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.
So 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.
It’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.
I 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.