Coastal erosion swallows past
Dozens of southern heritage sites are being destroyed by coastal erosion and there is little Southlanders can do to protect them, experts say.
It is estimated up to 100 Maori and early European heritage sites, some containing human remains, have already been lost to the elements, and more will go as coastlines erode further.
The extent of the erosion was highlighted by the Southland Coastal Heritage Inventory Project, which identifies and monitors potential heritage sites in the province.
Speaking at a Southland District Council meeting last week, project co-ordinator Dean Whaanga said some centuries-old heritage sites were being eroded by up to 30 centimetres a week, leaving items such as human remains, adzes, middens and buttons exposed to weather and tides.
That exposure could damage culturally important sites and, once gone, they could never be brought back, he said.
Several sites being destroyed contained some of the region's most culturally significant artefacts, including remains of the first Maori and European interactions in the south, and pounamu tools.
Other than bringing in rocks to prevent erosion, which was a costly process, little could be done to slow the damage, he said.
The project group, along with a team of kaitiaki volunteers (guardians), would continue to monitor all the sites and recover any artefacts exposed by erosion.
"We are going to lose these sites. All we can do now is watch."
Between 2011 and 2012, adzes, a ground oven, an oyster pendant, as well as whalebone and metal buttons were recovered at the Tokanui River Mouth, a site now almost completely eroded.
It appeared erosion had accelerated along the Southland coast in the past five years, with the coastline at Cosy Nook receding about 20 metres since 2008, Mr Whaanga said.
Much of the erosion was natural, but human actions had also caused erosion and created threats to heritage sites.
Cows had increasingly been allowed to graze in sandhills which some Maori lived in or used as burial grounds, and volunteers had found a silage pit built on a moa hunting site, he said.
Southland District Council resource management planner Marcus Roy said erosion was also exposing artefacts to other risks.
It was important archaeologists or project partners found newly exposed heritage sites before fossickers did, or artefacts could end up on Trade Me and decorating mantlepieces, he said.
When the project group or contracted archaeologists located artefacts, these were usually forwarded to the Ministry of Culture and Heritage, examined by university researchers, or returned to iwi and placed in museums on loan.
Kaitiaki volunteer Lloyd Esler said the coastline at Omaui had also sustained damage during high sea levels in the past few months.
Southern Maori generally settled near the coast because most resources were located there, so a large part of the region's heritage was threatened by coastal erosion, he said. However, as well as destroying sites, erosion helped expose previously unknown sites to archaeologists.
SOME OF THE MOST AT-RISK SITES:
- Porpoise Bay
- Curio Bay and Waikawa area
- Cosy Nook*
- Tokanui River Mouth*
* These sites are almost completed eroded
- © Fairfax NZ News
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