Tag Archives: New Zealand

Exploring Auckland’s Maunga

Perhaps one of the most dominant and much-loved landscape features of Tamaki Makaurau Auckland are the remains of long dead volcanoes.  Fifty-three volcanoes have erupted in the Auckland area over many millennia (the most recent being Rangitoto), some exist in today’s landscape as basins or form lakes and many have been quarried away for stone used in the construction of roads and building, or to simply make room for the ever-developing city.

“For hundred of years, these volcanoes have played a key part in the lives of Māori and Pākehā – as sites for Māori pā and 20th century military fortifications, as kūmara gardens and parks, as sources of water and stone.” (B.Hayward ‘Volcanoes of Auckland’ 2019).

As an archaeologist my interest in the upstanding cones of Auckland’s past volcanoes relate to the features found on and near their slopes, to this extent with the company of the dog, the other half and one of the teens, it was decided to explore those we had seen from a distance as we zipped up and down the motorway.

The trusty hound on the summit of Maungarei/Mt Wellington.

The four largest maunga (mountains/volcanic cones) in Auckland are Maungarei (Mt Wellington), Maungakiekie (One Tree Hill), Maungawhau (Mt Eden) and Mangere. Today’s visitor to these places may have a skewed view of the maunga, seeing them standing alone within a landscape of roads, housing developments and shopping centers. This was of course not always the case, using archaeology it is possible to strip back the layers of modern city life to see into the past. It is equally important to understand that the maunga were not static occupation sites. There were many changes over time, what we see today is simply the last phase of occupation. One of the most common assumption about all of Aucklands upstanding volcanic cones are that they were solely used for defence in times of upheaval. The common name for this type of site with its banks and ditches is pā – a Māori fortification which in turn has resulted in other misconceptions that will be touched upon below.

It is also important to know that remarkably little archaeological excavation work has been done on the maunga of Auckland. The most well known was the series of excavations done on Maungarei between 1960 and 1972 ahead of several developments (installation of water tank and road access).

The interior of the volcanic cone – the flat area is the top of a water tank with an asphalt carpark immediately in front (please note vehicle access is no longer possible on any of the maunga).

As mentioned above, a pā is seen as any type of settlement which has been fortified, their defining features are the banks and ditches surrounding an area of landscape. Situated mainly on hills, spurs and headlands (but not always, such as the ‘swamp pā’ found in the Waikato), there are some five thousand known pā in New Zealand, of which, the majority are found in areas good for horticulture. Other features can include, pits, terraces and house platforms.

From Fox A (1976) ‘Prehistoric Maori Fortifications in the North Island of New Zealand’
An old postcard of Mt Albert – the banks and ditches surrounding the summit can be clearly seen.

The above diagram is from A Fox (1976) ‘Prehistoric Maori Fortifications in the North Island of New Zealand’ depicting the variety of methods used in defence of a pā.

A sequence of ditches and banks along the north east rim of Maungarei/Mt Wellington.

It is perhaps a mistake to assign a singular function to pā – they were used as places of refuge but they were also places were people lived (although not always and in some cases never), where they stored important food and water supplies; they could also be focal points for religious activity. The palisades and ditches were just as likely to be a symbolic boundary separating a sacred area from the everyday, then a fortification built during times of war.

Maungakiekie (One Tree Hill) has four heavily defended summits but at its the very highest point there is an area which is regarded as important and sacred. Called Te Totara-i-ahua after the sacred lone tōtara that grew there in pre-European times (see earlier post) and it has the greatest amount of defenses surrounding it.

The highest point of One Tree Hill – note the many humps and bumps surrounding it – these are the remains of the terraces (lower slopes) and the banks and ditches (upper slopes).

One of the most common features found at many pā including the maunga of Auckland are the storage pits. Unlike the ancestral tropical home of the Māori where important food staples could be grown all year round, Aotearoa’s more temperate climate required some lateral thinking by New Zealand’s first people.

Storage pits enable kumara tubers to be stored in conditions that protected them from extremes of temperature both for future planting and consumption. There are several types of storage pits – rua are small cave like structures that are dug into the ground and sealed with a wooden door. The type which is most obvious on Auckland’s maunga are the large rectangular storage pits dug into an area and topped with a pitched roof. Depending on the size the roof was supported by either a single line of central posts or a double line of posts. Other features within the storage pit itself include drainage channels that led to one corner of the structure and a sump – an important feature in Aotearoa’s rainy climate.

The above are from Fox A (1976) ‘Prehistoric Maori Fortifications in the North Island of New Zealand’ and show the two types of storage pits commonly seen on the maunga of Auckland.

The depressions seen in a row (mid photo) are the remains of the rectangular storage pits – Manugarei/Mt Wellington.
More of the rectangular storage pits but this time from Mangere Mountain – the two reluctant teens being used to show context regarding size of the pits.

As mentioned before the maunga of Auckland existed within a landscape dotted with settlements and gardens. The fertile volcanic soils surrounding the maunga providing a perfect growing medium for kumara and later the potatoe. This combined with the easy access to other natural resources such as fish and shellfish from the nearby harbours east and west of the central maunga made the isthmus a desirable to place to live where resources were plentiful.

The view from Mangere Mountain towards the Manakau Harbour – the stonefield gardens of Otuatua and Puketutu Island are to the top and left of the photo.

“The prospect from the summit is grand and nobly pleasing, I observed twenty villages in the valley below, and, with a single glance, beheld the largest portionn of cultivated land I had ever met in one place in New Zealand.” From Reverend John Butler – travelling with Samuel Marsden in 1820 as he climbed the summit of Maungarei.

The excavations of Maungarei produced radiocarbon dates for the earliest occupation on the lower slopes to the early 1500s. The period from the mid 1500s to the late 1600s was a time of intensive use. But after 1700 Maungarei does not feature in oral accounts of Māori history and was perhaps no longer an important place. The archaeology suggests that it was the two high points which were the most densely protected (tihi) by palisades and ditches. The lower terraces providing evidence of structures (postholes), hearths, fire scoops, midden deposits and storage pits.

“Maungarei was thus the location of repeated settlements, which were sometimes fortified, particularly late in the sequence, but often not.” From J Davidson (2011) ‘Archaeological investigations at Maungarei: A large Māori settlement on a volcanic cone in Auckland, New Zealand’ Tuhinga 22 Te Papa.

A view of the man humps and bumps to be found over Maungarei – looking north towards Rangitoto.
Maungarei – the seeming farmland setting belies the busy road behind me and the surrounding suburban sprawl which are just out of shot.

Increasingly, archaeological studies are showing that the pā as a site was a late feature of the landscape, dating from the 1500s onwards, not all were in use at the same time and not all functioned in the same way. This would appear to be the case for Tamaki Makaurau Auckland as well. For a long time it has been assumed that the widespread presence of pā in Auckland has meant that the area was in a constant state of flux.

“…Tamaki, in the years of Waiohua ascendency, was one of the most settled and extensively cultivated regions in Aotearoa…in spite of the received wisdom of historians to the contrary, was the the fact that tribes enjoyed long periods of relative peace.” From R C J Stone (2001) ‘From Tamaki-makau-rau to Auckland’ Auckland University Press.

Another of the common features of the maunga are the areas of flat ground surrounding cones. These terraces were used as places for living (some have house platforms), as places for storage pits and as places for gardens.

The above slideshow shows a fraction of the terraces that can be found on any given maunga in Auckland. These examples are from Maungakiekie, Mangere, Maungarei and Maungawhau.

But this is not to say that pā were never used for defence, the banks, ditches and palisades would suggest otherwise. Instead it is suggested that a more balanced view be taken when interpreting such places. Understanding that what we see in the landscape is but the final stage of a long and often complicated history – the evidence from the excavations at Maungarei are a good example of this.

A Return to Otata

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Such an unusual name must have a good story…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Celebration of Language

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other resources also appear in place names:

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

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

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

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

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

Other places are simply descriptive:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some further information:

1000 Māori Place Names

Te Reo Map of Aotearoa

A Multitude of Museums

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

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

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

Kaikoura

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

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

The Kaikoura Museum and Library.

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

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

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

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

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

Otago Museum

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

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

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

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

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

https://otagomuseum.nz/

Steampunk HQ

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

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

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

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

Lakes District Museum and Gallery

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

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

https://www.museumqueenstown.com/

Coaltown

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

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

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

Nelson Provincial Museum

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

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

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

Things I have learnt from visiting museums –

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

Excavating on otata Island

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

View of Rakino Island from the beach at Otata.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More Information

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

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

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

last one…sunset on the last evening…perfect…

Archaeology? What Archaeology?

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

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

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

The mock excavation underway

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A is for Aoraki

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

A is for Aoraki

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*In the North Island Raki is known as Rangi.

*Or alternatively, the waka hit a reef.

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

Hunting Taniwha

A SHORT STORY

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

Soon, whispered the wind.  

 The word rolled around in his awakening mind. 

Soon, whispered the wind.

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

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

Ten eager hands shot into the air.

“Yes Samantha?”  Mrs Foster smiles.

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

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

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

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

“Everyone please welcome The Aunties to room six.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is he still eating people?”

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

“How?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thump, thump, thump…

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

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

Come.

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

It is time.

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

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

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

Wiremu’s heart almost stopped.  Time for what?

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

Ina te rua taniwha!

Pute ona karu

Murara te ohi!

Tau mai te po

Takina te whakaihi

Ki Rarohenga rawa iho

Moe ate Po

Te Po-nui

TePo-roa

Te Po riro atu ai e!

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

“Thank you.”

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

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

            Soon though.  Very soon indeed.