Archaeologist's brief digs up more than old sites

Taranaki archaeologist Ivan Bruce at his house overlooking Moturoa.
ANDY JACKSON/Fairfax NZ

Taranaki archaeologist Ivan Bruce at his house overlooking Moturoa.

Ivan Bruce's renovated 1970s-style house looks out across battlefields and fortifications of ancient pa sites.

It's the ideal spot for an archaeologist to hone his craft.

Bell Block born and bred, Bruce headed south after secondary school in New Plymouth to study anthropology and classical studies at Otago University, gaining an honours degree in both before completing a masters degree at Auckland University.

Taranaki archaeologist Ivan Bruce
ANDY JACKSON/Fairfax NZ

Taranaki archaeologist Ivan Bruce

He then spent a number of years working as a consultant for forestry companies in the Far North.

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"I'm into the outdoors, like tramping and climbing, and I enjoyed the time in Northland because I could throw my gear in the ute and go out for weeks to research on sites before they were logged by forest contractors.

"They were amazing sites and the places I went to were incredibly interesting."

A short time in Nelson followed before he returned to New Plymouth in 2005 with partner, Lauren, and their two sons, Marlowe and Fergus.

They found a house near Mt Moturoa, or Papawhero.

"We like living here at Papawhero because it feels like you are in the middle of a pre-historical network of pa and fortifications," he says.

Bruce points out three significant pa sites and redoubts -  Te Ngahoro, Whakawhitiwhiti, Kaipopo​ - directly in front of the house looking out over the Moturoa suburb towards the Kaitake Ranges.

He is well-situated to imagine how the Battle of Waireka was played out in 1860.

Bruce, the current Heritage Taranaki chairman, said his inspiration to follow archaeology partly came from former archeologist Dr Alistair Buist.

Buist, a doctor by profession, was self-taught and helped survey Maori earthworks in the region, and was the New Zealand Historic Places Trust regional committee chairman.

"He was a great mentor for me," Bruce said.

"If I was to choose my top five New Zealanders, he would be among them. He was hugely influential."

Bruce grew up on a farm on Paraiti Road in Bell Block where his passion for finding pre-historic artefacts around the small horticultural block his parents owned began.

He had family links with Taranaki going back to the first European settlements in the region.

"I've been self-employed, or unemployable, however you look at it, since I left university," he said.

"When I was younger I found an adze on the family farm and it fascinated me. From then on my interest in archaeology grew.

"There's a lot of historical archaeology in the region and I'm busy writing reports from the site examinations in the area."

One of the intriguing aspects of the job is finding out how historical reports, some based on newspaper reports of the time, can differ so much from his own, more recent, investigations, he said.

"For example the battles between Maori and British on the Kaitake Ranges have been described at the time by reports of heroic fighting by the British as they went to capture the pa.

"But from our site investigation which we have done for subdivision development we can see the trenches dug by the Maori to lure the British in before they attacked the pa.

"This part of the battle was used as a ruse to confuse the British, but showed the skills of the Maori fighters was not reported at the time.

"This is why I enjoy archaeology so much because it can reveal the true picture of what happened."

It also helped his research that artifacts and old sites are well preserved under Taranaki's volcanic soil.

"Once you take the top soil layer off and dig into the ash layer you find this amazing detail of how the trenches were formed and what it was like."

One of Bruce's favourite assignments was excavating the ora puriri area before the Bell Block bypass was built.

The site contained three papakainga, or large meeting houses, within a village which may have contained up to 500 people.

"What made it more enjoyable was that we got properly funded to do the work.

"As a result we able to obtain an amazing amount of archeological assemblage."

The two year assignment contained an immense amount of information, much of which is still to be written into a final report.

Historical sites in Taranaki are in good condition and make for revealing discoveries of numerous pits, middens and trenches hidden under layers of soil for over 100 years.

Taranaki has one of the highest concentrations of pa sites in the country.

In New Plymouth 21 out of 26 pa recorded have been destroyed.

​As a consultant archaeologist working in Taranaki, Bruce said he had never been busier.

In any one year he can have 40-50 work assignments and reports to complete.

Since returning to Taranaki he has been consulted to report on a diverse range of sites, from the coastal walkway development to identifying human remains, to uncovering cobblestones underneath the White Hart Hotel.

He is currently working on a report to the South Taranaki District Council on a site at Nukumaru​ reserve, near Waitotara boundary, where a significant battle between Maori and British took place in 1865.

Bruce is currently preparing a site investigation report before a new road is built across the area.

"I've always liked archaeology but I don't have a specific interest, like uncovering bones, or shells to understand diets for example," he says.

"Archeological sites can tie you to the place you come from, and the driving force for me is recognising our national and local identity more completely from what is uncovered.

"You get a strong sense of identity from iwi when you work on sites in Taranaki.

"To iwi it's not just a pa site but a place where they can trace back their genealogy and whakapapa.

"These are important places and they have much greater value than just a physical historical site."

It also makes his work harder to quantify, he says.

"With every site investigation I take on obligation from all sides, from iwi and also the developer if it is a sub division, and the Heritage NZ Pouhere Taonga Act to ensure the principles of the act are followed, and the preservation of the site is maintained.

"It is sometimes feels like being the meat in the sandwich holding together a bunch of forces."

Maori drove the local economy in the first 20 years of European settlement and they are poised to regain that position in the coming years, he said.

"I enjoy being able to be involved in discovering how much influence Maori had in the region.

"Site investigations can show how horrific the Land Wars were but they can also show how skilled and talented Maori were in their fighting tactics, and how accomplished negotiators they were.

"They were hard working, intelligent and resourceful."

Bruce said there would always be pressure on maintaining significant heritage sites.

Important historical sites are in danger of being lost in Taranaki, especially with new earthquake legislation which requires money to bring buildings up to standard, he said.

The new laws can be a death knell to the preservation of heritage buildings and the region stood to lose a huge amount of history if money was not spent to maintain the sites.

Co-management of historical sites between iwi and central and local government was important.

Many sites are being damaged with time through under-funding, he says.

"The key is to be able to remain enthusiastic and help show historical value of preserving old sites and buildings."

 - Taranaki Daily News

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