The Coromandel is a place rich in Maori history, the most obvious archaeological site are the many pa found on the coastal headlands. The following are a few photos taken during a weekend in the coastal township of Whitianga.
Before we get to the photos, it is probably necessary for me to give you a brief explanation on what a Pa is, particularly for those of you who are not familiar with the term. The word ‘pa’ can refer to any Maori settlement, defended or otherwise, but most commonly it is used to refer to a type of site known as a hillfort – fortified settlements with palisades and defensive terraces. The majority of pa sites are found in the North Island from Lake Taupo northwards – over 5000 have been recorded to date. You can read more about Pa here.
The two Pa mentioned in the title of this blog are the Hereheretaura Pa and Whitianga Rock – both were Ngati Hei strongholds, although the latter suffered during a raid by a war party of Ngai te Rangi. The reserve where Hereheretaura Pa can be found is at the southern end of Hahei Beach is one of two pa in the reserve. The other – Hahei Pa – is on the ridge above the track (seen below) but with minimal defensive earthworks unlike Hereheretaura Pa.
Whitianga Rock is on the opposite side of the estuary from Whitianga, a short ferry ride across from town takes you to the start point for a walk around the site. The site is positioned on a thin finger of land jutting into the estuary harbour with steep cliffs on three sides. By the time Captain James Cook arrived in 1769 the site had already been abandoned, even so it impressed Cook enough for him to state;
“A little with[in] the entrance of the river on the East side is a high point or peninsula jutting out into the River on which are the remains of one of their Fortified towns, the Situation is such that the best Engineer in Europe could not have choose’d a better for a small number of men to defend themselves against a greater, it is strong by nature and made more so by Art”.
Yesterday was the first day of New Zealand Archaeology Week, it is the first time in New Zealand that archaeology has been celebrated with its own ‘week’. As part of this celebration of the past I attended a lecture at the Auckland Museum about the long term archaeological project being undertaken on Great Mercury Island entitled The Changing Face of Archaeology – The application of technology to the Ahuahu Great Mercury Island Archaeological Project. The lecture was delivered by Louise Furey, Rebecca Phillipps and Joshua Emmitt.
Great Mercury Island is situated off the east coast of the Coromandel Penninsula and as the name would suggest is the largest island in the Mercury Group. The purpose of the project is to examine the history of the Maori occupation on the island. As an island it provides the ideal opportunity to study a landscape as a whole and how people utilised and interacted with the landscape over time. This post is not a comprehensive study of the archaeology of the island, it is only a brief foray into what is a complex landscape. I have included links for those who wish to do read more about the work that is being carried out by the archaeologists.
There is certainly plenty of archaeology on the island to keep the archaeologists busy for quite some time. Of that which is visible above ground there are twenty-three Pa (defended sites with ditches and banks), large areas of gardens (recognisable by the lines of cleared stones), kumara storage pits, stone working sites and shell middens. As recent excavations have indicated there is even more evidence lying beneath the surface.
Prior to the current project the island was subject to two other single event excavations. The first being undertaken in 1954 in the early days of New Zealand Archaeology by then then newly appointed lecturer in archaeology at the University of Auckland Jack Golson. With a party of archaeology students he excavated a terrace on the Stingray Point Pa (Matakawau) identifying two kumara pits, each pit had more than 80 post holes suggesting a long period of rebuilding the roof structures. Golson’s work was neve published although this is soon to be rectified.
In 1984 Professor Geoffrey Irwin of the University of Auckland excavated a Pa in Huruhi Harbour. In 2009 a sever storm eroded about ten metres of sand from White’s Beach to reveal a shell midden and a rich charcoal layer. Bones from dogs and fish were found within the midden which was dated by radiocarbon to c.1400AD.
From 2012 the University of Auckland and the Auckland Museum have been working in conjunction with Ngati Hei on the previously mentioned long term project. The island is visited on regular basis with the main excavation season being held in Febuary, which is also a training dig for archaeology students from the university. The lecture held yesterday focussed on some of the finds from the excavations such as the large quantities of obsidian flakes some of which come from as far afield as Taupo, Mayor Island and closer to home on the Coromandel Peninsula. Although work/research is still ongoing it is becoming clearer how important Ahuahu is in our understanding of the early prehistory of New Zealand.
Because ultimately excavation is destruction it has long been universally acknowledged how important it is to record as much detail as possible. In the past this was often a labour intensive activity, if done at all. Today’s archaeologists now have a raft of technological tools at there disposal and at Great Mercury they are taking full advantage of what is available. The technology being used on site to record every find, feature and layer includes total stations, laser scanners and drones are in everyday tools for these excavations.
You Tube has several video’s of work being done on the island – the following are links to a couple to get you started if you are interested.
Whenever I go somewhere new my first stop (after a leg stretch and a coffee) is usually to the local museum. I have a deep fondness for museums and the people who put their heart and soul into their creation and upkeep. The Mercury Bay Museum was one of those musuems where the peoples love of their town and surroundings was evident.
Our first visit to Whitianga on the Coromandel Peninsula was in the winter and unfortunately the musuem was closed however we had much better luck on our second visit. Situated on The Esplanade just opposite the wharf, this small but well thought out musuem tells the history of the area beginning with Kupe who gave the local area the name Te Whitianga nui a Kupe or The Big Crossing Place of Kupe.
Originally the site of the museum was an urupa or cemetary for the local Maori iwi called Ngati Hei up until the 1870s. But when European curio hunters violated the tapu of the site members of the Ngati Hei removed the remains of their people and reinterred them safely elsewhere. The Maori history of the area represents only a small part of the musuem and was my one criticism of this otherwise outstanding museum. The displays of Maori artefacts were not clearly labelled and the display was largely restricted to the walls of the walkway as you entered and could be easily overlooked – personally I think the museum designers may have missed a beat in down playing the 800 years or so of Maori history.
The Museum is very child friendly – my daughter in particular enjoyed dressing up as Captain Cook who visited the area in 1769 on the HMS Endeavour. It was he who gave the area its European name of Mercury Bay after taking his longitude and latitude from the viewing of the transit of the sun across the planet Mercury.
As you head further into the museum there is a significant display on the wreck of The Buffalo which gave the local beach its name (Buffalo Beach), the Kauri room and shanty shack – Kauri were an important part of the economy in the 1800s, either as logs or from the fossilied resin/gum – a 1950s school room, a 1960s bach, a smithy, two rooms displaying birds of the area and displays regarding the importance of the fishing industry (commercially and recreationally) and agriculture to the area. A butter churn display harks back to the days when the museum was once a dairy factory producing butter from cream from all over the Mercury Bay area. The musuem also holds an extensive collection of photos covering the life and times of Mercury Bay and its residents.
There are not many places within the city of Auckland where a person is able to get up close and personal with the early archaeology of the region, but the Otuataua Stonefields is one such place. Although this small pocket is classed as a protected site, it is part of a much wider area called Ihuamato which sadly is under threat by developers. The stonefields did not exist in isolation and whilst the archaeology is not obvious to the untrained eye, it is undoubtedly there. It would be shameful if the council allowed work to proceed with out a full archaeological investigation. In general atitudes in New Zealand towards archaeology is a case of “there’s not alot of archaeology here” with the implication because we do not have the lengthy timeframes as elsewhere in the world it is not as important. But this is erroneous and a result of a lack of knowledge – there are over 50,000 archaeological sites listed in New Zealand…The stonefields and Ihuamato are an important part of New Zealand’s very early history and to say otherwise would deny a people their past and demonstrate a dismal lack of understanding.
Two hundred years ago there were some 8000 hectares of volcanic stonefields in the Auckland area, today the 100 hectare reserve of Otuataua is all which remains. Dated to around 1300AD and situated near the international airport the reserve was established in 2001 to protect this important part of the archaeological record and is one of the last places where we can see large scale remains of how people once lived and worked in the volcanic areas of Auckland.
When the first Polynesians arrived in New Zealand they bought with them the full range of tropical plants however New Zealand’s shorter growing season and colder temperatures meant that many of these tropical plants could not be grown. Only plants such as the kumara (sweet potato), taro, yams and gourds had any success, particularly in the volcanic stonefields of Auckland.
Early depiction of women digging in a garden.
Early kumara (sweet potato)
At Otuataua it is possible to see low mounds of the volcanic scoria stone scattered throughout an area referred to as the mound garden used mainly to grow kumara they extended the growing season by about a month.
“The mounds were built as special garden plots, which used the stone’s heat absorbing properties to help warm the earth and retain moisture. Archaeologists have found that these types of mounds often contain specially modified soil, with added organic matter and ground shell.”
(from ‘The Otuataua Stonefields – Official Opening Commemorative Brochure’ Manukau City Council)
It is safe to say that there is probably not a single stone which has not been moved by human hands. Walking towards the sea, you come across an area of low hills and gullies. The gully floors seem unnaturally free of stone, here the stone has been stacked on top of the hillocks to leave the gully floors free for cultivation.
Other interesting archaeological features at Otuataua include the Pa (hillfort or defended settlement) which utilises the volcanic cone. Auckland has many volcanic cones, all of which were used and settled by the Maori throughout history. Here at Otuataua it is no different. Unfortunately this particular cone has been extensively quarried for scoria before the site became a reserve resulting in the loss of a large part of the Pa. However, it is still possible to make out the terraces on the southern side – these are the level areas cut into the lower slopes and were where Maori lived.
The remnants of the Pa.
A second interesting feature is the site referred to as ‘The Big House’. On an outcrop about half way between the mound garden and the gullies is a rectangular outline of stone. This is believed to be the foundation of what was once a large house or structure, nearby are several shell middens. Having never been excavated it is difficult to say what this structure was used for but the presence of the shell middens on the slopes below would indicate meals were eaten here. Perhaps it was a communal place to share food whilst working in the gardens?
All over Otuataua shell middens can be found, not surprising given the proximity to the coast. Fishing, shell fish gathering and horticulture were the mainstays of the local economy.
In Polynesia crops such as kumara are left in the ground until they are needed however here in New Zealand with its cooler climate the early settlers found they could not do this as the kumara will rot. Instead it became necessary to harvest the kumara and store it. At Otuataua the visitor will occasionally come across a shallow depression in the ground, roughly rectangular in shape and usually found on slopes or ridges (for good drainage). These are all that remains of the storage pits for kumara. Originally these pits would have had timber walls and thatched roofs. It is interesting to note that the storage pits here at Otuataua are outside of the defended Pa, obviously the people felt secure and safe here on the edge of the Manukau Harbour.
An early depiction of a possible kumara storage hut.
Rongo – these effigies were placed in gardens to encourage a good crop.
During my visit to the stonefields, trying not to lose both the kids and the dog I was walking along the edge of a eroded shell midden when my eye was caught by an unusual stone. Unusual because it was not scoria and was very smooth on one side. The flip side was shaped to fit into the palm of your hand and although I am not much of an expert I am reasonably certain this was a rubbing stone for turning root vegetables such as taro or fern roots into pulp. A necessary procedure if you wanted to eventually eat it.
Blue sea, blue sky, warm sunshine and a gentle breeze. It was a perfect day for a trip to the beautiful island of Kawau in the Hauraki Gulf .
Kawau Island is roughly 8 kilometres long and 5 kilometres wide, its highest point is Mt Grey at 182metres above sea level. Kawau is Maori word for cormorant. For those wishing to experience island life access is by ferry. The ferry to the island leaves from Sandspit, just north of Warkworth. Full of day trippers slathered in sunscreen it visits the various wharves dotted along the sheltered side of the island delivering the mail, groceries and other goods. For the visitor it is a good introduction to an island which has only two short private roads and where the majority of properties rely on access to the sea. Neighbours visit neighbour either on foot or by boat and kayak.
School House Bay – there is no longer a school on the island. The few school age children go to school on the mainland.
Prior to the Europeans Kawau was often fought over by local Maori. During the 18th century a ‘pirate’ like group of Maori lived on the island – there are at least three known pa sites (two on Bon Accord Harbour and one in the north of the island). According to tradition the Kawau Maori would attack other Maori travelling around the island, something which was not tolerated for long. Eventually, other local tribes from the mainland banded together and attacked the Maori of Kawau. The island tribe was completely massacred and tradition says a large feast ensued at Bostaquet Bay where parts of their enemies were cooked and eaten. A tapu was placed on Kawau making it no-go area for Maori – the tapu is still in place.
The next important phase of the history of the island began in 1842 with the discovery of copper and manganese. Miners were brought in from Wales and Cornwall to work the mines and smelting works. The population of the island at this time was approximately 300.
The ruins of the pumphouse
One of several mine shafts to be found on the island.
The remains of the smelting works can be seen in Bon Accord Harbour just along from the present day yacht club. On a small point between Dispute Cove and South Cove there is also the ruins of pumphouse constructed to alleviate flooding issues. The pumphouse would not look out of place in Cornwall. In 1844/45 the mine produced some 7000 pounds of Copper which represented a third of Auckland’s exports for that year. Unfortunately issues with flooding, shipping and infighting resulted in the mines being closed down in 1855.
The remains of the smelting works at Bon Accord Harbour.
In 1862 Sir George Grey, then the Governor of New Zealand paid 3,700 pounds for Kawau Island and turned it into a private retreat. He turned the former mine managers house into the imposing mansion you see today and imported many exotic plants and wildlife to the island. In 1888 Sir Grey sold Kawau and Mansion house had several owners and in 1910 it became a guest house and a popular retreat for Aucklanders. The last private owner sold the house in 1967 to the Government for inclusion in the Hauraki Gulf Maritime Park.
However it was not until the late 1970s was a plan put together to preserve the historical character of the island and thus the house. Today 10% of the island is in public ownership as the Kawau Island Historic Reserve (and includes Mansion House and Bay) which is administered by the NZ Department of Conservation. One of the many ongoing issues faced by the island is the damage done to the native flora and fauna by Sir Grey’s introduced species, namely the wallabies and possums. Both animals have been responsible for the destruction of much of the native bush. However, slowly but surely the tide is turning and now there are kiwi, bellbirds, tui, kereru and more returning to the island. Kawau Island is in fact home to two thirds of the entire population of the North Island weka.
Archaeology, History and a little bit of time travel…