A last minute rush

area-7-82It’s all over…for now.

It is with a heavy heart that I write this not from my shady media tent on-site at Wairau Bar, but from the “real world” of Dunedin.  Sorry there’s been a bit of downtime between posts – after a mad scramble out of Wairau Bar and Blenheim over the weekend I’ve pretty much been asleep for two days solid – it was a full-on three weeks, but what an incredible experience. It’s going to take a while to process everything that happened, but my time at Wairau Bar has been one of the best experiences of my life, that’s for sure.

Apparently there’s an unwritten rule on archaeological digs – kind of a Murphy’s Law –  the best things are always found at the last minute. This was very much the case on  Friday, the last day of excavation, as all kinds of interesting artefacts began to show up. The most surprising were found in Area 1, the first repatriation site that wasn’t supposed to have anything in it but turned out to contain all kinds of important finds. In one corner, completely out of the blue, we were stunned to find a genuine taonga – the remains of a beautiful necklace of whale bone and dolphin teeth :


Wow – now there’s something you don’t see very often – only a handful of artefacts like this have ever been found. Right beside it were the scattered remains of the rest of the necklace – around a hundred dolphin teeth, some of them burnt, each with a tiny perfect hole drilled in it for threading. How did they do that?

dolphin-teeth1I know they made drill-points out of stone for making large holes, but how would you chip a drill-point to be only a couple of mm across, and then use it to drill hundreds of perfect holes in dolphin enamel, which must be pretty tough stuff? I asked a couple of the archaeologists, and they weren’t sure. The people who lived here 700 years ago were obviously superb craftsmen – if anyone has any ideas how to drill through dolphin teeth with stone tools please share! (no conspiracy theorists).


By Friday afternoon, things were really getting frantic. With only a few hours left on the excavation, there was still plenty of work to do. Archaeologists don’t like to leave things half-finished, so all of the excavation pits (by now there were over a dozen small ones) had to be excavated to a certain level, all artefacts measured by laser, bagged, tagged and the surrounding features drawn and photographed.

steve-rick1pit-measure2The site was a hive of activity, as we had plenty of visitors as well.

andy2A new area (or areas – it all got a bit confusing for a non-archaeologist!) had been opened up just down from where we had found the first structure remains – on top of the highest point of land on the site, a mound named Moua by Rangtane.  It seems “The Mound” may have been the centre of the village’s major buildings – we noticed subtle terracing once the grass was cut, and sure enough the new pit seemed to contain traces of another 700-year old structure – this one even bigger and with more typical house features.

area-7-8A row of post holes seemed to mark the wall of a building about 5 metres long.

stick-lineInside it was the remains of a perfect little hearth – a fireplace with no bones or cooking stones, built inside a whare just for warmth on a chilly Wairau Bar night :

hearthhearth-cuAs the team began to excavate the rest of the area around the “house”, artefacts popped up all over the place :

bone-reelfish-hookadze-781As I’ve said before, the aim of this expedition was not to find artefacts, but to find safe repatriation sites and perhaps learn a bit more about how the ancient residents of Wairau Bar lived. Even so, I could tell the archaeologists were quite excited, and the finds gave everyone a boost after a long hot tiring 3-week excavation. The only trouble was we had to go! At about 4pm on Friday, it was tools down, and we all had to face the fact that our expedition was over.

And as for packing up and leaving…well it’s too sad to write about really! Wayne Abbott, who lives on the Bar and was our excellent host, warmed me right at the beginning that “this place gets under your skin” and now that I’ve left I know what he means. I miss it intensely, and of course living in camp with a group of people for that long means you bond – a big hi to everyone from Rangitane, the archaeological team and support crew – miss ya.

I’ll be back tomorrow with my last post of this phase, a photographic odessy to high altitude, plus some conclusions about the main features of the archaeological work.


7 Responses to “A last minute rush”

  1. 1 Annette
    January 28, 2009 at 7:26 pm

    What an interesting 3 weeks it has been. Thanks Quin for keeping us up to date with what has been happening. I have visited your blog daily and have learned heaps.An armchair archaeologist, and a fan of the TV programme Time Team it has been great to follow our very own Time Team.Hope someone is going to put the story of the dig in a book. Great pics too. Thanks once again.

  2. February 2, 2009 at 2:20 pm

    Tena koe Quinn – Even though our time at the Bar has finished it was good to catch up with the blog again. Your photos have really captured the essence of the events that took place and the unique landscape. Kia manawanui e hoa

  3. 3 Lorraine
    February 2, 2009 at 7:56 pm

    He mihi atu ki nga tangata whenua kei Wairau

    My partner and I were visitors to Wairau Bar in the final days of the excavation. Prior to our visit we had been following progress of the excavation on this page. Our anticipation of what we would see, hear, feel and experience kept building so that by the time we left Omaio to travel all the way down to Wairau we were so excited and greatly looking forward to coming to Wairau. What we did experience exceeded anything that we could possibly imagine. The people we meet, the hospitality we received, the sights we saw, Wairau Bar was definitely a once-in-a-lifetime experience that Willy and I and our daughters will never forget. Many thanks to Wayne and his family and Richard for allowing us come onto Wairau. Many thanks always to Richard, Chris and the team from Otago for supporting our daughters in their endeavours to become archaeologists.

    Quin, your commentaries and photos posted everyday were simply fabulous, a joy to read and view and eagerly sought everyday until our arrival.

    Thank you to everyone that we had the pleasure of meeting during our stay and thank you all for sharing your stories and history with us.

    Na Lorraine, Willy, Hirere and Mika

  4. 4 Tom Higham
    February 21, 2009 at 9:36 pm

    Thanks for posting these wonderful pictures and interesting commentary. Just never thought I’d see this happening for a long time. It’s great, the whole thing. Wish I’d have been able to visit and see this myself!
    Oxford UK

  5. March 2, 2009 at 3:56 am

    Just passing by.Btw, your website have great content!

    Making Money $150 An Hour

  6. 6 Katarena Williams
    April 18, 2009 at 1:56 pm

    Tena Koe Quin,
    “”The accosted Flax slave. Aue!!!!”” It was nice to meet you. Thank you for sharing with us harakeke ladies the korero about the Moa, the hangi pit, and your experiences on our tupuna’s land. Ka pai you! My father’s mother would tell us that our Tupuna had been stolen and we had grown up with this all our lives. Knowing that we have returned many of them back to the bar as is possible at this point in time, feels right.To know they are back in their whenua, and to have participated in them being returned there, feels amzingly exhilerating.One of our rangatahi when interviewed said,”the coolest thing about this whole trip is that even if you have been dead for 700 years there are family members who still love and care about you even though they have never seen you or met you.” Now this is KOOL.

  7. April 26, 2009 at 7:56 pm

    Kia ora e hoa

    What an awesome dedication page. I was absolutely thrilled by the entire trip, and your input on this site has flooded me with memories. Thanks for the photos, and this website. It is a true credit to Rangitane people.

    Jeremy MacLeod (one of the speakers)

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