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.
*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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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!
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.
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.
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
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.
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).
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.
“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.
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.
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
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
During a recent holiday in Vietnam I visited the temple precinct of My Son, the principal religious center of the Champa. The following are a few photos (read many) of this day trip with a bit of background for good measure.
Who were the Champa?
Essentially the Champa were a collection of independent polities who ruled central and southern Vietnam from around the second century AD. The independent states became united in the fourth century under the rule of King Bhadravarman of Indrapura during the 4th century. Between the 7th and 10th centuries the Cham controlled the trade in spices and silk out of the South China Sea. Hoi An was the main port of the principality of Indrapura and whilst the capital of the Champa was in the area of the modern village of Dong Duang – both are situated near to My Son.
From around the fourth century the Cham adopted Hinduism as their principle religion although many were eventually converted to Islam from the 10th century onwards. Today whilst the majority are Muslim there are still some that retain the Hindu faith and traditions.
The name Champa comes from the Sanskrit word ‘campaka’ which refers to species of flowering tree similar to a magnolia.
By 1832 the northern Vietnamese Emperor Minh Mang had annexed and absorbed the Cham polities
My Son is situated in a valley near the village of Duy Phu approximately 69km from DaNang and was the site of religious ceremonies for the HIndu Cham rulers between the 4th and 14th centuries. It also served as a royal burial place. There are in excess of seventy temples in addition to many stele containing important inscriptions in both Sanskrit and Cham.
The Hinduism of the Champa was Shaiva with elements of local religious cults such as that of the earth goddess Lady Po Nagar. A number of the features at My Son are the linga – a black stone pillar representing Shiva and the yoni representing the mother.
Unfortunately the valley was carpet bombed by the Americans during the Vietnam war and many of the temples were severely damaged and in some cases totally destroyed. In recent years efforts have been made to rebuild the temples (the work is ongoing).
All but one of the temples are constructed from red brick (the only stone built temple is in the area known as B1). The decorative carvings which adorn the temple exteriors were cut directly into the bricks themselves. Although there has been some discussion about the type of mortar used in construction of the temples, it is now generally accepted that the mortar consisted of a sticky clay solution similar to the brick clay.
There are four types of buildings –
Kalan – the brick sanctuary used to house the diety.
Mandapa – the entry hallway associated with a sanctuary.
Kasagrha – ‘fire-house’ usually with a saddle shaped roof and used to house valuables or to cook for the diety.
Gopura – the gate tower leading into a walled temple complex.
In addition to the many sculptures and statues there are numerous stele (32 known in total) dating between the 5th and 12th century. The stelae can refer to a foundation of a temple, altar or pedestal. As historical documents they are very useful as they list names of kings, cities and occasionally describe important historical events such as the wars between Champa and Cambodia in the 12th century. The statues and carvings are usually representations of Shiva, also there are guardian statues found outside the temples.
The monuments of the My Son sanctuary are the most important constructions of the My Son civilization. The tower temples have a variety of architectural designs symbolizing the greatness and purity of Mount Meru, the mythical sacred mountain home of Hindu gods at the center of the universe, now symbolically reproduced on Earth in the mountainous homeland of the Cham people. They are constructed in fired brick with stone pillars and decorated with sandstone bas-reliefs depicting scenes from Hindu mythology. Their technological sophistication is evidence of Cham engineering skills while the elaborate iconography and symbolism of the tower-temples give insight into the content and evolution of Cham religious and political thought.
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
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
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
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.
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.
“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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
K. (1985) Archaeology – an Introduction. Routledge.
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).
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…
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).
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.
I originally wrote this article for Hubpages but over the last couple of years I have seriously neglected that writing avenue. Anyway, I thought I would republish here might amuse some of you lovely readers.
Can Archaeology Be Funny?
It would depend on who you spoke to but in short, yes! It is often a humour born out of discomfort, sunburn, blistered hands, sitting through lectures that can test even the most ardent follower of archaeological theory. And lets not forget the constant need to defend ones subject choice. Whatever you do never ask an archaeologist about dinosaurs or worse – aliens…it is often hard to judge their reaction…
All of that aside, here is a short article with a few funny bits just to lighten the moment before we head into another (more serious) article. Have fun, don’t take it seriously and feel free to add your own funny moments in the comments.
An Alternative Glossary Activity Area – Scatter of artefacts where archaeologists like to imagine something happened. Artefact – (UK spelling) Any object that looks as if people made or used it. BP – Nothing to do with petrol, simply an abbreviation for ‘Before Present’. As archaeologists tend to live in the past, their ‘Present’ is actually 1950 (the year radiocarbon dating was invented). Barrow – A tumulus. Culture – Archaeological term for regional groups of similar artefacts, often equated with different peoples, it is also the thing which grows on mugs and plates found in the excavation hut. Dating Methods – Courtship rituals adopted by archaeologists who want to dig together…
Gender Archaeology – Feminist archaeology. Hypothesis – A guess. Lecturer – One who talks in someone else’s sleep. Living Floor – Floor on which archaeologists think people lived. Megalith – A big stone. Microlith – A small stone. Necropolis – An area of tombs; a kind of city set apart for the dead…think Cheltenham (UK)… Posthole – Any hole too small to be a storage pit. Ritual – All-purpose explanation used when nothing else comes to mind. Spoilheap – Mound of discarded dirt resulting from an excavation, usually placed in the exact spot the dig director decides to excavate in the last two day of the dig… Storage Pit – Any hole to big to be a posthole. Theoretical Archaeology – Last resort of the desperate; those who can’t dig or just don’t like getting dirty/have an aversion to fresh air. Theory – A series of hypotheses. Tumulus – A barrow.
This Is Important…
There are a few basic rules everyone about to embark on their first excavation needs to remember and they are as follows.
1. The most interesting part of the site will be under your spoilheap, or at least outside the area you are digging in.
2. The most important find will turn up on the last day or when you are pressed for times and funds (have you ever excavated a cremation burial by the light of a jeeps headlights?).
3. Finding anything worthwhile will involve extending your dig and in any case it will not be what you are looking for.
4. If in doubt, hack it out.
5. Only falsify data where absolutely necessary: every site is unique, excavation destroys it, so nobody can ever redo your work and prove your wrong.
6. Painted potsherds are always found face down.
7. The number potsherds rises the longer you sit on the box they are stored in.
8. The number of mutates (big grindstones) recovered at the site depends on the distance to the excavations vehicle.
(From: Bahn P. 1989 Bluff Your Way In Archaeology)
How to Read Archaeological Texts
It takes a special kind of person who happily reads archaeological reports without falling asleep – that is true dedication. The problem arises with the language used by those who write, designed to bamboozle, often causing the reader to glaze over. This is deliberate, the true aim is not to disseminate their knowledge but in effort to fool their bosses and keep their jobs (because as we all know working archaeologists are rare breed).
Below you will find a list of some of these phrases and what they mean in reality – hope it helps keep you awake!
‘Just possible’ – I’m pretty certain but I can’t actually prove it; the reader will see how cautious and clever I am being. ‘There is some evidence pointing towards…’ – There isn’t any but it would be nice if there were. ‘The evidence suggests that…’ – If it were twisted beyond recognition. ‘It would be premature to suggest’ – But wouldn’t it be fun. ‘All the evidence taken together points to…’ – It all points in different directions. ‘No right thinking scholar can doubt’ or ‘the discerning reader will observe…‘ – These are my final trump cards. ‘Further research may indicate…’ – Mine certainly doesn’t. ‘Adverse excavation conditions…’ – the recording was terrible. ‘There was no evidence of…’ – if there was, we didn’t see it. ‘The object crumbled to dust on exposure to air’ – Joe sat on it. ‘The relationship between the layers was uncertain…’ – Joe dug it away when we weren’t looking. ‘It was not possible…‘ – We didn’t think of it until afterwards. ‘A flimsy structure’ – Moira planned the postholes.
(From: Rahtz P. 1985 Invitation to Archaeology)
Hope this has given you a giggle – do keep in mind though it is entirely ‘tongue-in-cheek’- except the alien and dinosaur thing…seriously don’t mention it…
One of the features of the Auckland landscape is the profusion of volcanic cones, all of which have been altered in some way by the people who have lived here – North Head is no exception. Situated at the entrance of the harbour it has over time been used as a part of Aucklands strategic defences during times of unrest.
The Volcanic Story
Long before people walked the land there were volcanoes – a distinctive feature of Aucklands skyline – and although North Head is just one of many, it is one of the oldest and was formed over 50,000 years ago. The following photos demonstrate the ancient geology of the headland – the different layers of scoria, ash and mud clearly visible.
The Maori Story
The story of Maori in the Devonport penninsula begins with the tradition of the arrival of the Tanui waka having put ashore at Torpedo Bay (a stretch of beach below the headland facing the inner harbour). Excavations were carried out in 2010 in the bay as part of the redevelopement of the Naval Museum and surrounding areas. During this time a great deal was discovered about the use of Torpedo Bay during the colonial era but it was the unexpected prehistoric Maori finds which had the archaeologists most excited.
“Unexpected nationally significant prehistoric Maori archaeology was also found near the end of the investigation, including cooking ovens, moa bones and an adze.
Three species of Moa and at least five individuals have been identified from the lower two settlement layers. All of the species are known North Island Species of Coastal bush Moa (Anomalopteryx didiformis, Pachyornis geranoides and Euryapteryx curtus). As the only site in the Auckland, Coromandel Northland region with definitive evidence of hunted Moa rather than industrial Moa usage by Maori, the dating of this site will potentially answer long held questions concerning moa extinction in the North Island. It may dismiss the general belief that the Auckland Coromandel area was not associated with Moa hunting and is not a primary area of archaic settlement by early Polynesians and was therefore occupied later than other areas of settlement.
A small rectangular adze (hand tool) made from Motutapu greywacke was found in the prehistoric site. The Hauraki Gulf was a centre of adze production and the evidence found suggests that occupation of Torpedo Bay, at least during the Archaic period, was extensive, and that the people who inhabited the Bay played an active role in Motutapu greywacke adze production.
Early photographs show the lower slopes of North Head (Maungauika) as being used by Maori for gardens and early Europeans describe a Maori settlement at the foot of the hill with gardens and fish drying racks. Tradition also tells us that the Ngati Paoa settled Maungauika until the 1700s when Nga Puhi attacked and beseiged the pa. The later European story of North Head has all but wiped clean the Maori history of the headland although it is still possible to see the occasional evidence of Maori occupation such as middens eroding out of paths and the occasional unexplainable terrace.
The view north towards open sea.
The view south (west) towards the city and township of Devonport – Torpedo Bay is in the foreground.
The view towards Rangitoto.
The Colonial Story
The first part of the colonial story begins with North Head being used as a pilot station from 1836 to guide ships into the newly established European settlement of Auckland. In 1878 it was made into a public reserve with the stipulation that should it be necessary North Head would be re-appropiated for defence purposes. By 1885 this became a reality as fears of a Russian invasion began to sweep New Zealand.
North Head became one of several defence forts that were set up to protect Aucklands harbour. On the headland itself there were three defences – the North Battery, the South Battery and Fort Cautley on the summitt. Each had there own heavy guns, an observation post and high earth ramparts with bullet proof gates and barbed wire. In addition each had the very latest in military technology – an 8 inch disappearing gun. In addition to these defences a minefield was in place across the inner harbour to Bastion Point.
The above are photos of the North Battery.
Over the next twenty-five years these first fortifications were expanded and strengthened by convict labour who lived in a prison on the summit. They dug out many of the tunnels and underground storerooms which are so popular with young explorers today. With the threat of war once more looming in the early twentieth century new engines were put into the engine rooms, more searchlights were added, new barracks were built.
In all three instances (the Russian scare, WWI & WWII) not once were any of the guns fired in anger. During WWII the headland became the regimental headquarters and main administrative centre for the Auckland’s coastal defences. Many of the guns were moved to Whangaparoa although North Head did become the site of the anti-submarine boom (a wire netting barrier covered by two guns at sea level) which protected the harbour from attack by submarine.
The South Battery and its disappearing gun.
The latter barracks on the summit.
The only stone building on the summit – once the kitchen block.
The disappearing gun pit…
The remains of the summit battery.
By the end of the 1950s the army had left the headland although the navy still ran a training school on the summit. In 1996 the navy had also left and now the area is administered by the Department of Conservation.
Observation posts and tunnels associated with the North and South Batteries.
The Engine Room – an independent source of electricity for the search lights etc.
One of the features for the defence of the Auckland Harbour was the minefield which went from North Head to Bastion Point.
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.
A reconstruction drawing of how a courtyard house such as those found at Chysauster might have been roofed.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.