Global Archaeology: First Stop, New Zealand

Kate Leonard New Zealand

Me, armpit deep in a post hole at the base of a kumara storage pit on the Bay of Plenty site.

What’s it like to travel around the world as an archaeologist? This year, Dr Kate is off to find out as she embarks on an incredible archaeological adventure; 12 digs, in 12 countries, in just 12 months.

My first stop is Aotearoa (New Zealand), where two teams of archaeologists are excavating Maori settlements on Te Ika-a-Māui (the North island). One month into my Global Archaeology journey and I’m already feeling like I’ve learned more than I could have done through years of study.

The remarkable effort it took to cultivate traditional crops in new soils, the pros and cons of volcanic geology and the great things that happen when you mix oral history with archaeology are just a few of the things I’ve seen, done and learned so far…

Growing sweet potatoes in New Zealand

When the Maori first arrived in New Zealand, they brought with them plenty of crops, like the ubiquitous kumara (a variety of sweet potato). But what I hadn’t understood until now was just how much they had to manipulate the new soils to get them to grow.

The first excavation site was in the heart of a city in Waikato in the northwest, and the second on farmland in the Bay of Plenty in the northeast. As we dug, we unearthed the full spectrum of Maori horticultural features, including pātaka, (storehouses raised on stilts), heavily modified garden soils, and huge borrow pits Maori dug deep into the ground to quarry sand for their gardens.

Clearly, Maori horticultural practices were intricate, as well as labour intensive, and they would have required an in-depth knowledge of their crops and how to manufacture the right kind of soil to get them to grow. The sheer scale of some of the archaeological features we excavated was telling; some of the borrow pits were over 3m deep!

Spotting archaeology in volcanic geology

Kate Leonard NZ Stratigraphy

An archaeologist and iwi monitor working together to record the upper portion of a borrow pit profile.

Every time you excavate in a new country, you encounter a new geology in which the archaeology is situated. In the Waikato region, there is a layer of volcanic tephra deposited by the Hatepe eruption in AD180 under the topsoil. The archaeological features are cut into this, but are often refilled with the natural subsoil, which can make it really hard to see when you are excavating them.

It took me a while to adjust my ‘archaeological eye’ to the natural subsoil, but I persevered and within a few days I was able to see the edges of the archaeological features I was excavating more clearly.

Kate Leonard NZ puke

A kumara puke garden in the Waikato (each small round feature is a puke that would have had a mound of rich topsoil on top where the kumara was grown)

In New Zealand, all archaeological excavations are monitored by a member of the local iwi (the largest social unit in Maori culture). In the Bay of Plenty region, the iwi monitor was an elder of the community and was there to observe, comment, advise and report. In the Waikato, the iwi decided to have four members involved on a rotating basis and interacting directly with the archaeologists.

The iwi members were there to learn about archaeology and what we were finding on the site in order to communicate their experience to the wider community. I worked closely with the iwi monitors on the Waikato site. By explaining and demonstrating the basics of archaeology I helped to remove the mystery surrounding what we do.

Mixing archaeology and oral history

In turn, I learned about the cultural practices behind the archaeology we were uncovering together. We talked and shared with each other: I shared my archaeological knowledge and they shared their knowledge of Maori culture and traditions.

Unfortunately, there aren’t yet many archaeologists in New Zealand who have a strong Maori identity and that’s undoubtedly a consequence of colonialism and the attitudes associated with it. I discussed this with a few of the iwi monitors and, overall, they were very positive about the direction New Zealand is heading regarding intercultural cooperation and understanding. The monitoring policy itself is a start.

The importance of Maori understanding of archaeological processes cannot be emphasised enough. In some instances, their oral histories have helped uncover new archaeology, which in turn adds physical evidence to their own cultural understanding of the landscape.

The Bay of Plenty excavation was the first to record archaeology on that particular ridgeline, and uncovered 25 subterranean food storage buildings and one pataka (on stilts). So much archaeology on one small strip of land confirms the iwi’s oral history and proves that this area was once a site of intense Maori occupation and industry.

Kate Leonard NZ Big Pit

My last day on site, still not the base of that borrow pit!

For me, digging Maori archaeology alongside the iwi was an incredible opportunity to learn about Maori culture from those who know it best. Like many parts of the world that have been colonised, New Zealand’s archaeology can be seen as divided between Maori and ‘European’.

While the later ‘European’ archaeology is also interesting and significant to the history of New Zealand, as a visitor to the country I feel very lucky that I was able to excavate archaeological features created by the indigenous population.

My Global Archaeology journey couldn’t have got off to a better start and, while I’d love to stay and spend more time digging in New Zealand, it’s time to move on. Next stop: Tasmania. Stay tuned!

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Kate Leonard

Written by Kate Leonard

Dr. Kate Leonard is an archaeologist who will be spending 2016 traveling around the world lending a helping hand to interesting archaeological projects. The concept is 12 countries - 12 projects - 12 months. Global Archaeology: a year of digs.

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