One man’s trash is another man’s treasure

skull1There’s still a lot we  don’t know about the people who lived on Wairau Bar 700 years ago, but one thing is certain – they ate well.

The Bar’s strategic location between ocean, river and lagoon meant it was surrounded by food sources – in the ocean were kahawhai, red cod, dolphin, barracuda, mussels and snapper (interestingly the water was apparently much warmer back then, so although snapper are now rare  this far south they were common all those centuries ago). Stranded whales may not have been eaten, but their bones and teeth would have been valuable materials for making things with.

On the other side of the boulder bank in the lagoons were masses of eel, flounder, mullet, cockles, pipis and whitebait. According to one local story even in the 1940’s the schools of whitebait were so huge that farm horses were too scared to drink from the Opawa River, and farmers had to clear the shoals away with tree branches before the cart horses would go near the water! The Eyles family once caught a quarter of a ton of whitebait in an afternoon, and they were so common locally they were used as pet food and fertilizer. Imagine how many there were 700 years before that.

As well as fish, the lagoons  swarmed with birds of many different species (not all of which are still with us), the river gave access to moa and other birds of the bush that lived inland, and the rocky shoreline would have been rich in seals, which are long gone too.And of course, there were plenty of kuri (dogs) around…

I’m thinking about all of this because we’ve just started excavating a new area, and we’re about to find out a whole lot more about the diet of those people who lived and feasted here 700 years ago. Whereas the first two excavations we have begun are designed to be possible repatriation sites in April, this new one is solely for archaeological exploration, and it looks like it’s going to be a beauty.


Not that you actually have to dig to find the remains of ancient feasts – because the site is so rich and huge (much bigger than we thought – more about that tomorrow) there are pieces of animal bone literally just lying around. Along the edge of the lagoon, where I talked in my first post about material just eroding out of the bank, I found what is probably a seal jawbone just poking out :


Even the path down to our new excavation area has evidence of a midden :


But our new excavation could be the mother-lode of animal remains and discarded artifacts. Even when we’d just taken off the turf there were moa bones right on the surface :

moa-bone-1Once we began excavating, we quickly found evidence of the varied diet of the tupuna of Wairau Bar :

bird-bonesThe piece of moa leg bone is interesting, as it shows signs of having been worked and made ready to be turned into a fish hook :


Obviously they hadn’t got very far in making the hook, but we’re bound to find some of the finished article in this pit – moa bone fish hooks are one of the more common artefacts already found at the site.

Another piece of ancient craftsmanship were a couple of pieces of tubular shell  called Dentalium – a fossil species that made ideal “reels” for necklaces :

dentaliumAnd all of this was within the first few centimetres of digging at Area #4 – the archaeology team plan to excavate down about a metre and a half, so stay tuned for a lot more findings soon!



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