Dig reveals treasures from 1800s

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Contracting archaeologist Andrew Hoffman could hardly conceal his glee at one of the most significant archaeological finds in the Waikato. 

Archaeologist Andrew Hoffman holds the piece of obsidian found during excavations off Grantham Street [Credit: Waikato Times]

He and a group of Auckland archaeologists uncovered about 1000 historic features on the site of the former Hamilton Club building after it was moved to make way for new foundations. 

Among the discoveries are pre-European food storage pits and a lump of obsidian the size of a cricket ball. The volcanic glass, possibly from Mayor Island, was used by early Maori to fashion cutting tools. 

Remains of 18 bell-shaped pits, probably used to store kumara for food and as seed, were also uncovered. 

Mr Hoffman said the “bell-rua” pits had been dug straight down into the sandy soil and hollowed out into a chamber. The marks made by digging instruments could still be seen. 

The area also contained typical gardening soils and the remains of kumara-growing mounds. 

“It is a complex and significant site as the pits have never been found in such numbers before. There has been very little work done in the Hamilton region and the pits are an unexpected discovery,” he said. 

To find the pre-European layers the researchers had to delve 1 to 1.5 metres below the surface. 

Shallower layers held treasures from early European settlement. The area, near the bottom of Grantham St, was the site of early commerce including a general store, biscuit maker, watchmaker and dressmaker along with dwellings. A red-bricked well from the period was also discovered and dug out to see if it held any significant items. 

Many of the items found date from the 1860s-1880s. NZ Historic Places Trust spokeswoman Gail Henry said they might tell us a lot about Hamilton’s early days. 

“The features and material uncovered – including bottles, crockery and other artefacts – are important as very few excavations have been undertaken in the Hamilton area. The information recovered will help inform us about both pre-European Maori and early European periods of time.” 

When the month-long excavation winds up next week the artefacts will be analysed and recorded. They may then be offered to a local museum. 

Any damage, modification or destruction of the site is illegal under the Historic Places Act 1993. The dig was on behalf of the New Zealand Historic Places Trust for the site redevelopers Project Grantham.  

Author: Geoff Lewis and Matt Bowen | Source: Waikato Times [December 17, 2011]

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