Site `where it all began'
You can feel the excitement on site – little trowels scraping away at the earth of the Oihi Mission Station, the first place where Maori and European lived together.
Nearby a box contains finds made during the first few days of the Oihi archaeological dig – treasures for scientists.
A domed button off a dress, a musket ball, a toy cannon, a rusted key – "the key to the secrets of what went before", the archaeologists say.
There are also nails, bits of window glass and pieces of china – easily recognisable to those who have the knowledge about items used in the 19th century – packed carefully away in little labelled bags.
"It is difficult to think of a site in New Zealand that is of more importance than this," says Otago University Professor Ian Smith, who is directing the project.
The time span under investigation on the Purerua Peninsula, north of Kerikeri, is 1814 to 1832.
Postgraduate students were brushing away dirt on a site identified in an assessment process as a probable house site.
Criteria for site selection include the flatness of the area and monitoring of magnetic fields.
The homes built at Oihi in the early 19th century were made of kahikatea, a timber that doesn't endure.
The dwellings may have been left to decay when the missionaries relocated to a preferred location at Te Puna in 1832.
DOC archaeologist Andrew Blanshard says there is more interest in this overseas than there is in New Zealand.
"New Zealanders need to be aware that this is where it all began. There are many firsts: This was the site of the first European birth in New Zealand, the first European school and the first land sale."
And there are other unique points of interest, he says.
"New Zealand is the only colonial country that was established by treaty not war – and it is the youngest. Archaeologists in Europe are looking at changes that occurred over 35,000 years. Maori made those changes in 600 years, from the time of the first occupation in about 1280. New Zealand is a wonderful time machine for archaeologists."
The dig is also attracting descendants of the early missionaries – the Kings, the Hansens, the Halls, the Kendalls and others.
Church groups and descendant families of the mission community are planning a series of celebrations on the site for the 200th anniversary of the founding of the Oihi Mission Station.
Andrew Blanshard saw a need for more information to present at this anniversary event. The rest is history.
An open day on February 18 will give the public the opportunity to find out more about the dig, a joint project between the University of Otago and the Department of Conservation. It is from 10am to 3pm at Marsden Cross Historic Reserve on the Purerua Peninsula above the beach at Oihi adjacent to Rangihoua pa. Wear a hat and sunscreen, bring water and a snack. The event is weather dependent. Contact DOC Bay of Islands on (09) 407-0300 for more information.