Archaeologists were stunned by what Jim Eyles and Roger Duff uncovered at the ancient Wairau Bar settlement when they began excavating in 1942. Nothing like it had been discovered in New Zealand before – and nothing has been found since. It was obvious right from the beginning that this was a large, ancient settlement, as old as any found throughout the country, and that unlike many other “moa hunter” sites which were temporary or seasonal hunting camps, people had lived at Wairau Bar permanently enough to bury their dead here, with a range of taonga and burial offerings unmatched by any other burials ever recorded.
Once Roger Duff from the Canterbury Museum began excavating in earnest, he and Jim Eyles began to find more and more graves. Four more were found in close proximity to the original tupuna – this cluster of burials (referred to as 1-7) contained by far the richest collection of taonga (treasured personal ornaments) found at the entire site. The 5th was unusual in a couple of ways – it contained a massive “horned adze” almost half a metre long and over 5 kilograms in weight. Wrapped around it was a necklace of “whale teeth” carved from moa bone. The other distinctive feature of #5 was the fact it had obviously been disturbed some time after burial – the skull was removed, leaving only the jaw bone. It’s impossible to say why or exactly when this happened – perhaps the skull was kept separately or used for another ceremonial purpose?
Burials 1-7 were a mixture of male and female tupuna (ancestors), most of which were buried in the same position – face-down with limbs outstretched, and in several cases with one hand tucked under the upper thigh. They were buried in an orientation that has been seen in other Polynesian burials – the head facing east towards the rising sun and feet pointing west towards the sunset. All were shallow grave between 30-60cm deep.
In April 1943, as part of the war effort, Wairau Bar was once again ploughed to grow feed for stock. This revealed another group of burials, one of which (12) held one of the most remarkable artifacts ever found at the Bar. It was another massive necklace, with 4 hollow reels of moa bone, and as a centre piece a huge “whale tooth” made from serpentine, one of the most precious types of stone used in early New Zealand. It is such a detailed replica of a tooth that it even included the hollow “root”, which allowed the creator to drill two holes through the thinner walls of the cavity in order to thread the tooth on a necklace.
Eyles and Duff then decided to deliberately plough this new area of burials in the hope of uncovering more – a method that fills modern archaeologists and iwi with horror, but I guess we have to realize this was 66 years ago and things were very different back then. The ploughing turned up evidence of the biggest concentration of burials yet found – eventually a total of 44 tupuna were excavated at Wairau Bar. The last archaeological work was completed in the 1960’s by Canterbury Museum, and we are the first team allowed to excavate at the site since then.
The human remains, along with the associated burial offerings and taonga, have been studied and stored at Canterbury Museum since their unearthing. Many of the most spectacular artifacts are on public display – I’m hoping to be able to go down there and check them out as part of a future post. I should clear up one source of confusion about what’s going to happen – at this stage there are no plans to rebury any of the artefacts – just the people who were taken from here all those years ago. Some of the tupuna will be transferred to the University of Otago for analysis using technology that didn’t exist back then, before being brought back home for repatriation in April. One of the techniques they will be using may solve one of the biggest mysteries of Wairau Bar. As your teeth grow, the enamel is deposited in layers like the rings of a tree, and the chemistry of these layers can reveal a lot about the person’s life. One element in particular, Strontium, can even tell us where a person travelled during their lifetime, since it is found naturally in different concentrations in different areas. Scientists used Strontium analysis on a skeleton from Stonehenge a couple of years ago, and it is so accurate they were able to discover that this man had been born in the area, then travelled to Italy for a few years before coming back to England where he died. Impressive stuff! This technique might be able to pin-point where the Wairau Bar tupuna lived and travelled to during their lifetime – one possibility is that many of the graves may be for people that lived elsewhere in New Zealand, and that Wairau Bar was a sacred site that people were returned to when they died. It is also possible that some of these tupuna were actually born in Polynesia before travelling to their new home and dying here in New Zealand.
Whatever else is discovered in the future, those long-departed ancestors have already given us so much. This is the most important archaeological site in New Zealand, and possibly all of Polynesia, because it was here that we finally learnt the truth about the first human settlement of this country. In the past, especially the 19th century, all kinds of wild theories were proposed about who lived here first. Scientists then believed there were two seperate races that colonised New Zealand – the first a primitive and prehistoric race related to the Mammoth Hunters and cave-men of ancient Europe, that hunted moa and had crossed to New Zealand perhaps 10,000 years ago over some kind of theoretical landbridge. As this theory went, these crude and primitive “Moa Hunters” were then displaced by the much later arrival of another unrelated culture from Polynesia, long after the moa was extinct. Wairau Bar shows us that this is far from the truth – that there was only one early culture that settled New Zealand before the arrival of Europeans – a group of Polynesians who travelled here around 700 years ago from somewhere in the vicinity of the Marqueses and Society Islands, and who hunted moa and continused to make artifacts identical to those from other Pacific Islands, until gradually over time they developed their own culture and craft into a unique indigenous New Zealand culture – the Maori.