An archaeological dig in the Bay of Islands has uncovered further evidence of what is thought to be one of the earliest sites of human habitation in New Zealand.

Archaeologists, hapū members and volunteers have spent the past two weeks digging a series of pits at Mangahawea Bay, on Moturua Island, down to the ground level of about 700 years ago.

On the way they have found everything from a British Navy button to fish hooks carved from moa bone and a tā moko chisel used for tattooing.

Ngāti Kuta kaumatua Matutaera Te Nana Clendon with some of the latest finds from Mangahawea Bay. Photo / Peter de Graaf
Ngāti Kuta kaumatua Matutaera Te Nana Clendon with some of the latest finds from Mangahawea Bay. Photo / Peter de Graaf

One of the most exciting finds, however, is the least impressive visually — a series of indentations in a former stream bed which could be a taro garden.

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If the archaeologists' hunch is confirmed it could be the oldest garden found in New Zealand and the only one from the archaic period, the first century or so after Māori arrived.

Department of Conservation ranger Andrew Blanshard said other finds included obsidian thought to come from Mayor Island, plenty of moa and seal bones, and evidence fish hooks were manufactured on site.

The tā moko chisel, which retained traces of ink, had most likely been discarded because some of the teeth were broken. The ink would be analysed to see if it was made of shark oil and charcoal, as was the case at many other sites, or something else.

''This has the potential to be a really significant site. If this is the first generation, it really does link the site back to the Pacific and confirms the kōrero Matu [kaumatua Matutaera Clendon] has given us.''

Kipa Munro (DoC/Ngāti Rehia) and Bill Edwards (Heritage NZ) at work in what was once a village garden. Photo / Peter de Graaf
Kipa Munro (DoC/Ngāti Rehia) and Bill Edwards (Heritage NZ) at work in what was once a village garden. Photo / Peter de Graaf

Blanshard said the dig had opened up about 25sq m, ''a fair amount'' for a two-week excavation. A geomagnetic survey highlighting underground oddities plus a detailed 3D surface map created by laser scanning helped pinpoint the most promising places to dig.

The archaeologists hadn't found many structures but they had uncovered storage pits with post holes, probably for supporting rafters, as well as lots of cooking fires and extensive gardens.

Excavation director James Robinson, of Heritage NZ, said one of the goals had been to understand the structure of the village at Mangahawea Bay.

Heritage NZ archaeologist Isaac McIvor with a grinding stone, probably used for making an adze, found just moments earlier. Photo / Peter de Graaf
Heritage NZ archaeologist Isaac McIvor with a grinding stone, probably used for making an adze, found just moments earlier. Photo / Peter de Graaf

The dig had answered some questions — it was now clear which areas were used for living, storage, cooking and gardening — but it had raised just as many questions.

The people who arrived in New Zealand were part of an organised migration from somewhere in the Marquesas-Society Islands-Cook Islands area.

Sites like Mangahawea could shed light on how they adapted from life on small tropical islands to a large land with a seasonal climate, full of seals and flightless birds.

The excavation, which ends today, continued earlier digs in 2017 and 1981 and was carried out under the tikanga of local hapū Ngāti Kuta and Patukeha. The Arakite Trust project was funded by Lottery's Tuia-Encounters 250 programme and brings together Heritage NZ, DoC and the universities of Otago and Auckland.

Illustrator Krystal Wolfe brings the site to life in visual form. Photo / Peter de Graaf
Illustrator Krystal Wolfe brings the site to life in visual form. Photo / Peter de Graaf

A few archaeologists from the original 1981 dig took part in the latest excavation, as did an illustrator who is creating images of the site as it would have looked some 700 years ago.

Further plans for the site include a pou, or carved post, marking its significance and its links back to the Māori homeland in eastern Polynesia.


Dig confirms hapu's knowledge

Discoveries unearthed by archaeologists confirm what Māori already knew about Mangahawea Bay, a Bay of Islands kaumatua says.

Matutaera Te Nana Clendon, who grew up on Moturua when his family farmed on the island and stayed on-site day and night during the dig, said place names provided evidence of the bay's long history.

''We knew something had happened here because Mangahawea is not a Māori name. It has more of a Polynesian, a Tahitian flavour.''

The same could be said of other islands nearby. Rangiatea, a small island just offshore, was derived from Raiatea, an island in French Polynesia regarded as the spiritual centre of eastern Polynesia and a possible starting point for the migration to New Zealand.

Similarly, Poroporo Island took its name from Bora Bora, also in French Polynesia.

''Whenever people go anywhere they leave footprints in the form of names. Captain Cook did the same, naming places like Piercy Island and Cape Brett.''

Clendon hoped the dig would help New Zealanders learn more about their own history.

''I think the knowledge should be put into schools, so children know something about their own country. They know about everybody else and they don't know their own history,'' he said.