFinder

Intrigued by this lack of scientific consensus, our research team – geologist Dr Stephen Carey, photographer Andrew Thomas and myself – saw an opportunity for a non-map based approach that might resolve the ‘battle of the maps’, thereby helping to settle the fate of the Terraces. As I had previously used spatial technology to discover the vantage point of Antipodean landscapes by the colonial artist Eugene von Guérard (see Reference 3), we initially considered undertaking a similar study using Charles Blomfield’s pre-eruption Rotomahana paintings.

But while Blomfield’s artistic device of enhancing the height of the distant mountains and foreshortening the middle ground definitely made his paintings more sublime, it also made them unsuitable for our method of investigation as an accurate horizon line is required. While this was disappointing, we were nevertheless confident that the application of spatial technology had something to offer, so we switched our research focus to the analysis of early black and white photographs of the lake and Terraces.

Using PeakFinder in reverse

The PeakFinder application we used relies on radar data collected by Space Shuttle missions giving the height of any point on the landscape, which enables the app to generate a 360° virtual horizon from any location. The application is typically used by hikers to identify surrounding peaks, but it can also be used to determine the vantage point from which a photograph was taken. The process is somewhat time-consuming but the details are explained in our article investigating the fate of the Terraces in the latest issue of Te Papa’s journal Tuhinga (see Reference 4).

We aimed to determine the geographical coordinates of each of the Terraces by intersecting bearings to each from the located vantage points of two different pre-eruption photos. If the Terraces were found to be within the boundary of the modern lake, then the current lake level in the virtual view could be projected onto the early photographs to give an estimate of how deep beneath the lake’s surface the tops of the terraces, if still in existence, might be.

Locating a stunning pre-eruption panorama

Fortunately, we were able to assemble a 235° pre-eruption panorama of the lake’s surroundings from five photos taken by the Dunedin photographer Alfred Burton, all of which are in Te Papa’s collection. Digitally stitching together the only slightly overlapping photos provide us with an accurate visual representation of many widely spread, distant horizon landmarks.

Panorama assembled by Andrew Thomas from scans of five of Alfred Burton’s dry plate negatives. Plates (all Te Papa) from left to right: [untitled] (C.010659); Rotomahana (C.010654); Rotomahana (C.010655); Rotomahana (C.010656); Rotomahana (Pink Terrace) (C.010594). These plates were most likely exposed in October 1885. The Pink Terrace is close by on the far right and White Terrace is in the distance on the far left.
We systematically moved PeakFinder’s virtual observer over Google Earth’s satellite view of the landscape until the profiles and positions of more distant peaks in the virtual view matched that of photographic panorama. This enabled us to accurately determine the geographical coordinates of the spot where Burton had placed his camera, which turned out to be well within the current lake.

Rotating on the spot

When we visited Lake Rotomahana to conduct our field research, the Tuhourangi Tribal Authority generously arranged for us to be taken out on a launch to that location, where we were able to replicate Burton’s panorama by taking a series of photographs as the boat rotated on the spot. The high degree of similarity between the modern and historical panoramas confirmed we had correctly located Burton’s vantage point.

Comparing virtual and photographic panoramas. Top: Burton’s panorama of Lake Rotomahana. Middle: PeakFinder’s virtual view from the same location as Burton (© Bottom: Panorama of Lake Rotomahana taken from aboard the launch Ariki Moana. Photographer Andrew Thomas. Magenta lines relate to the Pink Terrace and cyan ones to the White Terrace.

Locating more bearings

The virtual panorama gave us compass bearings to the top of each Terrace, but to determine the geographical location of each, we needed to intersect the bearings from Burton’s vantage point with Terrace bearings from a pre-eruption photo taken from another location. Those bearings were acquired by conducting a similar photographic analysis of an image by Tauranga photographer Charles Spencer.

Comparing the virtual view with a pre-eruption photograph. Top: Charles Spencer, Foot of White Terrace, No. 9, c. 1881. Rotorua Museum Te Whare Taonga o Te Arawa (OP-792). Inset: Alfred Burton, [Lake Rotomahana viewed from the lower steps of the White Terraces], detail. Hocken Collections Uare Taoka o Hākena. Bottom: PeakFinder’s virtual view from the same location as Spencer’s vantage point. Magenta lines relate to the Pink Terrace, and cyan ones to the White Terrace. The steam in the inset indicates the location of the Pink Terrace.
Plotting the bearings

We then marked Burton’s and Spencer’s geographical coordinates on the modern topographic map and plotted the bearings to each terrace from each photographer’s vantage point. As seen on the map below, the locations where the bearings intersect are both within the current lake.

Locating the Pink and White Terraces on the topographical map. Sourced from joined sections of Topo50 Map BF37 Waiotapu and Topo50 Map BF38 Kaingaroa Forest. Crown copyright reserved. The red flag and bearings relate to Burton’s panorama, and the blue ones to Spencer’s photo.

When the current lake level is projected onto the historical photos, the top of each terrace, if still in existence, would be covered by at least 10 m of water. In fact, when those terrace locations are plotted on the bathymetric map of the lake, the water is approximately 40 m deep at each location, which raised the question of whether either terrace survived at all.

Comparing pre- and post-eruption photographs

To address the issue we compared pre- and post-eruption photos taken from close to the same spot. Given the destruction or drowning of landmarks surrounding the original lake, the profiles of more distant peaks needed to match, as they did in one pair of photos. As can been seen, most of the ridge that housed the White Terrace was no longer in existence immediately after the eruption.

Comparing pre- and post-eruption views of the White Terrace location. Top: post-eruption panorama of Rotomahana Crater, assembled by Tony Mander from two photographs by George Valentine: Fumarole Peaks and Site of White Terrace, Rotomahana and Rotomahana Showing the Site of the White Terraces, both 1886. Alexander Turnbull Library (PA7-54-13 and PA1-q-138-008). Bottom: William Collie, White Terraces, Rotomahana, 1874. Te Papa (PA7-40-19).  The dashed blue line indicates the location of the top of the White Terrace, and the dashed red line that of a rock structure named The Pinnacle, which became visible after the eruption.

We did manage to compare pre- and post-eruption photos of the Pink Terrace that suggested that some features may have survived the eruption but lie buried beneath the lake bed.

Triple confirmation

The use of historical photos in conjunction with spatial technology, rather than relying on early maps and bearings, enabled us to independently infer the location of the terraces, and potentially their fate. In terms of resolving the ‘battle of the maps’, our research findings support the contentions of both the Geological and Nuclear Sciences researchers and the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research scientists (see reference 5).

Using different methods, all three teams concluded that the Terrace locations are underwater but relatively close to the shoreline. Whether or not they still exist in any recognizable form remains one of the Terraces’ enduring mysteries.

For the full-length article go to Tuhinga


  1. Bunn, R. and Nolden, S. (2017). Forensic cartography with Hochstetter’s 1859 Pink and White Terraces survey: Te Otukapuarangi and Te Tarata. Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand 48: 39–56.
  2. de Ronde, C.E.J., Cartori Tontini, F. and Keam, R.F. (2019). Where are the Pink and White Terraces of Lake Rotomahana? Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand 49: 35–59.
  3. Hook, G. (2018). Using spatial technology to locate the view illustrated in Eugene von Guérard’s painting of the Kosciuszko massif. Proceedings of the Royal Society of Victoria 130: 18–33.
  4. Hook, G. and Carey, S.P. (2018). Relocating the Pink and White Terraces of Lake Rotomahana, New Zealand: resolving the ‘battle of the maps’. Tuhinga 30: 178-208.
  5. Lorrey, A. M. and Woolley, J.-M. (2018). Locating relict sinter terrace sites at Lake Rotomahana, New Zealand, with Ferdinand von Hochstetter’s legacy cartography, historic maps, and LIDAR. Frontiers in Earth Science 6 (205). doi: 10.3389/feart.2018.00205.


  1. I have a photograph of the white terraces taken in 1882. Would someone be interested in taking a look at it & possibly giving me a valuation?

  2. This research is long overdue, but it is surprising that a firm conclusion was not reached as to where exactly under the present -day Lake Rotomahana the positions of the 2 sets of terraces are located. With the bathymetry of today’s lakebed achieved by the NZ GNS team applied, surely a definitive result is possible. Or is it that the local iwi will not allow the locations to be known lest there be interference from unscrupulous persons who could dive to the sites to plunder, as per the wreck of the “Titanic”?
    Also surprising is the absence of Keam’s conclusion from his extensive work with photographs to pin down the actual locations once & for all, something he was reluctant to disclose but which apparently gave him absolute assurance that the terraces are not in existence under todays lake level. Was Keam bound to secrecy?
    Another tool which could’ve helped, which this study doesn’t appear to have used is the forwards & backwards movement along a line-of-sight observation to establish exactly on that line where the point was that the photograph was taken from. This would show the outline of the near hills in relationship with the far mtns & hills. By establishing on GPS where along that line-of-sight the point was by recording the near hills outlne at the exact scale as shown in early photos, allowing for depth of ejecta material, this would be a more accurate double-check than just relying on the intersection of another line-of-sight axis. But this would involve further photography at the site, as this consideration doesn’t seem to have been deployed in any of the photo comparison studies anyone has done.
    The use of photos of the 2 sets of terraces would be preferable to just showing Blomfield paintings, but the painting looking across the Pink Terraces to the White in he distance deserves a place. The similar B&W photograph is necessary to show full accuracy. In another ‘rival’ study the use of Hoyte’s highly inaccurate, fictitious paintings is to be deplored. Blomfled was the master, just as Prof Keam used to say.
    This research is much appreciated,even if it hasn’t yet answered the ever-present question of exactly where the magnificent terraces were positioned in the geology of Rotomahana today.

  3. ive always had a bond with the pink and white terraces, and it would be amazing to know if they can be restored.

  4. Thank you, very interesting

  5. Fascinating research, thank you for uncovering this mystery. And who knows, perhaps one day we’ll also know whether any part of the terraces survived. It would be so amazing if parts of them are still there.

    Thank you Te Papa, I live overseas at the moment and have visited many museums across the world but Te Papa is still my number 1 (not just because I walked past the building site everyday in the 90s on my way to work from Mt Vic!). Its the first place I recommend to visit whenever I hear someone is going to be visiting NZ. The collections and exhibits are always presented in a modern, interactive and respectful way, and its never boring! (and the people I’ve recommended it to always agree afterwards!)

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