Capturing history, one fossil at a time

Nothing excited archaeologist, Hans-Dieter Bader more, than to uncover a historic and culturally significant Māori campsite through the sighting of a shell midden in early 2020 at our Oranga site.

As Aotearoa is considered a new country through the lens of recorded history, when a find like this one is unearthed, it presents the opportunity to capture and record previously unknown historical insight.

Piritahi is committed to managing the process of archaeological discoveries like this one and in working closely with mana whenua, can gather further knowledge, meaning and understanding about our shared cultural heritage.

“It’s all of our heritage, not just Māori heritage because we live on the land. If we don’t look after our home and record what we are finding, we lose the ability to connect with the land for ourselves and for our children and grandchildren”, says Hans.

Nick Hawke, Ngāti Whātua ki Ōrākei is one of 19 mana whenua iwi in Auckland who gratefully shared his understanding from a Māori perspective in “hope that it may aid your employees in learning a bit more about us through our lens”.

“As a Cultural Advisor mandated by my elders, I am also the Senior Cultural Monitor for our Social Development arm, Whai Māia. In the latter role, our aim is to help expedite the process if any taonga are discovered and provide cultural advice and karakia (prayer). We are there to work alongside you and not against you.”

The ancient Māori world was not documented in writing. The histories are passed down in waiata (songs) and carvings. Very much dependent on nature and the seasons, they would travel throughout the land to gather kaimoana (seafood), birds and other foods.

“Wherever we went, we would leave a footprint, and the scientific evidence from middens found proves that we were once there.”

The original find sparked a curiosity to dig deeper, and what followed was an exploration of the surrounding area and a discovery of four similar complexes across Oranga.

On a balmy afternoon in late March 2021 on Waitangi Road, we visited Hans at the beginning of yet another excavation process. He showed us the excavated pit, the layers of shell midden, ash from the campsite, and basalt rock mix - a dark, fine-grained igneous rock usually formed by the solidification of magma or lava.

Fast forward a few weeks and a small group is gathered around at an early morning Toolbox Talk meeting; the Oranga site crew eagerly anticipating Han’s presentation on his findings since the March visit.

“Here’s where things got really interesting”, says Hans with a cheeky glint in his eye. An enthusiastic Hans dives into a detailed presentation specifically drilling down to the storage pit (rua) found within a service trench.

A sketch depicting the
Māori camp site discovered early 2020
Talking to the team at the Oranga Toolbox Talk

What is a rua?

A storage pit mainly used for kumara that was dug into soft rock faces as well as into earth mainly used to preserve and offer protection against pests. When placing kumara in the pit, great care was taken not to pierce the skins, to avoid decay.

After an in-depth soil and microfossil analysis, the presence of taro, tī pore (Pacific cabbage tree) and aute (paper mulberry tree) were discovered. Tī pore was introduced into New Zealand in the waka migrations of the 13th century, grown for its taproot, which was cooked in a hāngī. The bark from aute is used to make tapa cloth.

“Finding three of the six cultivars that have been brought by Māori from the Polynesian Islands in one spot is quite the find”, exclaims an excited Hans.

The analysis also shows the fields were surrounded and protected by a dense stand of mature Rewarewa trees - one of only two species in the protea family in New Zealand. During the spring, its nectar is irresistible to tūī and bellbirds.

“This find still needs a lot of archaeological work. For example, scientific dating, and talking to local oral history experts, but it is a very promising start for our understanding of the landscape created by Māori for their gardens.”