For 171 years the remains of 12 young British soldiers and sailors lay in a forgotten grave in Northland.

Now their burial site has been rediscovered — at Ruapekapeka Pa, known as the ''Bat's Nest'', the palisaded, trenched and tunnelled hilltop fortress of Ngati Hine rangatira Te Ruka Kawiti and allied hapu.

Ruapekapeka, 14 kilometres south of Kawakawa, was where the last battle in the ''Northern Wars'' was fought in January, 1846.

During years working at the site as part of his doctorate study, in 2015 archaeologist Jonathan Carpenter identified the burial plot's likely whereabouts near the British camp site, on a flank of land within canon-shot of the pa.

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Two weeks ago Mr Carpenter opened the plot, revealing the remains of two men.

Careful study confirmed not a mass grave, as has been reported, but a ''communal'' one, where burial rites and considerations were observed, said Andrew Blanshard, Department of Conservation (DoC) history ranger.

He said the bodies were buried with ''grave goods'': a smoking pipe and a percussion cap, a musket firing device alongside one. A musket bullet was lodged in the rib cage, likely the cause of death.

Ngati Hine leader and acting runanga head Pita Tipene, who along with other locals is a descendant of both Te Ruki Kawiti and British force leader Lieutenant Colonel Robert Wynyard, said the discovery meant a lot.

''Certainly for Ngati Hine, this is very significant. This is our history and these were our ancestors' enemies. Enemies who died by our hands were revered in life and in death, and they [will] always be.''

''Now it is important we work together on a memorial of some kind, a way to commemorate them.''

DoC, Heritage New Zealand, Te Ruapekapeka Trust and other hapu members were present during the operation to carry out cultural rites and correct protocol.

''The graves had last been seen in 1851. The local community, and the local Maori community in particular, were concerned the men were not adequately acknowledged or cared for,'' Mr Carpenter said.

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''It was a hugely emotional experience and I felt very, very honoured to find them and be able to share their stories.''

The discovery adds to Ruapekapeka's reputation as a significant battleground, both internationally and in New Zealand, Mr Blanshard said.
It is already famous in British military history for Kawiti's use of trench warfare; more recently it has been acknowledged as an international award-winning conservation site.

''It is very rare to find graves from any international conflict of that period where men who were not officers were given a proper burial.''

Historical military documents record the men were soldiers from the British 58th Battalion, Marine Corp and ordinary sailors.