Excavation has begun…


Kia ora from Wairau Bar. Well, after all the anticipation and negotiation, work has finally begun on the site. The archaeologists have carefully selected their first areas to excavate, and there is an air of excitement in the camp as we begin to delve into the buried mysteries of this incredible place.

After all the survey work has been finished and analyzed, two “pits” have been marked out, one 5×5 metres, the other 3×5. Both are very close to burial grounds where human remains were taken from all those years ago. The graves were found in clusters, and it’s not clear whether they are all from the same time period or how exactly they are all related to each other, so the plan is to return them in the same groups they were originally found in – if no other remains are found in these pits they will probably end up being the places where the repatriation occurs in April.


After the turf was removed, the team at each pit begin to very carefully and meticulously scrape away soil and gravel in small squares at the four corners of the marked-out areas.


Modern archaeology is based on stratigraphy, which basically means the study of layers of material in the ground. Underneath the grass there is a layer of organic soil,  and then the “cultural layer” – the ancient human-made material like artifacts, midden remains or debris from other human activities. The reason we are starting with small excavations in the four corners is to work out how deep under the ground all these different layers are buried before the rest of the pit is dug. Wairau Bar is considered to be a very shallow site – the graves that were found in the 1940’s were only 20 centimetres under the ground.

layersSo of course everything is done very carefully and methodically. The archaeologists adopt their typical pose – head down, bum up, and begin to painstakingly remove pans full of soil. Where they find larger objects like rocks or any artifacts they leave them in place and scrape away the dirt around them. If it’s something that looks interesting, its exact position is recorded, east, west, north, south, up and down, by the Total Station robotic theodolite I talked about yesterday. No detail is too small to be important  – even the soil is sieved to make sure there are no tiny fragments of archaeological material in it. It’s a dusty job, especially with the Bar’s usual wind blasting in our faces.


The first shallow layer of soil we’re examining has already been churned up by plowing many times in the past, so nobody is really expecting to find anything too spectacular yet. There are some small pieces of obsidian (black volcanic glass highly valued for making blades) and flakes chipped off during adze making.

adze_flakeIt’s going to be a few days before we get down into the cultural layer and theoretically start finding the really interesting stuff – but then again, you never know! Right at the end of the day one of the “diggers” finds something very cool in her pit – the tooth of a Maori dog, or kuri.

kuri_toothI never realized that dogs have been in New Zealand as long as  people – over 700 years. The people of Wairau Bar brought their dogs with them when they voyaged across the Pacific to their new home, although not exactly as pets. Kuri are long extinct as a breed, but when they were around they were apparently much like the dogs you see lurking around villages in Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands – terrier-sized, pointy-faced things that don’t bark and are vegetarians!  They were important enough to be brought all this way – but (and don’t be shocked) valued more as a food source rather than man’s best friend. When we dig into a midden it’s more than likely there will be kuri bones in there, along with moa, seals, fish and many other animals.

That’s it from me for today – thanks for tuning in and as usual I encourage you to get involved and ask questions – this site is incredibly important to the history of our country, whether you’re Maori or Pakeha. We’re all New Zealanders and Wairau Bar is the place that the first Kiwis lived. Even if you’re not directly genetically related, (and I’m not) I think it’s fair to say these ancient people are part of all of our heritage.



6 Responses to “Excavation has begun…”

  1. 1 Katie B
    January 8, 2009 at 7:00 am

    Great pics, Quinn. Excellent blog, too. It’s become one of my regular daily reads already!

  2. 2 Bill Morris
    January 8, 2009 at 2:49 pm

    Hi Quinn,
    This is great! Very impressive pictures and words. What an amazing place.

  3. 3 Chris
    January 9, 2009 at 12:00 pm

    Hey Quinn,

    It’s Nice to see your point of view, and it is good to see that this interesting site is being reported to the public.

    It would be interesting to know who are involved in the project, and what their roles are.

  4. January 9, 2009 at 8:03 pm

    Hi Quinn,
    Congratulations on the splendid site you have produced, even if I have to use a magnifying glass to read what I am writing.
    I was most fortunate to visit the site last Monday with local historian Barry Holdaway while visiting Blenheim.
    He has great knowledge of the area and even has an old sketch map of where the hotel and other buildings were.
    I couldn’t help thinking that there must be more material on the riverside where the banks have been eroded away. One of our group’s air lifts could suck material onto a wirewove matress for sorting. Could be something to think about in the future? I thought Tara Macdonald’s piece thoughtfull and insightfull. All good stuff
    Look forward to your daily report. Happy New Year.

  5. 5 Lorraine Smith
    January 13, 2009 at 8:50 am

    This is so interesting. Makes me want to come down there now!!

  6. 6 Virgina Gray
    January 21, 2009 at 3:55 pm

    With great interest I have followed this project. What wonderful plan it is that the repatriation is happening. I admit to being one of the Canterbury Museum Archeological team who excavated there is 1959 and 1961, though did not work on any human remains excavation.
    I hope to return to the site very soon. I is a privilege to be there at any time.

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