It feels strange to be standing on the most important ancient site in New Zealand – strange and humbling. Beneath my feet are hundreds of years of history – evidence of the lives (and also deaths) of perhaps the first people to permanently settle in this country – a group of ancient Polynesians who made their home here 700 years ago. I’ve come to Wairau Bar as part of a group of scientists and descendants, Maori and Pakeha, who have returned here to study and learn from the site, and help right an historical wrong…
This place is important to different people for different reasons – for archaeologists it’s a chance to study a unique location that one described to me as “the Stonehenge of New Zealand”. Of course, there aren’t actually any stone circles or, in fact, much visable evidence of ancient human history at all. At least on the surface. As you’ll see as this blog progresses, there’s plenty going on under the ground. For the Rangitane people, this is the home of their ancestors – as Judith MacDonald, Chairperson of Rangitane, says “the centre of our universe”. Whatever your perspective, everyone agrees that this place is special.
The Bar is an 8 kilometre-long gravel bank formed where the mighty Wairau River collides with the turbulent waters of Cloudy Bay and the Pacific Ocean, dragging gravel and boulders into a long thin arc that divides ocean from lagoon (there is a map on the right of the page if you haven’t found it yet). It’s flat, windswept and at the mercy of the elements, but for the first people who reached these shores it was a perfect place to live. On one side the ocean was full of fish, while the massive series of lagoons that shelter behind the Bar teemed with shellfish, eels, waterfowl and whitebait. The Wairau River gave access to the valleys and mountains of Malborough – home to the giant moa. While most very early settlements in New Zealand were temporary or seasonal, Wairau Bar could have been a permanent home, with many generations of people living and dying here. It’s the dying that has brought all of us here, but even in death there is now reason to be positive.
When archaeologists first excavated the Bar in the 1940’s and 50’s, they found and dug up around 50 graves. They were stunned by what they found – skeletons buried with all the treasures they had in life. Several had hollowed-out moa eggs, elaborate adzes and personal ornaments made from whale teeth and moa bone. The human remains were removed and kept at Canterbury Museum for 50 years – but they’re about to come home.
For the Rangitane people, direct descendants of the original residents of the Bar, the removal of their ancestors from their burial ground has been a source of sorrow and controversy for many decades. Imagine how you would feel if somebody dug up your great-great (plus a few more greats) grandparents. Finally after long negotiations, Canterbury Museum has agreed to return the ancient inhabitants of Wairau Bar to their original burial ground The process is called repatriation, and it’s a complex and delicate business. We can’t just charge in and start digging holes in such a significant archaeological site – even after decades of excavation only a fraction of the settlement has been investigated, and the last thing anyone wants is to disturb any more graves. A reburial site must be very carefully chosen – and that’s why we’re here.
A team of archaeologists from the University of Otago and representatives of the Rangitane iwi will be spending January surveying an area of ground close (but not too close) to the burial ground that is “sterile” – in other words has no other archaeological material in it. I’m tagging along so I can create this blog and you can hopefully follow along too.
That’s enough background material for now – in future posts I’ll be going in to more detail about what has been found at Wairau Bar and what it means for the history of New Zealand – which is the history of all of us that live in this country.
Now I’d like to get on with telling you what happened today – the first official day of the expedition. Before a single shovel of dirt can be turned over, an important gathering must happen first. This morning we joined a large and diverse group in order to unite in our purpose and lift the tapu on the burial ground. Representatives from Rangitane, University of Otago, Historic Places Trust, Canterbury Museum, Department of Conservation, and the Malborough District Council gathered and spoke from the heart, with yours truly as an extremely interested observer.
As kaumatua and officials addressed the gathering what really struck me was the intense emotional bond that people have with this place, especially those whose ancestors once lived here. History is not just facts and dates – it’s about real people, just like you and me, who lived and breathed in times past. They also died and were laid to rest – until 700 years later when they were removed from their graves and taken far away. The return of these ancestors to their home means everything to their living descendants, and it was amazing to see such a diverse bunch of community groups and government departments coming together in support of Rangitane. I’m hoping to put up some video of the speeches and welcomes that occurred this morning in a later post.
When the ceremony was over, and it was appropriate for us to enter the site, we were taken on a tour by Chris Jacomb from the University of Otago. Although as I mentioned there isn’t much to see on the surface of the bar itself, the edge of the lagoon is a different story. The power of floods and currents has eaten into the edge of the ancient settlement, and revealed a glimpse of what lies beneath.
The estuary shore in covered in what appeared to be fairly normal looking shells and rocks, but I was stunned when Chris told us that all of it had eroded out of the archaeological site. The shells were the remains of a 700 year-old feast, and the rocks are from the oven pits they were cooked in.
Once I started to look closer, I realized the entire shore was covered in ancient man-made material. There were flakes of polished adze just lying on the sand, and what at first glance seemed to be an old cow bone was actually a piece of leg bone from a mighty moa! There was also evidence of much later European settlement – pieces of rusty fence wire and chunks of thick green glass from whiskey bottles.
As we moved along the edge of the lagoon (named by Rangitane “Te Aro Pipi” meaning the place of the pipi) Chris showed us where all this material was coming from – in the exposed edge of the bank was a glimpse of the ancient past – a thick layer of shells and bone, including more moa leg bones, some of which must have been about the size of a baseball bat when the giant bird was still alive. Oh – and in case the thought had crossed your mind – don’t even contemplate it. Wairau Bar is seriously protected both by law and by locals – it’s not the place to try and go for a Sunday afternoon’s fossicking. Not a good idea.
Over a beer at the end of my first day at the Bar I pondered what it all meant. I’ve always been interested in New Zealand history, but my only exposure to it was from books and the scandalously few documentaries that get made in this country. Now, here I am, in the middle of the most important historical site in the country (and arguably all of Polynesia) and a witness to a historic and highly emotional return home for what could be the first people to ever settle in New Zealand. It’s a lot to take in, and I suspect the magnitude of it all will only sink in once I understand more about this special place and it’s people – both past and present.
The aim of this blog is pass my thoughts and observations of Wairau Bar on to you via words, photos and video, so that hopefully you can share in this incredible piece of our heritage and gain some appreciation of what it represents. Over the rest of the month I’ll be posting the progress of the archaeological surveying and excavations every day (hopefully). Archaeology has come a long way since the first crude diggings at Wairau Bar – the team that is here now will be using some pretty slick technology to aid them in mapping the site, so keep an eye out for that in days to come. I’ll also be talking with Rangitane and others to give their thoughts and perspective on what’s about to happen here. Please feel free to send me comments or questions – I’ll do my best to find someone to answer them. Catch you next time…