Taonga and Tupuna – part 1

horsesIn 1939 a 13-year old schoolboy named Jim Eyles accidentally made  the greatest archaeological discovery in New Zealand history, and sparked a series of events that eventually resulted in me writing this post, and you reading it…

Before I get into that, a quick update – firstly the dig is going really well – slow, but steady. Archaeologists don’t move forward with excavations until they’re very, very sure of what they’re doing, and that’s even more so at a site of this significance as you can imagine. I was talking in the last post about how it’s all to do with the study of different layers of material in the ground (stratigraphy) and how they relate to each other. The test squares in each corner of the 2 pits are starting to be taken down to where they think the cultural layer (ie the one with human artifacts in it) is about to start, which means things are really about to happen. We didn’t find anything of great note in the disturbed and ploughed layer above that, as you would expect – a few more flakes of adze and a small piece of bone which could be moa.  Site #1 has signs that there is at least one umu (oven pit) in it, but come tomorrow it’s all go, as the University of Otago team begin to excavate into the cultural layer, so hopefully my next post may have some exciting news in it. Or not – it’s very difficult to predict what we’re going to find!


This then is the perfect time to tell you about what was “discovered” (and that will mean different things to different people) at Wairau Bar in the past, before we start finding new things and hopefully further convince you that this place is very, very special.

Ok, let’s turn back the clock to 1939.

Jim Eyles was the son of the farmer who lived on Wairau Bar, and had started to become interested in the history of the site when his dad’s ploughing began to turn up large numbers of bones and adzes. There were so many artifacts found that the farmer filled up a couple of old benzene boxes with them and left them under a tree for people to help themselves.  As word got out, various experts began to visit the site and fossick for themselves, and soon informed the Eyles’ that what they thought were masses of old cow bones turned up by the plough were actually from New Zealand’s extinct giants – the moa.

Using his dad’s old potato fork (!) Jim began to dig in random spots around the 12-acre farm, and soon learnt to identify the fire-blackened stones from oven pits, the bones of different animals such as moa, seals, the extinct native swan, kiore (Polynesian rat) and kuri (Maori dog). During the school holidays in 1939, while digging near where some moa bones had been found next to an old water tank, Jim was surprised to see a strange cavity appear in the bottom of his hole. At first he thought it must be a rabbit burrow, but looking more closely he saw he had broken into a hollow container of some kind. Jim had learnt at school that Maori had traditionally used gourds to carry water, so that’s what he thought it was. He “carefully” dug it out of the ground using a piece of number 8 wire (he was the son of a Kiwi farmer after all) and took the mysterious object home. His step-father, Charlie Perano, quickly corrected him – it was in fact a moa egg. At this stage very few intact moa eggs had ever been found, and this one was a whopper – almost 20cm long, and 14 across – not much smaller than a rugby ball and with the volume of about 80 hen’s eggs!


Jim and his family returned to where he found it, and soon uncovered bones – human bones. The first of the tupuna (ancestors) was uncovered. The grave also contained a large and beautiful necklace made from a Sperm whale tooth and hollow moa bone “reels”. After an article was published about Jim’s finds in the Malborough Express (25 January, 1939) the moa egg and necklace (their appropriate Maori name is taonga – treasured personal artifacts) were put on public display in the window of Jim’s uncle’s fish and chip shop, and transported each night in a biscuit tin back to the vault of the local bank for safekeeping. He eventually sold them to the Dominion Museum in Wellington for £130 – a lot of money for a 13-year old in 1939.


Jim finished school  and went to work slashing gorse on his grandfather’s farm, putting a halt on his Wairau Bar fossicking. By the time he got back, war had been declared, and once the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour in 1941 New Zealand became worried about the threat of invasion. While digging a bomb shelter on the Bar in March 1942 Jim found an oven pit (umu) and some small artifacts, and his interest in the history of the site was reignited. He began digging near where he had found the first grave, and quickly found another – this time with an even bigger cache of taonga – in fact the biggest that would be found in any of the 44 burials eventually excavated. It included another moa egg (crushed), two complete whale-tooth necklaces, two necklaces made from hundreds of porpoise teeth and 14 adzes, some of them 45cm (18 inches) long and 4.5kg (10 pounds in weight).

burial-2-taonga1aerial21Eyles’s discovery soon attracted the attention of Roger Duff, ethnologist at the Canterbury Museum. He travelled to Wairau Bar later that month and was  stunned by what he saw – it far surpassed any other such discovery ever made in New Zealand.  He returned to Canterbury Museum to study the taonga, but was soon back when Eyles found a third grave in the same location. This time Duff was on hand to record exactly the circumstances of the tupuna’s burial.

skeleton-3Thus began an era of professional scientists excavating at Wairau Bar, and the beginning of a revolution in how we think about the  first people to settle in New Zealand…

to be continued…



5 Responses to “Taonga and Tupuna – part 1”

  1. 1 CC
    January 9, 2009 at 7:35 am

    Intriguing… the moa bone necklace looks so… Polynesian! Are these artifacts on display anywhere today?

  2. 2 wairau
    January 9, 2009 at 8:43 am

    Hi thanks for writing in! Yeah that necklace is identical to artifacts of the same age found in East Polynesia (except for the use of moa bone of course)- and this is the key to the whole story. Canterbury Museum has a big display of taonga from Wairau Bar – I’ll put some more pictures of them up in the second half of this post.


  3. 3 Craig McNaughton
    January 9, 2009 at 2:43 pm

    Nice work Quinn! Looks like a fascinating place to be.


  4. January 9, 2009 at 9:48 pm

    Jim Eyles’ autobiography, ‘Wairau Bar Moa Hunter’, was posthumously published in 2008 by River Press on behalf of his family and is available direct from the publisher or from all good book stores.

  5. 5 robot
    January 10, 2009 at 9:18 am

    Go team 🙂 this is very educational (I didn’t know the process of archaeological excavation until now)…what happens to the sieved earth? If it’s placed directly beside the excavation, is it ‘marked’ in some way to signify it’s part of an archaeological dig? Or is it filled back in?

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