NZ's oldest shipyard unearthed in paddock

By Peter de Graaf

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Excavation gets underway on the terrace where the superintendent's home used to be. Photo / Peter de Graaf
Excavation gets underway on the terrace where the superintendent's home used to be. Photo / Peter de Graaf

New Zealand's oldest shipyard is emerging, millimetre by millimetre, from the dirt of a Northland paddock.

Twenty archaeologists are at work in Horeke, South Hokianga, where the Deptford Dockyard started business 190 years ago.

Cathleen Hauman and Chelsea Dickson excavate the superintendent's house. Photo / Peter de Graaf
Cathleen Hauman and Chelsea Dickson excavate the superintendent's house. Photo / Peter de Graaf

Whalers, sealers and loggers were already active in New Zealand but Deptford was the nation's first manufacturing industry. The dig is led by Matt Carter, a Kiwi PhD student studying at La Trobe University in Melbourne.

Mr Carter said a lot of archaeology had been done in the Bay of Islands but Northland's west coast was "a forgotten jewel".

From 1826 to 1831, when the shipyard went bust, Maori and Pakeha working at Horeke built a 40-tonne schooner, a 140-tonne brigantine and a 400-tonne barque.

Mr Carter had chosen five excavation areas, in what is now a paddock beside Horeke Rd, by studying old paintings of the shipyard and a magnetic survey last year pinpointing areas where soil had been disturbed.

The paintings showed the shipbuilding and sawing was done in the open but there were also several buildings, including a blacksmith's hut, worker accommodation and the superintendent's house atop a terrace overlooking the harbour.

Digging started on Monday and would continue for two weeks. The soil is being scraped away by hand in 5cm steps and all artefacts painstakingly recorded.

Finds so far include this clay pipe, found at the site of the superintendent's house. Photo / Peter de Graaf
Finds so far include this clay pipe, found at the site of the superintendent's house. Photo / Peter de Graaf

The objects will be cleaned and analysed at Otago University then returned to the landowners. The soil is sieved to make sure nothing is missed.

One site is where the superintendent's house used to be. Others are where Mr Carter hopes to find the remains of the slipways and blacksmith's hut.

By day three and a depth of 15cm, Mr Carter said the team had found a range of objects from the early 1800s to the 1980s, including bottles, iron spikes, bricks, Sydney sandstone and broken plates. He had also identified postholes where buildings once stood.

The team was made up of archaeologists from around New Zealand and Australia who had volunteered during their holidays for the chance to take part in a research dig. The project is Australian funded. They are staying across the road at the historic Horeke Tavern, believed to be the oldest pub in New Zealand.

A long-lost hammer emerges from the soil. Photo / Peter de Graaf
A long-lost hammer emerges from the soil. Photo / Peter de Graaf

Cathleen Hauman, an archaeologist with Heritage NZ in Tauranga, said chances to take part in research digs were rare. The volunteers had so far worked in pouring rain and baking sunshine but did not mind.

"It's been great. We're finding lots and we're not even that far down."

The site offered great views across the Hokianga Harbour and the food at the tavern was "amazing".

"We're very lucky. Not all digs are like this," she said.

An open day will be held at the site from 10am-2pm tomorrow. You can get to Horeke by taking the Rangiahua Rd turnoff from SH1 north of Okaihau or the Horeke Rd turnoff (unsealed) from SH12 west of Kaikohe. For more information go to thefirstshipsproject.wordpress.com

- Northern Advocate

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