A memorial to some of the earliest Pākehā settlers in the Whangaroa area has been unveiled in Kāeo's public cemetery, where the remains of the settlers were re-interred more than a year ago.
The remains were exhumed from the historic Spickman / Nisbet private cemetery at the western end of Kāeo, directly above State Highway 10, in December 2019.
Family descendant Shelley Smyth, from Auckland, remembered being taken to the graves when she was a child, and over the years many family members had visited to care for them and tidy the cemetery, although the trees always grew back.
Concerned about the state of the graves, Smyth set out to save them after she was told that she wasn't able to visit and maintain the cemetery, as the land had been sold.
"I couldn't leave them like this to come down on to the road and not be allowed to visit," she said.
Waka Kotahi NZTA, who she and her husband were advised to contact almost six years ago, then began the process of having the remains re-interred in the public cemetery. Earthworks were undertaken by Fulton Hogan, using a local subcontractor, and supervised by archaeologist Jono Carpenter, from Geometria Ltd. The site was excavated under an archaeological authority issued by Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga.
"The cemetery was known to many people in the community, including descendants of the settlers like Shelley. Part of the process involved securing support from descendants for the work to proceed," Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga Northland regional archaeologist Dr James Robinson said.
"In addition, given the age of the cemetery, it was clear that an archaeological authority would be needed."
The Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga Act defines an archaeological site as a place associated with pre-1900 human activity where there may be evidence relating to the history of New Zealand.
"That certainly includes historic cemeteries like this one," Robinson said.
"The first known burial here occurred in 1842, which is quite early for Pākehā settlement, though the land itself was bought from Māori owners in the 1830s."
Mary Ann Spickman (nee Noonan), the wife of William Spickman, one of Kāeo's original Pākehā settlers, died at just 28 years of age, and was the first person to be buried in the cemetery. Born in Ireland, she went to Australia at the age of 18 and met William there. They moved to New Zealand, where she had three children, shortly after.
"Mary Ann was gone by the time she was 28. I felt strongly that she deserved better than to be left up there. So did all the people buried in the cemetery," Smyth said.
Fourteen graves were excavated, all of members of the Spickman and Nisbet families, either of natural descent or by marriage.
"Burials included adults, children and infants spanning the 73 years the cemetery was in use," Robinson said.
"All burial remains and coffin pieces were collected and re-interred in in the Settlers Heritage section of the public cemetery in December 2019. The unveiling of the memorial brought closure to the process for both descendants and the agencies who undertook this work."
There had been compelling reasons for an 'archaeological intervention.'
"Over the years there have been several floods, and continued erosion of the escarpment above and below the cemetery terrace were beginning to cause problems," he added.
"Two of the large headstone monuments were coming closer to the edge of the terrace, and the surrounding boundary fence of the cemetery had already started to collapse on the southern side of the terrace towards the road.
"The exhumations were timely and undertaken with sensitivity by Waka Kotahi and the team directly involved in the work."
Smyth said she had begun working with Waka Kotahi on the re-interment in September 2015, and "What we've ended up with is the most amazing, stunning memorial."
There was a great deal of work to do, however.
"Our team entered the area using maps and carrying knives to clear thick vegetation by hand, as they searched for signs of the graveyard," Waka Kotahi regional manager Auckland and Northland Jacqui Hori-Hoult said.
"Access to the area was problematic. It was clear the graveyard had been neglected for some time. The tombstones could not be seen on aerial surveys of the area, and were invisible from the roadside."
Having located the graveyard, it was discovered that the headstones were in danger of falling on to the road below due to long-term deterioration of the surrounding landscape and a slip caused by heavy rains.
"They were completely covered in bush, sitting 13 metres up from the roadside at a 30-degree angle and in imminent danger of slipping," she added.
"Our initial thoughts were to build a retaining wall, but as we thought that would disturb the graves we worked with the family about the opportunity to move their loved ones"
Once all were agreed, a multi-agency project was initiated to restore the plot. Heritage NZ, the Ministry of Heath, the Far North District Council, Whangaroa College and family descendants were among those involved, alongside the land owner. An historical survey, engineering report and paleo-archaeological medical report were all commissioned, with permission also given to exhume and relocate the graves.
"Originally we thought there were six graves, but as works progressed further headstones and remains were discovered. Fourteen graves were subsequently found," Hori-Hoult said. They included Spickman's sons, daughter, son-in-law, grandson, and his daughter's four grandsons.
Repairing the headstones had been complicated by tombstones by Covid-19, which caused a delay in carrying out the work and obtaining the granite, but all the graves were now fully restored or had new headstones, Fulton Hogan repairing the slope and surrounding area, and adding benches and landscaping.
An information board, including a family tree, had also been placed there.