Experimental archaeology is the one path that virtually anyone can take to travel back in time; to get an idea of what life may have been like in the distant past. One such place which encapsulates this philosophy is Butser Ancient Farm, a place I had the chance to visit recently.
Butser began life in 1972, in a different location by the late Peter Reynolds, whose passion for experimental archaeology was contagious. The original farm was situated on Butser Hill, in what is now the Queen Elizabeth Country Park, in part because of the evidence for extensive Iron Age field systems on Butser Hill, still visible in the prehistoric field boundaries and earthworks that cover the landscape. However, it did not open to the public until 1974 and because of its popularity moved to a more accessible site at the bottom of Butser Hill. In 1991 the farm moved to its present location (near Chalton, Hampshire – just off the A3).
At Butser it is possible to see ten thousand years of history come to life; to see plans of archaeological sites rise up from the ground; to feel, touch, smell and absorb some of what it may have been like in the past is an experience that should not be missed. All of the buildings which have been reconstructed are based on actual archaeological sites that have been discovered through excavation.
These excavations often only reveal the faintest of remains, the postholes and their layout is usually all archaeologists have to go on as to the type of building. The artefacts found and their position in the structure can also provide clues as to the use of the space inside and outside. Understanding all the fragmentary pieces of evidence can often take a leap of faith particularly for the general public. In this case Butser provides a physical and tangible connection to the past for the visitor.
However, it is much more than that, it is a place where those who study the past can test theories in, not only ancient technologies and construction techniques but also in how sites degrade. Our understanding of how archaeological sites are formed depend very much on understanding how a place degrades, becoming the humps and bumps we see in the landscape.
In addition to the buildings, there are also gardens containing plants that would have been in use at a particular time – known from faunal analysis during excavations. Ancient breeds of sheep, goat and pig are also a feature of the farm, giving the visitor a well-rounded experience. At certain times of the year, they also host various events such as flint knapping weekends, re-enactment groups, storytelling, solstice celebrations and more.
The following are few photos from my visit this year…beginning in the very distant past of the Mesolithic and Neolithic.
In the days preceding my visit the team at Butser along with volunteers from the HMS Queen Elizabeth had a go at erecting a megalith using only the types of technology available in the Neolithic. They moved and raised a 3.5 ton piece of Purbeck limestone using theorised prehistoric techniques. The stone is roughly the same weight as the smaller bluestones at Stonehenge, which were moved over 140 miles around 5000 years ago.
When performing such tasks it is also useful to observe what is left behind, these ephemeral remains are often the hardest to interpret.
From the Neolithic we carefully saunter into the Bronze Age, the time of the roundhouse and metal working…
The Iron Age –
The Roman villa – as with all the structures at Butser the villa was built using only construction techniques known to be used in the Romano-British period. The mosaic is the only known reconstruction in the UK and the aim was to understand some of the finer points in mosaic construction but also to see what happens to it over time.
The Anglo-Saxon halls are the most recent addition to the farm and demonstrate two different types of building style.
As mentioned before Butser also engages in research and education, none of the buildings, gardens or spaces are static museum pieces, they are constantly evolving – adding to our knowledge. Most years the farm is well attended by schools wide and far who get a hands on perspective of life in the past, archaeology and history.
The gardens and the animals are an equally fascinating aspect to the farm, endeavoring to give a much more rounded picture of the past.
For more information I would highly recommend their website (and archive) – Butser Ancient Farm
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 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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A recent discovery (and purchase) of three booklets in a local charity shop is my inspiration for this post. Folklore, legends, customs and superstitions have always interested me and if it they have anything to do with my favourite place in the UK – Cornwall – all the better. Reading through them I became aware that perhaps on an unconscious level such stories may have influenced parts of ‘The Adventures of Sarah Tremayne’. In particular, the character of Nan who is a practitioner of the craft in her own very personal way; the West Penwith landscape and places such as Zennor and the great granite tors.
What follows is a brief look at some of these stories, but first an introduction to the person who recorded them over a hundred years ago.
In 1865 Robert Hunt wrote ‘Popular Romances of the West of England’ as a result of a period of convalescence where for ten months he wandered around Cornwall and up to the borders of Dartmoor listening to ordinary people and recording their stories. In his own words, “drinking deeply from the stream of legendary lore which at that time flowing as from a well of living water”. He recorded many interesting and quirky tales, some about giants, some about the fairy folk, some about the enigmatic megaliths and some about witches and magic.
As mentioned above, witchcraft and magic are very much part of my writing, thus for the purpose of this article lets look at some of these tales of witches in Cornwall…
One of the first stories to grab my attention was the tale of the Zennor charmers – afterall, Sarah’s Nan lives in Zennor as did her ancestors. According to Hunt it is said that the men and women of this parish had the ability to stop blood, however fast it flowed. But it seemed that the charms were closely guarded secret and not even amongst themselves would be shared. People travelled from miles to have themselves or their children charmed for things such as ringworm, pains in the limbs or teeth and ulcerations. Hunt recorded that a correspondent of his wrote of ‘…a lady charmer, on whom I called. I found her to be a really clever, sensible woman. She was reading a learned treatise on ancient history. She told me there were but three charmers left in the west, – one at New Mills, one in Morva and herself’.
Charms are a common form of magic found in the relatively recent past, most have a religious element invoking angels and the use of holy water – possibly as a means of not upsetting the religious sensibilities of the community who would suffer their presence provided they were not openly subversive. Others use more natural elements such as the ash tree, the moon and even fire (ie candles) – a reflection of older pre-christian beliefs but still acceptable providing no harm was done. Their use is mainly used as a curative for various ailments or to find love. There are those that could be used to harm others but these are rare and fraught with danger as often such things have been known to rebound on the user in unimaginable ways.
Charmers (also sometimes called pellars) were the more acceptable face of magic – tolerated by the church and society in general – unlike the witch or sorcerer…
How to Become a Witch
Here we find that the mysterious granite rocks play a part.
“Touch a Logan stone nine times at midnight, and any woman will become a witch. A more certain plan is said to be – to get on the Giant’s Rock at Zennor Churchtown nine times without shaking it. Seeing that this rock was at one time a very sensitive Logan stone, the task was somewhat difficult” (Cornish Legends p27)
A Logan stone is simply put a large slab of granite which is perched so perfectly on top of another, with only a single point of contact, that it rocks when touched and does not fall. There are several examples of Logan stones in Cornwall, the most famous is found at Treryn Dinas, the headland beyond the village of Treen. This particular one features in our next tale of Cornish witches.
The Witches of the Logan Stone
In his descriptions Hunt speaks of the ‘wild reverence of this mass of rock’ by Druids and people of the past. But it is the peak of granite just south of the Logan Stone, known as Castle Peak that he tells has been the place of midnight rendezvous for witches. He refers to them as the witches of St Levan who would fly into Castle Peak on stems of ragwort, bringing with them the things necessary to make their charms potent and strong.
From this peak many a struggling ship has been watched by a malignant crone, while she has been brewing the tempest to destroy it; and many a rejoicing chorus has been echoed, in horror, by the cliffs around, when the the witches have been croaking their miserable delight over the perishing of crews, as they have watched man, woman and child drowning, whom they were presently to rob of the treasures they were bringing home from other lands.
Cornish Legends Robert Hunt 1865 p29
The latter paragraph seems to confuse the witches of St Levan gathering at a dangerous stretch of Cornish coast with a band of wreckers, the similarities are obvious. Perhaps the stories were spread by the those who would not wish for anyone to pay to close attention to a particular locale.
There are many tales told about Pengersick Castle near Praa Sands. It is particularly well known for its many ghostly stories, I myself have had several odd encounters in and around the castle which you can read about online at The Celtic Guide (Halloween edition 2014). Hunt however, wrote of the first Pengerswick and his desire to improve his familys status. It seems that an ‘elderly maiden’ connected with the very influential Godolphin family wished to marry the elder son, a match his father encouraged. Unfortunately, the son could not be swayed, even when love potions brewed by the Witch of Fraddam were used. Eventually she married the old Lord himself.
Now the witch had a niece call Bitha who had been called upon to aid the lady of Godolphin and her aunt with their spells on the son, however she fell in love with him too. When the lady of Godolphin became the Lady of Pengerswick she employed Bitha as her maid. Yet the lady was still infatuated with the son and soon this turned to hate and then jealousy when she saw him with Bitha. In her bitterness she attempted all manner of spells but Bitha’s skill learnt from her aunt kept him safe. Eventually, the young man left Pengersick only returning on the death of his father.
During his absence the mistress and the maid spent a great deal of time plotting and counter-plotting to secure the wealth of the old Lord. When the son returned from distant Eastern lands with a princess for a wife and learned in all the magic sciences, he found his stepmother locked away in the tower, her skin covered in scales like a serpent as a result of the poisons she had distilled so often for the father and the son. She eventually cast herself into the sea, ‘to the relief of all parties’. Bitha did not fare much better, her skin had become the colour of a toad due to all the poisonous fumes she had inhaled and from her dealings with the devil.
The Witch of Treva
Once upon a time, long ago, there lived at Treva, a hamlet in Zennor, a wonderful old lady deeply skilled in necromancy. Her charms, spells and dark incantations made her the terror of the neighbourhood. However, this old lady failed to impress her husband with any belief in her supernatural powers, nor did he fail to proclaim his unbelief aloud”.
Robert Hunt ‘Cornish Legends’ p42
All of that changed one evening when the husband returned to find no dinner on the table. His wife, the witch, was unrepentant merely stating ‘I couldn’t get meat out of the stone, could?’ The husband then resolved to use this as a way of proving once and for all his wife’s powers. He told her that if she could procure him some good cooked meat within the half hour he would believe all she said of her power and be submissive to her forever. Confident she couldn’t accomplish such a thing, St Ives, the nearest market town was some five miles away and she had only her feet for transport, he sat and watched as she put on her cloak and headed out the cottage door and down the hill. He also watched as she placed herself on the ground and disappeared, in her place was hare which ran off at full speed.
Naturally he was a little startled but sat down to wait, within the half hour in walked his wife with ‘good flesh and taties all ready for aiting’.
Trewa, The Home of Witches
Not to be confused by the previous Treva (both pronounced ‘truee’) this particular place is now known as Trewey Common. Situated high on the moor between Nancledra and Zennor, it is landscape dotted with the remains of the ever present mining industry sitting alongside great outcrops of granite, some used in the construction of ancient monuments. Hunt described the scenery as ‘of the wildest description’, he is not wrong – even the modern mind can run wild with imagination in the evening twilight or on a moody day when the sky is as grey as the granite.
Hunt tells us that regardless of what local historians may say local tradition says that on Mid-summer Eve all the witches in Penwith gather here, lighting fires on every cromlech (quoit or tomb) and in every rock basin ‘until the hills were alive with flame’. Their purpose was to renew their vows to the ‘evil ones from whom they derived their power’.
It seems there was also another much larger pile of granite known as the ‘Witches Rock’ which no longer exists, having been removed quite some time ago. It was the removal of the rock which caused the witches to depart.
“…the last real witch in Zennor having passed away, as I have been told, about thirty years since, and with her, some say, the fairies fled. I have, however, many reasons for believing that our little friends have still a few haunts in this locality.”
R Hunt 1865 ‘Cornish Folklore’
Hunt did go on to say that there was one reason why all should regret the removal of the Witches Rock, it seems that touching the rock nine times at midnight was insurance against bad luck…
Sorcerers were the male equivalent of the witch, however with the addition that the powers were passed from father to son (more a reflection of the patriarchal nature of society at the time).
“There are many families – the descendants from the ancient Cornish people – who are even yet supposed to possess remarkable powers of one kind or another.”
Robert Hunt 1865 ‘Cornish Folklore’
Unfortunately, apart from mentioning the family of Pengersick (which had by this time died out) and alluding to their wicked deeds he does not go into any great length about any of the other ancient Cornish families. Perhaps wisely, for if these unmentioned families did have remarkable powers it would not pay to offend…
It is perhaps not surprising that certain parts of the Cornish landscape is given to fantastical tales of giants, witches and the fairy folk. The many ancient monuments, the craggy granite outcrops and the vast expanses of moorland lend themselves to an active imagination. The stories also serve as a caution against unchristian behaviour. As in the case of the witch of Treva who it is said when she died a black cloud rested over her house when everywhere else it was clear and blue. When the time came to carry her coffin to the churchyard, several unusual events occurred such as the sudden appearance of a cat on her coffin. It was only with the parson repeating the Lords Prayer over and over were they able to get her to the churchyard without any further incidents until they paused at the church stile and a hare appeared which as soon as the parson began the prayer once more gave a ‘diabolical howl, changed into a black unshapen creature and disappeared’.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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…
Its that time of year in the Northern Hemisphere that some folks thoughts turn towards all things supernatural. Halloween or Samhain, to give it its traditional name, is said to be a time when the veil between the world of the ancestors and our world is at its thinnest. The celebration of this festival varies from person to person depending on age, background and of course where you live. Some choose to trick or treat, some go on a ghost hunt, whilst others use this time to remember and celebrate their ancestors.
The history of the festival of Samhain is comprehensively covered in main different parts of the internet and it is not my intention to rehash the topic here. Instead want to consider the idea of hauntings and deep past, after all the roots of Samhain can be found within the distant past with the ancestors.
Hauntings and ghosts in the UK are most commonly associated with castles, old country houses, old pubs and the like – the age and history of these places are enough to provide copious amounts of storytelling fodder. But what about the truly ancient places in the landscape? Surely based on age alone they too should have their fair share of tales…
Stonehenge is probably one of the most famous ancient sites in the UK (for more information feel free to check one of my earlier articles here). However, it does come with some of its own spooky stories…
In 1971, when it was far easier to get up close and personal with the stones, a group of hippies decided to camp out in the center of the circle. All was going well until at sometime around 2am a violent and sudden thunderstorm struck the Salisbury Plains. At the same time a farmer was checking on his stock and a policeman was in the area. Both spoke of a bright blue light illuminating the stones and of hearing screams from the campers. When they rushed to the campsite all they found were the ashes of the fire and smoldering tent pegs – the hippies had vanished.
Stonehenge sits within a much wider ‘ritual’ landscape, surrounded by numerous Bronze Age burial mounds known as barrows. One such group of barrows sits on a ridge known as Kings Barrow Ridge and it was in the woods nearby that a man in the 1950s had a strange encounter. It was late at night and the man in question was on his way home when he became disorientated. Climbing one of the barrows to get a better idea of where he was, he saw some lights in the distance and assumed them to be a farmhouse. Climbing down the barrow he became alarmed when he realised that the lights were moving towards him and they were not electric lights but flaming torches. Assuming they were a group of modern druids enacting some pagan ritual and not wanting to disturb them he hid and waited for them to pass.
Once they had passed he quietly followed them hoping they would be heading back to the main road from whence he would be able to get himself home. After awhile the silent procession reached the edge of the wood and the man recognising where he was, slipped away not wanting to disturb them. Unfortunately, he made that small mistake of looking back, he watched in horror as one by one the torches flickered out and the robed figures disappeared into thin air.
Other interesting phenomena associated with Kings Barrow Ridge are the strange blue flashes of light that are occasionally seen arcing across the barrows and the simultaneous loss of electrical current.
Another well know stone circle is that of Avebury, not far from Stonehenge (please check out my earlier article for more information about Avebury here). Perhaps one of the salient points to remember about Avebury is that a number of the stones have been removed, broken up and used as building material whilst others have simply been pulled over and buried where they lay as a result of anti-pagan fervor during the medieval period. It is said that the buildings which were built using the old standing stones are subject to a poltergeist type manifestation known as ‘The Haunt’. Then there are a number of stories which include moving lights, phantom singing and spectral figures around and within the stones themselves.
One such figure may even be the ghost of the man who died some time in the 1320s. When Alexander Keiller decided to re-erect some of the stones in the circle. Under one such stone the skeleton remains of man were found, the coins and tools on him dated his death to the 1320s, his trade as a barber-surgeon (this stone is now known as the Barber stone). It seems he was helping to dig the burial pit for the stone when it fell and crushed him. His compatriots deciding it was not worth the effort to dig him out for a proper burial and perhaps superstition got the better of them.
A similar story is told about the Caratus Stone (possibly a fifth century AD memorial stone) in Somerset. Here the tale tells of a foolish carter who tried to uproot the stone to get at the treasure which supposedly lay beneath it. Unfortunately for him, the stone (or should that be the ancestors) had different ideas, it fell on him crushing him to death. His apparition is said to frequent the area on foggy nights.
Another story regarding Avebury tells of a young woman called Edith Olivier who during World War One decided to drive to Avebury for the first time. She wrote of the looming avenue of megaliths that lined her route from the west and how once in the village she noticed a crowd of villagers attending a fair. It was not until sometime later she discovered that not only had the avenue she had seen disappeared by 1800 but that there had been no fair in the village since 1850.
Barrows and the Fae
There are many tales of the fairy folk and in different parts of the UK they often have local names, such as in Cornwall where you get piskies who have acquired the status of ‘supernatural vermin’. Also in Cornwall there is a variation of the piskie called a spriggan (a more malevolent type of fae) and it is these which are said to guard the treasures hiding in the barrows. Such traditions of fairy folk protecting the barrows of the ancestors are widespread and perhaps hark back to a distant religion.
On Wick Moor in Somerset there is a barrow surrounded by barbed wire and set within the middle of the Hinkley Nuclear Power Station. Known as Pixie’s Mound, the story goes a man found a small broken toy spade. He mended it and left it by the barrow. When he next passed that way he found the spade gone and a plate of cakes in its place, these he ate and forevermore enjoyed good fortune. During the power stations construction the builders were warned that if they built over the barrow nothing would work. Advice which they took seriously.
Throughout the UK there are many landscapes and places associated with the fairy folk. Often it is the vast lonely moorlands which seem to have more than their fair share of tales told of unwary travellers being befuddled and lead astray by the fae. In the far west of Cornwall there is a lonely stretch of moorland between Woon Gumpus and Carn Kenidjack, here not only does the Devil ride the fairy path on a black horse but dancing lights are often seen while the granite tor wails in the wind. Fairy paths are the dead straight paths which lead between fairy forts and barrows; it is on these you are most likely to encounter the fae.
Bona fide prehistoric ghosts are a rare phenomena but one of the best substantiated ghosts in the Dorset area and most probably the oldest is that of Bronze Age ghost seen on Bottlebrush Down. Here a respected archaeologist R C Clay witnessed (in 1924) whilst driving home one evening from an excavation the apparition of man on horseback galloping beside his vehicle. He wore a long dark cloak and rode bareback, brandishing a weapon angrily. Approaching a barrow Mr Clay was astonished to see the horse and rider suddenly vanish into the burial mound. He is only one of many who have seen this particular spectre.
Other ghostly figures at archaeological sites include a horse and chariot at Ruborough Camp in Somerset which is said to be guarding treasure buried there. Near Thetford in Norfolk on the banks of the river Thet there is a barrow known as Thet Hill. It is regarded as being very haunted, here a red-haired chieftan has been seen. In Wroxham (Norfolk) you may come across the apparition of a Roman soldier who will order you away, it seems he is clearing a passage for a ghostly procession of prancing horse, chariots, gladiators, lions, centurions and their prisoners who make their way from Brancaster to the arena which once stood there.
In the Welsh county of Glamorgan is one of the UK’s oldest archaeological sites. On the coast are the Paviland Caves where a burial of Paleolithic hunter was found and excavated at the end of the 19th century. Labelled the ‘Red Lady of Paviland’ stories abounded about it being a woman imprisoned there during a storm whilst hunting for treasure amongst other things and of course she was said to haunt the cave. However, this is definitely one of those cases where the human imagination was allowed a little too much free reign. The Red Lady was later proven to be a man and considerably older then first imagined.
Worth a mention though and not far from the above site is Rhossli, behind the village is a moorland area which the locals admit to feelings of being watched and menace. Here it is said the air seems full of evil foreboding…
Over the years I have visited many prehistoric sites and have heard the stories of many others. There are often those who speak of feelings of foreboding, of not being welcome. At West Kennet long barrow several people have said they have felt unwelcome. But it would seem that this depends on the person and the when of the visit. I know from my own experience that walking into a stone circle invites contemplation and even unruly children become quiet and reflective without being told. Perhaps this too is a type of haunting when only the energy remains.
Landscapes imbued with meaning, with the rituals of the past; vast stretches of empty wild rugged land; brooding moorland; mysterious stones; cursed burial mounds; noises in the mist; shadows at the corner of your eye…Samhain…a time when the veil is thin…a time to honour the ancestors…
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.
Last week was New Zealand Archaeology Week and as part of this I joined a group of like minded people with the aim of learning a bit more about Auckland’s early history via the evidence provided with one of our earliest cemeteries – the Symonds St Cemetery. The commentary was provided by Dr Heather Battles and our hosts were the Auckland Archaeological Society/NZAA.
The cemetery is one of New Zealand’s oldest urban cemeteries and was established in 1841, the same year Auckland became the capital of this fledgling colonial country. Although today it is part of the inner city back in the mid 1800s it was some distance from the colonial township.
This was unusual for the time – burials were usually found within a churchyard setting whilst in this case the churches for the various denominations were some distance from the cemetery itself. It has been suggested that concerns over public health were what prompted this new urban model but also it “reflected the influence of broader Enlightenment ideas on the new colony, which stressed the seperation between church and state” (from NZ Heritage listing summary).
Enlightenment values could also be seen in the idea of a cemetery for all – here religious affiliations became less important – to an extent…whilst the cemetery is the last resting place of a diverse range of religions, they are segregated within the cemetery itself. One of my earliest pieces of fieldwork as an undergrad student at Auckland University was to do a comparative study of two of the areas within the cemetery looking at the monuments and asking what can they tell us about colonial society. Unfortunately it has been quite some time since then and I do not remember much but what did stand out to me was how elaborate the Wesleyan monuments were when compared to the other parts of the cemetery which is in direct contrast to their sermons on humility and modesty.
The earliest phase of the cemetery was probably about 3.75 hectares but by 1842 it had expanded to around 7.5 hectares. This part of Auckland is one of many ups and downs and today you can see many of the monuments are beginning to tumble down the gully (if they haven’t already). The cemetery was divided into the four main denominations (Anglican, Catholic, Jewish and Wesleyan/non-conformist) on either side of the main route south out of Auckland. This ridgeway later became known as Symonds Street. The land size that each group received was based upon the census of the time.
The 1860s and 1870s saw a change in attitude towards the cemetery and some beautification occured, with trees being planted (some are still there today) and paths being laid. In turn the monuments start to become more elaborate. Eventually, space became an issue and the cemetery was closed to new burials in 1886 unless you already had family members interred there. At the same time a new urban cemetery was created at Waikumete. By 1909 Symonds Street Cemetery became a public reserve suffering from various modifications when the Grafton Bridge was built to span the steep sided gully. Much later in the mid 1960s further damage was done to the cemetery with the southern motorway was constructed. During this time some 4100 bodies were removed and reinterred in two memorial sites within the cemetery.
Today the cemetery is around 5.8 hectares with approximately 10,000 individuals interred there, however it is estimated only around a quarter of those have any kind of visible monuments. Even so it is still an important repository of information on early colonial Auckland and New Zealand.
Below are some images from the Catholic part of the cemetery.
The following images are also from the Catholic part of the cemetery, the first shows the Catholic church some distance away and separated by the southern motorway. The second photo shows the memorial plaque for those whose bodies were re-interred as a result of the motorway construction.
The pictures below are from the Anglican part of the cemetery and show some of the disrepair the monuments are in. The third photo along is of a very distinctive memorial in the shape of a church.
There are several well known New Zealanders buried in the cemetery such as William Hobson, New Zealand’s first Governor who signed the Treaty of Waitangi and died in 1842. The first picture is his memorial whilst the remaining two pictures are of Frederick Manning’s burial, another well known New Zealander.
This article was originally written several years ago for the ‘Mythology Magazine’ which is now defunct. My intention when writing this was to look at some of the myths and legends associated with the colonisation of the Pacific so please do bear in mind this is not an academic treatise on this subject (that is a far too large a subject for a simple blog…).
The islands of the
Pacific Ocean were one of the last places in the world to be colonised by
people. The how, when and why has
occupied archaeologists, anthropologists, linguists and historian for decades. For the European scientist these questions
need to be answered with solid evidence backing them. For the indigenous populations tradition told
them all they needed to know, the myths and legends providing all that was
needed by the way of explanation.
New Zealand, Hawaii and
Easter Island were the last landmasses to be colonised in the Pacific. These first peoples were at the end of a long
line of ancestors whose collective knowledge fuelled their ability and desire
to travel across vast tracts of ocean.
The Pacific region is made up of three distinct areas – Melanesia,
Micronesia and Polynesia. The first area
to have been settled by people was Melanesia; it consists of Vanuatu, Papua New
Guinea, Fiji, the Solomon Islands, the Bismarck Archipelago and New Caledonia. Dates for the first colonisation range
between some 50-30,000 years ago their ancestors originating from South East
Asia. Micronesia is situated north of
the Melanesian group and is made up of groups of islands including Kiribati,
Nauru, Marshall Islands (to name a few) and the US territories of Guam,
Northern Mariana Island and Wake Island.
Evidence for the settlement of this region is difficult to pin down; the
earliest archaeological evidence comes from the island of Saipan and is dated
to around 3500 years ago. The third
group of islands is Polynesia which covers a wide part of the Pacific. Generally speaking New Zealand, Hawaii and
Easter Island form the corners of a triangle within which all other islands sit
and are referred to as Polynesia.
The ancestors of the Polynesians
migrated from South East Asia a little later than the settlers of Micronesia,
passing through some parts of Micronesia and Melanesia, but rarely settling for
long. Fiji is an interesting case, as in
many ways it straddles the line between Melanesia and Polynesia. When the ancestors of the Polynesians arrived
in Fiji there was already a decent sized population and had been for
millennia. Yet today the visitor to Fiji
will see a multitude of faces, some are distinctly Melanesian looking (mainly
in the eastern islands) and others look more Polynesian. Fiji in many ways was a jumping off point for
the exploration further west, the next islands to be settled were Samoa and
Tonga, both of which are not a great distance from Fiji. These early explorers are known as Lapita
people based on a distinctive type of pottery found on the archaeological sites.
“All island groups in island Melanesia and West Polynesia that lie in a south-east direction have Lapita settlements. None of these settlements have been found on other islands.” (G. Irwin. Pacific Migrations – ancient voyaging in Near Oceania. Te Ara: The Encylcopedia of New Zealand.)
These people were
exploring the region from as early as 3500 years ago (evidence found at the
Bismarcks) and by 3000 years ago were already as far as Samoa and Tonga. The archaeology tells us these were small
groups who travelled fast and light, they established only a few permanent
villages on each major island group and then they moved on. At this time the distinctive Polynesian
culture began to emerge in the west and by 2000 years ago people had begun to
move into the eastern part of the region.
By 700AD the majority of Polynesia had been settled with the last
migrations being to New Zealand, Hawaii, Easter Island and South America (the
only evidence for South America is the presence of the ‘kumara’ or sweet
potato, radiocarbon dates from kumara found in the Cook Islands indicate that
Polynesians had reached South America and returned by 1000AD at the latest).
All well and good you
might say, but what has this to do with the mythology of the region? To study the past of this region it is
important to not only use all those scientific tools we have at our disposal
but also use the traditional knowledge, stories and myths to provide a greater
depth of understanding. In Polynesia
there are many stories which have a commonality suggesting a shared ancestry.
In much of eastern Polynesia Hawaiki (the Maori name) does not refer to the islands we know as Hawaii but to a mythical land where the ancestors journeyed from – an ancient homeland. In New Zealand nearly all the Maori have traditions of such a voyage, in the Marquesas it called Havai’i, in the Tuamotus it is Havaiki and in the Cook Islands the ancient homeland is referred to as Avaiki. Not only is Hawaiki the ancient homeland but it is also a place where a persons spirit would go after death. The main island of the Hawaii group is so named because it is the site of two volcanoes which were regarded as a place of great supernatural importance and the home of the gods. Similarly the island of Ra’iatea in the Society Islands was previously known as Havai’i and it too has a volcano on it (albeit a extinct one) believed to be the entrance to the underworld and the home of the gods.
In Maori myth Hawaiki is in the east – the direction of the rising sun and the stars which bring the changing seasons. Thus it is not surprising that Hawaiki was associated with life, fertility and success. It is said that the first human life was created from the soil of Hawaiki by Tane (or sometimes Tiki). It is the place of highly valued resources such as the kumara which is said to grow wild there – this is interesting in itself because if you travel directly eastwards from New Zealand you will (eventually) land in South America, the homeland of the sweet potato.
“When the ancestors arrived in their waka, they brought with them many treasured plants and birds, also important atua and ritual objects such as mauri. In one way and another, Hawaiki was the ultimate source of the mana of all these. The crops flourished, the gods exerted their powers, the mauri ensured continuing fertility of the resources they protected, because of their origin in Hawaiki.” (M.Orbell 1995 Maori Myth and Legend)
The veneration of the east – many rituals are conducted facing east – is unusual for Polynesia and has led some to make the dubious suggestion that New Zealand was settled by people from South America. More recent studies have demonstrated that the first voyagers would have taken a south-west trajectory from either the Cook Islands or the Society Islands in order to land on the east coast of New Zealand. Over time it would seem this navigational knowledge was amalgamated with the traditions of an ancient homeland.
In other parts of eastern
Polynesia Hawaiki is in the west or sometimes even in the sky and in western
Polynesia it is called by another name – Pulotu, a word that can be
linguistically traced into Micronesia.
It is interesting to note that the largest island that forms part of
Samoa (western Polynesia) is called Savai’i and is a land associated in
tradition with many supernatural goings on.
Hawaiki was not only the land where the ancestors came from but also a
place of spirits, a place where the myths came into being.
As time went on many of these stories would become absorb into local tradition with familiar places becoming the setting to the story. Thus the story of Maui who fished up the islands can be found everywhere in Polynesia. In New Zealand it is said that the North Island was a giant stingray fished up out of the sea by Maui using his magic hook (the hills and valleys of the land are a result of his brothers greed when they hacked at the fish). On the tiny atolls of Manikihi and Rakahanga it is believed that these islands are all that remains of a single land which broke apart when Maui leapt from it into the heavens. In Hawaii tradition tells of the islands being a shoal of fish and how Maui enlists the help of Hina-the-bailer to bring the shoal together with his magic hook to form one mass. Maui hauled on the line, instructing his brothers to row without looking back, which of course they did, this resulted in the line breaking and the islands become separated for all time. In the Tuamotaus Maui and his brothers are once more fishing far from land, once more he has a magic hook and once more he pulls up an island but because his brothers did not listen to Maui the giant fish/island broke apart and became the land the Tuamotua people refer to as Havaiki, where Maui and his family reside.
Maui is one of the most
well known of Polynesian deities, found in the stories throughout the region he
is often known as a trickster, part god and part human. He was of a time when the world was still new
and there much to do to make it bearable for people. Maui is said to be responsible for raising
the skies, snaring the sun, fishing up lands, stealing fire, controlling the
winds and arranging the stars. On the
island of Yap in Micronesia a demi-god figure called Mathikethik went fishing
with his two elder brothers, he also had a magic hook and on his first cast
brought up all sorts of crops, in particular taro, an island staple. On his second cast he brought up the island
of Fais. The similarities here with
Polynesian Maui are obvious and once again we can get a tantalising glimpse of
past movements of people.
Other characters common
to the stories of the Polynesia from Samoa in the west to Hawaii in the east
include Hina, said to be both the first woman and a goddess who is the guardian
of the land of the dead; Tinirau whose pet whale was murdered by Kae; Tawhaki
who visited the sky and Rata whose canoe was built by the little people of the
forest and was a great voyager and Whakatau the great warrior.
“…on every island the poets, priests and narrators drew from the same deep well of mythological past which the Polynesians themselves call the The Night of Tradition. For when their ancestors moved out from the Polynesian nucleus they carried with them the the knowledge of the same great mythological events, the names of their gods and of their many demi-gods and heroes. As time passed the Polynesian imagination elaborated and adapted old themes to suit fresh settings, and new characters and events were absorbed into the mythological system.” (R. Poignant 1985 Oceanic and Australasian Mythology).
Of course none of this
addresses the question of why. Why did
the first people leave their homelands and explore into the vast ocean,
particularly to places like New Zealand, South America, Easter Island and
Hawaii? What motivated them? The myths do in some way suggest possible
reasons, these are stories people would have heard over and over again as they
grew into adulthood. Stories of great
adventurers, of those who dared to do the impossible and it does seem that much
of the early migration was a result of simple human curiosity. Prestige and mana could be gained by person
willing to find new lands. In the places
they originally came from there was no food shortage and in some instances even
once they had discovered a new island, they would move on leaving but only a
small population behind. In the
traditions there are also stories told of people being banished and having to
find new places to live, in addition there are stories of battles lost and
people fleeing retribution. These too
could well be another window into the motivation behind Oceanic migration.
On their own the mythologies
of the Pacific cannot provide us with more than a unique insight into the mindset
of the peoples considered to be some of the greatest explorers of the past but when
combined with genetics, linguistics and archaeology it gives us the ability to
answer those questions of how, when and why.
Irwin G (2012) ‘Pacific
Migrations – Ancient Voyaging in Near Oceania’ Te Ara: The Enclyclopedia of New Zealand.
Ratzel F & Butler A J
(1869) History of Mankind
Poignant R (1985) Oceanic and Australasian Mythology