Early Archaeology in Auckland – Otuataua Stonefields.

There are not many places within the city of Auckland where a person is able to get up close and personal with the early archaeology of the region, but the Otuataua Stonefields is one such place.  Although this small pocket is classed as a protected site, it is part of a much wider area called Ihuamato which sadly is under threat by developers.  The stonefields did not exist in isolation and whilst the archaeology is not obvious  to the untrained eye, it is undoubtedly there.  It would be shameful if the council allowed work to proceed with out a full archaeological investigation.  In general atitudes in New Zealand towards archaeology is a case of “there’s not alot of archaeology here” with the implication because we do not have the lengthy timeframes as elsewhere in the world it is not as important.  But this is erroneous and a result of a lack of knowledge –  there are over 50,000 archaeological sites listed in New Zealand…The stonefields and Ihuamato are an important part of New Zealand’s very early history and to say otherwise would deny a people their past and demonstrate a dismal lack of understanding.

 

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Aerial view of the stonefields – the pale lines are stones piled along the natural ridges.

 

Two hundred years ago there were some 8000 hectares of volcanic stonefields in the Auckland area, today the 100 hectare reserve of Otuataua is all which remains.  Dated to around 1300AD and situated near the international airport the reserve was established in 2001 to protect this important part of the archaeological record and is one of the last places where we can see large scale remains of how people once lived and worked in the volcanic areas of Auckland.

When the first Polynesians arrived in New Zealand they bought with them the full range of tropical plants however New Zealand’s shorter growing season and colder temperatures meant that many of these tropical plants could not be grown.  Only plants such as the kumara (sweet potato), taro, yams and gourds had any success, particularly in the volcanic stonefields of Auckland.

 

At Otuataua it is possible to see low mounds of the volcanic scoria stone scattered throughout an area referred to as the mound garden used mainly to grow kumara they extended the growing season by about a month.

“The mounds were built as special garden plots, which used the stone’s heat absorbing properties to help warm the earth and retain moisture.  Archaeologists have found that these types of mounds often contain specially modified soil, with added organic matter and ground shell.”

(from ‘The Otuataua Stonefields – Official Opening Commemorative Brochure’ Manukau City Council)

 

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The mound garden looking towards the later European dry stone wall.

 

It is safe to say that there is probably not a single stone which has not been moved by human hands.  Walking towards the sea, you come across an area of low hills and gullies.  The gully floors seem unnaturally free of stone, here the stone has been stacked on top of the hillocks to leave the gully floors free for cultivation.

 

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The cleared gullies of the gardens as seen from the Pa – the Manakau harbour in the background.

 

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Other interesting archaeological features at Otuataua include the Pa (hillfort or defended settlement) which utilises the volcanic cone.  Auckland has many volcanic cones, all of which were used and settled by the Maori throughout history.  Here at Otuataua it is no different.   Unfortunately this particular cone has been extensively quarried for scoria before the site became a reserve resulting in the loss of a large part of the Pa.   However, it is still possible to make out the terraces on the southern side – these are the level areas cut into the lower slopes and were where Maori lived.

                                                                 The remnants of the Pa.

A second interesting feature is the site referred to as ‘The Big House’.  On an outcrop about half way between the mound garden and the gullies is a rectangular outline of stone.  This is believed to be the foundation of what was once a large house or structure, nearby are several shell middens.  Having never been excavated it is difficult to say what this structure was used for but the presence of the shell middens on the slopes below would indicate meals were eaten here.  Perhaps it was a communal place to share food whilst working in the gardens?

All over Otuataua shell middens can be found, not surprising given the proximity to the coast.  Fishing, shell fish gathering and horticulture were the mainstays of the local economy.

 

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A shell midden – the small white flecks are pieces of shell, note the deep rich colour of the soil, perfect for growing crops.

 

 

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This large mound on the edge of the Pa is a very substantial midden…

 

In Polynesia crops such as kumara are left in the ground until they are needed however here in New Zealand with its cooler climate the early settlers found they could not do this as the kumara will rot.  Instead it became necessary to harvest the kumara and store it.  At Otuataua the visitor will occasionally come across a shallow depression in the ground, roughly rectangular in shape and usually found on slopes or ridges (for good drainage).  These are all that remains of the storage pits for kumara.  Originally these pits would have had timber walls and thatched roofs.  It is interesting to note that the storage pits here at Otuataua are outside of the defended Pa, obviously the people felt secure and safe here on the edge of the Manukau Harbour.

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A reconstruction drawing of how a kumara storage structure may have looked.

 

 

During my visit to the stonefields, trying not to lose both the kids and the dog I was walking along the edge of a eroded shell midden when my eye was caught by an unusual stone.  Unusual because it was not scoria and was very smooth on one side.  The flip side was shaped to fit into the palm of your hand and although I am not much of an expert I am reasonably certain this was a rubbing stone for turning root vegetables such as taro or fern roots into pulp.  A necessary procedure if you wanted to eventually eat it.

 

See the following article for more information on Otuataua  – Photo-essay: Ihumatao and the Otautaua Historic Reserve

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