Fascinating talks at the museum

Remarkable history lies at the Wairau Bar and retired archaeologist Janet Davidson will outline some of it in on Sunday..

It is the first of a Winter Series of monthly talks at the Marlborough Museum and repeats a presentation Janet gave last year. Limited seats in the museum's lecture room meant many people wanting to hear her had been turned away so would-be patrons at tomorrow's talk are urged to book a place.

Janet has lived at Ngakuta Bay in the Marlborough Sounds for the past 11 years but before she retired she worked at Auckland Museum then Te Papa, as a Pacific Collections' curator. In that work she has carefully studied the information uncovered by others at the Wairau Bar.

Other archaeological sites have usually been inhabited by humans for millennia, she says. In comparison, New Zealand has a very short human history.

"But it's a fascinating story, how people came from small, tropical islands to a big, temperate land mass and adapted so quickly and successfully. There are not many comparable places."

The bar was one of the first places to be settled in New Zealand and the new arrivals became moa hunters. When the last of the giant birds disappeared, other foods were sourced at the bar and Maori continued to live there until the mid-19th century before they were moved on by European settlers.

Archaeologists arrived in the 1950s and uncovered urupa (burial sites), pits, occupation sites, ovens, and other areas associated with the archaic and later periods of Maori occupation. Many findings were sent to the Canterbury Museum.

Archaeological practices have greatly improved since those days, Janet says, and the ancestral bones were formally returned to the bar four years ago. Before they were, archaeologists at Otago University were permitted to do some more study and new evidence was uncovered.

"My talk will review the whole history of the investigation of the site and explain why it's so important.

"One of the most exciting things was the reconstruction of the [early Maori] actual faces . . . showing what the people might have looked like."

Bone chemistry reveals the foods they ate and even where they were born. For some it was in the tropics, making them literally New Zealand's earliest inhabitants, she says.

Janet has written a a book about archaeology in New Zealand and she identifies the Wairau Bar as one of our most important archaeological sites.

Dr Janet Davidson's talk, The Early Settlement of the Wairau Bar, starts at 2pm on Sunday in the Marlborough Museum. Entry by gold coin but phone the office (578 1712) to reserve a seat.

The Winter Series talks continue on July 28 with Dr Reg Nichol discussing The History and Archaeology of the Blenheim Car Parking Building site; then on August 25 Pam Saunders talks about the Dressmakers and Hat Makers of Blenheim.