You’re an archaeologist? Really?

I wanted to title this blog ‘How to Bluff Your Way in Archaeology’ but that would almost be plagiarism, but I am happy to admit to being inspired by the small and very funny book by Paul Bahn ‘Bluff Your Way in Archaeology’. As you read you may well think I have lost the plot in my little lockdown world, this is not the case (well, not entirely). The following is a tongue-in-cheek consideration (I am basically taking the mick) of the archaeological profession and it is not intended to offend. After all, if you can’t laugh at yourself then who can you laugh at. If you do get offended easily and do take your profession seriously then I would suggest stop here and read no more…

Lets begin at the outset in saying that to be an archaeologist is to be an accomplished bluffer. I can already hear the sharp intakes of breath as archaeologists around the world start formulating their arguments, some will even be nicely presented with bullet points and the occasional funny quote (only ever occasional because it is a serious subject, after all…) and which won’t necessarily be funny to the average person but instead will demonstrate how clever the speaker is.

Now let me qualify that first statement with my own presentation duly littered with funny quotes and memes, (I do this because I can, this is my blog…).

In the majority of cases every archaeologist begins their career as a student and it is here where our life long pattern of bluffing is established. A student must effectively bluff his or her way through numerous years of study, convincing lecturers, Professors and supervisors that they have read the book list, they thoroughly understand what theoretical archaeology is and they can be trusted with a trowel at the next training dig. The universities are themselves places where the student can learn from the best bluffers in the profession.

Lecturers and other academic staff are so good at bluffing that it is almost impossible to tell they are doing it, in fact I am sure they’re not even aware of doing it. On a daily basis they manage to convince students and those not of their pay grade that they actually know stuff when in fact they had only just read up on the subject the night before (I speak from personal experience here…). The senior members of staff are the best bluffers as having already laid the foundations of a good bluff they merely need rest on their laurels watching with glee as others attempt to climb that mountain.

Beyond the university walls there are generally speaking three types of archaeologists. The professional archaeologist (white collar, slightly better paid, tied to the spreadsheet type) who can also lay claim to be a professional bluffer. The need in this day and age to tender for jobs, apply for grants and funds means that in order to make some form of career out of that university degree one’s projects are always ‘crucial to our understanding’ or ‘vital in furthering our knowledge’. Classic bluffer language meant to impress those with the cheque books.

The second type heavily rely on the first for their job, they are the field archaeologists. Their unique take on the bluff begins the moment they start working, whether it is bluffing their way around a piece of equipment they’ve never actually used before or bluffing the boss that it’s not a fresh break/they haven’t been slacking its just a very complicated site or simply bluffing friends and family about how interesting their job is…

Field archaeologists do precisely what it says on the tin, they work in the field digging or surveying archaeological sites. When seen in public they may be mistaken for the local homeless, excavation is not conducive to cleanliness and they wear their dirt with pride. A good bluffer on excavation will always comment on how straight (or not) other diggers trench walls (known as sections) are, or quite literally lose their tempers when someone walks on their newly cleaned surface. The latter is a big no-no and an experienced bluffer will know to ask first if it is okay to enter a trench – earning them much needed brownie points.

The third group are the theoretical archaeologists (they are also sometimes attached to universities mainly so the university can bluff everyone into thinking how academic and clever THEY are). This type has taken the role of devil’s advocate and run with it so far that even the devil has lost sight of the objective. In essence they do not or will not obtain their own material/data so in order to cover up their own inadequacies they question the validity of everyone else’s work. So they ask questions such as how well was the site excavated? Is the sample representative? They publish large quantities of material usually collating and condensing everyone else’s hard won data. This type can be recognised by the excessive use of jargon and large words that mean very little; a heavy reliance on mathematical equations and complicated diagrams. All of which are smoke and mirrors designed to hide their own inadequacies.

All of this is fine and dandy but what are the practical aspects of bluffing your way in archaeology? Well in truth this can be boiled down into two points – the way you look and your attitude…get these right and no one will know you don’t have that degree.

What does an archaeologist look like? This will depend slightly on gender and age – beards are common as are spectacles; a field archaeologist will generally have a very basic wardrobe with sturdy footwear; a ruddy complexion with a touch of sun/wind burn adds to the authenticity. When on a dig be sure to wear the same t-shirt for at least three days in row. Newbies are easily spotted (and derided) based on their cleanliness and the size of their trowel – a good bluffer would have ensured that their trowel was suitably worn down prior to arriving at the dig. The more academic archaeologists are usually the bespectacled type in clothing that wasn’t even trendy in their grandparents day. They often looked confused when approached by the enthusiastic student and will be carrying a collection of papers with hastily scribbled notes that mean nothing to anyone who glances that way. This type of bluffer will always be in an immense hurry and when asked to do something will always forget citing how busy they are and they’re so sorry they’ll get onto it straight away – they don’t…

If at anytime you are asked to contribute to a conversation here are a few things to remember –

*When talking to anyone who knows nothing about archaeology and excavation it is important to emphasise that it is the processing and analysing of the data collected which takes the longest amount of time – the digging is but a small part of a larger picture.

*Desirory comments about the latest Daily Mail or BBC archaeology headline is acceptable in all circumstances. As is wondering out loud who their source of information was and why do they not employ a journo with some archaeological knowledge.

obviously not a real headline…but not too far off…

*In any conversation that focuses on individual treasures (particularly when questions of monetary value arise) it is important to let everyone know that you do not approve – a loud sigh usually works well – before launching into a lecture on how archaeologists dig not to find things but to find things out. At which point it is also acceptable to walk away muttering about context…

*When asked why you do archaeology be sure to smile and then tell a story about how as young child you found an interesting flint arrowhead (or whatever is appropriate to you) and so begun your life long passion for the subject. A really good bluffer will be able to produce said arrowhead from their pocket with a whimsical smile. Apart form this good bluffers can talk endlessly about their passion for the subject (don’t forget to get really animated) and how they long to contribute to our understanding of the past. Because lets not forget no one does archaeology to get rich.

*You must at all times pour unadulterated scorn on any who ask about the monetary value of an object and show absolute contempt for ‘treasure hunters’ and the History Channel – I may have repeated myself here…

*Finally, a really good bluffer will be found at the pub – if you’re in the UK – otherwise anywhere there is a plentiful supply of alcohol, preferably cheap…

A good bluffer will already know this and will be happy to point it out to newbies on site…

There is so much more I could wax lyrical about regarding bluffing your way in archaeology (thank you Mr Bahn) but I won’t (phew!) Please do remember that this is my own feeble attempt to get a laugh and if I have failed and you do find yourself a little bit offended perhaps a pint at the pub might help – after lockdown that is…stay safe.

Land Use and Settlement in the Upper Waitemata – Part Two

In this the second part of my small study of land use and settlement in the Upper Waitemata we are staying within the area defined in part one – from Island Bay to Kendall’s Bay, keeping within the coastal strip.  This part will take a look at the early colonial/settler history of the area, with the emphasis being on the early or pre-WWII.  After this point in time there is plenty of written records and several good books written on the history of Birkenhead and I have no desire to rehash already well-known information.

In 1769 Captain James Cook sailed through the Hauraki Gulf past Waiheke Island and made a note that there might be sheltered harbours to the west.  The only other Europeans around at the end of the eighteenth century were whalers and as of yet no records have been found of any exploration into the upper Waitemata.  It appears that it is not until 1820 that Europeans began to show an interest in this sheltered inland harbour. 

Reverend Samuel Marsden is often credited with being the first to explore the area, in his diaries he states that he left the HMS Coromandel at Waiheke and was guided by Te Morenga to Riverhead where he then travelled overland to the Kaipara River – a route travelled by Maori for centuries.

During the next twenty years there were undoubtedly forays by other Europeans into the Waitemata, perhaps looking for timber and other such opportunities however their stories are as yet unknown.  In 1840 the HMS Herald was the next major ship to visit the Waitemata, onboard was the Lieutenant Governor of NZ Hobson and the Surveyor General Felton Matthew.  They spent the next two weeks exploring the harbour – Herald Island is named after the ship and of course Hobsonville after the Governor who had initially favoured the place as the capital of New Zealand.

Slightly further afield from our area of study there are records from around this time which make a note of sailors rowing up Hellyers Creek to a place called The Lagoon to restock their freshwater supplies, however, “it has also been recorded that in 1841 a Mr Hellyer, lived on the bank of the creek which now bears his name.  He brewed beer which no doubt was a great incentive to those earlier seamen who rowed up the harbour…”

An early but seriously water worn pipe end found on the beach at Kendall’s Bay – it is easy to imagine the early sailor who dropped their pipe overboard as they sailed up the Waitemata.

In 1841 our area of study was part of a large land purchase called the Mahurangi Block, it extended from Takapuna/Devonport to Te Arai and encompassed the majority of the present-day North Shore. The first parcels of land to be auctioned in 1844 were between Northcote and Lake Pupuke. Much of the early purchases in the Birkenhead area were part of a land speculation trend without the land being settled or farmed.  Significant chunks of land sold were the area from Rangitira Rd/Beach Rd to Soldiers Bay which was sold to William Brown in 1845 and the area from Balmain and Domain Rds to the shore encompassing one hundred and ten acres being sold to a James Woolly also in 1845.  However, it does not seem that either of them actually lived here.  It was common practice for land to bought speculatively and sold on in smaller parcels to settlers fresh off the boat so to speak, such as the ‘Tramway Company’ a land development company who bought large tracts of land in what is now Birkenhead.

The earliest settlers of the Birkenhead area who are known were Henry Hawkins, Hugh McCrum, John Creamer, Joseph Hill, James Fitzpatrick and William Bradney.  All of whom appeared to have had a go at farming but little else is known about them.

Unfortunately, those early settlers who chose the Birkenhead area were in for a hard time, as mentioned in part one the soil was not conducive to farming in the traditional sense.  Settlement was a rather slow process particularly when compared to other parts of the North Shore and Auckland.  Not surprising when faced with the prospect of clearing the bush before they could even build themselves a dwelling.  Many of the early dwellings were simple one room nikau whares, constructed of sod walls with a raupo or nikau thatched roof.  As they cleared the bush often deposits of kauri gum would be found and sold ensuring a source of income. 

A reconstructed nikau/ raupo whare at Howick Historical Village – a living history museum in east Auckland.
Lumps of kauri gum found at Kendall’s Bay.

Even though most of these early farmers only managed a subsistence living, there were the occasional success story.  Birkenhead became quite well known for its fruit orchards, the first of which was established by Henry Hawkins.  There are two differing accounts as to where Hawkins had his orchard, some maintain it was near Soldiers Bay and others say it was on the ridge where Birkenhead Ave now runs.  It is of course possible that both are correct, one of the earliest estates to be subdivided and sold was the Balmain Estate (also known as the Balmain Township) which extended over a much wider area than just the Balmain Rd of today.  The steep sided valley of Soldiers Bay would appear to not be conducive to a fruit orchard, the thick kauri groves would have been quite a hindrance to say the least.  However, an advertisement in the local paper for 1855 has H J Hawkins selling 700 fruit trees from his farm at The Glen, Soldiers Bay. Later in 1870-71 Hawkins is recorded as owning allotment two and three in Birkenhead – this is situated on the ridge which is now Birkenhead Ave. 

Another early settler is mentioned in relation to a dwelling on a map dated to 1849, the house was owned by a John Crisp and was situated close to what is now Fitzpatrick Bay. Unfortunately, I have been unable to corroborate this.

According to a local history study of Island Bay and surroundings (Island Bay. A Brief History) there is an 1844 map which shows a dwelling occupied by a Mr George Skey. The bottom part of the block was developed into a small farm and sold as a going concern around 1849.  It had its own jetty and a farm boundary ditch, unfortunately I have been unable to track down this map to verify this information and the area where the farm is said to be (and relatively well preserved) is part of the Muriel Fisher Reserve which is currently closed due to kauri dieback.  Having said that, it is definitely something to consider and requires further investigation. 

Soldiers Bay at low tide – the tree covered area to the left is part of the Muriel Fisher Reserve and the probable site of allotment 148.

Whilst the 1880-81 electoral roll lists a small block (allotment 148 – a trapezoidal block which ran from what is now Rangitira Rd to the western edge of Soldiers Bay) of twenty-three acres owned by a Mr Clement Partridge who is described as a settler.  The area of Island Bay was one of those places where early land sales were of the speculative kind.  It wasn’t until the “Tramway Company”, a land development company, bought large tracts of land in the Birkenhead area including Island Bay, that small dwellings began to appear. Like many of the bays in the area, Island Bay was a summer place with the majority of dwellings being bach’s and only a handful were occupied all year round.  The road began as a dirt track mostly used by gumdiggers and was previously known as Victoria Rd West prior to 1913.

What’s in a Name?

Placenames often hold clues as to the early settlement of an area and its changing history.  In part one we already looked at some of the Maori names for places and how they relate to not only how the landscape was used but also how the people saw themselves within their world.  For Europeans the naming of places can be a lot more prosaic and, in some cases, the reason for the name is obvious such as Island Bay, so named for the small island at the end of the road which was once separated from the mainland and only accessed at low tide via stepping stones. 

The island after which Island Bay is so named…

Others, however, are much more difficult to ascertain – Kendall Bay is obviously a European name but at this point in time there are no records of anyone with the name of Kendall after whom the bay was so named.  One possibility is that Kendall may be the name of gumdigger or gum buyer situated at the bay – gumdigger camps were often situated at the head of sheltered gullies near fresh water and near to the coast.  Kendall Bay satisfies all of these requirements.  Interestingly, the bay is also known locally as Shark Bay, undoubtedly because of the shark fishing grounds exploited by Maori and later Europeans.

Kendall’s Bay or Shark Bay on a foggy morning.

Interestingly, Kauri Point is the one placename not to change and to be consistently included in the majority of maps dating back to 1842 and up to the present day.  It would be a fair guess to say the name came about as a result of the large kauri stands which would have been easily visible to the first people to sail up the harbour.

Names have also changed through time or have been forgotten.  The Upper Waitemata was once called Sandy Bay on a nautical chart from 1841; another early map refers to Pt Shortland (1842), the headland where the Naval Base currently is; on other maps the bay we know today as Onetaunga Bay was once called Quarryman’s Bay.  

Quarryman’s Bay, like Brick Bay further up the harbour, refer to the early industrial endeavours of the area’s inhabitants.  Both quarrying and brickmaking were popular industries in a land where traditional farming was problematic.  One of the occupations of a potential early settler in the area was brickmaker (see below).

Just a few of the many bricks found on the beach at Fitzpatrick’s Bay – possibly either as a result of a small brick making industry or as a result of the demolition of the house on the hill which may have had a brick chimney.

Soldiers Bay is an interesting case of a name that has been around for a long time but its origins are hazy.  The earliest mention that I have been able to track down is dated to a map of 1863.  Today the stream that runs down from the high ground and empties into Soldiers Bay would have been a lot less silted up and most likely navigable by waka or rowboat as far as the present-day carpark.  Today there is a causeway which joins the bottom of Balmain Rd to the reserve which would not have been there in the early days.  This causeway was most likely constructed in the early twentieth century when a caretakes lived at the end of the reserve above Fitzpatrick’s Bay.

The modern causeway which now links Kauri Point Domain to the bottom of Balmain Rd – there are oral histories which tell of access to the beaches being further up the valley.

None of which gives us any clue as to why Soldier’s Bay is so named…it has been suggested that the bay gained its name as a result of an encampment of militia during the unsettled times of the mid-1800s.  At the time, Hone Heke was ‘making life unpleasant’ for settlers in the north, particularly the Hokianga, and many had moved south to take up land in Birkenhead.  To allay the fears of the settlers a contingent of soldiers may have been positioned in various places…hence Soldiers Bay.  As mentioned before the stream would have been navigable to the bottom of present-day Balmain Rd, just before that though there is a flat spur which would have provided a good position for an encampment, with a clear view of the harbour and a fresh water supply.

The final placename to consider is that of Fitzpatrick’s Bay, this small sandy bay is today part of the Kauri Point Domain and is a popular recreational reserve for the local area.  There are two possible people responsible for naming of the Bay – Charles Fitzpatrick or James Fitzpatrick. 

An examination of Jury Lists and Electoral Rolls shows that a James Fitzpatrick arrived on the Jane Gifford in 1842 with his wife and daughter.  The Jury List of 1842-57 lists James as living on the North Shore as a brickmaker; in the 1850s and 1860s he was still living on the North Shore but was now a farmer and a freeholder.  Whether or not he was actually living in the Birkenhead area is difficult to say; Birkenhead itself was not so named until 1863 and up until that point there was very little distinction between areas.  In the 1870-71 electoral roll James was listed as residing in Takapuna, allotment 15 – a survey of the cadastral maps of 1868 shows that allotment 15 is in fact in Northcote (Takapuna refers to Takapuna Parish of which included todays Takapuna, Birkenhead, Northcote, Hillcrest, Birkdale, Beachhaven and so on).  In 1890, James was still in the Takapuna Parish but was now listed as a gumdigger.

Photo of gumdiggers outside a raupo whare on the Manukau Pennisula ca 1891 (from Auckland Libaries heritage Collections 07064)

Charles Fitzpatrick only appears twice in the lists; first in 1867 and as having a freehold land and house at Kauri Point however by 1890 he had moved to Morrinsville.  Whilst only Charles is listed specifically as living in our area of study and he would appear to be the best option for the naming of Fitzpatrick Bay it is still not possible to rule out James. 

Fun in the Sun

The study area today is made up of three different zones – residential (Island Bay), defence (Onetaunga Bay) and recreational (Fitzpatrick Bay, Soldiers Bay and Kendall Bay).  In 1888 Governor William Jervois permanently reserved for the purpose of recreation 133 acres of land (allotment 162 and 163) in the Parish of Takapuna.  It had been his hope that the area was turned into a national park, a place of tranquillity for Aucklanders. This was the area from Kendall Bay to the eastern end of Fitzpatrick Bay.  In 1913 the Harbour Board acquired a further forty-two acres which included Kauri Point (allotment 164) which had previously been owned by Sir John Logan Campbell until his death in 1912.  Further to this the area around Fitzpatrick and Soldiers Bay were then added to the park in 1916.  An article in the New Zeland Herald in 1916 stated that the reserve had a fine waterfront and had in the past had been much used as a camping and picnic ground.  It also mentions a ‘good five roomed house’, our first mention of what was to be known as the caretakers’ house.

Photo of the proposed plan for a park at Kauri Point dated to 1913.

 An article from 1900 also in the New Zealand Herald also mentions how the Kauri Point Domain board had agreed to allow campers for a small fee.  Interestingly they also denied a request for funds for a wharf.  Reading through multiple articles the request for a wharf in the area is one which is constantly brought up, eventually a wharf was constructed but not at Fitzpatrick’s or Soldiers Bay but at Onetaunga Bay and it was paid for and built without the help of the board or their funds.

The grassy area at Fitzpatrick’s used by campers since the 1900s if not earlier.

This marked a new era for this inner harbour landscape; each of the small bays were transformed in the summer months as families from the city side would spend the warmer days living under canvas. In the 1920s and 1930s there were seven or eight families holidaying at Kendall Bay, their camp was at the western end of the bay where there is a level space and a freshwater stream.  At Fitzpatrick’s the camp site was at the northern end of the bay on the grassy area above the beach.  Unlike elsewhere this part of the reserve was owned by the Birkenhead Borough Council from 1929 who improved it and put in place a caretaker. 

The only recorded caretaker was a William Henry Rickwood who lived in small house with his family on the hill above Fitzpatricks.  Oral histories record how Williams’ wife would keep a small store selling sweets, soft drinks and other useful supplies.  There was also a ‘ponga-house’ where Mrs Rickwood would provide hot water and often sold tea and scones to the visitors.  There is very little that remains of this house today, just a level area with an overgrown collection of European garden plants such as figs and a rambling rose.  However, there is evidence of both the campers and the caretakers in form of the rubbish they were throwing away.  Often along the bay sherds of old ceramics dating from the late 1800s to the mid-1930s can be found, undoubtedly there is a European midden that has eroded onto the beach. 

As well as the tent sites at Kendall Bay, there were other camping places, near the wharf at Onetaunga Bay and at Fitzpatricks bay which is the beach at the present Kauri Point Domain.  Pre-World War Two and back through the Depression years, tents appeared each summer for a back-to-nature holiday by bush and sea.  Much of the housework was left behind at home and there was no problem keeping the children amused. There were good sandy beaches and the harbour water was clear and clean in those days before the march of suburbia. (From a pamphlet of remembrances celebrating twenty years of Kauri Point Centennial Park, available in the Birkenhead Library).

Island Bay whilst listed as residential today was up until the construction of the Harbour Bridge mainly a summer town, full of bachs occupied only in the summer by families from across the water in the city. Unlike the other bays the land around Island Bay was owned by a land development company, being subsequently subdivided and sold off.  However, because of issues of transport and roads only a few of the blocks were permanently occupied.  Newspapers from the early 1900s often have articles describing summer outings by the Ponsonby Yacht Club to Soldiers Bay and area. 

Defence

A final chapter in the history of land use in our area is that of defence.  Just prior to the Second World War in 1935 ninety acres of the Kauri Point Domain was taken for defence purposes.  The area of Onetaunga Bay (once Quarryman’s Bay) was developed for a storage facility for naval armaments.  This unfortunately put paid to those carefree summer campers who no longer came in the large numbers, the caretaker at Fitzpatrick’s was still Mr Rickwood in 1938, as listed in the Wises Directory, but with the outbreak of WWII everything changed.

In 1942 the Americans had arrived in response to the Japanese threat in the South Pacific. Kauri Point Domain, Fitzpatrick’s bay included, were given over to the Americans and a large number of powder magazines were built.  There are several unusual features on the beach at Fitzpatrick’s Bay, which may relate to these days.

After the war the Domain reverted to being parkland but never again were campers allowed back to any of the bays.  Today the Naval depot forms a large wedge between Kauri Point Domain and Kauri Point Centennial Park.

The wedge of buildings and land is the naval depot – Kauri Point Domain is to the top and Kauri Point Centennial Park the dark area to bottom and along.

Sources

McClure M (1987) ‘The Story of Birkenhead’

Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections

‘Island Bay – A Brief History’ – unknown author.

‘Birkenhead The Kauri Suburb’

Papers Past – New Zealand

Electoral Rolls – Ancestry.com

‘Kauri Point Centennial Park Management Plan’ Birkenhead City Council 1989.

‘North Shore Heritage. A Thematic Review Report’ Auckland City Council 2011.

Early Land Use and Settlement on the Upper Waitemata – A Case Study – part one

For the last five years or so I have been walking the ever-faithful Brad the Dog to a small but perfectly formed bay known locally as Fitzpatrick’s. During this time, I have found a variety of interesting objects on the beach, some have obviously been washed in and others have eroded out of the beach head and sand. I also noticed a few interesting humps and bumps and well that was it, my curiosity was well and truly piqued.

Multiple questions kept my mind occupied, such as, who was Fitzpatrick? Who lived in the house on the hill of which only humps, bumps and a rambling rose remained? Why do I keep finding ceramics on the beach? And what about the pre-colonial settlement of the area? As I began to research it became necessary to expand the overall area of interest to include the bays east of Fitzpatrick’s – Onetaunga Bay and Kendall’s Bay – and the bays west – Soldiers Bay and Island Bay – in order to get a fuller picture.

For the purpose of this article there are two distinct early phases of settlement and use of the area – the Maori pre-colonial and the early colonial up to 1900 – which will be the focus of this article and the next (part two). Later occupation of the area can be divided by the World Wars particularly the second World War and the construction of the Harbour Bridge which indelibly changed the face of the North Shore. But first let’s consider the bare essence of the area, without the human factor muddying the waters.

The Geology and all that Natural Stuff…

The area with Fitzpatrick’s Bay at its centre is situated on the north side of the Waitemata Harbour in the suburb of Birkenhead. Geologically speaking the Waitemata Harbour is a drowned late Pleistocene valley whose natural rock type is sandstone and mudstone. It is highly susceptible to coastal erosion, often resulting in steep sided promontories that continue to crumble particularly after heavy rain.

The current environment is one of invasive pine trees and impenetrable scrub bush although originally the hills behind the beaches were once thick with kauri, pohutakawa and other natives (small stands still survive in places). The presence of kauri caused the soil to be nutrient poor and therefore not the best for horticulture, unlike the landscapes on the opposite side of the harbour with its rich volcanic soils ideal for horticulture and therefore human settlement. However, the rich waters of the Waitemata made up for this deficiency particularly for the early inhabitants. On the southern edges of the Waitemata Harbour and opposite Kendall’s Bay is Meola Reef, also known as Te Tokaroa Reef – the area is well known to marine biologists as a shark spawning ground, here female sharks leave their young to fend for themselves in the relative safety of the inland harbour.

In addition to shark there are many other species of fish which frequent the harbour, such snapper, flounder and yellow-eyed mullet. The foreshore also provides an abundance of shell fish, predominately in the form of pipis, cockles and rock oysters.

The Maori

The Maori story of this part of Auckland differs considerably from other parts. The central area of Tamaki Makarau with its fertile volcanic cones was ideally suited to horticulture and thus heavily settled. The northern side of the inner Waitemata Harbour was not so suited to horticulture, the vast kauri forests having depleted the already thin soils of nutrients. So how was this part of Tamaki Makarau utilised by the Maori?

Our understanding of the settlement and subsistence patterns of this pre-Treaty of Waitangi time is restricted to the several defended promontories (pa) and the many shell middens which can be found around the shoreline.

Colonel Boscawen’s hand drawn map of 1899 to accompany his photos taken at the same time. He was very interested in Maori settlement and was a prolific photographer.

The Pa

The term pa is taken to mean any settlement that consists of defensive earthworks such as banks and ditches. The pa in our area are mainly confined to the steep sided promontories that are usually adjacent to a protected beach where waka were able to land safely. The most well-known is Kauri Point or Te Matarae A Mana, named for Manaoterangi a chief of the Ngati Kawerau who flourished in this area from around 1720-1790. It is also the only pa to have any archaeological excavations undertaken (in response to the possible threat of the construction of a second harbour crossing, the first having completely destroyed Onewa Pa on Stokes Point in Northcote).

Te Matarae A Mana (Kauri Point) from the beach below.

These excavations were undertaken by Janet Davidson in 1971 and consisted of a total of seven test pits in four areas. In the 1990 report of the excavation Davidson emphasises the strategic importance of the headland describing the approach from the landward side as being along a narrow and winding ridge which widens to become a flat-topped headland. The site has natural defences in the form of a steep scarp to the southern side which is enhanced by two incomplete ditches. The excavations and subsequent finds revealed that even given its impressive position the site was only used for a limited time. The middens found in three of the four areas produced well-preserved fish bone – but not much in terms of quantity; a single dog bone; pipi and cockle shell – the principal species, which was to be expected; as well as mussel and oyster shells. Interestingly, there were a large number of slipper shells whose flesh may have used as bait for fishing. The middens themselves were quite small and corresponded with the lack of structures found on the headland.

This unassuming dent in the ground is the remains of one of Davidson’s excavation pits.

“In view of the apparently strategic location, this lack of evidence of prolonged or repeated occupation was surprising” (Davidson J 1990 ‘Test Excavations on the Headland Pa at Kauri Point, Birkenhead, Auckland in 1971’)

This was very different from other pa sites in Auckland and Davidson concluded that the headland had been constructed by people who visited the adjacent bay for seasonal fishing and that most of the activities happened in the bay below. The pa therefore may have had a more esoteric function such as the proclamation of the Kawerau Chiefs’ mana, an assertion of the group’s rights to the area and ultimately as a ‘just in case’ need for defence.

The photos below are a selection from Te Matarae – the first shows the overgrown nature of the eastern ditch; the second is of the interior which is flat to sloping; the third whilst not very clear is the remains of midden; the fourth is the view from the top out towards Auckland City and finally the last looks down onto Kendall’s Bay below.

According to the “Cultural Heritage Inventory” published by North Shore City Council in June 1994 there are two further pa in the vicinity of Kauri Point. One was presumed to be located within the grounds of the Naval Base which sits in the middle of our research area and is inaccessible for security reasons. In 1899 a Colonel Boscawen did a rough drawing of the area to accompanying six photos he took. On the map he noted this particular pa which appears to be a major headland pa, was far greater in size than Te Matarae A Mana (Kauri Point).  However, on closer inspection of Col Boscawen’s photos and map, it may be possible that this larger pa with its large ditches may not be in the Navy compound but further to the west and near to Soldiers Bay.  Over a two-day period I attempted to prove or disprove this idea but the dense bush in the area was a significant issue. In addition, aerial photos have shown that even if the site was in the Naval base much of it would have been destroyed during the development of the land for the base.  So as of now the issue is still unresolved…

Below are Col Boscawen photos of the various sites – 1. Te Matarae form landward – the ditches are faintly visible across the neck of the promontory. 2. Te Matarae from up on the hill which is now part of the Naval Base and assumed to be the pa site of Maunganui. 3. On Boscawen’s map this is labelled photo 5 and could be either Fitzpatrick Bay or Onetaunga Bay. 4. A view of the headland labelled photo 4 on the Boscawen’s map which is labelled as a Maori pa site and has two ditches drawn in. Once again this may be either at the eastern end of Fitzpatrick Bay or the headland on the Naval Base. 5. This headland at the western end of the beach as seen in number 3.

The second pa recorded is named as Maunganui and according to the “Inventory” Janet Davidson is thought to have identified ‘part of the Pa ditch in scrub just south and east of the trig at the corner of Onetaunga Road and the road to the Naval Base’. The general assumption is that it is situated on the ridge on which the Onetaunga trig is located, but there is still some doubt as later developments may have caused the landscape to take on forms which deceive the eye.  It is interesting to note that Col Boscawen did not include this pa on his map of 1899, a site he would have been aware of, unless of course the large pa mentioned above was in fact Maunganui and this has become a case of mistaken identity.

Beyond Kauri Point and past Fitzpatrick’s are two further pa, one south of Island Bay and the second at Island Bay. The first is situated on top of a cliff about half way between Soldiers Bay and Island Bay. It has been recorded as consisting of a ten-metre square flat area with a small terrace forming the internal area of the Pa. There is ditch on the landward side whilst the other sides are formed by steep cliff faces or slopes.

A grassy reserve above Island Bay – may be the remnants of terracing associated with the above mentioned pa.

The photos below are of Island Bay – here a small promontory pa is joined today by a modern carpark which is reclaimed land. The pa itself has been extremely modified with the addition of concrete paths, a wharf and toilet block. The last photo shows the promontory in profile looking west.

The pa at Island Bay is situated on top of the island itself and it is approximately 15 metres by 20 metres in size; middens can be discerned on the northern and western sides.  The middens appear to dominated by cockle shell, pipi and oyster. When last surveyed, charcoal, hangi stones and obsidian were also noted. It has been noted that the top of the island consists of some terracing which are not obvious until seen in profile.

The midden at Island Bay on the eastern edge of the promontory – now very badly eroded – the white flecks are shell.

The Middens

Already mentioned above is the Island Bay Pa midden, and in addition there are recorded middens at Kauri Point Domain and Soldiers Bay. The Kauri Point midden is regarded as the largest in the area and situated at the southern end of the Domain and is noticeable as a result of a stormwater drain cutting through it. Today grass has almost obliterated the view of the midden and it does appear to have eroded away quite a bit. However, previous surveys have found it to be three metres long and one metre high; three layers of shell have been discerned each separated by layers of sand and clay mix. Apart from cockle, pipi and scallop shells, hangi stones and charcoal are also present. Waterworn hangi stones are often to be seen on the beach, giving further emphasis to the issues of coastal erosion.

A midden eroding out onto the path just above the beach at Kendall’s Bay at the foot of Te Matarae/Kauri Point.

The midden at Soldiers Bay is situated on the small beach beyond the current mangroves. It has suffered much from erosion and when last surveyed was two metres long and spread over a height of three and half metres. Opposite and nearby are a further two smaller middens. In 1899 Colonel Boscawen drew a map to accompany half a dozen photos he took of the area. On this map he mentions the presence of ‘pipi shell mounds’ at the edge of a bay he called Quarryman’s Bay, which appears to be the combined bays of Soldiers Bay and Fitzpatrick’s Bay, and correspond with what can be seen today.

“The majority of the middens revisited are located in bays sheltered from the southerly winds…As for the pa, they are located on low cliff tips and are close to the deeper waters of the Upper Waitemata Harbour. They also have strategic views along prime fishing waters and are located along a major access route to the Kaipara Harbour located on the west coast.” (‘Archaeological Sites of Birkenhead’ by Richard Jennings in “Cultural Heritage Inventory” North Shore City Council June 1994)

Other Evidence

Other archaeological features which may be indicative of the Maori use of the area include a range of pits and terraces recorded at various places. Unfortunately, the later expansive development of the area means that much of the evidence has been destroyed, or what is being recorded may instead be the result of such development. The previously mentioned Colonel Boscawen also mentioned on his hand drawn map the presence of ‘fairly good soil, has appearance of old Maori cultivation’ in the area near to Quarryman’s Bay. A closer inspection of the beach area below Te Matarae revealed two possible house platforms above the high tide line and close to the cliff edge, these are hidden today by extensive regrowth and are not obvious from the beach. Each platform is roughly 5m x 12m.

Although hard to see in a photo this flat area is one of two which are visible in the undergrowth at the beach edge below Te Matarae/Kauri Point. They measure approximately seven metres in width and twelve metres in length.

In addition to the actual archaeological sites there are two other sources of information which may serve to fill in a few of the gaps – beach finds (random artefacts found on the beaches of the area concerned) and oral tradition.

Below are selection of beach finds dating from this period – these were found mostly on Fitzpatrick’s Bay, Onetaunga Bay and Soldiers Bay. Please note that at no time did I or anyone else from whom I received information on these artefacts dig them up; they were found simply by eye on the foreshore below the tide line. What they can tell us though is that Maori were active in the area and had wide ranging contacts (the obsidian); the sinkers are indicative of a community taking advantage of the marine resources; the adze (and the pieces of adze) are suggestive of woodworking; and already mentioned are the hangi stones found in the tidal area as a result of erosion.

The last five photos are of artefacts found by a fellow dog walker who has kindly allowed me to photograph his finds. It should also be noted that he has found a broken adze head (used in wood working) and several other stone flakes. These items have been donated to the Auckland Museum and are undergoing processing as new acquisitions.

Our knowledge of Maori history prior to the arrival of the Europeans is based upon the rich oral histories passed down through the generations and here on the Waitemata this is no different. The name Waitemata can be translated as ‘the waters of the Te Mata’ – the reason for the name can be found in the oral history of the region. Some traditions tell of the canoe Te Arawa which arrived in Tamaki under Tamate Kapua. It was he who gave Tamaki its mauri or soul by placing a sacred rock from Hawaiki on the island called Te Mata (known today as Boat Rock which is just above the harbour bridge). It was the mauri was called Te Mata – hence the name, Waitemata. Often before a fishing expedition was undertaken, a carved sinker would be taken to Te Mata and a karakia said then the sinker was hung on the front of the waka. In Nagti Whatua tradition the first fish caught in the season would be used as an offering and placed on the rock called Te Mata.

The first hapu to live on the North Shore were the Kawerau with their main centres being in the Takapuna/Devonport area where land was easier to cultivate. The coastal area of the Waitemata appear to be less well populated but that is not to say no less important. Perhaps the site most well known in our area of concern is Te Matarae a Mana or Kauri Point. In the late 1700s the Waiohua and the Ngati Whatua were at war for the occupation of Tamaki. A great number of battles were fought with many chiefs being killed including Tamaki Kiwi. According to Maori history, the site was spared by the Nagti Whatua during their conquest of Tamaki because the chief Te Mana asked for protection from Tuperiri, one of the leaders of the conquest. Te Mana eventually died an old man in 1790, passing on the custodianship of Te Matarae and his people to Tuperiri.

However, this was not the end of the story – the son of Te Mana, Takarau, joined a large war party heading north against the Nga Puhi. The raid was successful and many Nga Puhi chiefs were killed. But in 1821 when Hongi Hika (Nga Puhi) returned from England he brought with him muskets and invaded Tamaki with devastating effect. Takarau was away at the time and so was spared; his people fared less well and those that could escaped into the hinterland, hiding in the bush until the 1830s, when a small contingent reoccupied Te Matarae. On the 13th of April 1841 all of the land in our area and beyond was sold as part of huge parcel of land, referred to as the Mahurangi Block.

Beyond the stories of battles and conquest, our understanding of how sites such as Te Matarae were utilised can also be gleaned from the oral traditions. George Graham recorded how the beach and village below Te Matarae became busier with many waka using the beach during the shark fishing season. Some fleets were said to come from as far away as Hauraki. This may account for the terraces above the beach which could be interpreted as house platforms.

Placenames are also an interesting source of information – all of the places we are looking at as part of this article have European names but of course once upon a time they had Maori names – so for example the bay west of Kauri Point was called Ngutuwera (translated as ‘burnt lips’). The bay below Kauri Point was called Rongohau or ‘nook sheltered from the wind’; here waka would take shelter during bad weather. The deep wooded gully which leads to Soldiers Bay was once called Tawhiwhi Kareao and its translation is interesting as it refers to the plant called supplejack which was used in lashing for the wakas. Island Bay was once called Te Waitioroa (‘the area of Toroa’) and was apparently named so because Toroa rested there on his way to Paremoremo. But it is not only landscape features which had names; actual parts of the harbour were given names such as Wairoria or ‘the swirling waters’ – a place west of Kauri Point where a strong tidal rip is always found.

From the archaeological, historical and oral traditions we can say that the use of the area by Maori was extensive. Settlement in many parts may not have been permanent in the European sense, but it was no less important.

Ahi ka did not mean that occupation at each place had to be maintained all year round. However, reqular visiting and use of the camps or temporary settlement affirmed authority in the region.” (M. Kawharu 2004).

Bibliography

Davidson J (1990) ‘Test excavations on the headland Pa at Kauri Point, Birkenhead, Auckland in 1971’ Records of the Auckland Institute and Museum 27:1-18

Jennings R (1994) ‘Archaeological Sites of Birkenhead’ in “Cultural Heritage Inventory” North Shore City Council.

Kawharu M. (2004) ‘Tamaki Foreshore and Harbour Report’ Auckland City Council.

McClure M (1987) ‘The Story of Birkenhead’ Birkenhead City Council.

Simmons D (2013) ‘Greater Maori Auckland. Including Maori Placenames of Auckland’ Bush Press of New Zealand.

Myths and Colonisation of the Pacific.

This article was originally written several years ago for the ‘Mythology Magazine’ which is now defunct. My intention when writing this was to look at some of the myths and legends associated with the colonisation of the Pacific so please do bear in mind this is not an academic treatise on this subject (that is a far too large a subject for a simple blog…).

The islands of the Pacific Ocean were one of the last places in the world to be colonised by people.  The how, when and why has occupied archaeologists, anthropologists, linguists and historian for decades.  For the European scientist these questions need to be answered with solid evidence backing them.  For the indigenous populations tradition told them all they needed to know, the myths and legends providing all that was needed by the way of explanation. 

Map of Oceania

New Zealand, Hawaii and Easter Island were the last landmasses to be colonised in the Pacific.  These first peoples were at the end of a long line of ancestors whose collective knowledge fuelled their ability and desire to travel across vast tracts of ocean.  The Pacific region is made up of three distinct areas – Melanesia, Micronesia and Polynesia.  The first area to have been settled by people was Melanesia; it consists of Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea, Fiji, the Solomon Islands, the Bismarck Archipelago and New Caledonia.  Dates for the first colonisation range between some 50-30,000 years ago their ancestors originating from South East Asia.  Micronesia is situated north of the Melanesian group and is made up of groups of islands including Kiribati, Nauru, Marshall Islands (to name a few) and the US territories of Guam, Northern Mariana Island and Wake Island.  Evidence for the settlement of this region is difficult to pin down; the earliest archaeological evidence comes from the island of Saipan and is dated to around 3500 years ago.  The third group of islands is Polynesia which covers a wide part of the Pacific.  Generally speaking New Zealand, Hawaii and Easter Island form the corners of a triangle within which all other islands sit and are referred to as Polynesia.

The ancestors of the Polynesians migrated from South East Asia a little later than the settlers of Micronesia, passing through some parts of Micronesia and Melanesia, but rarely settling for long.  Fiji is an interesting case, as in many ways it straddles the line between Melanesia and Polynesia.  When the ancestors of the Polynesians arrived in Fiji there was already a decent sized population and had been for millennia.  Yet today the visitor to Fiji will see a multitude of faces, some are distinctly Melanesian looking (mainly in the eastern islands) and others look more Polynesian.  Fiji in many ways was a jumping off point for the exploration further west, the next islands to be settled were Samoa and Tonga, both of which are not a great distance from Fiji.  These early explorers are known as Lapita people based on a distinctive type of pottery found on the archaeological sites.

The distinctive pottery of the Lapita Culture – this is a plaster reproduction photo courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

“All island groups in island Melanesia and West Polynesia that lie in a south-east direction have Lapita settlements.  None of these settlements have been found on other islands.” (G. Irwin. Pacific Migrations – ancient voyaging in Near Oceania. Te Ara: The Encylcopedia of New Zealand.) 

These people were exploring the region from as early as 3500 years ago (evidence found at the Bismarcks) and by 3000 years ago were already as far as Samoa and Tonga.  The archaeology tells us these were small groups who travelled fast and light, they established only a few permanent villages on each major island group and then they moved on.  At this time the distinctive Polynesian culture began to emerge in the west and by 2000 years ago people had begun to move into the eastern part of the region.  By 700AD the majority of Polynesia had been settled with the last migrations being to New Zealand, Hawaii, Easter Island and South America (the only evidence for South America is the presence of the ‘kumara’ or sweet potato, radiocarbon dates from kumara found in the Cook Islands indicate that Polynesians had reached South America and returned by 1000AD at the latest).

Kumara (or sweet potato) a staple food source.

All well and good you might say, but what has this to do with the mythology of the region?  To study the past of this region it is important to not only use all those scientific tools we have at our disposal but also use the traditional knowledge, stories and myths to provide a greater depth of understanding.  In Polynesia there are many stories which have a commonality suggesting a shared ancestry.

In much of eastern Polynesia Hawaiki (the Maori name) does not refer to the islands we know as Hawaii but to a mythical land where the ancestors journeyed from – an ancient homeland.  In New Zealand nearly all the Maori have traditions of such a voyage, in the Marquesas it called Havai’i, in the Tuamotus it is Havaiki and in the Cook Islands the ancient homeland is referred to as Avaiki.  Not only is Hawaiki the ancient homeland but it is also a place where a persons spirit would go after death.  The main island of the Hawaii group is so named because it is the site of two volcanoes which were regarded as a place of great supernatural importance and the home of the gods.  Similarly the island of Ra’iatea in the Society Islands was previously known as Havai’i and it too has a volcano on it (albeit a extinct one) believed to be the entrance to the underworld and the home of the gods.

In Maori myth Hawaiki is in the east – the direction of the rising sun and the stars which bring the changing seasons.  Thus it is not surprising that Hawaiki was associated with life, fertility and success.  It is said that the first human life was created from the soil of Hawaiki by Tane (or sometimes Tiki).  It is the place of highly valued resources such as the kumara which is said to grow wild there – this is interesting in itself because if you travel directly eastwards from New Zealand you will (eventually) land in South America, the homeland of the sweet potato.

“When the ancestors arrived in their waka, they brought with them many treasured plants and birds, also important atua and ritual objects such as mauri.  In one way and another, Hawaiki was the ultimate source of the mana of all these.  The crops flourished, the gods exerted their powers, the mauri ensured continuing fertility of the resources they protected, because of their origin in Hawaiki.” (M.Orbell 1995 Maori Myth and Legend)

The veneration of the east – many rituals are conducted facing east – is unusual for Polynesia and has led some to make the dubious suggestion that New Zealand was settled by people from South America.  More recent studies have demonstrated that the first voyagers would have taken a south-west trajectory from either the Cook Islands or the Society Islands in order to land on the east coast of New Zealand.  Over time it would seem this navigational knowledge was amalgamated with the traditions of an ancient homeland.

In other parts of eastern Polynesia Hawaiki is in the west or sometimes even in the sky and in western Polynesia it is called by another name – Pulotu, a word that can be linguistically traced into Micronesia.  It is interesting to note that the largest island that forms part of Samoa (western Polynesia) is called Savai’i and is a land associated in tradition with many supernatural goings on.  Hawaiki was not only the land where the ancestors came from but also a place of spirits, a place where the myths came into being.

As time went on many of these stories would become absorb into local tradition with familiar places becoming the setting to the story.  Thus the story of Maui who fished up the islands can be found everywhere in Polynesia.  In New Zealand it is said that the North Island was a giant stingray fished up out of the sea by Maui using his magic hook (the hills and valleys of the land are a result of his brothers greed when they hacked at the fish). On the tiny atolls of Manikihi and Rakahanga it is believed that these islands are all that remains of a single land which broke apart when Maui leapt from it into the heavens.  In Hawaii tradition tells of the islands being a shoal of fish and how Maui enlists the help of Hina-the-bailer to bring the shoal together with his magic hook to form one mass.  Maui hauled on the line, instructing his brothers to row without looking back, which of course they did, this resulted in the line breaking and the islands become separated for all time.   In the Tuamotaus Maui and his brothers are once more fishing far from land, once more he has a magic hook and once more he pulls up an island but because his brothers did not listen to Maui the giant fish/island broke apart and became the land the Tuamotua people refer to as Havaiki, where Maui and his family reside.

Fish hooks represented more than just a means of procuring fish, they also had a symbolic meaning and it is possible that some of the larger more ornate types were representative of the ancestral stories.

Maui is one of the most well known of Polynesian deities, found in the stories throughout the region he is often known as a trickster, part god and part human.  He was of a time when the world was still new and there much to do to make it bearable for people.  Maui is said to be responsible for raising the skies, snaring the sun, fishing up lands, stealing fire, controlling the winds and arranging the stars.  On the island of Yap in Micronesia a demi-god figure called Mathikethik went fishing with his two elder brothers, he also had a magic hook and on his first cast brought up all sorts of crops, in particular taro, an island staple.  On his second cast he brought up the island of Fais.  The similarities here with Polynesian Maui are obvious and once again we can get a tantalising glimpse of past movements of people.

Other characters common to the stories of the Polynesia from Samoa in the west to Hawaii in the east include Hina, said to be both the first woman and a goddess who is the guardian of the land of the dead; Tinirau whose pet whale was murdered by Kae; Tawhaki who visited the sky and Rata whose canoe was built by the little people of the forest and was a great voyager and Whakatau the great warrior. 

“…on every island the poets, priests and narrators drew from the same deep well of mythological past which the Polynesians themselves call the The Night of Tradition.  For when their ancestors moved out from the Polynesian nucleus they carried with them the the knowledge of the same great mythological events, the names of their gods and of their many demi-gods and heroes.  As time passed the Polynesian imagination elaborated and adapted old themes to suit fresh settings, and new characters and events were absorbed into the mythological system.” (R. Poignant 1985 Oceanic and Australasian Mythology).

Of course none of this addresses the question of why.  Why did the first people leave their homelands and explore into the vast ocean, particularly to places like New Zealand, South America, Easter Island and Hawaii?  What motivated them?  The myths do in some way suggest possible reasons, these are stories people would have heard over and over again as they grew into adulthood.  Stories of great adventurers, of those who dared to do the impossible and it does seem that much of the early migration was a result of simple human curiosity.  Prestige and mana could be gained by person willing to find new lands.  In the places they originally came from there was no food shortage and in some instances even once they had discovered a new island, they would move on leaving but only a small population behind.  In the traditions there are also stories told of people being banished and having to find new places to live, in addition there are stories of battles lost and people fleeing retribution.  These too could well be another window into the motivation behind Oceanic migration. 

Ocean going craft as suggested in “The History of Mankind” (1896)

On their own the mythologies of the Pacific cannot provide us with more than a unique insight into the mindset of the peoples considered to be some of the greatest explorers of the past but when combined with genetics, linguistics and archaeology it gives us the ability to answer those questions of how, when and why.

Sources

Irwin G (2012) ‘Pacific Migrations – Ancient Voyaging in Near Oceania’ Te Ara: The Enclyclopedia of New Zealand.

Ratzel F & Butler A J (1869) History of Mankind

Poignant R (1985) Oceanic and Australasian Mythology

Orbell M (1996) Maori Myth and Legend

The First Archaeologists

People have always been interested in the past, as far back as Nabonidus who ruled Babylon from 555 – 539BC who had a keen interest in antiquities to such an extent he even excavated down into a temple to recover the foundation stone which had been laid some 2200 years prior.  Nabonidus also had a museum of sorts where he stored his collection.  During the Renaissance those with the wealth to travel and collect began to keep cabinets of curios.  In these you would find ancient artefacts displayed alongside minerals and natural history pieces. 

“…the Renaissance attitude to the examination of the past…involved travel, the study of buildings and the collection of works of art and manuscripts.” (K. Greene 1983).

Initially it was classical antiquity which grabbed the attention of the well-to-do but after awhile eyes began to turn towards relics of their own past. The great stone monuments of North-western Europe became the immediate focus, places such as Carnac in Brittany and Stonehenge in Britain.  Some of these gentlemen scholars would make systematic and accurate surveys of the monuments, which are still useful today, even if there were the less scrupulous who dressed up treasure hunting as scholarly research.  These antiquarians were in essence the first archaeologists and their contributions can still be useful today.

In Britain several antiquarians stood out between the 16th and 18th centuries.  John Leland (1503-1552) held the post of Keeper of the Kings Library and such travelled extensively throughout Britain.  Even though his main interest was in genealogy and historical documents he also recorded non-literary evidence as part of his wider researches, one of the first to do so. 

William Camden (1551-1623) learnt not only Latin but also Welsh and Anglo-Saxon in order to study place-names.  At the age of 35 he published ‘Britannia’ a general guide to the antiquities of Britain.  His descriptions of the ancient monuments are very detailed and he was one of the first to make a note of cropmarks and their possible links to sites no longer visible – an important part of aerial photography today.  Camden was also interested in other forms of material culture such as pottery as a source of information on the past, a concept regarded eccentric at the time.

William Camden (portrait by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger)

In the mid 17th century John Aubrey was one of the earliest writers to assign a pre-Roman date to sites such as Stonehenge, Avebury and Silbury Hill.  His belief that such places were built and used by the Celts and Druids was so revolutionary there are still some who won’t let it go.  Following in Aubrey’s footsteps was William Stukeley (1687-1765) who although trained as a physician spent a great deal of time conducting extensive fieldwork in Wessex during the 1720s.  His highly accurate and detailed surveys of Avebury, Stonehenge and Silbury Hill are still used today.  Stukeley’s recording of the avenue of stones (now destroyed) leading from Stonehenge to the Avon aided present day archaeologists in their search for them.  However, in 1729 he was ordained and then attempted to use his fieldwork to establish a theological connection between the Druids and Christianity.

William Stukeley’s drawing of the Kennet Avenue – sensible and accurate fieldwork…
And then there is the more fantastical of Stukeley’s drawings – his interpretation of the Avebury landscape and it’s Druidical temple…

“Just as Dr Stukeley may be said to be the patron saint of fieldwork in archaeology, so can the Rev. William be held to be the evil genius who presides over all crack-brained amateurs whose excess of enthusiasm is only balanced by their ignorance of method.” (K. Greene 1983)

At the same time, across Britain, lesser well known antiquarians were busy studying and recording their own local areas.  In the county of Cornwall this was no different.  The earliest known antiquarian was Richard Carew (1555-1620) of East Antony, he was a member of the “The Elizabethan Society of Antiquaries” and in 1602 published his county history, “Survey of Cornwall”.  Perhaps the most well known and often cited antiquarian was William Borlase (1695-1772) who like so many began collecting natural rocks and fossils found in the local copper works in Ludgvan where he was the local pastor.  In 1750 he was admitted as a Fellow of the Royal Society and by 1754 he had published “Antiquities of Cornwall” which he then followed with “Observations on the Ancient and Present State of the Islands of Scilly and their importance to the Trade of Great Britain” in 1756. 

Zennor Quoit as drawn by William Borlase (1769)
Zennor Quoit as seen today (photo from wikicommons – geography.co.uk – 902) This highlights why early antiquarian researchers should be dismissed immediately as having nothing to contribute to our understanding of the past.

Borlase’s great great grandson – William Copeland Borlase (1848-1899) – continued with the tradition of antiquarianism conducting some of the first excavations in Cornwall at Carn Euny in 1863.  Copeland Borlase published many articles and books on the antiquities of Cornwall, including a two volume book titled “Ancient Cornwall” in 1871 and a year later “Naenia Cornubiae: a decscriptive essay, illustrative of the sepulchres and funereal customs of the early inhabitants of the county of Cornwall”.  There were also a lecture on the tin trade and a monography on the Saints of Cornwall, not to mention a piece on the dolmens of Ireland and one on the mythologies of the Japanese.

William Copeland Borlase (1848-1899)

William Copeland Borlase also spent a great deal of time getting his hands dirty excavating large numbers of barrows in Cornwall.  He has been criticised for poor archaeological practice in only writing up a small percentage of those he excavated.  Nothing makes an archaeologist bury their face in their hands then the lack of a written record for an excavation.  Copeland Borlase often employed the services of John Thomas Blight (1835-1911) as an archaeological illustrator, although Blight was a well known antiquarian in his own right.  He published two books regarding the crosses and antiquities of Cornwall, one for the west and the other for the east of the county. 

Blight’s drawings of Carwynnen Quoit were recently rediscovered by the lead archaeologist, Jacky Nowakowski, during her researches prior to the excavation and restoration of the quoit.  In particular, the pencil drawing which had actual measurements was very useful in the interpretation of a stone pavement discovered during the excavation when combined with modern techniques.  The archaeologists were able to get a better understanding of the positioning of the quoit within the Neolithic landscape.

Throughout the country there have been numerous societies which promoted the work of antiquarians beginning with the prestigious Royal Society.  Even Cornwall had its own Royal Institute of Cornwall which is still operating today and currently manages the Royal Cornwall Museum as well as the Courtney Library which holds all manner of documents dating back into the 1700s.  These early scholarly societies however, did not focus on one aspect of research, natural history, geology, botany and other gentlemanly pursuits were all encouraged.  This attitude of open discourse across a variety of disciplines is one of the hallmarks of good archaeological research today. 

Archaeology is defined as the “study of the past through the systematic recovery and analysis of material culture” (The Penguin Archaeology Guide).  It is the recovery, description and analyse of material culture with the purpose of understanding the behaviour of past societies.  Material culture is defined as anything which has been altered or used by humans – it can be as small as shark tooth with a hole drilled into it for a pendant or as large as a European cathedral.  To study archaeology in general is to be a ‘jack of all trades and master of none’ – as a subject it borrows from history, anthropology, geology, chemistry, physics, biology, environmental sciences, ethnography to name but a few.  Archaeologists have never been afraid of pilfering theories, methodologies and techniques from other disciplines.

The value of the early antiquarians does not necessarily lie in the outdated interpretations but in the production of often accurate and highly descriptive illustrations, field surveys and texts that are the basis of many manuscripts.  Some of these ancient sites are now lost and/or destroyed, and the antiquarian illustrations are all we have as a record.  Fieldwork will always be a fundamental part of archaeological work and the antiquarians of the past where the very first fieldworkers and the societies they belonged to provided the basis for the discipline of archaeology.

Green K. (1985) Archaeology – an Introduction. Routledge.

http://www.giantsquoit.org   A website detailing the excavations and restoration of Carwynnen Quoit.

The Terracotta Warriors – An Exhibition of Immortality.

The Terracotta Warriors are famed throughout the world and have been on my bucket list for quite some time. So imagine my excitement when I heard that a handful were to visit New Zealand.  The following is just a few photos of the exhibition on at Te Papa, Wellington until April

But first some background

Like many of the great archeoloagical discoveries the terracotta army and the mausoleum of the first emperor Qin was really quite accidental. It was in the spring of 1974 that the local villagers decided to sink a new well a good couple of kilometres from the already well known mausoleum of Emperor Qin. After digging down for about five metres through numerous archaeological layers they eventually began to bring up bronze objects and parts of the warriors themselves.

The importance of the villagers finds was eventually realised and it was this discovery which was to form a catalyst for further extensive research and excavation in the area. The First Emperor’s Mausoleum refers to the complex of funerary remains which pertain to the burial of the First Emperor, it is a massive area with a vast complex of structures.

“…the most important remains of the tomb complex include the cemetary’s architectural structures, tomb tunnels, tomb burial chambers, the gate watchtowers, walls, roads and coffins, as well as accompanying tombs, pits and mausoleum villages. The mausoleum is also the product of supreme engineering and architectural efforts, including the construction of massive dykes and channels to prevent flooding, underground sluice walls, drainage channels, man-made lakes and ponds and so on. There are also a large number of facilities that are protective of, and associated with, these mausoleum structures, such as the remains of factories and workplaces, kilns and the tombs of those working on the mausoleum. There would o be fording places, wharfs and the like.” (Terracotta Warriors: Guardians of Immortality – edited by Rebecca Rice)

With that one paragraph we realise that there is so much more to a site, a place than just the sensational. A fact which is important to remember when dealing with any archaeological site…

Whilst the terracotta warriors are the main attraction for this travelling exhibition there are also a wide range of artefacts on display from many burial sites and dated over a wide period of time. Please excuse the poor quality of some of the photos, flash photography was not allowed, (all photos are my own).

Just a few of the bronze items found in the burials of the Qin and Han Dynasty.  These are three legged cauldrons – the one the front is Han Dynasty (206BCE-220CE), the one at the rear belongs to the Warring States (before the Qin) 475-221CE.
Pottery will always have a part to play in deciphering the past – these examples belong to the Han Dynasty. The tubular one in the middle was for storing grain and the other two are simply described as pottery bowls.
These delightful pottery fish are from the Qin Dynasty (221-206BCE) and are believed to be childrens toys, they were thought to originally contain a small stone causing them to rattle.
Not the best photograph…but this jade and agate pendant is from the Western Zhou Dynasty (1046-771BCE).  “The sound of tinkling that accompanied the wearing of such pendants both regulated the wearers pace and kept evil thoughts at bay”.
These seemingly plain and uninteresting discs of jade actually have a far greater meaning than their appearance might suggest. 
The ancient Chinese fashioned jade in the circular shape they imagined Heaven to be. Jade discs like these were used to worship Heaven, and were placed on the bodies of the dead to ensure immortality”. 
Here we have examples of belt buckles. The object to the front is gold inlaid with agate, 
hematitie, turquoise and shell – it is dated to the Western Han dynasty (206BCE – 9CE).  It is made from a single sheet of gold and hammered into design that includes animals both real
and mythical. The belt buckle to the rear is made from bronze and is dated to the Han dynasty.
Again excuse the photo quality – described as ‘sword blade with inlaid openwork hilt’, it is a very mundane description for what is 
an impressive artefact.  The blue decoration are inlaid turquoise. The sword is dated to the Spring and Autumn
period (771-475BCE).
The display of bronze arrowheads reminds us that whilst many of the atefacts speak of great artisanal skill 
and a culture rich in meaning it was also one where martial rule was equally important.  These arrows are dated to the Qin dynasty (221-206BCE) and were for use with the crossbow and instrumental weapon in the defeat of the nomadic tribes.  
“Over 40,000 arrowheads have been excavated from the Terracotta Army Pit 1. Each archer would have carried sets of 70, 100 or 114 arrows in hemp quivers on their back”.
Decoration was everywhere in ancient China – the above is one of many roof tile-ends, I particularly liked the deer motif. These objects protected the rooflines and eaves of a building. The deer symbolises longevity. It is dated to the Warring States period (475-221BCE).
This is a much larger roof tile end and was excavated from the site of the Qin Yellow Mountain Palace. It is thought that the abstract pattern represents two dragons in mirror image. It is a pattern/imagery associated the most with the First Emperor.

As soon as the First Emperor became King of Qin excavations and building started at Mt Li (the location of the tomb), while after he won the empire more than 700,000 consripts from all parts of the country worked there…they dug through three subterrnean streams and poured molten copper nd bronze to make the outer coffin, and the tomb was file with models of palaces, pavilions and offices as well as fine vessels, precious tones and rarities. Artisans were ordered to fix up crossbows so that any theif breaking in would be shot. All the country’s rivers, the Yellow River and the yangtze were reproduced in quicksilver and by some mechanical means made to flow into a miniature ocean. The heavenly constellations were shown above and the regions of the Earth below. The candles were made of whale oil to ensure their burning forever.


(Sima Qian – Records of the Grand Historian)

At this stage in time the First Emperor’s actual tomb has yet to be excavate but the high levels of mercury recorded might suggest that the above quote was not an exageration…Sima did not mention the terracotta army in his description of the Emperor’s burial. The army occupies four large pits and it is estimated there are 8000 soldiers with only 3000 excavated. On average each soldier stands 180cm tall and weigh around 100-300 kilograms. There are foot soldiers, archers, armoured officers, wooden carriages and horses. All face east and it has been suggested that they are there to protect the Emperor in the spirit world from those he killed during his conquest of China…

Armoured military officer
Armoured General
The kneeling archer
The chariot horses – the hole visible on the side show where a wooden chariot would have been attached.


A modern replica in bronze of a chariot – the detail even down to the all the individual reins and straps was fascinating to see.

After the Qin Dynasty the Han Dynasty rose to prominence and whilst their style of rule was quite different from the the First Emperor they did continue with the tradition of large scale mausoleums. The following photos are from the tomb of Emperor Jing of Han (157-141BCE); a Han general’s tomb at Yangjiawan (also of the Western Han – 206BCE-9C).

These small figures are the Han version of the First Emperor’s army – orignally they would have had wooden movable arms and have been clothed. There purpose was also to protect the Emperor Jing in the afterlife.
One of pair on isplay these two lion like mythological creatures date to the Eastern Han dynasty (25-220CE). It is thought the may have been placed in front of a nobles tomb.

The above are the remains of a tomb gate from the Eastern Han dynasty. These were regarded as doorways between Heaven and Earth, the iconography suggests a celestial journey needed to reach Heaven after death. The battle scenes on the horizontal lintel hint at possible challenges on that journey.

Saveock – An Archaeological Mystery…

Going to Saveock is a bit like travelling back in time, seeing a peep of a thatched roundhouse roof only adds to the impression that you are somewhere else. Originally you would have had to wait on the other side of the train tracks, call the main station to see if any trains were coming and if they gave the all clear, open both sides of the gate then speed across – they had been known on the rare occasion to get it wrong. Today though there is a much safer way of getting into Saveock, a suitably narrow hedge lined drive leads down to the small holding and even though it is only a fifteen minute drive from Cornwall’s main city of Truro, it feels remote and tranquil – timeless.

So,where is Saveock?  Well, it is a small holding situated in a tranquil river valley near Truro in Cornwall.  On arrival at Saveock you are met with the ever smiling Jacqui Wood who is not only a well known and respected experimental archaeologist (did I mention the roundhouse?) and author of several books including Cliff Dreamer: The Goddess Returns, a new fictional story set in the turbulent times of our very distant ancestors. She also runs the Saveock Water Archaeology Centre where students of archaeology (age and experience no barrier) are instructed in the art of excavation, here they find their minds being opened to the endless possibilities that the study of the past can present to those willing to listen.

I met Jacqui some fifteen years ago when during a chance conversation she told me about some curious stake holes, a green clay floor and associated flint tools which she happened upon whilst digging a flue to conduct an experiment in tin extraction. At the time I was teaching A level Archaeology and we thought it would be a good chance for the students to learn some excavation techniques in the field, after all in archaeology practical experience is far more useful way to learn. It was the beginning of many seasons of excavation, intriguing finds, the remodelling of cow shed to comfy quarters for the diggers and much more. My eldest spent the first few months of his life sleeping safely at the edge of a trench.

 

taking-another-slice-of-tre
Volunteers and students at the trench face.

The site at Saveock covers a wide range of time as you would expect of a small river valley in the heart of Cornwall with fertile soils, natural springs and near a well known source of tin and possibly gold. The earliest phase belongs to the Mesolithic, the evidence for which comes firmly from those aforementioned stake holes, green clay floor and the associated flints.

 
“In the Mesolithic the main site trench was over a south facing peat bank on the bend of a river that was between two shallow lakes. This entire site has been purposely covered with various different coloured clays in an attempt to make the river bank a suitable place for dwellings. In the area A/2 the first phase of the site, is what we believe to be a Mesolithic dwelling platform covered with dense green clay surrounded by stony yellow clay in which the stakes to support the dwelling were driven.” (Jacqui Wood).
The second phase was and still is a bit confusing but it does seem entirely possible that it belongs in the Neolithic. When excavating it had been our intention to extend the trench to get a better picture of the Mesolithic features, so imagine our surprise when we came across a stone lined and capped drain covered in thick green clay that lead in one direction towards the river and in the other to another feature, rectangular in shape and lined with white quartz stones and spring fed. Several seasons later in 2005 Jacqui and her team uncovered another similar feature adjacent to the first original ‘pool’.
Dating the pool feature was problematic as it seemed to have been used over a long period of time.

B2-insidedrydrain
Inside the stone capped drain looking roughly north.

The only other similar feature we have found was the platform around the Neolithic monument of Maeshowe in Orkney. This platform was made up of thick clay and when a trench was put through it a stone lined and capped drain was discovered which was almost identical to the one at Saveock. The presence of the quartz stone too would suggest a very early date, the use of quartz in Neolithic and Bronze Age ritual sites is well attested to. The pool itself became known as the ‘moon pool’ as the white quartz glows in the bright moonlight.
As for its function, well ritual seems a good an answer as any other but only because there appears to be no other alternative and believe me we considered a wide range of alternatives. Jacqui herself was always of the opinion that the word ‘ritual’ was used far too loosely in archaeological circles to explain seemingly unexplainable objects or sites. Later post excavation work on the mud we scooped up from the bottom of the pool (it couldn’t be excavated in the traditional manner as it kept filling with water) revealed some small finds which told a story of long usage and deposition.  These included human hair, fingernails, Medieval straight pins, 128 small pieces of textile, parts of shoes, heather branches and perhaps most interesting was the broken half of iron pot or cauldron.

 

Many of these finds seemed to date to the last phase of usage at a time just before the pool was filled in and covered, a deliberate act to erase a pagan site. The lack of any finds earlier than the late Medieval may suggest that intervals the pool was clean out – thousands of years of deposition, not to mention silt, would have filled the pool considerably if it was not cleaned out regularly. Interestingly, in the layer just above the infill layer a broken glass bottle and a few sherds of pottery dated the closure of the pool to around the time of the English Civil War. Cornwall was at the time and even today a place where the rituals of time past were an important part of local society often overlooked by the Church. Cromwell’s puritan army would not have been so kind to Royalist (and pagan) Cornwall.

Perhaps one of the most intriguing episodes in the sites history comes from once more as a result of an extension of the trench with the Mesolithic features this time along the edge towards the marsh by the river. Whilst following the expected green clay floor and associated stake holes we encountered shallow pits with unusual contents cut into the clay floor. Because this area is essentially a waterlogged part of the site organic remains survived particularly well.

 

Area-L-2
The clay floor with pits.

“When we excavated the first one we were surprised to find white feathers in it and thought it might have been perhaps a bird plucking pit, which was a common farming practice at the turn of the century. This turned out not to be the case when we found that the feathers were not plucked, but had been laid skin side out with white feathers inside. We took samples of the feathers to the bird expert at the local zoo and found them to be swan feathers.” (Jacqui Wood).

 
In addition a small amount of tiny stones were found surrounded by some sort of organic matter. Initially the assumption was that this was the crop of the swan but the stones were too pristine and it was concluded that the stones had been wrapped in leaves and deposited on purpose alongside claws from a range of other birds. The stones themselves were of an interest as they appeared to be brought to the site as they contained tiny nodules of beach flint an unusual feature given how far inland Saveock is. A suggestion from a local had us mounting an expedition to Swan Pool, some fifteen miles away on the coast and sure enough the stones at Swan Pool were identical to our small sample. Radiocarbon dates from the swan skin dated the pit to the 1640s, once again it seems dangerous ritual activities are occurring at a time when to be called a witch would mean certain death.

 

3)-egg-pit-9
A pit being excavated.

 

A further eight pits were excavated that season, only two of them were intact the other six had had their contents removed in antiquity leaving just a few feathers and stones to show what their previous fill was. Excavation of this area was tough going, a thick layer of reeds impeded the work and as time went on more pits would be found, all with their contents removed that was until 2005 (two years after the first pit had been discovered).
Three pits were found in a row, two rectangular and one round in the middle. Of the three it was decided to excavate the middle round one, here the dig crew found the pit to be lined once again with swan feathers but also on either side the bodies of two magpies. In the midst of this were the remains of over fifty-five eggs and although the shells had rotted away the membranes were remaining. The eggs themselves appear to have come from a variety of birds, some even had full formed chicks ready to hatch inside them still.

2)-chicks-in-eggs-from-pit
The egg membranes with chicks…

Further pits revealed the remains of a cat and dog skull.  Perhaps the most astounding part of this whole story is the radiocarbon dates for the cat pit which was dated to around the mid 18th century and the dog pit which had a date of circa 1950s.

But as archaeologists we need to ask why? What was the purpose of the pits? There is the suggestion that these are the result of witchcraft based rituals and conversations with many experts in the field of witchcraft have yielded very little to enlighten us. If these pits are connected in some way to witchcraft or even pagan rituals of a different kind it is not one commonly known. This is not too surprising given that so much knowledge about traditions and rituals has faded away. Jacqui though has her own theory as to who and why;
“My own theory (and it is only a theory) is that maybe if you got married and did not get pregnant in the first year, you might make an offering to St. Bride of a feather pit. If you finally got pregnant you had to go back to the pit and take out the contents and burn them and set the spirit of the swan free. If you never got pregnant then the pit remained untouched.”

Saint Bride or Brigit has many similarities to the Celtic deity of Brigid. The first of February is St Brigids feast day but also Imbolc where the goddess Brigid is remembered as one who brings the spring. Both are associated with healing, poetry and other domestic tasks. There is also a connection with the sacred wells. Today well dressing is done in the name of the Saint. Wells have long been a place of veneration, our modern wishing wells merely a continuation of a ritual act of deposition that begun in the Bronze Age if not earlier. The connection with the goddess and the saint at Saveock is slight but as we all know it is a place to start.

On a personal note I should like to mention that when the quartz lined pool was excavated it was myself and a friend who did the digging (we were the only ones willing to get so mucky). We spent the good part of a week in the mud and spring water. In late November of that same year I discovered I was pregnant with my eldest (who incidentally was born at midsummer) and a few days later my friend who had been digging too told me she too was pregnant – our children were born just a week apart.
More recent excavations have been looking in a completely different area of the farm and this time they have uncovered a hearth edged with smoky quartz crystals. Dating was provided by the large quantities of Bronze Age pottery found in association with the hearth. Work at Saveock is never dull but it is ongoing, so if you fancy have a holiday with a difference then check out the link below.

 

Jacqui Wood 1
Jacqui excavating one of the pits.

 

For more information on the Saveock Water Archaeology Centre please go to the website www.archaeologyonline.org
Jacqui Wood’s book Cliff Dreamers is available to buy on Amazon along with her book on food through the ages Tasting the Past. Jacqui also has numerous articles published many of which can be found at www.academia.edu

Please Note – all photos except the featured image at the top of the article were provided by Jacqui Wood and the copyright belongs to her.  The featured image at the top of the article is my own.

This article originally appeared in the Celtic Guide magazine December 2016.

Animals in British Superstition

This post was first written as an article for the ‘Celtic Guide’ some years ago and is now posted here for your enjoyment – for more articles and information about the ‘Celtic Guide’ follow the link.

According to the Oxford Dictionary superstition can be defined as a “belief in the existence or power of the supernatural; fear of the unknown and mysterious; a religion or practice or opinion based on such tendencies.” 

Certain animals are often at the trench face of superstition – cats are the first to spring to mind- the following article is a brief overview of a few of the many British superstitions surrounding our furry and feathered friends.

Cats

The range of superstitions surrounding cats varies widely depending on where you are and what type of cat you have.  Black cats in Britain are believed to be good luck and white cats are unlucky however in any many other parts of the world the reverse is true, whilst tortoiseshell cats are said to be particularly lucky.  Even within the Britain there is some variation on the aforementioned luck.  Generally speaking it is believed that if a black cat enters your home uninvited this is very lucky but you must not shoo it away or disaster will befall the house.  But in East Yorkshire, the opposite is held to be true.

The cat has long been associated with magic, witchcraft and superstition – maybe because it lives on its on terms – the phrase ‘dogs have owners, cats have staff’ rings true…

For some occupations cats can either be a hazard or blessing.  Both miners and sailors avoid using the word ‘cat’ but for sailors it is lucky to have a ships cat (preferably completely black).  In contrast, in Cornwall if a cat wonders into a mine all work would stop and it would have to be killed before work would continue.  In the world of theatre it is considered very fortunate to have a resident cat, so long as it did not wander onto the stage during a performance.

There are also some strange tales of the healing power of a cat tail.  For example, a cat’s tail drawn across an eye will cure a sty and in a variation of this the tail of a tortoiseshell could cure warts when stroked but oddly only in the month of May…

Cats do not need to be alive to provide protection either.  The Museum of Witchcraft and Magic in Boscastle, Cornwall has several displays of dried, mummified cats which have been found in the roof spaces of old buildings.  It is thought they were placed there after death as protection against not only rats and mice but also other misfortunes and evil spirits.  At the Church of England school in Chelmsford (built 1887) ‘cat paws bricks’ were used in the walls as protection against witches.  These bricks had imprints of cat paws on them.

A mummified cat on display at the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic, Boscastle, Cornwall.

In Celtic myth there is a fairy creature called the Cat Sith or Cat Sidhe.  This creature is a large black cat with a white spot on his chest and is a common feature of Scottish folklore and occasionally Irish folklore.  It is said that the Cat Sith will steal a persons’ soul before it was claimed by God by passing over the corpse before burial.  Thus the corpse would be watched day and night to keep him away.  But like so much in folklore and myth the Cat Sith is not all bad.  At Samhain he would bless a house if a saucer of milk was left out but woe and betide those who did not – the house would be cursed and their cows’ milk would run dry.

Dogs

Unlike cats there are not as many superstitions surrounding dogs, perhaps as a result of the unique friendship humans have had with dogs unlike cats which are far more contrary creatures.  A dog howling at midnight is seen as a foretelling of a death, in fact it seems howling of any kind would appear to a prediction of a death.  Other superstitions associated with dogs include a dog to running between bride and groom on their wedding day was a bad omen or a completely black dog crossing a traveller’s path, but this may well be associated with the stories about supernatural hounds such as Black Shuck, Barguest and others which were always black, ferocious and terrified travellers.  

By Nbauers – Photo taken in 2018Previously published: Rural Rambles Round Bungay, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=77202164

Horses and Sheep

The horse was a vital part of the economy for thousands of years and much of the superstitions which arose did so to protect them.  There are a variety of charms to protect your horse from evil ranging from plants such as birch to amulets worn by the horse (these later became horse brasses).  Different counties would have different superstitions although in general it was considered bad luck to see a white horse, to offset the bad luck you need to cross your fingers and not uncross them until you see a dog.  In Devon white markings above all four hoofs was considered ill but one white stocking was okay.

Horse using brasses as a charm/amulet. By https://wellcomeimages.org/indexplus/obf_images/1b/d7/3c1f5ba9d6cbb144f194e7199f9b.jpgGallery:

Superstitions associated with sheep involve cures for various ailments.  Whooping cough was in the past a common childhood ailment and one of the cures involved breathing in the breath of a sheep and if that didn’t work you could find a piebald pony and do the same.  Consumption was also common and relief could be found by walking around a sheepfold or inhaling the breath of a horse, any colour or type would do.

One of the many remedies for pneumonia was to attach the lungs of a slaughtered sheep to the feet of the person taken ill – the idea was that the infection would be drawn down and into the sheep lungs.  Offal was also useful in removing a witches curse – first take the heart of a sheep, stick pins in it, then roast it at midnight and the curse is gone.

Hares and Rabbits

Many of the superstitions associated with the hare seem to be some form of Christian propaganda against the pagan symbolism of the hare.  Most are concerned with bad stuff happening – to dream of a hare was either a warning of enemies or a foretelling of a death in the family.  Should a pregnant women see a hare then her child would be born with a hare-lip or similarly to the dog if a hare was to cross in front of a wedding procession…well, who knows what would happen (all references to this particular superstition were strangely silent on what exactly would happen). 

In Cornwall white hares were believed to be maidens who had died of grief over ‘fickle lovers’ who then haunted the very same men.  Witchcraft and hares are closely connected as it was believed that witches were able to transform themselves into hares.

Rabbits on the other hand were more kindly treated, the most obvious is the use of rabbit foot for good luck (not so for the unfortunate rabbit), originally it was a hares foot which provided the charm though.  For the traveller it was considered good luck if a rabbit crossed in front of you but not so much if they crossed behind you.  If you would like your month ahead to go well say the word ‘rabbit’ three times on the first of the month before you say any other word.  However, do not say it when visiting Portland Bill in Dorset, to utter the word ‘rabbit’ is to invite misfortune.

Rabbits in the medieval period seemed to get a fairly bad rap given the way they were often illustrated in some texts. Although this is more to do with allegory than superstition (I do like the drawings though).

Birds

Not all birds have superstitions attached to them, only a select few can make that claim, mainly crows, owls, robins and magpies.

Crows in particular have got a very bad rap over the centuries; their appearance is enough to put a superstitious mind into gear.  Basically it is unlucky to see or hear a crow, so for example a crow on his own is very bad and to hear a crow cry from the left in the morning is also bad.  Crows flying around your house is not good for the inhabitants either…They even have their own rhyme which would suggest not all was doom and despair.

One for sorrow, two for joy,

Three for a letter, four for a boy,

Five for silver, six for gold,

Seven for a secret never to be told.”

Magpies also have their own predictive rhyme:

“One’s for sorrow, two’s for mirth,

Three’s a wedding, four’s a birth,

Five’s a christening, six a death,

Seven’s heaven, eight is hell,

And nine’s the devil his own sel’”

Generally speaking the magpie is regarded as a bird of bad luck and to avert the bad luck the sign of the cross would be made.  As with crows many such superstitions involved death and dying, having said that, in some places it was believed to be good luck to see two magpies provided you acknowledged them by bowing. 

Owls don’t get off lightly either, firstly it is unlucky to see an owl in the day and they are often regarded as harbingers of death (even here in New Zealand the cry of the Morepork, our native owl is regarded as a portent of a death in the neighbourhood).  Interestingly, the hooting of an owl in Welsh villages is said to indicate a girl was about to lose her virginity.

Robins on the other hand are seen as an auspicious bird as a result of the tradition of how the robin got its red breast.  Christian folklore tells of how the robin pulled a thorn from the Crown of Thorns and in doing so was stained by the holy blood.  Later traditions also have the robin covering those who have died in the open with leaves.  To kill or hurt a robin was considered very bad luck and to break a robins’ egg meant something of value of yours would also be broken beyond repair.  Unfortunately, the robin could also predict death, by either tapping at the window of sick person or entering a church and singing.

It would be easy to say many of the superstitions surrounding our animal and bird friends are connected to past Christian distrust of that which was not Christian.  Cats, owls, crows, hares, horses and dogs all have deep roots in our pagan Celtic past but the degree of bad luck versus good luck seems to come down to how useful the aforementioned animals were. 

Witchcraft and the fear of it often results in certain animals having a greater number of superstitions such as the hare and the cat (dogs were also known as familiars but there role is played down).  Cats are a difficult case, as their use in controlling the rat and mice population were often overlooked in the zeal behind witch hunts.  In the mid fourteenth century a mass culling of cats has often been cited as one of the reasons for the explosion in rat population and thus the onset of the Black Death.

Horses are rarely bad luck and even though stories of devil dogs abound in tradition, making it into popular culture, such as, Sherlock Holmes and The Hound of the Baskervilles. Their usefulness as hunting companions and guardians of the home ensure that dogs never get any truly bad press.  Both horses and dogs are easily trainable, their loyalty a given.  Animals such as cats, hares and birds can be tamed to a degree but will always have that aura of wildness and unpredictability.  It doesn’t require a great deal of an effort for a superstition to take root, no matter how illogical it may seem.

shhh…i’m trying to sleep

Flash Fiction – a super short story based loosely on one night not so long ago…

I’m tired.  I’m tired because I had a shitty nights’ sleep.  I had a shitty nights’ sleep because I was awoken at sparrow’s fart by a sore shoulder which turned out to be only the beginning of my first world problems…

You see it begins with the fact I’m not one of those people who toss and turn and who appears to forget that they share the bed with another person, but I will get to that in a moment.  I on the other hand, fall asleep in one position and then for several hours do not move.  Now it is my assumption – it is only an assumption because usually I am asleep, so therefore not awake and aware – that once I begin to feel uncomfortable I move position into a somewhat more comfortable position and do not wake – or if I do, I do not remember doing so.  Last night though was a whole different ballgame.

Last night I woke with a stabbing pain in my shoulder and with my eyes firmly shut and my brain in denial at being awake, I attempted to move to alleviate the pain. It was then I realised why I had not automatically moved in my sleep…I was penned into a small sliver of the bed by the one we shall henceforth call ‘the large hairy starfish’.  The immovable large hairy starfish had me cornered and my movability (is that a word…?) was hampered by a leg to the south and heavy breathing to the north.  Now I don’t know about you but personally I have trouble coping with the hot humid breath of another person, particularly when it’s aimed directly at my face.  After a few moments of quietly fuming over my predicament I found I was able to move just a fraction to relieve the pain in my shoulder, my eyes still shut, brain still in denial and refusing to look at the bedside clock, which we all know would simply be the end of any potential sleep.  But then another issue soon became apparent.

Please let me be clear, I have had two children, I know, only two, but in all fairness, they were two large babies with very large heads.  Since then I have become that person who before embarking on some great adventure has to make sure there is adequate toilet facilities.  No loos, no adventure.  The starfish will say, ‘go in the bush’ to which I reply ‘two large babies…’  Yep you guessed it my rebellious bladder had also awoken and was making itself known, painfully.  I could have just gone to the loo.  No, instead I tried to ignore the impending loss of dignity because if I had given in it would have required me to physically get out of bed, walk to the toilet, turn on a light, sit on a cold toilet seat and then that would be that.  I would be awake.  So I lay there pretending my shoulder was fine, my bladder was happy and that any minute now the hairy starfish would move.  How wrong was I?

After what seemed like hours but was probably only seconds, with a sigh and a huff – the latter aimed at the large hairy starfish for being insensible to my predicament – I gently slid out of bed, (like a fat wobbly sea cucumber, keeping with the seaside theme).  Tottered cross legged to the loo and with a clatter of the toilet lid, because some plonker had left the seat up, made it just in time.  The relief was sublime. I also took the moment to work out the kink in the shoulder (multi-tasking is my game) with a groan or two.

Just as I was exiting the toilet I came face to face with one of the aforementioned children, now a fully-grown man-child. Who squinted at me and smiled that adorable half smile so reminiscent of the hairy starfish.

“What’s going on,” he asked.

“Needed the loo,” I said, thinking it was rather obvious.

There was a pause as his grin grew wider, “I’m sorry mum for breaking your vagina.”  He gave me a half hug as we went our separate ways, him chuckling and heading to the fridge and me for once at a loss for words…and really rather awake.

Archaeology? What Archaeology?

I have had the privilege of being involved in archaeology in both the UK and to a lesser extent here in New Zealand. If you have read my bio you would know that I taught archaeology to University students and adult education students in Cornwall and here in NZ I am a volunteer with the archaeology department at the Auckland Museum.

Recently as part of the latter I was involved in a Bioblitz event on the Coromandel Peninsula.  Over this three-day event first the local schools and then on the Saturday the community were invited to participate in a range of activities, mostly to do with the natural environment. Members of the Auckland Museum, DoC Rangers and prominent locals encouraged the children and adults alike to look deeply at the world around them.  

For the first time the archaeologists were also involved and for our part we conducted a mock excavation on the beach for the school children as a way of engaging them in what it is that archaeologists do – it was an interesting experiment and it certainly brought to light an issue that is prevalent within the average New Zealanders mindset.

The mock excavation underway

At the beginning of each session the curator, Louise Furey, would ask each group what they thought archaeology was, ‘what do archaeologists do?’ And yes, you guessed it each and every group came back with, ‘digging for dinosaurs/fossils/treasure’. They can of course be forgiven after all they were just children and the forty-five minutes we had them with us was probably not enough time to get across the complexity that is archaeology.

However, what it did do was get me thinking – why is archaeology in New Zealand so invisible?

Even as a university student here in Auckland when people asked me what I was studying and told them archaeology/anthropology they either did not what they were or once again I would get the old, ‘so you dig up dinosaurs?’ It was frustrating in the least…

Moving to the UK, studying and teaching archaeology there was a completely different game. Archaeology in the UK does not need to explained, only the occasional person who thought they were being funny would mention dinosaurs and thanks to numerous tv shows (Time Team, Meet the Ancestors and others) it was much more main stream. As a teacher of adult education there was no end to those who were keen to learn about archaeology and when I came back to NZ I attempted to start adult education classes in archaeology locally but the uptake was so small (3 or 4 at the most) that it was not viable. So why might this be?

I believe ultimately it comes down to people’s perception of the past and perhaps comparing NZ to the UK is not fair, the two countries have vastly different histories but I do think we can learn something from the UK on how to promote the past as being a place everyone can visit and learn from.  

I have on several occasions had people ask me if there was any archaeology in New Zealand – they are surprised to learn that not only is the answer is ’YES!’ but that is somewhere around 70,000 archaeological sites in the country, not bad for some 800 years of human occupation. Here is the problem, in comparing ourselves with other countries which have a much longer history we do ourselves a disservice, convinced that our past is not as exciting or as interesting as others we disregard it; archaeology, heritage, history take a back seat and in the case of archaeology become virtually invisible.

The humps and bumps of terracing on Maungakiekie (One Tree Hill, Auckland), a place of importance for the Maori of Tamaki Makerau and one of many archaeological sites in New Zealand.

Archaeology in NZ has for many years been the domain of professionals and academics which has in effect built a wall between themselves and the general public that was almost impossible to climb over. Changing perceptions takes time and this process has already begun with events such as Bioblitz and New Zealand Archaeology Week which actively involve and educate the public, the enthusiastic amateur. But there is still work to be done, education is vitally important and whilst we do not want people digging up sites (please do not do this, not only is it highly illegal and get you into a whole lot of trouble – about $50,000 worth of trouble – it is ethically wrong), we do want to encourage awareness, understanding and respect.

In a recent Heritage New Zealand newsletter, the Chief Executive Andrew Coleman stated

Archaeology is one of the most questioned aspects of heritage. The questions are often negative and many highlight a significant misunderstanding on the important role archaeology plays in Aotearoa New Zealand.”

Why is archaeology important in New Zealand? In essence, because our oldest heritage can only be found beneath the ground and reading the evidence in a careful and controlled way is the domain of the archaeologist. Andrew Coleman titled his column ‘Archaeology – the unsung hero of history and heritage’ and he is right it is the unsung hero. Without it our picture of the past would be incomplete, there is only so much standing buildings, documents, oral histories and the humps and bumps of the landscape can tell us.  Each are important individually but together with the archaeological knowledge a much more complete picture can be had.

The March issue of Heritage New Zealand newsletter featuring the excavations at Mangawhea in the far north – one of several excavations which are helping us understand the lives of the first people to New Zealand.

It is the kiwi way not to blow our own trumpet but instead we wait for someone else to notice what we are doing and then tell the world – are we as archaeologists too shy to say ‘hey look at us, we’re important too!’ Perhaps we are just tired of the dinosaur jokes and the Indiana Jones references…Maybe it is here we could look to the UK and the way in which archaeology has connected to the media (Daily Mail headlines not included). Television in particular has played a significant role in awakening the public archaeological interest but it does require the archaeologists to join in. There have been several interesting albeit short lived tv shows here in NZ that have attempted to follow in these footsteps and had the potential to show the masses our unique and fascinating past.

In my own rather humble opinion awareness of archaeology in this country begins with education, not just at university level but at primary and high school. Archaeology is after all one of those subjects which encompasses all aspects of the school curriculum regardless of level. Maths, English, geography, biology, chemistry, physics, geology, environmental science, economics, statistics, computer studies, art, history, technical drawing, photography and more are all subject’s archaeology includes in its parameters. So why isn’t it being taught as a part of the school curriculum, to our children who are the future custodians of our heritage? More specifically why isn’t New Zealand archaeology being taught to our youngsters?

We often encourage our children to be themselves, to not compare themselves with others, to accept their unique points, to celebrate that which makes them different. Perhaps it is time we started doing the same to our past, to celebrate not just the parts that are visible but that which is unseen and underground, to say cheers to the archaeology!

For those who want to know more about archaeology in New Zealand both the New Zealand Archaeological Association and Heritage New Zealand are good places to start.

Addendum – I am sure there are some who might read this article and say why would I care, after all I did leave New Zealand to study and work in the UK and that would be fair to ask. At the time of finishing my BA at Auckland University in the mid-90s, I could see that opportunities for me would be limited, this combined with a desire to travel (it’s a kiwi thing) and a long-standing interest in British archaeology it was only natural for me to head overseas. But I have been back now for almost fifteen years watching from the side lines and my enthusiasm and love of the subject has not waned. It does not matter where I am, for myself it is the understanding of the past that matters and archaeology is central to this.

A is for Aoraki

Originally written for the now defunct Mythology Magazine I am unsure if it was ever published…anywho…let this be the first in an A-Z of Maori legends, stories and myths.

A is for Aoraki

By Bernard Spragg. NZ from Christchurch, New Zealand – Mt Sefton. Mt Cook NP. NZ, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=65803633

At 3,724 metres* Aoraki is New Zealand’s highest mountain.  It sits amongst the Southern Alps which in turn form the backbone of the South Island of New Zealand.  Regardless of where you travel in the world there will not be a landscape feature without a story and Aoraki is no different, even if there are a couple of different versions of the story. 

The myth of Aoraki is connected to a vast array of creation myths the Maori have to explain the land they found themselves in.  In most cases the myths and stories of creation have the same essentials but it is often the details which differ depending on whom you talk to and where in New Zealand they are from.  This can make the study of Maori mythology a little complicated.

In the beginning Aoraki was not a mountain, he was a man, the son of Raki* the sky.  In creating the world Raki married Papa, the earth, and they had many children, which is a tale for another time.  Now as it happened Raki had children from another earlier union and as we all know children from previous relationships can make life difficult for the new partner.  Some of these children came down from the sky in a giant waka (canoe) known as Te Waka-a-Aoraki.  Their names were Aoraki, Rakiroa, Rakirua and Rarakiroa and they wished to inspect their father’s new bride. 

When they arrived they found Papa lying in the ocean, a huge landmass, they sailed around her, poking and prodding until they got bored and then off they went exploring into the vast ocean hoping to find more land but all they found was more ocean.  Feeling somewhat disappointed they decided to return to the sky. However, the ritual chant which was needed to send them home was performed wrong* and their waka began to sink, turning to stone and earth.  As it sank it heeled over leaving the western side much higher than the eastern side.  The four sons of Raki climbed onto the highest side and turned into mountains with Aoraki the eldest becoming the tallest mountain with his brothers by his side.  The European names for these mountains are Mt Cook (Aoraki), Mt Dampier (Rakiora), Mt Teichelmann (Rakirua) and the Silberhorn (Rarakiroa).  For the local iwi (tribe) of Nga Tahu Aoraki is the most sacred of the ancestors, its physical form provides a link between the supernatural and nature.

A long time passed with the mountains watching and waiting, eventually a man came to the land, his name was Tu-te-raki-whanoa and his task was to prepare the land for human habitation.  In the north-east where the prow of the canoe had fallen and broken into many pieces forming the inlets and islands we now know as the Marlborough Sounds, he left alone.  But on the east coast he built up the land at Banks Peninsula and his assistant formed the Kaikora Peninsula.  He also planted the land with vegetation.

In much later times it was believed he would visit the east coast on occasion usually in the company of Takaroa.  They would appear as whales in the estuaries and river mouths and their presence was considered to be an important omen.

There is an alternative to this story, in which it is Maui – he who fished up Te Ika a Maui (the North Island) –  who was not only a descendent of Aoraki but it was his task to sail around the waka that Aoraki had left and make it safe for people to live on.  Some even say that the whole of the South Island is Maui’s waka and not Aoraki’s.  Some even go so far as to dispute the whole myth of Aoraki by saying he was a part of the crew of the Araiteuru which was wrecked and he was turned to stone along with his companions.  These alternative storylines do not originate with the Nga Tahu and it could be suggested are a case of Chinese whispers where the story has become distorted as it travels further away from the source. 

*Aoraki was previously measured as being 3,754m but a landslide triggered by the movement of the Pacific and Indo-Australian plates knocked off a few metres from the top.

*In the North Island Raki is known as Rangi.

*Or alternatively, the waka hit a reef.

By Bernard Spragg. NZ from Christchurch, New Zealand – Mt Sefton. Mt Cook NP. NZ, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=65803633

Hunting Taniwha

A SHORT STORY

One eye slowly opened and gazed out onto a world barely recognisable. 

Soon, whispered the wind.  

 The word rolled around in his awakening mind. 

Soon, whispered the wind.

The morning bell jangled across the playground, children scattered to their classrooms, some with an enthusiasm that can only come with being new to school.  Others saunter slowly; after all, what’s the rush, school sucks…  Eventually, Tapuhi Primary settles into its morning routine.  In room six Mrs Foster calls the role, ten eager faces, arms and legs crossed, fighting the urge to fidget on the rough carpet tiles. 

“Well, today we have some special visitors.  As you know all week we have been learning about the stories and traditions of Aotearoa. Today we are going to learn about taniwha. Who can tell me what a taniwha is?”

Ten eager hands shot into the air.

“Yes Samantha?”  Mrs Foster smiles.

“ A taniwha is…a taniwha is a kinda’ monster, like a really big lizard that lives in rivers and lakes and is really scary and likes to eat people!”  The words came out in a rush, nine heads nod knowingly in agreement. 

“Yes, you could say that, Samantha.  But there is much more to taniwha then just eating people and being scary.  After morning tea we will be having a visit from The Aunties,” ten little hearts leapt into ten little mouths – The Aunties!

Everyone had heard of The Aunties, most were related to them in some way; everyone listened when they spoke and did as they were told.  Except old Dave who ran the only garage for miles around, but then he was scarier than The Aunties.  The arguments between old Dave and The Aunties were the stuff legends in themselves.  Never mind the taniwha!

The morning flew by quickly.  Morning tea came and went in a flurry of biscuit crumbs and half eaten fruit.  As the children rushed back into class The Aunties were already there greeting each child by name.  The result was instantaneous, the children silently taking their places on the story mat and Mrs Foster briefly wondered if there was any way of bottling that effect…

“Everyone please welcome The Aunties to room six.”

“Kia Ora Aunties,” said room six in a sing song unison.

“Kia Ora children, thank you for having us here today.  Mrs Foster has asked to come and tell you about taniwha and we are happy to do this but first you need to tell us what you know about taniwha,” said the Auntie in the middle.

An uncomfortable silence ensued as the children looked everywhere except at the Aunties.  Speak to the Aunties?  Who were they kidding?  The slow tick-tock of the clock could be heard as the Aunties sat watching the children, waiting patiently, still as stone, their eyes missing nothing and just as Mrs Foster was just about to fill the silence a tentative hand reached up.

“Thank you Wiremu, what can you tell The Aunties about taniwha,” said a very relieved Mrs Foster.  There had been some raised eyebrows in the staffroom when she had talked about asking The Aunties to visit. 

“Umm, taniwha were creatures that lived near water and ate people?” said Wiremu hesitantly remembering what Samantha had said earlier in the day, “and my dad said they’re not real, just stories to scare people,” Wiremu finished quickly.

The Aunties exchanged a quiet look, once more the middle Auntie spoke, “yes, sometimes that is correct, the stories do sometimes tell of taniwha that eat people but they also tell of taniwha who protected people too.  Like the taniwha Tuhirangi who was Kupe’s guardian and protected the canoes that crossed the Cook Strait or the taniwha Pane-iraira who took the form of a whale and swam with the Tainui canoe from Hawaiki.”

“So they don’t eat people?” piped up Wiremu, his curiosity getting the better of him.

“Ahh, yes some do.  The taniwha Tutaeporoporo he would travel up and down the river eating people, in revenge for being badly treated by the chief of that time.”

“Is he still eating people?”

“No, the great warrior and taniwha slayer Ao-kehu killed him.”

“How?”

“He hid inside a hollow log…” Wiremu who was now thoroughly entranced began to speak again, stopping abruptly when the Auntie held up her hand…“He hid inside a hollow log, the taniwha smelt him and ate the log whole.  But, Ao-kehu was clever and had taken with him an axe which he used to chop first through the log and then through the taniwha eventually killing him.  Inside the stomach of the taniwha they found two hundred of his victims”.

“Eww!” went a collective noise from room six as they settled in for more.

The hour and half between morning tea and lunch sped by as the children were held enthralled by stories of taniwha, the good and the bad.  There were taniwha who could shape shift, there were taniwha who were sharks, whales, dolphins and giant reptiles and even some who were enchanted logs or rakau tipua.  There was some disbelief at the last but the Aunties told the story of Humuhumu the guardian of the Ngati Whatua in the Kaipara, he was a totara log drifting in a lagoon near the harbour.  

“But how do you know it’s a taniwha and not just some rotten old log?” Nine pairs of eyes widened in alarm – questioning the Aunties knowledge? Unheard of!

The three ageless women exchanged glances, “because Wiremu Collins, the log moved against the current and if it was not a taniwha how could it do that?” Faced with three pairs of eyebrows raised in a silent challenge, a red faced Wiremu had no answer.

Later, sitting on the hard asphalt of the playground eating warm sandwiches Wiremu’s mind began to wander, thoughts of taniwha filling his young head.

“Let’s go hunting for taniwha for real!” Wiremu’s words came out of the blue, as soon as he said it he knew it to be a good idea.  His mates looked at him, shook their heads and carried on eating their lunch.

 “After school, we head down to the bush and follow the track along the river.  I bet there is a taniwha down there somewhere.  We can pretend we are like the brave warriors from the olden days, it’ll be cool!”

“But Wiremu, what if we actually find one?” piped up one of the group.

Wiremu smiled, “It’ll be ok, remember what the Aunties said, not all taniwha are bad eh? And anyway Dad said they’re not real, just stories, come on…it’ll be awesome!”  Wiremu’s enthusiasm was infectious and soon there was mass showing of hands.

The decision made there was no going back and Wiremu felt his insides clench, part of him wanted to know what he was going to do if he actually found a taniwha and another part of him told him not to be stupid they were never going to find a taniwha because they were just stories – not real just like his dad said.

That afternoon as the going home bell jangled across the school, messages were sent home via brothers, sisters and cousins.  Walking out the school gates several curious adult eyes followed them, some smiled to see the kids off on an adventure, better then wasting time playing video games or watching the box. 

Afternoon sun filtered through the canopy, a bossy fantail followed them along the path flitting from tree to tree, grumpy at being disturbed.  The gurgle of the river calling them down the track to their destination.

 “Well Wiremu?  You’re the boss which way do we go? Up or down?”  Asked one of the would-be taniwha hunters once they arrived at the river.

Wiremu looked up the river and then down, he had no idea.  He closed his eyes.  At first all he could hear was the rush of the river, the wind in the tree tops and the calls of a tui, but then slowly he heard it, thump, thump.  A quiet heartbeat, he turned his head one way and then another – thump, thump.  Wiremu’s eyes flew open and walked off up river, the others scrambling to keep up.

“Hey wait!” yelled one of the others, but Wiremu had heard something and without stopping to think his feet followed the sound that resonated up through his soles.   

Eventually, little legs began to ache and puku’s rumbled as Wiremu’s relentless pace continued.  When the path became little more than a goat track, the merry band of would be warriors mutinied.  Wiremu however, was deaf to their pleas, his head filled with the stories of brave and clever warriors, the thump, thump, beneath his feet calling him forward.

“Wiremu!  Stop!” they shouted, to no avail.  This adventure was no longer fun. 

“Come on lets go back, Wiremu will be fine, it’s not like he’ll actually find a taniwha,” one of the others spoke up. 

The bush fringing the creek was dense and yet Wiremu carried on, unable to stop no matter how hard the bush tried to stop him.  Somewhere along the way he lost a shoe, kicking the other off when he realised.  The sharp stones on his bare feet not slowing him.  He knew he was close. 

Thump, thump, thump…

Eventually the bush stopped getting in his way and a smooth path opened up before him.  Wiremu’s feet stopped moving forward, his mind cleared and looking around for the first time he was suddenly very aware.  He was alone in the middle of the bush, probably miles from anywhere.  Where did everyone go?  His brothers had always said he was a dick.  Wiremu’s heart leapt in panic. 

Looking behind him he saw the dense bush and wondered how he had gotten through in the first place.  In front of him lay an easy path, smooth, wide and gentle on young feet. 

Come.

It wasn’t long before the path came to an end at the edge of a deep dark pool, the perfect place to find a taniwha.  Wiremu shivered.  The bush eerily silent, waiting, expecting.  Wiremu stood at the edge of the pool, his toes touching the cool water.  Looking at his reflection, he saw himself, a small scared boy, his chest heaving.

It is time.

Do taniwha eat people? Some do, some don’t the words of the Aunties echoed around Wiremu’s head.  How wrong was my dad, he thought as he watched mesmerised as the still pool began to churn.  The ground beneath his feet shook slightly, belatedly he realised that his brothers were right, he was a dick.  I am a dick for thinking I could hunt taniwha, I am a dick for not taking the stories of my whanau seriously and now I am a dick because I am about to be eaten by one of those stories.

The warm rancid breath of the taniwha tickled the back of Wiremu’s neck, inviting him to turn around.  Wiremu stood still as a stone gazing in terror at his reflection churning at his feet.

Turn, would be warrior, turn and gaze upon me, it is time.

Wiremu’s heart almost stopped.  Time for what?

The iridescent blue of a kingfisher fluttered past settling on a branch hanging over the pool. The kingfisher and Wiremu looked at each other, wisdom and knowledge in its small beady eyes, hope.  Words filled Wiremu’s mind. 

Ina te rua taniwha!

Pute ona karu

Murara te ohi!

Tau mai te po

Takina te whakaihi

Ki Rarohenga rawa iho

Moe ate Po

Te Po-nui

TePo-roa

Te Po riro atu ai e!

            Wiremu stumbled over the words, nothing happened, the pool still churned, he could almost feel the lick of a tongue. The kingfisher looked at him head cocked to one side, try again Wiremu, you can do better.   Deep breath, his eyes fixed on the bright blue bird, he repeated the words again, stronger, louder.  As he finished, the churning pool subsided, the warmth at his back eased.  Wiremu began to breathe once more.     

“Thank you.”

            The kingfisher flew to another branch, Wiremu’s eyes followed.  There, below the kingfisher a stepping stone path to the other side of the pool.  He didn’t need to be told twice, crossing quickly with wings on his feet he scrambled up the bank on the far side of the pool.  As he reached the top, he glanced over his shoulder amazed that all was still and quiet again.  It could have been a dream, but it wasn’t.  With a shudder he turned his back on the dark pool – time to go home.

            Three ageless ladies stood watching, silent witnesses.  The words of the karakia still echoed around the pool.  Today had been a close call.  They had seen it in his face at the school.  He was the one.  But not on this day.

            Soon though.  Very soon indeed.

Here be dragons

Taniwha in Maori Myth

Regardless of where you go in the world and what culture you study, stories of dragons are a recurring theme within the stories of any given people. Dragons abound everywhere and every time, even in our modern and increasingly sceptical world the desire to believe is still strong.  Take the stories of the Loch Ness monster or the giant serpents of the Hudson River and other similar creatures that periodically pop up all over the world. The Maori are no different, they too have their myths and traditions involving dragons, of a sort, called taniwha, who are intimately connected with the natural world.

Early drawing of waka – the double hulled waka were most likely to have been used for long sea journeys. (From Rotorua Museum, Wikicommons)

Taniwha are in essence supernatural creatures which can appear in different forms, one of which is dragon-like giant lizard, but they can also resemble sharks, dolphins, whales or even in some instances enchanted logs.  They can be the agents of good or evil and sometimes neither.  Every region of New Zealand has a host of stories about their local taniwha, many of whom came with the first explorers acting as guardians and protectors.  Some are special people who have been turned into taniwha upon their death and others are of unknown origin.

The Maori are descended from the first Polynesian explorers who arrived in the land we now know of as New Zealand approximately eight hundred years ago (give or take a few hundred years…) and there are often similarities in the myths from certain parts of the Pacific, such as the Cook Islands and Society Islands. However, the taniwha of Maori tradition have evolved as a result of the unique environment these early explorers found themselves in. New Zealand’s environment is very different from the island worlds they would have come from. It is after all a much larger world of mountains, deep forests with giant trees, fast flowing rivers and wild coasts.  Even today a person walking in the bush can come across areas, secret places where you feel it would not pay to tarry.

In Maori tradition the first people to arrive came on large seagoing waka and many of the early stories relate to these ancestors and how they adjusted to their new land. In the traditions the waka would be accompanied by a taniwha who would be its protector, such as, Kupe’s taniwha, Tuhirangi or the female taniwha Araiteuru who came with the waka Mamari.  Though there are some traditions which say she travelled with the waka Takitimu and another taniwha called Ruamono.

In the year 2000 New Zealand Post put out a series of stamps to celebrate the year of the Dragon; Araiteuru and Tuhirangi were part of this.

Araiteuru gave birth to eleven sons on arrival in New Zealand, who all went digging trenches along the way, thus creating the numerous branches of the Hokianga Harbour.  It is said that Lake Omapere was created when one of her sons burrowed inland and thrashed his tail around.  As guardian of the Hokianga Harbour Araiteuru dwells in a cave at the south head of the harbour, whilst her companion, Niua, lives in the north head of the harbour.

The taniwha Tuhirangi is said to dwell in the Cook Strait where Kupe left him to guide and protect waka as they crossed between the two islands.  Between 1888 and 1912 a Rissos dolphin named Pelorus Jack accompanied ships travelling between the North and South Islands.  At the time, local Maori believed this was the taniwha Tuhirangi in the form of a dolphin, guiding and protecting ships in this dangerous stretch of water.  A number of years later in the summer of 1955/56 another friendly dolphin appeared, but this time at Opononi in the far north of the North Island.  Nicknamed Opo, the dolphin would play and interact with visitors and many Maori believed Opo to be a guardian taniwha.

A grainy photo taken in 1911 of Pelorus Jack/Tuhirangi.

Tuhirangi and Araiteuru were part of a trio of important taniwha, the third member of this group was a female called Huriawa.  Her home is Te Waikoropupr Springs, Golden Bay. She is regarded as brave and wise, travelling through the earth to clear blocked waterways.  The springs which are her home are regarded as the purest form of water which both the spiritual and physical source of life.  The water is often used for healing and in blessing ceremonies.

Another taniwha which accompanied the ancestral waka of the Tainui from Hawaikii was the whale Paneiraira.  His name means ‘spotted head’ referring to his appearance.  He was last seen in 1863 just before the war broke out between the Maori and the newly arrived Europeans.  It is said he came to warn his people of impending disaster. 

In the story of Pania and Karitoki, their son (Moremore) became a taniwha when his father attempted a ritual to keep his mother form returning to the sea people and failed.  Moremore is a guardian, or Kaitiaki, of the harbour at Te Whanga-nui-a-Orutu.  He appears in different forms, as a shark, an octopus and sometimes a log.  Patrolling the harbour, he would protect the people from danger while they gathered seafood and fished.

A statue of Pania on the Napier seafront.

An important aspect of the people’s relationship with taniwha was acknowledgement by making the necessary offerings or appropriate chants.  The local tohunga might off the first kumara to be harvested or the first birds to be caught in the season.  Travellers when passing by a known lair might make an offering of a green twig whilst reciting a chant.  In 2002, the Ngati Nohu (a hapu of the Waikato area) objected to the construction of part of a highway on the basis it would destroy the lair of their taniwha, Karutahi.  After much discussion and to the satisfaction of the elders, the transport agency agreed to reroute the highway to avoid the lair. 

One of the more unusual forms a taniwha can take it that of a log.  In order to identify the taniwha you would be looking for a log that did behave in the manner of regular log, known as Rakau tipua.  On Lake Rotoiti the taniwha Mataura would appear on the water as a huge tree trunk with numerous branches and covered in water weed, particularly on the death of a high-ranking person. When visiting the Kaipara Harbour watch out for a log moving against the current.  It is believed to be the taniwha Humuhumu, the guardian of the Ngati Whatua. 

Other taniwha can take a myriad of forms, some can be a strange conglomeration of creatures – native lizards such as the gecko or tuatara feature strongly as do bat wings, shark teeth and octopus tentacles.

A modern rock carving of a taniwha on the shore of Lake Taupo – here their lizard like appearance is emphasised.

So far, we have only looked at those taniwha who are kaitiaki, but not all have good intentions.  Some may have begun this way, as guardians of the people, but it only takes one mistake and the taniwha can turn on the people.

“Because of their role as guardians they watched vigilantly to ensure that the people respected the tapu restrictions imposed upon them, and any violation of tapu was sure to be punished. They were usually held responsible for deaths by drowning; the person must have insulted the taniwha by breaking tapu in some way” (Orbell M. 1995)

 In December 1876, a news article in a Maori language paper told of four young girls who went swimming in a waterhole at Waipapa.  Local tradition knew this place to be the lair of the taniwha Taminamina.  One of the girls swam to the far side of the waterhole where she climbed up onto a rock and started to drink the nectar of the red flowers of the sacred Rata tree. Without warning, the girl slipped into the water, one of the other girls tried to save her but failed.  The water began to froth and swirl and the girls believed it was the taniwha.  The elders were of the firm belief that the girl was punished for breaking tapu and drinking the nectar of the sacred Rata.

Southern Rata near Franz Joseph Glacier (Photo by Graham Rabbitts wikicommons)

In 1955, a photograph was taken on the Whanganui River.  It depicts a swirling mass in the middle of the river and the inscription on the back of the photo reads:

“On many occasions a large flow of water gushes up from the head of the Wanganui river below the bluff of Buckthaughts Redoubt, just past the village of Upokongaro. This phenomenon is accompanied by a loud bubbling noise and small pieces of waterlogged wood and debris are brought to the surface. Few people have ever seen this occurrence and this photograph was taken in 1955 by one of a party of Wellington visitors camping at Mosquito point.”

In another story the guardian (Takere-piripiri) of Otautahonga Pa, a hillfort of the Ngati Raukawa would have offerings of food left below his cave.  One day a gift of eels was mostly eaten by the people who had brought it.  This angered the taniwha and he ate the people instead, unfortunately this gave him a taste for human flesh and he left the pa and went to the mountains where he would prey upon travellers. 

There were though taniwha who were just plain nasty, such as Ngarara Huarau from the Hawkes Bay who just liked to eat people and then there were the taniwha who liked to kidnap beautiful young women to keep as wives.

However, not all is lost because where there is a threat to the people there will always be heroes.  In this case warriors who used their strength and cunning to defeat the taniwha and protect the people. Pitaka, Tamure, Potoru and Ao-Kehu were all famous warriors known for their prowess in defeating taniwha. Tamure had a special mere (greenstone club) which had the power to defeat taniwha.  He is well known for defeating the taniwha at Piha who had a taste for people.  Interestingly, he did not kill this taniwha but wounded it enough that it could not eat people.  The warrior Ao-Kehu hid himself in a hollow log with a shark tooth club and when the taniwha smelt him he swallowed the log whole. Ao-Kehu then hacked his way out of the log and out of the taniwha killing it in the process.

Photo of a drawing of an unknown Maori warrior by Sydney Parkinson (photo by Szilas at the Canterbury Museum Christchurch)

The earliest stories are those connected with the arrival of the first waka.  These stories or traditions are in the style of creation myths adapted to the local landscape.  Hence, many taniwha are responsible for the sinuous rivers, the many inlets in a harbour or in the case of the Porirua taniwha, Awaru, the flat appearance of Mana Island which she crashed into as she was learning to fly. 

Others are stories which serve to identify valuable resources and offer a means of protection of those resources.  Then there are those which all societies have; sagas that glorify desirable human qualities.  For the Maori, the great warriors used both their minds and their strength to defeat the undesirable taniwha. 

The traditions of taniwha are often complex narratives which serve to enforce what was considered acceptable behaviour within an iwi/hapu (tribe/subtribe), whilst at the same time providing reassurance to the people – reasons for why certain events happened.  If a group of travellers went missing in the mountains, the most likely reason was that they did not make the right offerings and were eaten by the taniwha.  Even today the New Zealand bush is not a place for an inexperienced hiker, accidents can and do happen.  Rivers and lakes are deep and full of hazards, drownings are a far too common event, landslides and earthquakes are a regular occurrence.  We are all familiar with the sense of helplessness, the feelings of not being in control.  Attributing such events to the taniwha, a creature you can placate with offerings, or in some cases can hunt and kill, helps to explain such events and at the same time offers a way to take control once more of their world.

Ureia, a kaitiaki taniwha – carved on a poupou (house post) inside Hotuni, a carved meeting house of the Ngati Maru. The building can now be found inside the Auckland War Memorial Museum.

Archaeology, History, Myths and Stories…oh… and a little bit of time travel…

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