On a quest to dig up our history

21:03, Feb 07 2013
Amanda Young
REVEALED: Nelson archeologist Amanda Young with some of the items found during the demolition of Realty Chambers in Bridge St.

Amanda Young has been known to bore her friends by forcing upon them the history of the area that they are biking, kayaking or driving through. But for the Nelson-based archaeologist, knowing about history makes the landscape that much more meaningful.

Mrs Young was born in Christchurch but grew up and studied in Auckland before returning to the South Island in 2000.

"The sheer beauty of the place and the accessibility of the outdoors - that's why Nelson is such a fabulous place to live."

After completing a joint degree in New Zealand history and anthropology, she spent three years travelling overseas before completing her masters.

"I had to decide what to do my masters in, history or archaeology. I went with archaeology because it was half outdoors. I wanted to do a combination of the research and getting out and about, looking at interesting places."

For Mrs Young, the pull of her profession is getting to learn about people's past lives.


"Because you see it all around you, you see the old buildings and you want to know who lived there and why and what was happening."

In particular she loves the New Zealand history side of things, and looks set for an argument at the suggestion that as a country we're not old enough to be interesting.

"We do have a long scale of history, we're talking about the 13th century all the way through and the fact is that it's our history.

"It's how our country is made, how we're influenced our landscape and landform and how we managed to live in this country."

She said she loved the combination of researching the history and then getting to go out and see it.

"You're in the library looking at old photos and writing about that, but then you're outside, often in fantastically beautiful parts of the country which you wouldn't ordinarily get to see, in this amazingly beautiful environment tying it to stuff you've looked at in the documents."

One of the favourite parts of her job is uncovering the layering that history can bring to site.

"You get somewhere like Nelson where you've had Maori presence since say, the 13th century. Then there's the layers of different iwi coming through, the different uses of the land. Then you have early European settlers and their influence on the landscape. I like the different layering and mingling and purposes of why people came."

As with every job, there are downsides though.

"My garage is full of bottles.

"We desperately need funding at the museum for storage, my garage is full of boxes because there's nowhere else for them."

But the biggest frustration is the politics.

"As an archaeologist, my prime role is an advocate for the site. But, invariably, I get caught in the middle between property owners, Maori, various competing Maori groups, the Historic Places Trust, the council and any other interested bodies."

But Mrs Young said she can't think of anything she'd rather be doing - except perhaps being a fulltime mum.

When not digging around, the mother-of-two and her husband Pete like to take advantage of the Nelson's big backyard.

"I'm a multisporter, kayaking, biking, running.

"We do a lot with the kids - ski, tramp, mountainbike. We boat and kayak. We do everything."

Doing contract work means Mr Young gets to choose her hours, allowing her to alternate between being on site and mucking in at Clifton Terrace School as a parent.

Mrs Young said in terms of "standout digs" she had felt privileged to help iwi lift a koiwi (human remains) from a beach at Marahau.

"It needed to be removed from the sand dunes and then iwi reburied it in an urupa (Maori burial site).

"I was under the guidance of how iwi wanted to do it.

"The sun was setting and we were frantically trying to finish and there was an amazing karakia being chanted.

"Plus, I was looking at the bones at the same time. I'm not a bone specialist, but I could work out the sex and relative age of that person. It was really cool, the mixing of all that."

Everything dug up that is of Maori origin goes to the Maori Land Court, which decides which iwi can keep it; items of European origin go to the museum.

Mrs Young said there have been times she's been tempted to keep some of the finds.

"Not so much the Maori stuff though because it's just been so drummed into me the spiritual significance to Maori.

"For me, it's a beautiful object, but for a lot of iwi it's more than just an item, it's a link to the past.

"With that huge spiritual significance it seems plain wrong for me to have something just because I think it's pretty."

She said she wished more people understood that, particularly those who kept things they found at beaches.

"I would really like them to realise not only are we losing the knowledge behind that piece, scientific archaeological knowledge that helps us learn about the past, but, to certain iwi and hapu it may have huge spiritual significance."

The Nelson Mail