Category Archives: Archaeology

A Return to Otata

Auckland was recently subjected to what the meteorologists refer to as a ‘weather event’. High winds and a months worth of rainfall caused damage and chaos throughout the city. None more so than on the islands of the Hauraki Gulf including Otata.

Reports came in of erosion and the lost of the shingle beach exposing the clay beds. It was decided that a visit to the island would be necessary, to assess and record the damage to the midden site. In addition, Louise Furey, the archaeology curator at the Auckland Museum, invited Bruce Hayward and Robert Brassey for a second opinion on the stratigraphy of the site (the former a geologist and the latter an archaeologist who had worked on the nearby islands of Motatapu and Tiritiri Matangi).

The first attempt to visit the island was thwarted, yet again by bad weather. However, on the second attempt we were graced with a stunning day with tides and winds in our favour and so we set off early morning. It was with some luck that only a few days earlier, the wind and tide redeposited much of the shingle back onto the beach, making landing on the island a little safer. On our arrival we could see that the sea had not been kind to the midden and much of the beach had indeed been washed away, leaving the midden sitting up high.

We spent the day measuring levels, recording and describing what could be seen. An Auckland Museum photography was on site to provide a photographic record of the midden in detail (look out for the video during Archaeology Week 2022). There was also a great deal of discussion regarding the stratigraphy – the outcomes of which can wait until the published report.

The following photos are of the site as it was seen on March 28th 2022 – these photos are my own.

Main Beach from the boat – the grey band is the remaining shingle, the dark brown band is the clay and above that are the midden layers.
The area of last years excavation – where the cobbles and branch is sticking out of the edge is where I excavated last year. The base of this square was at ankle height but is now almost chest height.
Taking levels.

For more information see a previous article on Otata here or visit the Noises website here and here for articles by Emma Ash (Assistant Archaeology Curator, Auckland Museum).

Coastal sites are always at the mercy of the environment and it can be heartbreaking to watch them year after year become less and less. The greatest shame is in the loss of the information that would have been gained if time and funds had allowed. Yes, it is true that excavation is destruction but when a site is under threat from elsewhere then surely it is time to step in and save that information for future generations. This is often done in urban areas before large developments are undertaken. Rescue archaeology shouldn’t just be about pre-development but also about the natural damage being done to archaeological sites.

Squatters Budgeree !! – A small find with a big story…

Recently I was contacted by a reader of this blog who showed me a small but intriguing artefact he had found on the beach at Fitzpatrick’s Bay (Waitemata Harbour, Auckland, New Zealand). The photo was of a single piece of clay pipe stem, not all that unusual in itself. Clay pipes are one of the most common finds on any settler/colonial sites. However it was the legend stamped onto the opposing sides of the stem that caught my attention – ‘SQUATTERS BUDGEREE!!’ – yes there are two exclamation marks at the end of the legend.

Such an unusual name must have a good story…

A quick online search located an article published in the Australian Historical Archaeology journal which was able to provide the background to the name (see below for the reference to the article and link) and some eloquent discussion on the symbolism associated with this particular pipe.

This particular type of clay tobacco pipe was manufactured between 1840 and 1865 for the Australian market and was one of the ‘first commercial products specifically branded to appeal to the Australian colonial market’. It should be noted that these were most likely manufactured in the UK and not actually in Australia. Although Gojak and Courtney (2018) suggest that the mold was created by someone with local knowledge. When first manufactured the pipe itself spoke volumes about the political and social situation in Australia at the time.

Australia in the late 1830s and 1840s was undergoing a period of pastoral expansion which resulted in the dispossession and often violence towards indigenous people. Events came to a head with the Myall Creek massacre in 1838, here around thirty Indigenous people were murdered. This went against the then colonial government who tried to reign in the pastoralists and protect the Indigenous people. The government hunted down a number of those who were responsible for the massacre, seven of which were executed.

The symbolism therefore advocated for the pastoral interests at a time when there was a significant divide in colonial society…the symbolism of the pipe matched what many people already believed, that Aboriginal society was widely thought to be doomed…reflecting the belief in the inevitability of the strong and advanced overcoming the weak and primitive.

Gojak, D., & Courtney, K. (2018). Squatters Budgeree: a distinctive clay tobacco pipe produced for the Australian colonial market. Australasian Historical Archaeology, 36, 5–15

The bowl was decorated with coarse depictions of Indigenous people drinking alcohol on the side with word ‘budgeree!!’ And a pastoralist with animals under a cabbage tree on the side with the word ‘squatter’. The symbolism of the two opposing scenes clearly spoke to many in colonial Australia of the differences between the Aboriginal world of chaos and savagery and the world of the pastoralist – serene, productive, sobriety and quiet reflection. Even the exclamation marks at the end of the legend serve to emphasise the indignation of the pastoralists who felt they were being unfairly treated by the government in favour of the Indigenous people.

Unfortunately, all that was found at Fitzpatricks was a short fragment of stem but the words stamped on the stem are also a political statement. Both words originate in New South Wales – ‘squatter’ refers to the pastoralists who grazed their herds on land without government sanction, whilst ‘budgeree’ is a form of pidgin local dialect and comes from the Dharug language from Sydney. It means ‘something that is good’ or ‘someone who is doing well’. Thus the words can be read that the ‘pastoralists are doing really well’.

From this point on colonial society became split into two camps, those who supported the pastoralists and those who did not. Using the ‘Squatters Budgeree’ pipe became a political act – a way of displaying support for the pastoralists. Not dissimilar to our modern inclination of showing support for various causes on a t-shirt.

Photo by D J Payne and used with permission.
Photo by D J Payne and used with permission.

So, what is an Australian tobacco pipe doing in New Zealand? Other Squatter Budgeree pipes have occasionally turned up during excavations in New Zealand, such as, at Paremata on the Porirua Harbour and the Victoria Hotel site in Auckland. In the case of Paremata, a military site, it could be that it arrived as a personal item with troops from Australia at the time of the New Zealand wars. Whilst the excavation of the Victoria Hotel yielded a large number of clay pipes, amongst which was a variety of Australian themed types, including the Squatters Budgeree. At the time almost all of New Zealand’s imports came through Australia and it is most likely that these pipes were part of a general lot. It is equally possible that such pipes were sold in New Zealand from a job lot, so to speak, when the Squatter pipes went out of fashion after 1860.

In regard to our small but perfect specimen, the jury is out but given the bay’s proximity to the new settlement of Auckland, the connection to the harbour and of course our understanding of the early settlement of Fitzpatricks Bay – the reader can make their own judgements…

Reference – ‘Squatters Budgeree: a distinctive clay tobacco pipe produced for the Australian colonial market.’ By Denis Gojak and Kris Courtney. Australian Historical Archaeology Vol 36 2018 pp5-15.

https://www.jstor.org/stable/26775685

Written with special thanks to D J Payne who brought the pipe stem to my attention and provided the photos for this blog post. Please do not use the photos without permission.

A Celebration of Language

Te Wiki o Te Reo Māori – Placenames in the Landscape.

Last week it was Te Wiki o Te Reo Māori – Māori Language Week and even if this post is a little late, it seemed a good idea to take a look at the names Māori gave to their places as a way of celebrating the language of New Zealand’s first people.

As you may already know as a landscape archaeologist I have a fondness for place names (see an earlier post on Cornish Place names) so felt it was about time I had a look at place names here in Aotearoa (New Zealand).

Place names in today’s Aotearoa are either of European origin or Māori, however it should be remembered that many of the places which today have a European name did indeed have a Māori name prior. As mentioned above the purposes of this blog it is the Māori names which are of interest. The European names will be considered in a separate article at a later date.

The need to give a place a name is universal to people across the world, it is our way of defining who we are and our relationship with the world surrounding us. The names of places can commemorate an event, define a landscape feature, be used to help travellers find their way, as a warning or as a way to signify a place of importance. In regard to Māori place names difficulties arise when trying to give a literal translation into English, for some words there are more than one meaning (as it is with English). Often the meanings behind a word are not easily definable. Words such a Mana and Tapu can be given an English interpretation but in actuality have a much more complex meaning to Māori. Add to this the fact that when Māori words were first written down by Europeans often the words were misheard and misspelt – a wrongly placed vowel can change the meaning of a word quite drastically.

What follows is just a few of the many place names and their interpretations.

One of the most important common words that make up Māori place names relate to features in the environment. Thus a word that begins with ‘Awa’ could refer to a river, gulley or valley; ‘Manga’ though is a stream or tributary and is not to be confused with ‘Maunga’ or mountain. The prefixes can be followed by other descriptive terms such as, iti/small, nui/big, roa/long. They can also have the names of people attached to them, the names of gods and the names of birds, fish and fruit. The latter often indicating the good places to forage for the said kai (food). From the perspective of the landscape archaeologist (or anyone interested in the past) the interpretation of place names can give us clues to the past, fleshing out the otherwise dry facts with the human story.

One of the most important part of any society is the ability to feed the people. As a result there are many place names which indicate the places that are good for food gathering and growing.

  • Awatuna – eel (tuna) creek (awa).
  • Kaipataki – to eat (kai) flounder (pataki).
  • Kaipara – to eat (kai) fernroot (para).
  • Motukanae – mullet (kanae) island (motu).
  • Whenuapai – good (pai) land (whenua).
  • Motukina – island (motu) of kina (a type of sea urchin).
  • Otamahua – the place where (o) children (tama – short for tamariki) at seagull eggs (hua).
  • Kaikoura – to eat (kai) crayfish (koura) – its full name is Te Ahi-Kai-koura-a-Tama-ki-te-rangi or where Tama the great traveller stayed and lit a fire to cook crayfish. A place where even today crayfish are sought after.
  • Arowhenua – there are several possible interpretations of this name – good or desirable land; turning land for cultivation or to desire land.
  • Hakapupu – estuary of shellfish.
  • Ororoa – the place of roroa (a type of shellfish).
  • Tahekeaua – a place to catch herrings by the waterfall – taheke (waterfall) aua (herring).
  • Mararua – two (rua) plantations/places of cultivation (mara)
Kaikoura 1983 from Archives New Zealand.

Other resources also appear in place names:

  • Motukauatiti/Motukauatirahi – two bays (Corsair and Cass Bay) noted for the Kaikomako trees, the timber of which was good for firemaking.
  • Omata – the place of flint/quartz – O meaning ‘the place of’ and mata can mean either flint, quartz, sometimes obsidian but also headland (interpretations can depend on what comes before or after the word).
  • Otemata – the place of good flint or quartz.
  • Ratanui – plenty (nui) of rata trees.
  • Kaitieke – to eat the tieke (saddle-back, a native bird).
  • Whangamata – obsidian/flint/quartz (mata) harbour (whanga) – obsidian is the most likely candidate as it washes upon the beach here from nearby Mayor Island.
  • Anatoki – cave of the adze.
From Buller’s ‘A History of the Birds of New Zealand, 2nd edition’ 1888.

Then there are the names that serve to aid those navigating the landscape:

  • Putarepo – the place at the end of the swamp where it could be crossed.
  • Puhoi – refers to the slow tidal flow thus it was necessary to wait for high tide for the river to be navigable.
  • Otira – the place of travellers – indicating an old campsite on the Otira River where food was prepared for the trip through the Hurunui Pass.
  • Motuara – island (motu) path (ara) – most likely to mean an island in the path of canoes.
  • Tauranga – resting place/safe anchorage for canoes.
  • Kaiwaka – literally to eat (kai) canoes (waka) – may refer to the places where the swift flowing river has the ability to destroy a canoe.
  • Mangawhata – the stream by the storehouse.
  • Arapuni – two possible interpretations – a path to a camp or a path that has been blocked – Ara meaning path.
  • Whangaruru – a sheltered (ruru) harbour (whanga).

There are also names that serve to warn people away from place:

  • Kaitoke – to eat (kai) toke (worms) – indicating a place of poor soil.
  • Mangakino – bad/useless (kino) stream (manga).
  • Waikino – bad (kino) water (wai).
  • Mangamate – stream (manga) of death (mate) – one wonders what happened here to warrant such a name.
  • Otepopo – literally the place of the decay – or the place of Te Popo.
  • Motutapu – sacred/forbidden (tapu) island (motu) – possible a name given after the eruptions of Rangitoto and the island was covered in volcanic ash.
  • Matatapu – sacred headland.
The two islands of Rangitoto (on the left) and Motatapu (right).

Other places are simply descriptive:

  • Maunganui – big (nui) mountain (maunga)
  • Tauranga-Kohu – kohu means mist/fog and thus this name could indicate a place where the mists linger.
  • Waihapa – crooked (hapa) water/stream (wai).
  • Waihaha – noisy (haha) water/stream (wai).
  • Pukekahu – hill (puke) of hawks (kahu).
  • Pakowhai – village/settlement (pa) by the kowhai (native flowering tree).
  • Mahoenui – the place of many mahoe trees.
  • Ngaroto – the lakes.
  • Rotoma – the lake of clear waters.
  • Ngapuna – the springs
  • Onehunga – the place of burial

A simple perusal of any map will show that certain prefixes are more common than others and for obvious reasons. Hills (puke), mountains (maunga) rivers (awa), streams (manga), lakes (roto), caves (rua), water (wai) and harbours (whanga) are prolific features of the landscape.

Other names are used to commemorate an event thus Ahuahu (Great Mercury Island) is literally translated as ‘to heap up’ but refers to when Paikea came to the island on the back of a whale, when he landed he was cold and so heaped the warm sand over himself hence the name.

Iwikatea (Balclutha) is a reference to a great battle that occurred here and where the bones of the slain remained for many years.

The Hokianga proper name is Hokianga-nui- a-Kupe or the ‘Great returning place of Kupe’ – it is from here that Kupe returned to Hawaikii.

A panoramic view of the entrance to the Hokianga Harbour- photo by Andyking50 on wikicommons.

Patumahoe literally translates as a weapon made of mahoe, a native tree. But further digging finds a tale of how ‘in a battle at this place a chief was killed with a mahoe stake’.

Tamaki-Makau-Rau (Auckland) is called thus because of its excellent soils and bountiful harbour there were often many fights to establish who would hold this prize – literally it is translated as ‘Tamaki of a hundred lovers’ – tamaki can be translated as battle.

Motu-toa can be translated as the island where warriors fought.

Rotoiti – the full name of this lake is Te Roto-iti-kite-a-Ihenga and is interpreted as the little lake that was discovered by Ihenga.

Te Tawa – here Ihenga pushed his canoe with a piece of tawa wood, it stuck in the ground and he left it there thus naming the place after it. Ihenga features in many of the interpretations of Aoteoroa’s places.

Kirikau – a place where a battle was fought in which the contestants were naked – kiri (skin) kau (bare).

Another grouping of place names relate to the cosmological – the deities, the supernatural and the movement of the sun, moon and stars.

  • Tapuaenuku – the footsteps of the rainbow god.
  • Te Puka-A-Maui – the anchor stone of Maui (Stewart Island).
  • Ruataniwha – literally, the two taniwha (see earlier article on taniwha for more information) – in this case that there were two great taniwha who lived in a lake and fought over a boy who fell in. Their struggles formed the Tukituki and Waipawa Rivers.
  • Oamaru – the place of the god Maru.
  • Anakiwa – Cave of Kiwa – Kiwa was a man’s name but was also one of the gods of the sea.
  • Omaui – the place of Maui.
  • Oue – the moon on the fourth night.
  • Otane – the moon on the twenty-seventh night – the place of the moon.
  • Momorangi – offspring of Rangi (the sky god).
  • Te Waka-A-Maui – an old name for the South Island – referring to the canoe (waka) from which Maui fished up the North Island.
  • Otamarau – the place of Tamarau – a spirit who comes in the whirlwinds.
Map of Te Waka-A-Maui (The South Island)

These are all just a few examples of the wide variety of names used by Māori, there are many more that have not been touched on in this article – to do so would be the work of whole of book. Place names not mentioned are those commemorating a particular person. Ihenga and Kupe have already been mentioned but there are many others such as Mangaotaki (the stream of Taki) or Hekura, the name of a woman from the Arai-te-uru canoe. Or Ohinemutu, the place of the young woman who was killed – she was the daughter of Ihenga who placed a memorial stone at the place of her death calling it Ohinemutu. There are also the places that were named after the arrival of the Europeans such as Hiona, the name given to a pa on the Whanganui River, by the missionaries – it is the Māori name for Zion. Or Maheno, an island – the name was given by the Europeans.

Then there are the names which are very old and come from the homeland of the first people to set foot in Aotearoa. Names such as, Maketu or Nuhaka, both names are after a place in Hawaikii. Then there is Atiu, one of the oldest names in Marlborough and is a possibly a name transferred from the Cook Islands.

As mentioned before this is but a small insight of the fascinating world of Te Reo and the place names of Aotearoa. From a landscape archaeologist point of view all of these names give an insight to how Māori viewed their world and the events that shaped their memories of places. Giving us key glimpses into the past. Putting flesh on the bones of the evidence.

Some further information:

1000 Māori Place Names

Te Reo Map of Aotearoa

A Multitude of Museums

Museums have always been a favourite place of mine. If you ever want to really understand a place then visit the local museum. In New Zealand there appears to be a museum for everything, not all tickle my fancy – thus a car museum or a military museum are not really for me. However, this summer I had the opportunity to visit a number of museums around the south island of New Zealand that, well, did do it for me. These were mostly the small regional museums that told the story of the places they were part of.

Below you will find a few impressions of the museums I did get to visit, there were far more than I actually had either the time and my family’s patience to visit.

Our tour of South Island museums begins on the east coast in the tourist mecca of Kaikoura…

Kaikoura

Kaikoura is a small town on the east coast of the south island famous for whale watching and crayfish. In fact, the Maori word for crayfish is ‘koura’ (kai meaning food or to eat). In recent times it was hit by major earthquake which did substantial damage to the town, the landscape and the people.

The museum is situated opposite the I Site in a unique building known locally as ‘the craypot’. The first museum in the area was established in 1971 and was originally situated in an old warehouse. A grant from the Lotteries Heritage Fund enabled the museum to move to its new headquarters and it was opened in 2016. Governed by the Kaikoura Historical Society it tells the history of the area from its earliest times through to the recent earthquake.

The Kaikoura Museum and Library.

The museum space itself is not huge but it does cram a lot in, as to be expected in such a history rich area. Each section has been thoughtfully set out to explain a part of the regions history, from the natural environment, early settlers, fishing, whaling and more. One of the many issues facing many local history societies is the amount of items which are donated to them and how to properly display them with sensitivity to those who generously donate. At the Kaikoura museum I was impressed with the collections of items such as the saddles or the telephones – each showing the changes over time.

There is also a reconstruction of a jailhouse, a faithful reconstruction of a local store – Davidsons Store – and several full size carts/buggies.

The following pictures give a flavour of the other displays to be found. Unlike many other local/regional museums, here the Maori history of the area is sympathetically integrated into each display rather than being segregated and being treated as something ‘other’. Thus, in the display on fishing the history is explained from its very beginnings before the arrival of Europeans up until most recent times. It is refreshing to see the Maori story being told as an integral part of a places history. Below is a short slide show of some of the fishing display as well as the whaling history.

A display on war and weaponry…the Maori story sits comfortably next to the European story…

https://kaikoura-museum.co.nz/

Otago Museum

Otago Museum is situated in the heart of Dunedin and has close links to the University of Otago. Unlike the other museums in this post, Otago Museum is much larger with multiple rooms covering a range of subjects including geology, natural history, the Pacific Islands, world archaeology, early Maori history, colonial history and much more.

Interestingly the museum itself started life as a collection of rocks. It was during the 1865 New Zealand Exhibition in Dunedin in which Sir James Hector displayed a collection of geology samples he had collected during the Geological Survey of Otago. He labelled them ‘Otago Museum’ and thus the museum was born. After the exhibition the rocks stayed in Dunedin and were housed in the old Exchange Building which became the Otago Museum for ten years.

The first curator was Frederick Wollaston Hutton and it was under his management that the collection expanded eventually outgrowing the Exchange. In 1877 a new museum was opened and it is still there today, albeit with some embellishments. When opened the museum held 3674 items, today there are some 1.5 million objects and only a small proportion of those are displayed in the eight permanent galleries.

  • Animal Attic – a haven of taxidermy
  • Beautiful Science – digital installations
  • Maritime – celebration of Dunedins maritime history
  • Nature – New Zealand’s natural history with emphasis on the South
  • Pacific Cultures – art and culture of Oceania
  • People of the World – Egyptians, Greeks, Romans and more
  • Southern Land, Southern People – the prehistoric past
  • Tangata Whenua – the taoka of Kai Tahu, the South Islands principal iwi

I only had a brief time to explore the museum, it will definitely be on my list to revisit should I ever get to Dunedin again. The following are handful of photos from this large regional museum.

https://otagomuseum.nz/

Steampunk HQ

Defying the norms of classification this extraordinary museum (or is it an art gallery?) will often have you wondering if you have accidentally been transported into some strange dimension. Situated at the entrance of the Victorian precinct in the beautiful town of Oamaru, it is perhaps the most unexpected and quirky delight. Founded in 2011 by a group of people who are passionate about steampunk and wanted to share that passion.

Steampunk (in the words of HQ itself) ‘is a quirky and fun genre of science fiction that features steam-powered technology. It is often set in an alternate, futuristic version of 19th century Victorian England…’ I would also add that there can also be Mad Max or even a Frankenstein vibe to some of the inventions, making one wonder what is going on in some peoples minds.

Overall, it is a fascinating place to visit and certainly offers up a distinct visitor experience which you will not likely forget. Below are a few photos to give you an idea of what to expect.

https://www.steampunkoamaru.co.nz/

Lakes District Museum and Gallery

This regional museum can be found in the heart of Arrowtown, established in 1948 it was originally situated in the billiard rooms of the Ballarat Hotel. In 1955 it moved to its current home in the old Bank of New Zealand building. In the following photos you will see that the museum encompasses the original bank’s stables and the original bakers oven which were built around 1875.

The museum itself documents the social history of the gold rush era as well as the early pioneers and farmers of the area. An unexpected delight and probably the teenagers favourite was the recreation of a street in the lower part of the museum. Here we found a ‘grog’ shanty complete with a town drunk; a blacksmith’s smithy and a Victorian school house.

https://www.museumqueenstown.com/

Coaltown

Coaltown can be found in the West Coast township of Westport, it is part of the i-site building and was opened in 2013. The museum itself is contained within a single large room sectioned off to cover the stories of this remote part of New Zealand – the Buller District of the norther west coast, including the towns of Denniston, Stockton and Millerton. Starting with the early gold rush days through to the settling of the district and then the development of the coal mining it not only looks at the technology of mining but also the geology which makes the area so favourable. There are displays on the maritime heritage (important for the transport of the coal to market), other forms of transport and unionism Importantly, the museum does not forget the people and the social aspects of a community dependent on mining and the men underground.

It was a cold and wet Sunday afternoon when I visited and to be honest if it wasn’t for the weather and wanting to stay dry for a bit I may not have ventured into the museum…a mining museum is not entirely my cup of tea. However I am glad I did, it is a well presented museum with plenty of stories to be told. Perhaps one of the most mind boggling displays was that of an eight ton coal wagon perched at high in the building showing the steepest part of the incline at Denniston…

The following are just a few photos of some of the displays…

Nelson Provincial Museum

The final museum in this multitude of museums was the Nelson Provincial Museum and in it was exactly what you would expect of a museum which collates and tells the story of regional New Zealand. In it’s own words it ‘is the kaitiaki (guardian) of social and natural history and Taonga from the Nelson and Tasman regions. We are New Zealand’s oldest museum tracing our origin back to the foundation of the Literary and Scientific Institution of Nelson in May 1841.

Beyond this there are additional exhibitions such as the ‘Tupaia. Voyage to Aotearoa’ and ‘Slice of Life: The World Famous Dunedin Study’. In the first I discovered that I am a rubbish navigator and in the second my son experienced some of what it was like to grow up in the 70s, 80s and 90s.

http://www.nelsonmuseum.co.nz/

Things I have learnt from visiting museums –

  • There is a museum for everyone regardless of what your thing is.
  • If you ever want to get a know an area in short period of time – go to the local museum.
  • Maori history and European history do not need to be separated into them and us (see Kaikoura Museum)
  • It is always the stories behind the objects/artefacts, the stories of the people and communities, which are the museums greatest asset.
  • The tenacity of early settlers will always astound me – but then in most cases they had no other options.
  • Sometimes bigger is not always better.
This grand building is the Hokitika Museum – it was closed when we were in Hokitika…

Excavating on otata Island

Otata Island is the largest of several island that make up the Noises island group. Situated on the edge of the Hauraki Gulf, its nearest neighbour is the island of Rakino.

View of Rakino Island from the beach at Otata.

In 2018 a storm swept away some five meters of the shoreline and in doing so exposed a large midden, approximately 50m in length. Concerned that even more of the shoreline and thus the midden could be lost during subsequent storms the landowners (the Neureuter Family) contacted the Auckland Museum for assistance.

The beach at Otata, the excavation site is just pass the tripod legs of the sieves. For those who know this island well, the beach has been dramatically transformed in the last 2-3 years – in places the erosion issue is plain to see.

In March 2020 (just prior to New Zealand’s month long lockdown) archaeologists from the Auckland Museum, led by curator Louise Furey, along with representatives from Ngai Tai ki Tamaki and the family began a week long excavation. The following year they were back again for another week of digging (- it was at this time I was given the opportunity to participate).

One of the aims on both occasions was to record vital information before the midden was lost to erosion – a common issue for archeology in New Zealand where so many sites are situated in coastal areas and are vulnerable to climatic conditions. The fragility of the shoreline was evident during the 2021 excavation, when large chunks of the edge would crumble away with the slightest touch – the square I was excavating was reduced by a third by the end of the dig. It is not hard to imagine what a storm surge could do.

Of equal importance is another of the aims of the project was provide an environmental baseline for the understanding the marine environment around Otata and how it has changed over time.

“For archaeologists the most exciting feature of the Otata midden is the rich diversity of species contained within it. Middens with an abundant range of species are rare in the Hauraki Gulf and only a few have undergone full analysis”

E. Ash ‘Excavating Otata Island: A Midden Revealed’ Auckland Museum Blog.

The partnership with the Ngai Tai ki Tamaki provided another dimension to understanding the archaeology. Mataurangi Maori – the knowledge and oral histories of local iwi – can serve as a valuable aid for the understanding of archaeological sites. In the case of Otata, the archaeology appears to support the ancestral stories, aiding our understanding of how early Maori used the Hauraki Gulf.

Because of the size of the midden, it would have been impractical to excavate large areas, instead a sampling strategy was employed. In total over the two weeks, seven one meter squares were hand trowelled, using a system of 5cm spits (unless features were identified) with the material from each spit being sieved (6mm and 3mm). The sieved material was then bagged up to be taken back to the museum for further analysis. In both years the samples taken from the island weighed in at approximately 500kgs.

The sieving area with the excavation behind (2021) – the exposed face of the midden allowed us to dig directly into the midden.

From these samples it is the intention to identify and quantify the types of shellfish, fish and birds that were found on and around the island. This gives us an idea of foraging behaviour, food preferences and seasonality.

During the 2020 dig one of the squares dug down into a large hangi which consisted of quantities of burnt shell, a dense charcoal layer and large stones (see Emma Ash’s blog below for more details). Also discovered during that week was a cultural layer sealed below a layer of volcanic ash (tephra) from the eruption of Rangitoto. Only one other site in the Gulf has a similar stratigraphy – the Sunde site on Motatapu Island. It was this lower layer which was the focus of attention during the 2021 dig.

The plan for the 2021 dig was to excavate four one meter squares, each of which was further divided into four quadrants and all but two of the quadrants were excavated.

On a personal level this was fascinating week, not only did I have the opportunity to be digging what, I am sure, will turn out to be a very important site but I was in the enviable position of camping on beautiful island in the Hauraki Gulf. It had been some years since I had last been on a dig so I was a tad nervous about stuffing up…anyway lets just say it was a bit like riding a bike, once learnt never forgotten – at least that’s what they say, I haven’t ridden a bike since I was a child so goodness knows how that would go.

The following are a few photos from the 2021 excavation and my experience (please note these are my own photos).

The upper cultural layers found above the tephra, note the blackened stones , the white flecks are degraded shell.
One of several obsidian flakes found at the interface between the tephra and the upper layers.
Removing an intact sample of the tephra stratigraphy for later analysis.
You would be forgiven for thinking we were castaways…
A favourite find – a bone lure point.
Areas E and F – partway through the tephra layer. The light gray layer was full of shell and bone.
Areas E and F – now below the tephra and into an earlier cultural layer in which a hollow had been dug for a fire and large stones were placed around the edge.
These are ‘Dentalium nanum’ beads – a form of tusk shell commonly found in New Zealand waters and used for personal ornamentation by Maori and is more typically found at sites in the Coromandel. These were very carefully excavated from the ashy layer associated with the fire feature in the above picture.
A very fine bone needle, found below aforementioned feature and to the edge of square F.
Recording the sections…
And we’re finished – square E and half of square F.
Another look at the final stratigraphy looking south east.
Our gear and many, many bags of samples waiting for pick up…

As a final note I would like to thank Louise Furey (and company – you know who you are) from the the Auckland Museum for inviting me along on the dig this year. I came home tired, smelly, covered in mozzie bites and just a little crispy but even so it was a thoroughly enjoyable experience and one I shall not forget in a hurry…much like riding a bike…

More Information

‘Excavating Otata Island: A Midden Revealed’ by Emma Ash, Auckland Museum Blog. A post on the 2019 excavation.

‘A Second Look Into the Past’ By Emma Ash, Auckland Museum. A blog post on the website below that covers the 2020 excavation.

The Noises (website about the island group in general, including many of the scientific projects being undertaken.)

last one…sunset on the last evening…perfect…

The Ceramics From Fitzpatrick’s Bay

I have a confession.

I am a serial collector of bits and bobs from the foreshore.

If I lived in the UK some might call me a mudlark but here in New Zealand I cannot lay claim to such a title. Generally speaking I pick up shells, stones and bits of seaglass that catch my eye, these end up either in my garden or in a bowl on the bookshelf – (at which my husband spends an inordinate amount of time tutting at…). However, I also have an eye for ceramics and it these which are the subject of this particular article.

If you are a regular reader of this blog you may have read two previous articles regarding the area around Fitzpatrick’s Bay on the Inner Waitemata (read here). As I have previously mentioned it is one of my favourite places to walk to even more so because of the untold history of the area. The ceramics that I have picked up from the beach have all been found below the tide line and I believe they provide further evidence for the range of occupation of the beach and area above it.

The following is a summary of these ceramic pieces.

There is a total of 1.7 kilograms of ceramic sherds in the collection which equates to two hundred and twenty-three sherds. For ease of assessment I divided the collection into four groups; whiteware, blue and white, stoneware and others. 

The total number of sherds found on the foreshore laid out in their groupings.

Whiteware

This group is so named not because of the fabric type but simply because it consists of plain and generally undecorated sherds of a white and in some cases yellowy colour. Of the seventy individual sherds twelve represent vessel bases and fifteen vessel rims. Two rim sherds had molded decoration as did two body sherds. There was a single large handle, most likely from a teapot, in addition there was body sherd with the base of a fine handle indicating it came from tea cup. Two further sherds had a wide banded molded decoration. One of the more interesting pieces in this group was the molded foot of a vessel (see picture).

Several pieces appear to be yellow ware – a type of pottery so named as a result of the clay used which turns yellow as a result of impurities in the clay. This particular ceramic type is mostly American in origin and had its peak of production between 1860 and 1870.

The vessels represented are mostly from plates, cups/saucers and bowls.

The date range based on fabric type for this group appears to be from the mid nineteenth to the mid twentieth century.

All of the whiteware group.

Stoneware

Stoneware refers to a type of pottery fired at high temperatures (1200degrees Celsius) which then becomes non-porous through vitrification and therefore any glazing is purely decorative. Generally, this type of ceramic is used to bottles (ie ginger beer), jugs and large containers.

In the group found at Fitzpatrick’s four were bottle rims (two of which are of a type found on ginger beer bottles), three represent the shoulders of large containers and two are bases, the remaining eighteen are body sherds. There are approximately sixteen vessels represented.

Fabric types range in colour from a creamy brown to medium grey; the sherds range in thickness from 3.5mm – 13mm.

Only one has part of name stamped on the exterior – ‘…FIELD’

The total range of stonewares.

Blue and White

As the name would suggest this group consists of sherds which have blue and white decoration. Of the seventy-two sherds, twenty-two are rims pieces and eleven are bases. The majority of the sherds are transfer print, with the ubiquitous Willow Pattern being well represented (twenty-four sherds). Flow ware, a blurred transfer printing technique (1820-1900) is also represented (ten sherds) as is edge molded ware – feather/shell pattern (1830 – 1860).

Two sherds are possibly pearlware – indicated by a bluish concentration of glaze in vessel crevices. Pearlware was developed by Josiah Wedgewood in 1779 but was in decline by 1820. If these pieces are indeed pearlware it is possible they represent heirloom pieces and not an early date for settlement in the area.

Several pieces are heavily discoloured with much paler decoration suggesting an older date to the newer shinier looking sherds. In addition, there are several sherds with blue annular decoration most likely dating to the early 1900s.

Other

This group is in essence all the other sherds that did not fit into the other three categories. There are fifty-four sherds in total of which almost half are of a type with yellow/green glaze, several with a white annular slip.

Of the remaining sherds; three are red earthenware with a yellow tin glaze, probably one vessel and most likely to be from a large mixing bowl; two, possibly three have mulberry coloured transfer print; six are green transfer print; three are brown transfer print; three have a black flow transfer print and the remainder have a single colour glaze suggest a mid-20th century date. The different coloured transfer prints were popular in the mid to late nineteenth century.

Conclusions

The study of nineteenth and twentieth century ceramic types is hampered by the huge variety present. Dating of the ceramics depends largely on fabric type and glaze. Generally speaking creamwares are earliest (1762-1800), followed by pearlwares (1775-1840) and then whitewares (1820 – ). For more information on the differences of these fabric/glaze types the following article is useful starting point – https://cartarchaeology.wordpress.com/2017/02/17/creamware_to_whiteware/

In a previous blog post I suggested that the earliest occupation of the bay was by a James Fitzpatrick and his family who settled and lived here from around 1840/50 – James tried his hand at anything and was at various times a farmer, a gumdigger and had a small brickworks on the edge of the beach. The earliest parts of the assemblage would corroborate an early occupation, such as the pearlware, the early transfer print and the shell-edge moulded ware. When the Fitzpatricks’ left the area is not known.

Following this time, the bay was rarely occupied until the late 1800s and early 1900s when the grassy area was utilised as a campsite during the summer months for Aucklanders wishing to get away from it all. There was at this time a caretaker’s house on the hill above the beach. Once again, the assemblage follows in these footsteps, with many of the sherds being of a type to be expected for the time and usage.

The small handful of mid twentieth century sherds goes some way to corroborate the local story of American soldiers being temporarily stationed in the area during WWII.

The vast quantity of sherds (note I have also perused the beach at nearby Kendall’s Bay, which was also used as a campsite in the late 1800s and early 1900s and have found only a fraction of the Fitzpatrick’s assemblage) and as only a small number are quite worn from being tumbled about in the sea it is fair to say the majority come from an unknown dump site, situated not far from the beach.  There are two possible contenders for the dump site; the first is situated at the northern end of the beach and is heavily eroded away, a number of the sherds were found on the beach below this point. The second is at the southern end of the bay where there is a modern drainage ditch which may have cut through the dump serving to wash many of the sherds down onto the beach.

The likelihood is that both were in use at various times, the first one was perhaps in use by the campers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries whilst the second which would be situated at the bottom of short sharp drop (typical of very early dump sites) dates to when there was a farmhouse on the hill above the beach as well as the later caretaker’s house.

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.

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 little Fiction

STORIES

The silence was constant, the darkness absolute but at least it was comfortable.  Of course, that was not completely true.  Sometimes there would be noise and light but only on rare occasions.  This was one of those occasions.  At first it was only a muffled clipping noise could be heard, plastic heels on a hard linoleum floor.  As the minutes ticked by the noise got louder until it stopped, so close.  They had heard the noise before, anticipation hung in the still air or perhaps it was just the dust motes waiting for something to disturb the stillness so that they at least could continue to be what they were, to do what they were meant to do – float lazily around finding surfaces to decorate.

Now a loud clicking as the tumblers in the old lock turned, a breath then a snap, crackle and pop.  The ancient and rarely used fluorescent lights shuddered on, illuminating row after row of metal shelves filled to the ceiling with anonymous brown boxes.  Each box was numbered and some of the older ones even had labels, browning around the edges, peeling, faded but labels all the same.  Testimony, that someone had once cared.

From its cushioned interior the broken pot waited, perhaps this time it would be chosen.  Broken it may be but it still had a story to tell.  

At first a lump of cold, dull clay, providing inspiration for a human mind.  Worked and moulded by human hands, its exterior carefully smoothed and decorated.  Then from the hot fire like a phoenix it came.  The incised decorations had meaning, told their own story of the people who made it.  Its beauty admired, given as a gift from an aunt to a niece and filled with grain.  Beautiful and practical, that was its story.  It was valued passing from mother to daughter until a day of violence, rough voices and screaming.  In the aftermath the pot lay broken on the hard-earthen floor, broken into many pieces, its precious contents spilt out.  The crackle and spit of the burning building heralding the end of an era but not the end of the story.

Buried, for what seemed like an eternity.  The only company the ever-present earthworms and the occasional mole. Scratching and burrowing, moving away parts of the whole so that even now safe in the brown box, it was not complete.  Then came the day when the light returned, once more human hands held it, reverently, exclaiming over its beauty.  Carefully washing away the dirt that had accumulated over the centuries, it was drawn, measured and photographed.  Then carefully, oh so carefully, a new home was made for all its broken parts.

At first many hands held it, admired it, there were more drawings and more photographs but gradually the visits into the light became fewer and fewer as the next best thing came along.  It had been a long time since it had felt the warmth of human hands gently caressing the incised decoration that had its own story.  Perhaps today would be the day.  If it had a voice it would have cried out “pick me, pick me” not unlike so many of the other artefacts sitting comfortably in their specially cut foam in their anonymous brown boxes.  Each had story to tell of a time when they were useful and valued, even broken and buried over centuries their stories had not diminished. 

“Pick me, pick me” said the silence.

*****

Standing still at the doorway to the storeroom the woman took a deep breath.  Smiling she wondered where best to start.  Her boss had simply said “choose the ones with the best stories”.  But how do you choose a good story?  What is a good story? With a small satisfied sigh,  she looked at her tablet with its inventory, deciding to simply start with the artefacts that appealed to her personally.  Hoping on some instinctive level she would choose the ones with the ‘best stories.

Although there was a certain amount of pressure to pick the right artefacts this was a job she had been looking forward to for quite some time.  Finally, a legitimate opportunity for a good rummage in one of the museums oldest storerooms and a chance to prove she was good at her job.  A job she loved.  If she were a person of a certain disposition she would have done a little jig, as it was she simply contented herself with humming her favourite tune. 

Running her fingers lightly along the brown boxes she did a slow circuit of the room, soaking up the slightly musty atmosphere.  There was no real order to the space except in a numerical fashion.  Each box numbered according to when it arrived in the room, so that Mesolithic flints sat happily beside early medieval pottery sherds.  She did briefly wonder if there was analogy for the modern world there.  Either way, here she felt at home, to her each and every one of these artefacts had a good story to tell.  Put them together and their story would be…mind blowing?  No, wrong word, it would be…enlightening.  Smiling and humming she went in search of a trolley.

After an hour she had half a dozen boxes on the trolley, so far so good she thought as she sat on the desk at the end of the room. There were a few errant boxes that for reasons known only to themselves had moved to other locations in the room other than their designated spot.  Perseverance had paid off in those cases.  It had been a risk coming here, her choices were risky too.  This was not the only storeroom there were others with brighter, better and more well-known artefacts stored in them, safer choices, but better stories? 

Perusing the inventory, the woman waited for something to jump out at her.  What she needed for this part of the exhibition was an object that grabbed people’s attention, an item to stop and wonder at, what else is hidden away in the bowels of their museum?  Page after page she flicks through, finally at the bottom of the very last page a hastily added note.  The last few boxes to come into the room, containing artefacts from a small, local society training dig.  The enthusiastic amateurs had come across an ancient settlement but a lack of funding had kept the dig to a single trench, two metres wide and five metres long.  Even so, several of the finds had been remarkable, telling a story of settlement in use for many generations and its eventual but violent demise.

Feeling her heart beat quicken the woman began to count boxes searching, hoping that no one had moved them.  The sound of her heels clicking a beat along the rows, up, down, pause, up, down, pause.  Damn!  They weren’t there.  Hands on her hips, frowning, her eyes focussing on the boxes that were not the boxes she was looking for.  Taking a step back she scans around, sometimes they were simply a little bit in the wrong place, but no not this time.   If she were of a particular disposition she would have stamped her foot in frustration not once but twice, instead though she closed her eyes and took a deep breath.

Logic dictated that she should check who had last looked at the boxes, there might be some indication as to where were now.  Walking back to the desk where she had left the tablet with its inventory she spied a row of four brown boxes sitting innocently on the desk she had only moments before been sitting on.  Her pace quickened, please let it be them she prayed to no one god in particular.  If she were of a particular disposition she would have ran and slid to a halt at the table, but she was not and she still got there in good time.  A quick glance at the numbers on the outside of the box confirmed it, yes it was them. 

As she lifted the lids on each of the boxes, once more she said a silent prayer of thanks.  The contents of all four boxes would be her centrepiece, they told a real story, a story to resonate through the ages.  The woman placed the boxes on the trolley, satisfied.  Her heels once more clicking sedately on the linoleum floor, a creak of the door, snap as the fluorescents flicker off, bang, the door shuts once more on darkness.  The dust motes swirled about in the air eddies left by the woman’s presence.  A comfortable constant silence reigns – until next time.

*****

Slam, went the car door.  Two bodies wrapped up against the weather, one tall, one small make a mad dash for cover under the museum’s portico.  Stopping to catch their breath the small one links hands with the tall one. There were a lot of people milling under the portico and mum had said very clearly, ‘do not lose your dad, after all, he can’t even find his way out of a paper bag’.  The boy wasn’t really sure what his dad would have been doing in a paper bag.  He shrugs to himself, grown-ups!

Rain and school holidays, not a good time to come to the museum but today was his only day off work and he had promised his son that he would bring him.  He had no idea why he actually agreed, he would have much rather chewed off his own leg than come to the museum.  But there was something about the look the boy’s mother had given him and then there was the boy…equal portions of guilt and love tumbled through his consciousness and he found himself agreeing.  She had pulled him aside, “he loves the museum, and it’s soothing…when he is there he almost like any other kid, stay as long as you can”. 

As they walked through the doors, father and son turned and looked at each other.

“Well, you know it best, where to first?”

The boy smiled, twirling around eyes closed, mentally communicating with the museum, where to first?  He stopped, opened his eyes and pointed.  Following the pointed finger, he spies the new exhibition hall and yes as luck would have it there was a new exhibition.  A display of previously unseen objects from the museum’s storerooms, well fair enough at least it wouldn’t be the same old things although he did fear that was yet to come.  There was a tugging at the end of his arm; the boy was itching to go.  His mother was right he did almost seem like any other kid here. 

Kids, no one tells you no matter what you think will happen, no matter how prepared you are, it is nothing like what actually happens.  He had been so excited knowing he was to have a son, he had imagined footy games, cricket on the beach, surfing, building tree houses and boisterous games of tag.  What he had got was an entirely different kettle of fish.  It wasn’t that he didn’t love him his heart had almost burst when he first held him in his arms.  It was just that things had not quite turned out as expected and in the beginning the readjustment had taken awhile, it had taken too long for his wife, the boy’s mother.

The boy tugged again on his dad’s hand, come on, imagine the treasures in here he tried to say.  He looked up at his dad, his lopsided grin bigger than ever.  He loved the museum, he loved the way it smelled, the way it sounded, the way the objects would speak to him, tell him their stories.  He could spend hours with his nose pressed up against the glass cases just staring and imagining.  His mum always told him that no matter what he would always have his imagination, the endless stories he wrote were testimony to that.  She had packed his journal and brand-new pack of pencils in his backpack, “just in case the mood takes you”, she had said with a wink.

As they wandered around the new exhibition they saw stuffed animals in scary poses, shiny beetles and beautiful butterflies pinned very carefully to a board, everything was named (common and Latin), everything creatively displayed.  Each display had an information board with their stories.  Many of the stories were about where the animal had come from, who had found it and the hardships that were undertaken in the name of science.  The boy wasn’t that impressed, again he decided it must be a grown-up thing, killing something in the name of science, it was not a part of the museum he liked much.  But although just a kid he understood that you didn’t need to like everything about something or someone in order to love it – no one was perfect.

He tugged on his dad’s hand again, something was calling him forward.  It was the archaeology section, now this was more like it.  His soul sang for this was his nirvana.  Here artefacts spoke of human lives, told their stories, here he could lose himself totally.  He moved quickly from case to case his dad trailing dutifully behind him.

“Slow down kiddo, we have all the time in the world.”

The boy came to a complete halt in front of a case displaying a beautiful blackened pot, its swirly incised decoration speaking to him.  There were other artefacts, bronze clothes pins, other pieces of pottery, part of an iron skillet and an iron knife blade, both rusted but still identifiable, jet beads lovingly set into a shape of necklace.  The board said that they all came from the same excavation, not far from where the boy lived with his mother.  It was exciting to know that under his feet as he walked around his town there could be more stories waiting to be discovered.  He looked at his dad, who was just smiling at him in a funny kind of way.

“Go on, your mum said she had packed your journal, it’s okay.  I like to watch you write your stories, I’ll just be over here keeping an eye on you.”

The boys grin said it all.

*****

She had drawn the short straw, the volunteer who was rostered on to look after this section answering the public’s questions had called in sick, a migraine or something.  So here she was, she didn’t really mind, she liked to see people interact with the artefacts.  The boy and his father had intrigued her. 

They were in a world of their own, the boy strangely silent.  The father seemed a little uncomfortable, he looked like he’d much rather be out tackling the elements than in here.  The boy had sat down on the floor with his back leaning against the plinth, on his lap was a book and in his hand a pencil, he leaned back eyes closed, obviously deep in thought.  Suddenly as if someone had fired a starting gun his eyes flicked open and the pencil flew across the page.  Her eyes glanced at the father, he was smiling, he had seen this before.  Father and son settled in, one watching the other, just being.

An hour later, the pencil was put away.  She was intrigued, her feet moving of their own volition she walked over to the boy.

“Hello, I’m the curator who put this section together.  Do you like it?”

The boy nodded smiling his lopsided smile.  His dad hurried over “he doesn’t speak but he does understand everything, just doesn’t talk” he shrugged apologetically.

“But you like to write, don’t you?” she asked, not fazed by his father’s explanation.

The boy nodded again, a moment of silence stretched out and then he handed her the journal.  Taking the journal, she moved to the bench the father had previously occupied, sat down and started to read.  Both father and son sat quietly and waited.

When she had finished, she turned to look at the boy, “you have a rare talent, you can see the story behind each artefact, I honestly can say I felt like I was transported back in time.  Thank you.  You are a very clever young man.”  It was a truth, not words to bolster a child’s confidence.

“I would love you to come back another day, so I can show you some of the other artefacts in storerooms and you can write more stories.  Perhaps we can convince the museum to publish some of them.  People need to hear your stories”.

Because the boy was of a particular disposition he did do a jig, his joy obvious to all.  His father felt a lump in his throat and not trusting himself to speak just smiled and nodded his thanks.  She handed over her card and got his details too – she knew a good story when she saw one. 

It’s all about the story, we all have them tucked away inside, sometimes we tell ourselves, sometimes we tell others.  They are in everything and everyone we touch.  Some are short lived and some will resonate through time but in the end, it is our story and how it ends is up to us.