An excavation of New Zealand's first shipyard has uncovered tantalising glimpses of Northland's industrial past - but the site looks likely to hold on to some of its secrets.

A team of 20 archaeologists has been working in a paddock opposite Horeke Tavern in South Hokianga for the past two weeks, led by Matt Carter of La Trobe University in Melbourne.

They are digging where historic paintings and a magnetic survey tell them a trio of Sydney merchants set up Deptford Dockyard in 1826, building three ships before going bust five years later.

Mr Carter said the First Ships Project had so far uncovered thousands of domestic and industrial artefacts, which would be analysed at Otago University before being returned to the site's landowners.


As well as tacks and iron spikes associated with shipbuilding they had found a postal seal from one of New Zealand's first post offices, which opened in Horeke in 1840.

The find was significant because it told the volunteers the layer they were excavating post-dated 1840, after shipbuilding ended, so they had to keep digging to reach the remains of the shipyard.

Evidence of one of New Zealand's first post offices includes this postal seal. PHOTO / SUPPLIED
Evidence of one of New Zealand's first post offices includes this postal seal. PHOTO / SUPPLIED

Their aim was to explore early Maori-Pakeha interaction so, as agreed with local iwi, the dig would not go deeper into pre-European times.

Mr Carter said the dig had been hugely successful but, with work due to end today, it would not answer all his questions.

More activity had taken place at the site after shipbuilding ended than he had anticipated, and while the team had found "tantalising glimpses" they had yet to uncover much in the way of foundations of the shipyard's main structures.

A return visit would probably have to wait until next summer and depend on getting funding.

Heritage NZ's Northland archaeologist, James Robinson, said an open day at the site on January 13 drew about 300 people, many of whom were able to offer valuable information about the site which had never been written down - for example, that the slipway was bulldozed when the Horeke Rd was put in.

It was hoped, however, that remains of the slipway survived in the mud and the paddock on either side of the road.

Molten glass where the superintendent's house used to be on a terrace overlooking the harbour backed up stories it had burnt down about 1841.

It was local people, Maori in particular, who wanted a shipyard so their products could be shipped to far-off markets. Initially it was food from the Hokianga's rich soils for the hungry penal colonies in Australia, later timber became the main export.

The Horeke shipyard was New Zealand's first manufacturing industry.

The fact that Hokianga had faded in importance in the 20th century meant that much of its history had been preserved. Similar remains in Auckland would have long ago been disrupted or built over.

-Matt Carter is a cousin of NZ rugby great Dan Carter.