A Fieldtrip to Mt Somers

1. The limestone cotatge at Mount Somers Quarry made of the local stone.

The Ashburton Museum team like to get out and about to share and discover more about the heritage of our district. We already know that we live in an amazingly rich and interesting heritage area, but don’t always get to think back to our geological history. Thinking through geology puts time into a very different perspective. Instead of thinking in decades or centuries, geology works at a vastly different scale, with years counted in the millions.

It’s also geology that impacts our sense of cultural and heritage landscapes – shaping the landforms that we live upon and use today. A recent visit by Ashburton Museum team members and stone sculptors working at Ashburton Domain at a stone sculpture symposium helped bring this history to light.

The group of about twenty carvers and history buffs took a tour to Mount Somers Quarry and limestone cottage, and to the Geological and Historical Museum at Staveley. This page is based on that tour.

3. Stone symposium sculptors with the remains of the quarry behind them, showign the upper layer of gravel and topsoil with the limest

On the bus

An early 8.00am start saw the group board a bus bound for the foothills villages of Mt Somers and Staveley. The aim of the trip was to provide participants with historical information about the old Mt Somers (Chapmans) Quarry. Symposium carvers are using both Timaru Bluestone (basalt) and Mount Somers Limestone, so the tour also gave an overview of the geological formation of the limestone they are using, and was a chance to see where it came from.

The symposium rock material was generously provided by David Acland of Mt Somers Station, who also accompanied the party to the limestone cottage and old quarry. It was John Bartrum Arundel Acland (1824-1904) and Charles George Tripp (1820-1897) who first had the Mt Somers station, yet Mount Somers/Te Kieke was named after Thomas Somers Cox, who was a bank roller for the Canterbury Association, in 1849.

Tripp took over Mt Somers station in 1861, then sold it to his brother-in-law Charles Percy Cox, who started quarrying about 1865. The station was then sold to A E Peache who constructed the lime quarry we see today. Peache was 22 when he arrived in NZ in 1875 and died in 1906.

Mount Somers Limestone was highly valued, and considered superior to the well-known Oamaru stone. But it was further to transport. Even so, limestone blocks were sent to Melbourne to build their cathedral, as well as used for parts of the cathedrals in Christchurch.

Lime kilns were built in 1888 and the station remained with Peache’s wife after he died, but was then sold in 1968 to Bob Burnett of Burnett Motors. In the 1970s much of the land was retired to be part of the national conservation estate. Burnett sold two thirds of the station to Mark and Jo Acland in 1983 who then purchased the remainder in 2002 from the Burnett estate.

5. Interior of limestne cotatge at Mount Somers

On site

Although the weather was in a clearing southerly wet mode when we visited, participants enjoyed visiting the historical site and looked around the 1872 limestone cottage, which was restored in 1972 by the Mt Somers Historical Society and friends.

The limestone at the site is about 23 million years old. The sculptors were impressed to make a personal connection with the site of their materials, and to also reflect that every time they worked the stone they were being surrounded by 23 million year old material. It is compelling to think that the dust, chips and final product of their carving encompasses such a long sense of history.

The limestone they are sculpting represents a geological time in which there was very little land. The limestone formed on the sea floor over a very long period of time and across a large geographic area covering most of the submerged continent of what was then Zealandia, long before being uplifted (beginning 5 million years ago) and then eroded into our present day topography. This process is still active today as shown by the severe damage to the limekilns in the Darfield earthquake of September 2010.

2. Stone symposium sculptors look through the interior of the limestone cottage.

At the domain

With light rain still falling, the party left the quarry and made their way to Staveley village where a short visit to the historic museum was made welcoming, by a brief talk about the area and museum by Alan Totty. The museum is full of local geological materials as well as the local social history of the area. It is open on Sunday afternoons during the summertime, and a good place to put on your must-see travel map. The superb Staveley Store was also a welcome stopping place.

Ashburton Museum staff were thrilled to be able to share information and stories with the stone sculptors and learn from them. We are looking forward to seeing their work progress and to their next symposium. Our party arrived back at the Ashburton Domain at 10.55am just in time for the school children from the Mt Somers Springburn School, ironically, to visit the sculptors.

The Mount Somers Limestone and Timaru Bluestone being worked by the sculptors is on public show at the Walnut Avenue/SH1 end of the Ashburton domain. It’s a great chance to see a new stage in many millions of years of history, and history in the making.

4. Sculptors at Staveley Geological and Historial Museum.

About Limestone

At about 23-28 million years old, the limestone used for carving was formed in warm shallow seas. It is made up of the disintegrated remains of shellfish, bryozoans and other marine life. This was the time of maximum submersion of the Zealandian continent. The limestone is up to 90% calcium carbonate and is interbedded with basaltic volcanic lava. It has been folded, faulted and uplifted from the sea floor.

About Bluestone

The basalt, commonly known as bluestone, that is used for sculpting is 2.5 million year old Timaru Basalt. This also crops out at Geraldine and represents the last period of active volcanism in the South Island. The basalt lava flows at Timaru covers 130km2 and at Geraldine, 12km2. Stone Symposium sculptors are using both types of stone depending on their needs and preferences.

By Glenn Vallender and Tanya Robinson


  1. The limestone cottage at Mount Somers Quarry made of the local stone. ©Ashburton Museum.
  2. Stone symposium sculptors with the remains of the quarry behind them, showing the upper layer of gravel and topsoil with the limestone strata below that was once under the sea. ©Ashburton Museum.
  3. Stone symposium sculptors look through the interior of the limestone cottage. ©Ashburton Museum.
  4.  Interior of limestone cottage at Mount Somers. ©Ashburton Museum.
  5. Sculptors at Staveley Geological and Historical Museum. ©Ashburton Museum.

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