Bay of Islands (N-Z) : Dig uncovers New Zealand's earliest arrivals

Peter de Graaf

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Scczen pd180117naddig4 620x311Ngati Kuta/Patukeha kaumatua Matu Clendon and Heritage NZ archaeologist James Robinson examine a cut into a stream bank. PHOTO / PETER DE GRAAF

Archaeologists are hoping a dig in the Bay of Islands will confirm they have found one of New Zealand's earliest human settlements.

The discovery of fragments of fishing lures and pendants possibly made from pearl shell, which is found only in tropical waters, hints that the site may have been occupied by the first generation to arrive by sea from Polynesia.

Pd180117naddig6b 460x230The dig site, at Mangahawea Bay on Moturua Island, could be one of New Zealand's earliest settlements. PHOTO / PETER DE GRAAF

The dig, on Moturua Island, has also offered tantalising hints of the French explorer Marc-Joseph Marion du Fresne, who used the island as a base before he was killed near Rawhiti in 1772.

The excavation - a partnership between Heritage New Zealand, the Department of Conservation, Otago University and local hapu Ngati Kuta and Patukeha - started on Monday and is due to end on January 29.

It is not a new excavation but the continuation of a dig started in 1981 but never properly completed. That dig uncovered some extraordinary artefacts but was never written up and the finds were not dated.

Lead archaeologist James Robinson, of Heritage NZ, said as well as the shell tool fragments the earlier dig uncovered a moa pelvis, a one-piece fishhook of the type made by early Maori and fragments of clay tobacco pipes.

The pipes did not have makers' marks but were in the French style so could be linked to du Fresne, who visited Moturua several times. After his death his crew attacked Paeroa Pa on the other side of the island, killing many of its inhabitants.

The problem with the previous finds was that their context and age was unclear.

Mr Robinson said there was a "moral imperative" to finish the job started 36 years ago.

On Wednesday a team of volunteers managed to locate the trench dug in 1981, using old photos and probes to feel where soil had been disturbed, and re-excavate it. They also excavated a nearby stream bank.

Mr Robinson said if the team found any artefacts similar to those from the previous dig their exact location would be recorded and dates ascertained.

"We know the site is early. The question is, how early?"

New finds while the Advocate was visiting on Wednesday included a possible moa-bone spear tip, a kuri (dog) tooth and a piece of red ochre pressed into a crayon-like shape. Ochre was used to decorate everything from bones to paddles by early Maori.

If the fishing lures were found to be pearl shell and dating confirmed the site was as early as suspected, that could mean it was used by the first generation of Maori and was as old as Marlborough's Wairau Bar, the most famous of the early sites found so far.

Pd180117naddig8b 300x200Otago University masters student Sam Kurmann with a notched bird bone, possibly moa, which may have been used as a spear tip. PHOTO / PETER DE GRAAF

And if the pipes were shown to be French they would be a "very exciting" link to du Fresne, Mr Robinson said.

"In the best case we have a very early site with a famous French explorer at the top. Even in the worst case, if the pipes are not French, it is a continuous site from the first arrival of Maori to the earliest European explorers.

"It tells us part of the early story of the Bay of Islands and gives an insight into what people did when they first arrived here."

Ngati Kuta and Patukeha are closely involved in the dig.

Kaumatua Matu Clendon said he had a special connection to the island having been born and raised there. His family was forced off in the 1960s.

Hapu members were helping with the dig, keeping the site secure overnight and ensuring tikanga was followed. The archaeologists' findings were not news to hapu, "but they add another dimension to our basket of knowledge", he said.

"We don't need to dig to know our korero is our korero," added Kipa Munro, an iwi adviser to DoC.

"But if this allows our stories to come to life, that's great. Every layer we go down just verifies the korero we tell our children and grandchildren," he said.

DoC archaeologist Andrew Blanshard was instrumental in getting the project started.

Last year he managed to obtain the 1981 notes and bagged materials from Auckland University, contacted Heritage New Zealand and enlisted the support of Ngati Kuta and Patukeha.

The University of Otago, which has two masters students and a research assistant on site, will carry out the analysis and carbon dating, the most expensive part of an archaeological study. Those costs will be covered by a Marsden Fund grant for investigating early sites.

The dig is at Mangahawea Bay on Moturua Island, part of the Ipipiri group between Russell and Cape Brett. No formal open day is being held but visitors are welcome.