The Return – Part 3

Under a concrete-coloured sky we walked out to take the ancestors home. The wind was brisk even at Omaka marae and it would be fierce out on The Bar. Rain was forecast. After all the travel and adreneline of the last three days it was finally the last step in the journey. When did the journey begin? When these people first arrived in New Zealand, around 700 years ago? When they passed away? When their bones were removed from Wairau Bar, 70 years ago? Christchurch, three days ago when two bus loads of Rangitane travelled to Christchurch to reclaim them? The choices are many, but the end was easy to see – we were taking the beautiful and solid wakatu papaku (carved wooden funeral boxes) containing the tupuna up the road, across the mouth of the Wairau River, and back onto the wide flat expanses of Wairau Bar itself.

warriorOur excavations in January had already determined the burial sites, which were as close as possible to the original graves without risking disturbing them further. The tupuna were in their original groupings, although exactly how they were related is for the moment lost to the mists of time. A couple of hundred of their Rangitane ancestors had journeyed from all over New Zealand and the world to be here. There will be at least three news crews and a dozen other journalists waiting for us over the other side. By any measure it is a huge day, and by an amazing stroke of fortune I am going to play a much bigger part in it than I’d ever imagined. As I already mentioned, I’m here as a guest, but of course you have ot try and make yourself useful when there’s so much to do. The buses had arrived, everyone was buzzing and we were about to leave. I was putting my shoes on outside the meeting house, when I was summoned inside. The rimu caskets are about two metres long and extremely solid. Each one takes six (?) men to lift, and they need someone to help. Oh my God – I’m going to be a pall bearer! Let me just thank my Rangitane friends at this point because it was an incredible privlige and honour. I fall into place on the back corner of the fourth XXX, heart pounding, and we carefully carry it out to the waiting van. 

 jeff leads

It takes about twenty minutes to drive from the marae to the end of Wairau Bar road. Dozens of vecicles are stacked in the parking lot by the dock and across the other side of the river, about 400 metres away we can see hundreds of people and the TV cameras waiting for us. It was a huge logistical job to set all this up – barges and ferries have been brought in from Picton to carry everyone. We will be going over absolutely last, transporting the tupuna across in something that looks like a landing craft from Saving Private Ryan. My crew are the last ones on board, which I suddenly realise means we will be the first to get off on the other side. My pulse rate quickens even more…

boat arrival

We all took a deep breath and stepped off the boat, carefully carrying our precious cargo. The Rangitane women began their waiata, and we moved into the semi-circle of hundreds of people, concentrating on every step and trying to stay in time with the other five bearers.


 From about here, I’m going to let Christine Cornege’s brilliant photographs tell you what happened. Those of us who were there don’t need me to you remind it was like – amazing. The emotion and electricity in the air. The release of sorrow and outpouring of joy and the feeling that this was such a good thing to be doing – returning the original inhabitants of Wairau Bar into the ground to finally rest in peace. The moment the sun came out, right after the last casket was lowered carefully into it’s resting place. For me, to be honest, it was a bit of a blur – I was focussing so hard on my unexpected role that all I could think about was holding on to the ornate brass handle, keeping my corner of the casket steady and level. I still can’t believe that I was there, a very small part of one of the most significant cultural and archaeological events to happen in New Zealand for years. Thank you so much. 

dark skyon the bar 2return to the Barwarrior2cleansing


You can see the One News report HERE

The Malborough Express story HERE and reporter Claire Connell’s blog HERE

The Press HERE

and other news stories HERE and HERE


The Return – part 2

It was really late by the time we got to Takahanga. After all the adrenaline and emotion of the ceremony at Canterbury Museum, most people in the repatriation party used the bus trip north to catch up on some sleep. Many had been up since 4am, on the biggest day of their lives, and almost everyone nodded off as soon as it got dark. I dozed and watched the dark countryside of North Canterbury  blur by. Even though it was huge, the retreval of the tupuna from the Museum was only the first stage in a multi-day operation. And this day wasn’t even over yet – not by a long way. Next stop was a marae in Kaikoura, Takahanga, where we would all spend the night before setting off to Blenheim in the morning.


Continue reading ‘The Return – part 2’


The Return – part 1

I can’t believe it – it really happened. Almost exactly 70 years after Wairau Bar was “excavated” and the bones of the people that lived there seven centuries ago were removed, they are now safe back where they belong. It really happened.


I re-entered the story about three months after I left Wairau Bar and the blog went into hibernation for a while!! On a sunny morning I strolled across Christchurch for the beginning of the end – the first stage of a multi-phase journey to take the ancestors back to their home on Wairau Bar. It was April 14th, 2009 – for Rangitane destined to be forever a historic date. Right now a couple of bus loads of them were heading this way from Blenheim – coming en masse to reclaim the bones of their tupuna from Canterbury Museum for immediate return and reburial at Wairau Bar. They had kindly invited me along, both as a guest and so I could finish the story on the blog. I didn’t really know what to expect, to be honest. I knew it would be emotional, but…

Continue reading ‘The Return – part 1’


A last minute rush

area-7-82It’s all over…for now.

It is with a heavy heart that I write this not from my shady media tent on-site at Wairau Bar, but from the “real world” of Dunedin.  Sorry there’s been a bit of downtime between posts – after a mad scramble out of Wairau Bar and Blenheim over the weekend I’ve pretty much been asleep for two days solid – it was a full-on three weeks, but what an incredible experience. It’s going to take a while to process everything that happened, but my time at Wairau Bar has been one of the best experiences of my life, that’s for sure.

Continue reading ‘A last minute rush’


A Feast of Moa

steve-moa-boneWe always knew the deep oven pit filled with bones was going to yield a few surprises, but even the experienced archaeologists here at Wairau Bar were amazed at what lay at the bottom of it. Last  time I updated you about Area #4, we were digging through the top layer of broken bone fragments, dense with the discarded scraps of 700-year old feasting. All the bones we were finding had been smashed, or broken open to get at the nutritious marrow inside, or snapped to make artifacts like the Haast’s Eagle bones.  As the hole got deeper, the “rubbish” got denser and more full of interesting things, to the point where it was just solid bone and shells without any soil in it at all – and everything started to get bigger. Continue reading ‘A Feast of Moa’


A Trip to the Museum

moaThere are certain perks to being a blogger on an archaeological excavtion…for one thing, I’m not spending the day in the blazing Malborough sun down a hole getting covered in dirt. I have the utmost admiration for how hard all the archaeologists at Wairau Bar are working – they spend all day excavating, measuring and recording,  and stagger back into camp looking like they’ve been stuck in a chimney, while I’m in a shady tent tapping away and drinking lots of coffee. Being a blogger also means that it’s my job to cover all angles of this wonderful story, wherever they may take me. So when Roger Fyfe, Senior Curator of Anthropology at Canterbury Museum, rang me up and invited me to spend an afternoon down in Christchurch, I was off like a shot.

Continue reading ‘A Trip to the Museum’


Plotting the Past – part 2

sunset2Kia Ora,

Well, things are moving very fast at the excavations now. We’re into our final week and the clock is very much ticking.  The sites for the April repatriation have been decided and are being explored for archaeological material – and there’s no shortage of that.  Yesterday I showed you how much information can be gleaned from just one small stone adze – imagine what we can find out from a 5×5 metre square. That adze is the only intact one we have found so far, but even a small piece of stone chipped off during adze-making or a blackened hangi rock is valuable in its own way – especially the location in which they are found. Continue reading ‘Plotting the Past – part 2’


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