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Journal of the Nelson and Marlborough Historical Societies, Volume 1, Issue 1, October 1981

A Review of the Pre-History of the Wairau Boulder Bank

A Review of the Pre-History of the Wairau Boulder Bank

page 19

One of the more interesting features of the Marlborough landscape is the Wairau Boulder Bank which extends from the White Bluffs in the south of Cloudy Bay to the Wairau River mouth, 8½ kilometres to the north west.

After the last period of glaciation (about 14,000 years ago), as the ice melted, the sea level rose and was at its highest about 6,000 years ago. At that time it intruded into the Wairau Plain to a point west of the Riverlands Cob Cottage forming a deep bay, the shore of which was the sandhills which still stretch across the valley in an arc to Tuamarina.

A strongly flowing flood tide known as the Canterbury Current, runs north up the Marlborough coast and this carried into the Wairau Bay the gravels which were washed off the end of the White Bluffs. Eventually these gravels were deposited in a strip stretching right across the bay to Tuamarina. Behind this boulder bank the rivers of the plain dumped their sediments and built up the land until the bay was filled in. North of the Wairau mouth the gravels were pushed continually west forming numerous beach lines to Rarangi while south of the Wairau the boulder bank effectively remained, containing behind it a huge lagoon with swampy edges. It had taken about five thousand years for the boulder bank to form across the Wairau Bay and the land to fill in behind it. During this time numerous floods and earthquakes added their influence to the continually changing landscape.

The Wairau Boulder Bank looking north from White Bluffs.

The Wairau Boulder Bank looking north from White Bluffs.

page 20

About one thousand years ago the rivers and the Cloudy Bay coast were probably not much different from what they are today, but if we could see it as it was then we would be astounded at the amount of wildlife frequenting the coast and especially the lagoons. Without doubt it was this huge food resource which attracted the first people to the area at this time. Descended from a few who had landed in New Zealand after a chance one way voyage from Polynesia these people found not only fish and sea birds easy to take but also found moas living along the edge of the bush which at that time covered the plain and the hills. Because these people hunted the moas for food we today call them the Moa Hunters and the remains of their period of occupation at the northern end of the Wairau Boulder Bank is the best known archaeological site in New Zealand.

Pre-European artifacts had been recovered from near the river mouth for some years by local collectors but no real interest was shown in the site until Jim Eyles, as a schoolboy in January 1939, dug up a perforated Moa egg, human bones and some artifacts. This egg was displayed for some time in a Blenheim shop and later purchased by the Dominion (now the National) Museum in Wellington. It was 1942 before Jim discovered another Moa egg associated again with a human burial and artifacts. This roused the interest of Roger Duff of Canterbury Museum, and that year he and Jim excavated five more human skeletons. During 1943 fourteen more burials were located and excavated by Duff and Eyles. In 1945 Jim Eyles discovered eight more burials then only worked spasmodically on the site over the next five years. During 1950 Roger Duff's book, The Moa Hunter Period of Maori Culture, was published and this definative work clearly detailed the importance of the Wairau Moa Hunter site to the pre-history of this country. About this time Jim Eyles was engaged full time by Canterbury Museum, which by then, had a mass of material stored from most of the twenty-nine burials so far excavated. As the excavations had continued over the years, beginning first near the house where Jim lived, at the northern end of the boulder bank and working south, it had become apparent that the site extended over a great distance. Evidence of a rich and extensive southern burial area was obtained during January 1952 when Jim and three volunteers excavated another seven graves.

Up to then the whole course of the excavations can only be described today as a scramble to recover artifacts. Although the methods used – pick, shovel, and even a plough on occasions – would be quite unacceptable by modern workers, some very important information was obtained. This enabled Duff to explain the origins of Moa Hunters but virtually nothing was known of how these people lived at the Wairau boulder bank. He was probably embarrassed at times by such questions to which there should have been some answers after ten years of excavations.

In 1955 Robert Bell of Oklahoma University and Roger Duff excavated an area in a search to determine the type of dwellings the site had contained. Although a complex pattern of postholes was located, with some post butts still in position, no sensible pattern could be interpreted. In the published page 21 accounts of the excavations it is not clear just when three other burials were dug up and it is now obvious that some graves exposed earlier, in fact contained two bodies.

During January 1956 Jim Eyles and Michael Trotter of Canterbury Museum, excavated burial 39. This was one of the more interesting to be excavated and was fully reported by Trotter. Five typical moa hunter adzes had been buried with the body along with some wooden artifacts about 1.5m long. About 40cm west of the skull was another adze and nearby the broken pieces of a moa egg. Around the neck of the body was a necklace of twenty-two units of moa bone while buried above the body were a further five adzes which could have been placed there later than the burial. One unexplained feature was the presence of a single finger bone in a good state of preservation in the region of the neck. Neither hand was in this position and both could only be seen as shapeless areas of dust amongst the gravel.

In 1959, Owen Wilkes and others in a Canterbury Museum party extended the area opened by Bell and Duff when they were looking for pestholes. At the same time a party from Victoria University led by H. W. page 22Wellman, dug a trench to the lagoon edge to study the stratigraphy of the site. The Canterbury Museum party at that time uncovered more burials, bringing the total number reported to 44. They returned in 1964 to dig two trenches to study further the implications of Wellman's excavations and proved conclusively the land surface had dropped considerably at some stage since occupation.

That was the last excavation carried out on the Wairau Moa Hunter site but further studies have since been made of some of the recovered material. In one of these the remains of 35 bodies from the site were studied, 19 were male and 16 were female. The average age at death was 27.9 years, the youngest being 19 and the oldest 41. This is consistent with other prehistoric populations of similar origins. Both male and female appear to have been broad shouldered, robust and impressively muscled. It appears their diet was adequate and less abraisive than later Maoris although tooth wear certainly shortened their lives. Signs of severe degeneration of the spine at an early age is only one indication that the Wairau Moa Hunters led an extremely active physical life, probably reaching their peak at about 25 years of age. There are no indications of fracture or violence.

It is apparent that at least seven of the excavated burials belong to a somewhat later period as they were folded or trussed rather than laid prone. Many of the latter appear to have been buried face down and any alignment seems by chance rather than intention. It is interesting to note that those burials which were associated with moa eggs seldom had the egg near the head but rather it was near the hands and in one case, at least, it was found near the feet.

The first radiocarbon dates to be obtained for the Polynesian occupation of the South Island were officially released in 1955. They were for the Wairau Bar Moa Hunter site and have often since been misquoted and misinterpreted. A sample of charcoal was taken, divided and sent to two laboratories, one returning 850 + 50 years B.P., the other 935 + 110 years B.P. (B.P. = Before present, i.e. 1950 A.D.).

Roger Duff at first equated these dates with die myths and legends relating to Toi-kai-rakau and the "great fleet". Now we can be quite emphatic about the fallacy of a "great fleet" – not only was there no such "fleet" – it is not even a genuine Maori tradition. At a later date Roger Duff admitted to this, and said. "Maori traditions hang in even greater tatters than before."

Because C14 dates on charcoal similar to that submitted by Duff have proved to be on an average, two or three hundred years earlier than those from other materials, Michael Trotter submitted for dating, samples of bone and shell from the 1959 and 1964 excavations. At the Blenheim Conference of the New Zealand Archaeological Association in 1974 Trotter announced these new dates. Moa bone, 590 + 60 years B.B.; marine shell 680 + 50 years B.P.; and human bone 780 + 80 years B.P. These dates are in keeping with other South Island Moa Hunter sites and may be taken to indicate a period of occupation between six to seven hundred years before present.

Looking back over the 30 years since the publication of Roger Duff's page 23book made the Wairau boulder bank and the moa hunter site famous, it is surprising how little is really known of the people who lived there. Without doubt the area still holds many secrets, not only of the moa hunters but also the later Maori people who obviously used the place. Several other sites are also apparent along the boulder bank which may provide additional clues.

There is little chance that more field work can be done on the site in the near future. Neither the occupiers of the house near the site nor the Maori people would at present condone any such work. Almost all the site is in private ownership and access to it is discouraged by both the owner and occupier.

More work could still be done on the material so far recovered and re-assessment of the field notes in existence could possibly give new answers to opinions on some questions.

It is hoped that eventually not only the moa hunter site but the whole Wairau boulder bank will become a scientific reserve which can be accurately interpreted, protected and presented for the benefit of future generations.

Selected References:

Duff, R. S.

1950 The Moa Hunter Period of Maori Culture, Canterbury Museum Bulletin I, Wellington.

1956 The Moa Hunter Period of Maori Culture, 2nd Ed., Canterbury Museum Bulletin I, Wellington.

1977 The Moa Hunter Period of Maori Culture, 3rd Ed., Canterbury Museum Bulletin I, Wellington.

Houghton, P. 1975 Records of the Canterbury Museum 9 (3): 231–246.

McCulloch, B. and M. M. Trotter 1975 The First Twenty Years. Radiocarbon Dates for South Island Moa Hunter Sites. N.Z. Archaelogical Association Newsletter 18 (1): 2–17.

Pickrill, R. A. 1973 Thesis, Coastal Dynamics Rarangi to Cape Campbell. University of Canterbury.

Russ, A. Return of the Moa-hunter. A review. The Press, Christchurch, May 27, 1978, page 17.

Simmons, D. D. 1976 The Great New Zealand Myth. Wellington.

Trotter, M.M.

1975 Further excavations at the Wairau Bar, New Zealand. Asian Perspectives, Hawaii XVIII (1): 75–80.

1979 The Vernon Lagoons in Prehistory. Development of the Vernon Lagoons. Department of University Extension, Victoria University, Wellington.