The Archaeology of the West Coast
|Heaphy River Mouth site during 2004 excavation.|
The prehistory of the West Coast of the South Island is one of the least well-known of any region of New Zealand. There have been fewer than a dozen excavations here and even fewer systematic site surveys. Southern Pacific Archaeological Research has an ongoing project investigating the prehistory of the West Coast and has carried out six excavations at three important sites in the northern part of the region. North to south these are the Heaphy River Mouth site, a large midden near the mouth of the Karamea River, and a large settlement at the mouth of the Kawatiri (Buller) River.
The Heaphy River Mouth site is a very early site that is situated on a low river terrace about a kilometre inland from the mouth of the Heaphy River. First excavated by a Canterbury Museum team led by Owen Wilkes and Ron Scarlett in the 1960s, the site is most notable for being one of only two or three places in New Zealand where stone paving has been identified in a prehistoric context. Small areas paved with limestone cobbles are thought to have been associated with dwellings of the Polynesians who lived here. The site has strong associations with the Wairau Bar site as well as others of the time when moa hunting was an important part of subsistence economies.
The site has been eroding severely since the 1960s (and before), to the extent that the riverbank edge of the site is now 13 m further inland than when it was investigated by Wilkes and Scarlett. In 2003 the Department of Conservation asked SPAR to assess the condition of the site and to advise whether or not an excavation was warranted to recover any remaining information before the site was lost for good. We determined that an excavation should be carried out and took a team there during two weeks around Easter 2004. The aims of that expedition were to determine the condition and extent of the remaining site and to recover samples for faunal analysis and radiocarbon dating.
|Shell crusher at the Karamea midden site.|
The Karamea site, on the margins of the estuary of the Karamea River Mouth, is a remarkable shell midden. It extends over some 80 x 30 m and is up to 2 m deep. It is so large that it was used as a source of agricultural lime by the landowner during the early half of the 20th century, who built a crushing plant on the site. We believe that approximately half of the site was quarried for this purpose, but have calculated that at least 50 million shells are still present. An ususual feature of site, as well as its size, is that it is almost entirely made up of one species – pipi (Paphies subtriangulatum). It is also unusual because it is the only midden of any size that is known on the West Coast. For these reasons, and because we suspected that the site would provide information on a later phase of prehistory than the other two sites we are investigating, we carried out a small-scale programme of auguring, test-pitting and mapping at the site. The aims of this investigation were to determine whether there was any structure in the midden that could yield information about the history of the site and about resource use in the Karamea Valley following the extinction of the moa.
|Excavations under way at the Kawatiri River Mouth site.|
The results of the investigation showed that the site had been formed over a period of some 200 years between the mid-fifteenth century and the mid-seventeenth century. It appears to have begun as a relatively small deposit near the southern end of the shell mound and to have gradually expanded to the north. Shell size was largest at the southern end but reduced in size towards the northern end of the mound. Most remarkably, it was effectively made up of only a single species although it was part of an occupation that lasted for some two centuries. This is in marked contrast to earlier middens in New Zealand which generally indicate harvest of a wide range of terrestrial and marine species.
The Kawatiri River Mouth site was investigated over four excavation seasons. This site is completely invisible from the surface but contains extensive underground deposits that include ovens, working floors, post holes and artefact scatters. It is especially important for demonstrating that nephrite was a significant lithic material right from the earliest stages of New Zealand prehistory. More than 70 adzes of various materials were found at the site. High soil pH meant that there was very poor preservation of midden, but there was extensive evidence of fishing in the form of stone minnow lure shanks. The site is dated to the mid-fourteenth century.