Maori time capsule unearthed
27 May 2008
A New Zealand archaeologist has uncovered an untouched "time capsule" of Maori life which dates back almost 200 years.
The remains have been lying hidden beneath the impenetrable undergrowth of an island called Tawhiti Rahi in the Poor Knights' area off the eastern coast of the North Island, since December 16, 1823.
On that day, or in the few days prior, a raiding party from Northland's Hikutu hapu (tribe) landed at the island's only safe landing spot - choosing a time when the island's Ngatiwai iwi chief and men were off on their own raid.
The island fell, its inhabitants massacred, and was barely ever set foot on again.
That created what is known as a "Pompeii premise" - where an archaeological landscape is left intact.
While the Poor Knights' southern island, Aorangi, has long been known as the home to a permanent pre-European Maori population, Tawhiti Rahi was believed to be little more than a seasonal camp. It had until now escaped detailed examination because of its difficult access.
But Otago University archaeologist James Robinson and his team spent 12 weeks over the past three years combing its landscape.
He will reveal his findings at the New Zealand Archaeological Society conference on June 4, before presenting it at the World Archaeology Congress in Dublin on June 29.
Lying about 24km off the east coast of Northland and protected by 100m sheer cliffs, the island is now home to tuataras and more than 700,000 birds and is surrounded by a world-famous marine reserve.
Captain Cook’s discovery
Mr Robinson says the island is also home to one of the clearest history lessons on late-Maori settlement ever found in New Zealand .
"Essentially, it's what Captain Cook saw when he arrived in New Zealand. The island is covered with archaeological features. There are very few areas that don't have something."
The limited research done to date concluded that the island was subservient to neighbouring Aorangi, but Mr Robinson said it was now almost certain Tawhiti Rahi was the Poor Knights' main population base.
Despite the existence of whalers during the latter part of the island's occupation, Mr Robinson and his team found no glass, ceramic or metal artefacts - indicating the island's community led a very traditional life, largely free of Pakeha involvement.
Tawhiti Rahi provided abundant amounts of muttonbird, had ample fresh water and significant fish numbers - with the East Auckland current that sweeps past the island providing an extremely high fish mass.
And through using the slash-and-burn gardening method common on the mainland - combined with stone walls, stone mounds and terraces - Tawhiti Rahi was a productive garden site.
"They had basically turned 95 per cent of appropriate garden areas into a garden," Mr Robinson said.
"Others they were in the process of converting, but stopped." That stop coincided with the 1823 massacre.
"They stopped building gardens overnight. It's almost a photograph of what's going on in late modern society.
Mr Robinson believes the island was settled after 1500. It did not have any pa sites - fortifications that began to appear throughout New Zealand after 1500. But that did not mean it wasn't a pa.
"The island itself is essentially a pa. There's only one landing point, with a village immediately adjacent."
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