Welcome to Wairau Bar


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.

lagoontour 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.


moa_boneAs 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…



25 Responses to “Welcome to Wairau Bar”

  1. 1 Tania
    January 6, 2009 at 7:12 am

    Thanks for a personal view, not a “media” article. Looking forward to reading more.

  2. 2 Hynesey
    January 6, 2009 at 8:02 am

    I’m blown away by your commentary. Thank you so much.

  3. 3 Brenda
    January 6, 2009 at 9:37 am

    Kia Ora Quinn

    I have lived in Blenheim for 23 years and have visited the site understanding never to take just look,touch maybe and leave there, I agree that it is a very special place. I am Maori but not from here as such, I respect all this place has to offer. I am enjoying reading your take on what is happening at the Wairau bar and look forward to the next instalment.

    Heoi ano Brenda

  4. 4 Terewa
    January 6, 2009 at 11:24 am

    Kia Ora,

    Pushed the wrong button, computers eh !! I will watch with interest over the next week or so the progress and the return of these Ko Iwi – tupuna to there rightful place so that this place might once again be complete. To all the people involved and speically Rangitaane Kia Kaha my aroha goes out to you all.

    Terewa Phillips (Past supporter of this very important task)
    (Lost somewhere in the desert of Australia)

  5. 5 Dan
    January 6, 2009 at 1:53 pm

    Hi Quinn,
    Thank you for your column and insights. I will be reading your postings each day. The bar is a special place.

  6. 6 Roy Eyles
    January 6, 2009 at 1:54 pm

    I am of the opinion that the chance discovery of the urupa within this historic site, already plundered by local fossickers, was a fortunate event. The discoverer had a genuine interest and empathy for the earliest settlers to our shores. The subsequent involvement of the scientific world, local museums and universities only served to enrich our knowledge and then go on to protect the site in perpetuity.
    Following on from that, albeit many years later, the presumably skilful and delicate negotiations by all involved to repatriate these people is to be commended and can only serve to enhance the culture and fabric of this wonderful part of the world we live in.

  7. 7 Tara MacDonald
    January 6, 2009 at 2:33 pm

    My grandmothers half brother is Jim Eyles, who found a fully intact moa egg,a human skull, and a whale tooth and spool necklace on January 1939 at the Wairau Bar, with his friend Billy Jarman. Uncle Jim was thrirteen years old when he made his find. My grandmother was born in the house on the bar and has lived there and nearby Dillions Point for most of her life.

    My father is a MacDonald, I was born and grew up in Blenheim for 20 years, of Rangitane and Ngatu Kuia descent. My personal views of the Wairau Bar finds are somewhat mixed, having both sides of my family immensley involved from 1939.

    I was lucky enough to spend time as a kid exploring around the bar with my Pakeha grandparents, finding bits of moa egg, agillite and middens along the banks of the river.

    I think that comments like “historical wrong”, “source of sorrow and controversy for many decades”, and “forcibly removed” are ignorant

    When my Uncle Jim made his first discovery, his step-father Charlie Perano consulted with Maniapoto MacDonald who lived just over the river….
    “Charlie was concerned at the implications of the gravesite and the human remains I had found, and when Rangitane elder Maniapoto (Manny) MacDonald came down to the wharf for his Sunday bag of fish Charlie told him about my find. There must have been some discussion among the local Maori before the response came back and was reported to the family. “Its nothing to do with us Charlie,” my stepfater was told. “He’s not one of ours” “(Wairau Bar, Moa Hunter, The Jim Eyles Story,pg 64)

    On pg 130 of Jim Eyles’s book there is a photo of Manny sitting in a burial site with Uncle Jim and Roger Duff, with Manny saying that he was satisfied that the people were of a earlier migration. Rangitane were involved in these findings right from the start.

    If Uncle Jim hadn’t of been such a curious kid and not got out there with his shovel then those burial sites would have never of been found. New Zealands most important prehistoric find might have happened much later and by others who may not have had the decency to consult with the tangata whenua over the the other side of the river. Exactly what was “historically wrong” about finding those skeletons? It happens all over the world all the time.

    We have to remember that this all happened in the 1940’s and 50’s, before things like the Waitangi Treaty Tribunal and those involved were only doing things the best way they knew how at the time.

    From the things they did or didn’t do, this generation has probably learned some lessons, but are still quick to judge and have all sorts of opinions.

    I read in “The Press” that the archiologists are currently trying to find the best places to rebury the tupuna without disturbing any other burial sites. I certainly hope that Uncle Jim and Roger Duffs work doesn’t go completely to waste, and their original burial site drawings are referred back to. Those two knew that place the best.

    Those tupuna do need to go back into the ground and yes Christchurch Museum could have been more forthcoming a lot earlier in the piece years ago and released them back to the people of Blenheim.

    Blaming and finger pointing at those who have preceded us is unfair.

    Im sure that in a thousand years time we will get dug up too. And are any of Jim Eyels’s family or children invited to the reburial ceremony? If Charlie Perano had the decency to go over the river to see Manny, does Richard Bradley have the decency to invite any of Jim Eyle’s whanau. “We’re all cousins”, right?

  8. 8 Buzz
    January 6, 2009 at 4:22 pm

    Awesome. Wish I were there.

  9. 9 Steve Markham
    January 6, 2009 at 4:33 pm

    Hi Quinn
    Since the 1960s I’ve been interested in NZ archaeology, then from a eurocentric perspective, called “prehistory”, and its links with NZ’s natural environmental past – the animals, plants and landscape that were here before Maori, and that were then affected by Maori living in that wonderland, in developing their own distinctive culture and feelings for the natural environment of this place. In 1967, I was hosted as a teenager by Dr Roger Duff, one of the original excavators of part of the Wairau Bar site, and among others a remover of koiwi (skeletal remains)and artifacts to the Canterbury Museum, and who was then the director of the museum, to allow me to study bird bones in the museum from the past. I remember Duff proudly showing me the koiwi and moa displays from Wairau, and any link these museum exhibits had with present day people was far from his or my mind then..

    Much, much later my work introduced me to tangata whenua of the area, Richard Bradley of Rangitane, Jim Elkington of Ngati Koata; and the seemingly detached connection between past and present Maori of Wairau was lessened in my mind. In NZ archaeology, this kind of detachment has generally lessened in the forty or so years I’ve been a sometime observer of it, in parallel with Maori awareness of their unique heritage, and the value they place on the link between past and present, without diminishing the value of the future.

    So as an observer of the conversation between Rangitane (as avowed descendants of the Bar koiwi), and the Canterbury Museum (and through that institution, the archaeological community of NZ), about the Wairau Bar koiwi and taonga and the rightful place for them, I see great maturation in the archaeologists accepting the cultural context of their inquiry, and of the principle that despite the science value of any inquiry, past or present, and the tangible value of any materials disturbed through that inquiry, the relationship between the inquirers and the tangata whenua about the wahi tapu must mediate the scope and form of any such inquiry. Here for great reasons is an opportunity for both parties to learn and for their science and cultural values and mutual respect to deepen and grow, in confronting what was historically gained by the Wairau Bar excavations, and what was lost, and what may now be gained and still not lost.
    Ka mate ka mate
    Ka ora ka ora

    Excellent blog concept
    Steve Markham

  10. 10 Paul T
    January 6, 2009 at 7:27 pm

    Looking good Quin, it sounds like a wonderful place. great writing and photos.
    cheers, Paul

  11. 11 Richard Bradley
    January 6, 2009 at 8:11 pm

    tena koe Quin, pai rawa ake tou tautoko ki nga moemoea o Rangitane ki Wairau, “matou o Rangitane nga pakiaka morehu o te whenua” – ko wairau te awa te whenua hoki.

    Excellent site and your commentary clearly encapsulates the emotions and aspirations of the 80 or so Rangitane Iwi members and other interested people who attended the start of the final preparations for the return of the Tupuna to Wairau.

    I am heartened by the feedback so far – in particular Roy Eyles who I went to Blenheim Borough School with such a long time ago and Terewa Phillips who laid the foundation for this project over a decade ago – tena korua.

    As the project continues I can only remember the wise words of an old Rangitane prophet who stated that “if we dont learn from history we are doomed to repeat it”. There are many truths all called history. What we have to do is get all the history included to get it right, and this current repatriation of the Wairau people to the Wairau will achieve that.

  12. 12 JellyBean
    January 9, 2009 at 8:22 pm

    Just remember that what happened at “the bar” was purely a 13 year old boy entertaining himself in his backyard with a long handled shovel.
    The boy thought it was a goud, and if it was not for his father exclaiming “its a moa’s egg!”, and also if it was not for contact being made with Roger Duff, “one of the most important discoveries in NZ archeological history” (Roger Fyfe, Canterbury Museum), it may have been a very different outcome.

    Artifacts were purchased by Canterbury Museum, for safekeeping due to their significance and so that all New Zealanders, be it Pakeha, Maori or Polynesian or anyone else interested in history and archeology.

    Returning them to where they were found is very well, but I feel that they should be left in Canterbury Museum, so that EVERYONE can enjoy seeing the treasures that were discovered.

  13. 13 Sandra
    January 10, 2009 at 10:15 am

    Really interesting reading – we will be following the story of the “digs”. Have heard about it before.

  14. 14 Alex
    January 10, 2009 at 2:46 pm

    Quinn this is wonderful stuff, it’s a pleasure and an honour to be able to share in this formative part of our history through your great pics and writing.
    Look forward to following you on this amazing journey, thank you,

  15. 15 jane
    January 10, 2009 at 8:36 pm

    If this is such a special site for new zealand, why is this blog not being written by a one of the archaeologist who are specialised? was there an opportunity for any archaeological enthuisiast outside the partners to be able to be there at this site and have this opportunity?

  16. 16 wairau
    January 11, 2009 at 12:11 pm

    Hi Jane thanks to writing in. Of course the archaeologists from the University of Otago will be officially writing up their findings in scientific journal form, and I’ll link to these papers and reports once they’re produced. The point of this blog is to talk about Wairau Bar in a different way and present it in a style that hopefully is digestible to non-specialists. I’m looking to increase awareness about this special place and the upcoming repatriation among all New Zealanders (and anyone around the world) who may not usually be interested in such things. We all have a stake in what’s happening here – it’s a crucial part of the history of New Zealand. If you don’t like the style I am doing it, I am certainly open to any and all suggestions about how to improve the blog.

  17. 17 Lynton Diggle
    January 11, 2009 at 8:56 pm

    Hi Quinn,
    Great site, great approach. Love it and wait each night for the latest.
    I was fortunate to visit the site last monday with a local historian Barry Holdaway. A very knowledgable fellow on the area. I thought the most thoughfull and insightfull posting was from Tara McDonald.
    I do however have mixed thoughts about plans to rebury both atifacts and skeletons. While I can understand local Maoris wishes to return their ancestors to their original site I also think of the scientific value of these items for study. Who knows what new scientific tools will be available in fifty years to perhaps give insights into the origins of these Moa hunters. Isn’t there a parallel with Tuntan Karman? ( need spell check) Who, who reads this site, would suggest he should be returned to his tomb and all the golden artifacts sealed with him as is planned for the Wairau Bar site.
    Would be interested to read the reasons why this site is different from an Egyption one. Keep up the good work

  18. 18 wairau
    January 11, 2009 at 9:40 pm

    Hi Lynton thanks for the feedback! At this stage there are NO plans to rebury artefacts – just the human remains.


  19. 19 Sadie
    January 12, 2009 at 12:04 pm

    Simply fascinating!
    Thanks so much Yolly for the links so I can watch along.

    It amazes me how little history of NZ is taught elsewhere (at least here in the U.S.) and how incredibly interesting it is! Shameful, really.

    Those areas of bone and shell and meal remains that are just eroding out to be walked over remind me of the large areas in Indiana, U.S. containing so many small fossils in limestone that you could never count them and are spread over many miles from the glaciers, and the dinosaur-laden areas of the west U.S. So amazing seeing that much in one place.

    I will have to look up the references on the bid to get Tutankhamun reburied with all his tomb’s treasures…I had not heard about that. (Though I would bet all I have or ever will have that the tomb’s contents at least will NEVER be reburied.) I think that is quite different from the Wairau site most distinctly because of age. Much like the repatriation of Native American burial sites, the human remains are returned and marked, while *most* of the artifacts are not.

    I am looking forward to reading along as this continues, and am really enjoying learning so much about NZ that I had never even heard of before. Thanks!

  20. 20 Lorraine Smith
    January 13, 2009 at 8:28 am

    A special mihi to the Iwi kaiinga Rangitane ki Wairau, to Richard and Chris – Otago University and your team and to the moderators of this website.

    Thank you for this website to keep people informed of the progress of this very important excavation, repatriation. My initial interest was that my daughters were invited down to this excavation by Richard and Chris. However, as I read through all the information that has been posted on here I have come to a realisation of just how important and ‘big’ this project is and in particular for the Iwi Rangitane ki Wairau and the archaeology field. I feel humbled that my daughters of Te Whanau a Apanui / Whakatohea whakapapa are able to be part of this. The photos and writings are awesome and I think you are doing a fabulous and sensitive job that something like this commands. It tempts me to come down there and wish I was there at the powhiri. No doubt my daughters will be talking about this for a long time to come as they do about other excavations that they have been on.

    Na Lorraine Smith

  21. 21 Max Quinn
    January 15, 2009 at 9:49 am

    Hi Quinn, a great site and thoroughly enjoying the journey. Send my regards to Hans Bader, Richard Walter and others.

  22. 22 Luckie C Macdonald
    January 15, 2009 at 11:30 pm

    Congratulations for an excellent blog.
    Some very interesting memories, concepts, perceptions are flourishing with regards to the Wairau Project.
    I would like this opportunity to offer a few clarifications from my perspective.
    Manny Macdonald, my uncle did give permission to Jim Eyles and Roger Duff for the dig to proceed, however several Rangitane elders including my grandfather Hohua (Peter) Macdonald strongly objected to the desecration of the urupa almost to the point of arrest by the local constabulary.
    This objective protest has continued through to today.
    The Waitangi Tribunal did not cause the present collaborative exercise, this was achieved by the diligent protests / negotiations of the Rangitane Runanga with all the relevant agencies, however now with everyone having a greater understanding of the Treaty and its principles this has certainly assisted Rangitane and their aspirations for repatriation of their tupuna.
    Irrespective of time or date, there is a very fine line between archaeology and grave robbing
    Rarely have archaeological digs been undertaken by the indigenous inhabitants, other than under duress, however in this case with the collaborative efforts of all those involved, this has allowed all parties to achieve their respective objectives with dignity and respect.
    Our past cannot be changed only our future, early NZ history has been enriched by the efforts of Eyles, Duff and others however our tupuna were afforded the grace of ceremonial burials to rest in peace, I am under obligation to encourage / assist with the repatriation of our tupuna to their rightful resting place.
    The Wairau Bar Project is certainly unique, albeit final, I could never accept the desecration of any urupa, anywhere, for the sake of archaeology, science whatever.

  23. 23 David Johnson
    January 16, 2009 at 2:44 pm

    Hi Quinn,

    love your blog, man means a lot to this kiwi bloke, like Terewa wrote “(Lost somewhere in the desert of Australia)”

    Call it ‘Quinn’s Post’ as a living link to NZ history, if you like.

    Look forward to reading more


  24. 24 Jeff Hynes
    January 16, 2009 at 10:43 pm

    Hi Quinn, I really have enjoyed my visits over the past couple of weeks particularly the warmth and hospitality of all of the workers on site. You really are a very dedicated bunch.
    I was present this morning when a mussle shell fishing lure, complete Moa claw and parts of the so called Hasst’s eagle were uncovered. Absoloutely awesome.

    By the way seeing this one was found in the Wairau, can we call it the Wairau Eagle (heh heh).

    My mothers family were born close to the Urupa site where the work is taking place and you could say with a fair degree of accuracy that the MacDonald whanau have a lot of history in and around the bar dating back many many generations.

    There were 15 brothers and sisters in my mothers family and I recall some of her brothers and sisters stories about gathering kaimoana in the area years ago.
    Sadly the last of my mothers brothers Denis MacDonald (the 15th and youngest of the family)passed away recently, however I was able to bring his youngest daughter and husband to the site for look on Tuesday and they were absolutely stunned.

    Today I spoke with Ted Perano a fomrer resident of the house at the Wairau Bar site who recalled visits to his house in the 1930’s by one of my aunties, Dolly Neame who as a young girl used to look after Ted while his mother was away working.

    In about 1994 during a visit to the Wairau Bar site with my mother, Richard Bradley his mother, Tommy MacDonald and some others from Rangitane, my mother spoke of going there as a young girl with her own mother and some of her brothers and sisters to gather shell fish and other kaimoana regularly.
    I also recall one of my Uncles, Frank MacDonald,stating that one of the last Rangitane chiefs of this area was buried at the Bar site.
    The return of the Tupuna from Canterbury to their original burial site will be a very very special occasion, one I have been looking forward to for some time now.

    I have been very impressed with all of the staff working at the Bar who have displayed a high degree of respect and understanding of the cultural significance of the site to Rangitane which I think may have been a missing ingredient in the past with similar digs.

    I have to agree with my whanaunga Lucky MacDonald, there was formal opposition by several prominent Rangitane elders during those earlier digs, and yes, they were prepared to be arrested, however that is probably best left in the past now. I always wondered where we got our redical behaviour from.
    One week to go Quinn keep up the good work mate…….

  25. January 17, 2009 at 8:51 pm

    Hi guys are you all working hard? good because im watching you all hahaha. Good work Quinn, except i didn’t see any photo of me working hard in my little square kidding see you all next weekend and yes hi Wayne and Donlyn. pat

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