|Two moa bone necklace units from the 2009 excavation.|
Wairau Bar is considered by archaeologists to be one of the most important archaeological sites in the country. The site lies on the boulder bank at the mouth of the Wairau River and was brought to the attention of the scientific community by schoolboy Jim Eyles in the 1930s. Between the 1940s and 1964 a series of excavations took place there, many of which, unfortunately, had little scientific control. These excavations had three major outcomes. First, they produced an astounding array of fine artefacts including hundreds of stone adzes and a range of ornate personal ornaments. Second, Wairau Bar material was used to define a phase of New Zealand prehistory which became known as the ‘moa hunter’ period – later transformed into the ‘Archaic’ phase. Thus Wairau Bar became a type site for New Zealand prehistory and, in fact, is a type site for the East Polynesian Archaic more generally. Finally, the site contained a cemetery component and at least 40 burials were excavated, many of which were interred with ornate grave goods.
Despite the huge assemblage of artefacts from Wairau Bar in the Canterbury Museum and elsewhere, there is actually very little known about the site and the community. For example, we do not know the size of the site, the duration of occupation, the nature and spatial arrangement of the structures on the site and very little about economic practices. Because there has been long-standing controversy over the excavation of the burials there has been no further research at Wairau Bar since the early 1960s.
|Excavation of house site, 2009.|
Te Runanga a Rangitane o Wairau (Rangitane) have kaitiakitanga status at Wairau Bar and have, for decades, maintained a strong interest in the site and their relationship to it as a descendant community. In April 2009, after a long series of negotiations with the Canterbury Museum, they arranged for the remains of 41 individuals to be repatriated to Wairau Bar. SPAR was invited by Rangitane to assist with the identification of appropriate reburial sites and to carry out new archaeological research at the same time.
The research programme utilised geophysical survey to identify suitable areas for the location of reburial plots and to define the extent of the site. This geophysical survey was followed by an excavation programme of both the reburial areas and the locations of significant anomalies. A total of just less than 80 m2 was excavated in the 2009 field season and approximately 2 m3 of bulk material (mainly unsieved bulk midden) was recovered from the site. This material is currently in the Otago Archaeology laboratories at the University of Otago undergoing further analysis and will contribute hitherto unknown information about early diet and hunting strategies.
|Large stone lined fire feature excavated in 2009.|
The excavations at Wairau Bar have confirmed that the site is considerably more complex than simply a burial site. There was clearly a range of activities taking place across a wide area that suggests a large village where people were manufacturing tools and carrying out other day-to-day activities including exploiting the resource-rich local environment.
Several particularly significant findings have been made through the geophysical survey and excavations. Firstly, the site appears to be considerably larger than previously thought. Our data suggests that the site covers an area of at least 11 ha although further survey work and test excavation would be required to define its southern boundary. The presence of artefacts in private collections from the north bank of the Wairau River which are identical to those from the site suggest that it may have once extended further to the north as well. Secondly, the site is more intact than previously assumed. Certainly ploughing has affected the top zone of part of the site but it remains intact below the plough-zone. Additionally, there are parts of the site that have never been ploughed. We estimate conservatively that at least 50 percent of the site may remain intact. The stratigraphy is not vertically complex but demonstrates enormous variability horizontally which is to be expected with a large village-type site. Thirdly, the fine-grained spatial excavations have allowed the collecting of previously unavailable data, namely working floors, house structures and artefacts in contexts other than burials. Finally, we have obtained well-provenanced column samples of midden to enable the first detailed analysis of fauna from the site.
The analysis of the Wairau Bar material is continuing in the Otago Archaeology Laboratories under the direction of Richard, Emma and Chris. In addition to the standard faunal and artefact studies, the moa eggshell from some of the midden zones is being analysed for ancient DNA in order to build up our understanding of hunting practices in the earliest phases of New Zealand prehistory. This aDNA work is being done as part of our First Contact Project.