Archaeological site a window into past

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An archaeological investigation at Oihi Bay, site of the earliest permanent European habitation in New Zealand, is revealing some fascinating details of life in the Bay of Islands in a very different era. 

Otago University professor of archaeology Ian Smith (foreground left) and honorary research fellow Dr Angela Middleton stand in front of the archaeological investigation that is being carried out at Oihi Bay/Marsden Cross, a joint project between the university and the Department of Conservation [Credit: Northland Age]

The investigation is a joint project between the University of Otago and the Department of Conservation. 

Kerikeri Doc historic ranger Andrew Blanshard, Otago University professor of archaeology Ian Smith, five of his students, honorary research fellow Dr Angela Middleton and other Doc staff began the dig on February 7. 

The pickings have been rich; so far they have discovered numerous writing slates and pencils, a toy cannon, glass beads (commonly used for trade), a bronze bracelet (complete with a clasp still in working order), nails and pieces of ceramics. But the most exciting find as of earlier this week was the fireplace in what they believe to have been New Zealand’s first schoolhouse. 

“The most interesting feature is the fireplace. You know you’ve got a house when you find a fireplace,” Dr Middleton said. 

“The clay marble, the toy cannon; immediately you have the sense that there were children here,” she said. 

Dr Middleton and Prof Smith worked on the dig at the Te Puna site in 2002. 

Dr Middleton used research from there for her PhD and Prof Smith recalled gazing over towards Oihi and wishing to one day dig there as well. 

“Every year my lectures consist of Te Puna, and those interactions between Maori and Pakeha,” Dr Middleton said. 

“Over the past five or six years, I have taught about this area and landscape; it’s the No 1 place. A lot of the people that are working here have heard me going on about this place.” 

Mr Blanshard, who said much of the discussion that took place at Waitangi in February 1840 began at Oihi, pointed out a deep hole which clearly showed differing layers, the top layer European cultivation, a middle layer of denser gravel and rocks, and a much deeper layer showing clear signs of burnt (fire-cracked) rock, the result of Maori habitation. 

“We have the stories from the missionaries, the oral stories from the local iwi, and with this dig we will uncover further stories of this place,” he said. 

“All of these stories are what makes this place unique; the first interaction between two cultures.” 

The settlement was the early focal point for Maori/European interaction in the Bay of Islands, until other locations with better anchorages became more popular with visiting ships in the early 1820s, and other European settlements were established in Kerikeri, Paihia and Kororareka. 

The Oihi Mission Station was abandoned in 1832 when the last of its missionaries moved about 1km to Te Puna. 

Church groups and descendant families are planning a series of celebrations, some of which will take place on the site, to mark the community’s bicentennial in 2014. 

A good deal of work is to be done by the Department of Conservation before then, not only in gathering information but also in upgrading tracks, signage and other facilities.  

Source: Otago Daily Times [February 26, 2012]

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