Unearthing the past

19:41, Feb 06 2013
FIRST EUROPEANS: Clockwise from left: Dr Ian Smith, Andrew Blanshard, Bevan O’Brien and Raewyn Rihari stand on the site of what may have been one, or more likely two, of the houses that comprised part of the first European settlement in New Zealand. Dr Smith is leading the excavation at Marsden Cross.

The first European settlement in New Zealand is being uncovered in the Bay of Islands.

Marsden Cross is, scientifically speaking, an "extremely important place" for New Zealand says the director of the University of Otago archaeology team on site, Dr Ian Smith.

Documenting the material possessions of the first European settlement allows scientists to measure change as new objects, new technologies spread through the country.

The 1827 painting of American Augustus Earle and the journals of Thomas Kendall Jr, John King, James Shepherd and William Hall provided the most information on the first European foothold in Aotearoa until last year. But the excavation on the Purerua Peninsula site has begun to paint a more robust picture.

Three weeks' work done in February 2012 uncovered the settlement's school and a whare near the beach which was something that wasn't "in the history at all", Dr Smith says.

The site that Dr Smith's team is uncovering clearly shows two fireplaces, or two houses: One was built adjacent to or on top of another that was likely demolished.


Dr Smith's crew has found a number of interesting artifacts from the first European settlers.

His team found what was once a piece of jewellery - an ornament likely from a metal mount hung from a chain around a woman's neck - that Dr Smith thinks may have later been used as a Maori tool.

The team also found a coin beside the fireplace, with the date 1806 inscribed on it.

"The interesting thing is when these people came here, what would they have used money for?

"The only thing that they could have used money for was with interacting with other Europeans coming in on ships," Dr Smith says.

"You're not going to go to the pa and buy things with money."

The barter economy would have made its use rare in New Zealand. But he says it likely did have a practical value.

The Department of Conservation's Bay of Islands historic ranger Andrew Blanshard is very keen on the work done this year, especially after the unearthing of the school last February gave a better idea of early settlers' lives.

"This is kind of where it all began," he says.

He likes learning about things such as the country's first school. It served a population of Maori at the adjacent pa that was once easily in the hundreds.

And it's the telling of stories of people's lives that he's most excited about.

"You can actually tease out the other people's stories," Mr Blanshard says.

"Children don't often make it into the historic record because they're not significant enough.

"Women are rarely seen in the historic record.

"With this sort of work we can actually tease out some of those lives - which is really neat, that's where it gets fun."

Mr Blanshard says that likely one or two whaling ships entered the bay a year for the two decades before the establishment of the settlement.

Ruatara was one of the paramount chiefs of Ngapuhi at the time and one of those who went to Sydney to meet with Reverend Marsden. He says people believed the pa site that had the missionary settlement would have an advantage in trade.

But Ruatara died five months after the mission station was established in 1814.

And the seat of power transferred to the Kerikeri basin where Hongi Hika was established.

"Although this pa site was still used during this time, it

lost a lot of the mana that was associated with it, which means that these guys down here had a really hard ask - they didn't have the interaction with a big chief that they were expecting to have," Mr Blanshard says.

"And Maori quickly realised that these guys wouldn't trade muskets with them. It was kind of against the whole Christian ethos.

"The European boats still came in here to trade but they weren't actually trading with the missionaries - Marsden set these guys up with the idea that they'd be pretty much self-sufficient," he says.

"They'd be able to grow enough food to support themselves, they'd trade a bit with Maori for food and then now and again trade with the odd whaling ship," he says.

"The whaling ships bypassed the missionaries because they didn't want to trade with them and Maori didn't want to trade with them, because they wouldn't give them muskets - they were kind of stuck between a rock and a hard place."

The European influence soon moved away from the peninsula - first to Kerikeri in 1819 and then Paihia in 1823.

The settlement was abandoned in 1835 when the structures started to rot.

Dr Angela Middleton finished the neighbouring predecessor dig at the Te Puna Mission in 2005.

"Te Puna was a continuation of this mission," she says.

"John King was really connected with the people of the pa so he wanted to stay."

He argued against a move to the Kerikeri Mission because, she says his children were buried at the Marsden Cross site.

"The houses here were no longer fit to live in, they were pretty much rotten and Te Puna was always considered a better site - it's got more flat land, better for growing food, that kind of stuff," she says.

But there was a reason for the original site, Dr Smith says.

"This was the land that the chiefs gave them," he says. "They didn't have a choice."

The houses that were originally built in 1816 were still standing when the missionaries left.

But they were made from kahikatea and not fit to live in. The houses at the Te Puna site displayed a variety of wood choices, including kauri and puriri.

The original houses at the settlement remain a mystery.

"The only things that we know about them is that they were built and that they were a bit shonky at the end of their lives," Dr Smith says.

"We're trying to find out about the houses - the size that they were, how they were built - but also the stuff of everyday life that was lost and discarded around them," Dr Smith says.