The leaders of an archaeological dig at one of New Zealand's oldest known inhabited sites hope their findings will help New Zealanders learn about their history.

About 20 archaeologists and iwi volunteers have spent the past two weeks carefully excavating part of Mangahawea Bay, on Moturua Island, where radiocarbon dating has shown a beachside settlement and sprawling gardens were established around 1300. That date is backed up by finds of now-extinct wildlife and a pāua fish hook carved in Polynesian style, suggesting it was made by the first wave of arrivals from what are now the Cook Islands, or French Polynesia.

The dig, which ended on Friday, was the third at the bay over the last three summers, but will be the last unless new funding is found.

Meanwhile around 300 people attended an open day last week, despite drizzly conditions and boat-only access.

Advertisement

Excavation director James Robinson said this year's dig had confirmed the site was occupied and cultivated without interruption from about 1300 to 1898. Archaeologists had been able to trace changes in horticulture, from taro and yams to the more climate-suitable kūmara, and finally to white potatoes, which were traded for muskets.

The site had potential for education, he said, especially now that the government had decided New Zealand history should be taught in schools.

He wanted Mangahawea to be included in the curriculum, and groups to go there. Te Au Marie Trust was already putting together an educational package for schools that would include the dig's findings.

Mangahawea was not the only early site in New Zealand, but the dig was unique because of the partnership between tangata whenua, DoC, Heritage NZ and universities, as well as the use of tikanga Māori.

"We're using traditional knowledge alongside science to try to understand how to put things together, and it's been remarkably successful," Mr Robinson said. Settlement of Āotearoa was globally significant because it was the "last bus stop on the hīkoi of humanity that started in Africa."

Ngāti Kuta kaumātua Matutaera Clendon, who grew up on the island, and stayed at Mangahawea throughout the dig to safeguard its mauri, said the archaeologists' findings confirmed oral history about the bay and its links to islands in the Pacific.

"I want these findings, and how we got here, to go into our schools to help understand the history of New Zealand," he said.

This year's finds included obsidian flakes, probably from Mayor Island, a moa bone fishhook, a lead musket ball, shell fishhooks, buttons and hāngī pits.

Advertisement

Among the volunteers helping to sift soil was Darrell Collier, from Rawhiti, whose best day produced a clay pipe, an obsidian flake and three buttons, one made of brass with the Queen's emblem.

"It's awesome," he said. "Now when I walk around I notice things way more. I'm hoping to find a tattoo chisel, something my tupuna made."

This year's dig, under the Arakite Charitable Trust, opened up 11 pits totalling almost 60 squ m and as deep as a metre, which was ground level when people arrived about 700 years ago.