Unearthing our history

By Dionne Christian

For minds curious about seeking out the past, there's a book that points us in the right direction, writes Dionne Christian

Auckland archaeologist David Veart. Photo / Kellie Blizard
Auckland archaeologist David Veart. Photo / Kellie Blizard

There used to be a time when if our daughters were proving really difficult to settle for the evening, we would ignore advice in parenting books, make beds on the couch and allow them to watch our favourite TV programme with us: Time Team, where British archaeologists carry out a dig.

It worked like a charm to get the girls to sleep. Then they started staying awake to watch, and ask whether there were archaeological sites in New Zealand or if they could "open a trench" in our garden to see what might lie beneath the lettuces. Their interest in archaeology and, by extension, history and those who created it was piqued.

To answer the first question, there are many archaeological sites here to explore. So with the help of Department of Conservation archaeologist David Veart's book Digging up the Past: Archaeology for the Young and Curious we have started taking Miss Eight and Miss Three to visit some of these. It will convert anyone who thinks New Zealand is too new a country to have a unique history and archaeology of its own.

It's chocka with information about volcanoes, city streets, Maori pa, and the odd suburban garden where objects (finds, to use the archaeological lingo) have been unearthed.

Your nearest volcanic cone is the best place to head to find archaeological evidence of New Zealand's early human history. Back in the day, these sites were prime real estate; the equivalent of modern Auckland's million-dollar suburbs. If you consider the environment and look for things that aren't meant to be there, you'll soon recognise flat terraces on the hillsides. These are areas which were levelled for homes and storage pits.

What remain of the storage pits are rectangle-shaped depressions, but originally they had a roof and drainage in the floors to keep kumara warm and dry during winter. Maungawhau/Mt Eden and Maungakiekie/One Tree Hill are some of the best preserved examples but, for us, even on our closet mountain (Pukekiwiriki/Red Hill, which was an important pa site for Ngati Tamaoho) has flattened areas and tell-tale pit-shapes in the ground. You're not allowed to dig at these sites, they are strictly for looking and learning.

Otuataua Stonefields Historic Reserve, in Mangere, is one of the most extensive archaeological sites in Auckland, its quiet seaside location a magical place to visit. Veart likes to say that every rock and stone you can see that could be moved by human hands - and there are hundreds of thousands - has been.

Look for garden mounds, cooking areas, whare sites, storage pits, terraces, a pa site made of rock, and drystone walls built by Europeans to rein in stock. There's a house site with the remains of a midden pretty close to the front door. Going bush is often a good way to show our girls remnants from the time when kauri logging was once a huge industry, with the felled trees floated down streams and waterways. There are no complete records of where and when kauri dams were built but prime examples remain at Kaiarara on Great Barrier Island and in the Kauaeranga Valley on the Coromandel Peninsula (the Dancing Camp Dam).

As for the girls' second question about opening a trench (more jargon - it means starting a dig) in the garden, they're welcome to do this. Dave recommends digging in places where human activity occurs. Around the vege patch, for example, you're likely to find things that have been accidentally dropped or hidden and never found during a birthday treasure hunt. But stop if you get down 200 or 300mm and find black soil and crushed shells because it's a sign of possible human activity. The black soil indicates burning; the crushed shells a midden. Call the Department of Conservation or Historic Places Trust to see if they're interested in taking a look at what you've found. If you find bones, call the police who can say whether they are human or animal and determine if further action needs to be taken.

If you do happen across interesting objects, like old bottles, the temptation is to take them and clean them up. If you don't want to leave them "in situ", then write down where they were found and when so you've got a written record that might help to date a site.

It's preferable, though, to leave them. This means the big old steel milk churn we found in the bush surrounding our house is staying right where it is.

Need to know:

The Auckland Archaeological Society (ArchSoc) is a student-run organisation at The University of Auckland. The society is open to students, professional archaeologists and the public. Email: aklarchsoc@gmail.com for more details.

Auckland War Memorial Museum has extensive archaeological collections. Its Archaeology Department looks after NZ Maori and European material, collections from other places in the Pacific, and small amounts of material from ancient civilisations and peoples elsewhere in the world.

Otautaua Stonefields: 56 Ihumatao Quarry Rd, Mangere. www.aucklandcouncil.govt.nz for more details.

The Lindo Ferguson Maungakiekie Education Centre (behind Huia Lodge at Cornwall Park) is a great place to start exploring One Tree Hill, Pick up an archaeological trail map at the information centre. cornwallpark.co.nz.

The Castle in our Backyard by Malcolm Paterson, published by Libro International, is a family walk to trace the Tamaki iwi heritage through Maungakiekie.

BE IN TO WIN - Weekend Life have three copies of Digging up the Past: Archaeology for the Young and Curious (Auckland University Press, $39.95) by David Veart. To enter, go to nzherald.co.nz/weekend, enter your details and the keywords Digging up the Past by midnight Wednesday December 12.

- NZ Herald

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