Excavations at First Mission Station (1814) and Prehistoric Garden Island

By Brigid Gallagher 22/02/2012

A very important part of being an archaeologist is to leave the theory books at the desk, and go out into the field.  Whilst grounded in science, archaeology is underpinned by an understanding or a willingness to understand and appreciate culture, society and politics of past human inhabitants. 

Archaeological fieldwork and excavation is integral as it provides the raw data for analysis,  but the process itself requires time to gain confidence to dig through the layers, and understand the significance and potential of each layer. 

This week and last, Otago and Auckland University students have been out experiencing excavation, for many the first time, with University staff and other archaeological professionals. The two field schools have been investigating two very different historical and cultural landscapes in the North Island – but each equally interesting for different reasons.

Unfortunately I have not had the opportunity to visit either of these excavations but like anybody else with access to the internet, I have been kept up to date and informed with team members producing regular updates on their blog sites.   

The fact that blog sites are being set up alongside normal recording systems definitely reflects changing dynamics within archaeology and the increasing desire and call to publicly share information and results.

Oihi Mission Station 1814-1832

The joint Otago University and Department of Conservation field school is sited on the Oihi Mission Station, located in the Marsden Cross Historic Reserve in the Bay of Islands.  On the western side of the harbour leading into Paihia, Russell (Kororareka) and Waitangi this is an immensely important site within New Zealand as our first permanent European settlement site.   The background to the reasons for the excavation, and what is hoped to be achieved is here.

The excavation blog that was produced by DoC archaeologist Andrew Blanshard ran from February 7th to 15th, and he writes that it is pertinent that the excavation began the day after Waitangi Day, an integral day in the marriage of Maori and Pakeha in New Zealand history. 

Oihi Mission Station     The site of Oihi Mission Station  

Other key note first for New Zealand history are:
          1.  On Christmas Day 1814, the Rev Samuel Marsden preached his first sermon on this land, and is shown below in a painting of this day with Marsden at the podium and to his right is Rutara dressed in British reglalia (Alexander Turnbull Library).  The 2ooth anniversary of this event is upcoming in 2014.

          2.  The mission is home to New Zealands first European style school, which the archaeologists believe they have found.  Artefacts that support this include many slates and slate pencils.

Speaking to one of DoC’s archaeologists who had been on site for the first few days by phone, I was struck by the excitment in her voice at the structures and artefacts she had seen and was hearing about.  The stone foundations of two buildings plus their nails, an intact hearth from a once vibrant, warming fireplace inside one of the mission buildings, a toy cannon last played with by a child over a 150 years ago, flint used to fire muskets, and the possibility of earlier land modification on the site in the form of Maori terracing.  A bronze bracelet has also been discovered. 

To view pictures of some of these go here.

Being as this is the first settlement in New Zealand, it is not difficult to imagine the strange but wonderful mix of two cultures at this time.  A point at which modern New Zealand begins its journey with the site of these excavations being a pivotal transition point in New Zealands history.   The reserve is definitely worth a visit!   This is a site that I will want to read more about in the future as the post excavation analysis and subsequent stories of the people associated with the mission unfold. 

                                     And in a different landscape completely…

Ahuahu (Great Mercury Island), c. 1300’s? –

The Auckland University fieldschool is underway on Ahuahu (Great Mercury Island) off the Coromandel Peninsula, with Auckland Museum archaeologist Louise Furey and Ngati Hei  A pristine Island, there is a long recorded history and evidence of Maori gardening and settlement, including Pa. The aim of this fieldschool is to reveal more about gardening practises on the Island through New Zealand prehistory and archaeology that is eroding out of one of the dune systems.

What I really like about this blog, is the information about the excavation methodology and strategy are interwoven with the personal thoughts and activities of the writers, mainly of whom are students on the island to learn.  The reflexive quality of this type of archaeological recording adds an interesting perspective to the excavation process, and itself becomes data to be potentially considered later in the post excavation phase of analysis.  

Having worked within this method of archaeological recording while working at Catalhoyuk in Turkey, its advocate Prof. Ian Hodder of Stanford University, has  utilised this theoretical concept to both critically examine Catalhouyk which at its origin is Neolithic, some 9000 years old, and better integrate, or eliminate, the cultural or subjective perspective individual interpreters of archaeological information bring to the analysis and interpretation of sites…whilst maintaining excavation strategies founded in good scientific practise.

      Excavation in Building 77 - 4040 Area

Excavation and discussion on Ahuahu this week                                Excavation and discussion at Catalhoyuk

Whilst the Ahuahu site is being dug over a week or 2, and Catalhoyuk has a 25 year working visa, the mention in the blog site of Ngati Hei representatives, Peter and Peter Johnson whom I met recently on an excavation in Hahei, brings to mind the positive and informative discourse and multivocality (lots of voices and opinions) that can occur between science and humanities through archaeology.  With, in the main, more reasoned and satisifying conclusions.

The blog also lists some fundementals in the science of archaeology which form the basis for the sites intepretation such as the;

          –  soil levels and its relationship with the gardening structures,

          –   stratigraphy, survey and the importance of scale and accuracy in drawings,

          –  the structures, housing platforms, stone alignments, pits, stone faced terraces…the features for analysis

What information comes along post excavation will be very interesting indeed…once again archaeological analysis, intepretations and stories, based on the evidence collected in the field, are what often bring alive the people and places of the past after the thrill of discovery is over.


Updated DoC blog: the second week of the Oihi Bay/Marsden Cross Mission Station excavation is now here…rain, an occupational hazard of archaeology has been causing problems and excitement.  Finding in situ wood, the remains of New Zealands first school house, is certainly a highlight!  Found in the foundations for the building, the archaeologists have been able to start piecing together the stratigraphy of the site….the order in which soils, buildings, their construction  and layers containing evidence of human occupation were laid down.