The Archaeology of New Zealand

Thurlby Domain Ruins

I found buried treasure once. Well. Kind of. I was helping Dad dig a new flowerbed and we found a few pieces of nineteenth-century pottery. To my child’s mind, it was akin to uncovering the treasures of Sutton Hoo. I was bitterly disappointed we didn’t find any bones, though.

I was a huge fan of Time Team, you see. Still am. (It’s a British archaeology programme presented by Baldrick from Blackadder.) I remember getting really excited when I found a bone in the tall grass by the school field, only to be told by an adult that it was, in fact, an old chicken drumstick, and could I please throw it away and wash my hands? To me, digging up artefacts buried beneath our own lawn was utterly magical.

But not, however, surprising. Finding broken nineteenth-century pottery in our garden made perfect sense. The street upon which we lived had once been called Pottery Lane, after all. It had been the site of a pottery factory. Also, we lived in England. You can’t dig anywhere in England without hitting archaeology.

Hadrian's Wall

Hadrian’s Wall

New Zealand is different. It has archaeology, of course, but (in comparison to elsewhere) not a lot. This is understandable. New Zealand was the last major landmass to be settled by human beings. We’ve only been here about seven hundred years – compared to millions of years elsewhere! There aren’t nearly so many layers to get through.

Typical examples of New Zealand archaeology include pa sites – the remains of Maori hill forts, lumps and bumps in the grass – and kumara pits – holes in the ground used for storing kumara tubers over winter. You can also find earthworks that are the ghosts of nineteenth-century British forts, such as the remains of Monmouth Redoubt in Tauranga.

Perhaps the most important archaeological site in New Zealand is Wairau Bar in Marlborough. It’s the earliest known settlement in the country. They found human skeletons, tools, cooking pits, jewellery, middens containing mussel shells and moa bones, moa eggs that were used for carrying water and so much more! The human remains were subsequently reburied by local tribal elders. Ancestors are significant in Maori culture.

Edmonds Ruins Kerikeri

Edmonds Ruins

There aren’t that many actual ruins in New Zealand. I found some when I spent a few days in Kerikeri, but they weren’t that interesting. Glad I saw them, though – I kind of miss crumbling stone walls. They’re called Edmonds Ruins, the stone walls and fireplace of a Victorian farmhouse. Kerikeri is a great place for history generally. It’s got the oldest European house in New Zealand, the oldest stone building in New Zealand and a replica Maori village. Plus the Waitangi Treaty Grounds are nearby.

(The ruins in the image at the top of this article are in Thurlby Domain, between Queenstown and Arrowtown in the South Island. We didn’t have time to explore the area properly on our South Island campervan tour. I really want to go back there.)

New Zealand’s only commercial archaeological site is in Rotorua, the Buried Village of Te Wairoa. This missionary-founded village was inhabited by both Maori and European settlers, and was destroyed when the volcano Tarawera erupted in 1886. Excavations began in the 1930s; now there’s a museum housing the wonderfully preserved artefacts.

Edmonds Ruins Kerikeri

Edmonds Ruins

I want to visit more of New Zealand’s interesting historical and archaeological sites when I get the chance. If anyone knows of any good ones please tell me! I understand there are some great ones around Dunedin. I haven’t seen any examples of Maori rock art either; I really should… I suppose my interest in New Zealand history came quite late. Even though I moved to New Zealand at the age of ten, I spent my teenage years reading endless books about English history, partly because I missed England so much; partly because it’s just so epic.

I’ve always said that if I ever go back to live in England, it’ll be so I can visit all its wonderful historical sites every weekend. No other reason. But maybe I should be making more of an effort to visit New Zealand’s historical sites… The Otuataua Stonefields look like they could be interesting…

Fountains Abbey

Fountains Abbey, North Yorkshire, England


2 thoughts on “The Archaeology of New Zealand

  1. Queenstown Vibes says:

    I enjoyed reading this as would love to see some NZ ruins. My wedding photos were taken at Thurlby Domain in Queenstown, it’s a lovely spot. You have inspired me to check out more!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Have a look at the Chinese settlement in Arrowtown. A friend of mine did some of the archaeological and conservation work there in the 1980s. The intriguing part about a lot of New Zealand sites that date to the nineteenth century is that historical archaeology is possible – excavating relatively recent sites and adding data to the existing documentary record. Very cool.

    Liked by 1 person

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