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?
I 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.
A 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.
As 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.