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January Papanui excavations

If you’ve heard the well-known Kāi Tahu story of Tarewai, the powerful Kāi Tahu warrior who was captured by Kāti Māmoe and sliced open with his own mere pounamu, you’ll have an understanding that Papanui Inlet holds an important place in local histories. Along with the wider landscape of Otago and elsewhere, it is imbued with tales of intrigue, warfare and alliances – part of the narrative of the evolution of the modern-day iwi of Kāi Tahu.

History is usually written (or told) by the winners, and in the case of traditional oral histories, it is often the events and deeds of individuals that are remembered and recounted. This is important to consider when pre-Contact social structure and use of the natural environment were governed by whakapapa – the genealogical connections that regulate the rights to occupy a place or gather resources from particular areas. However, while history concerns itself with deeds and personalities, archaeology investigates the cultural remains left in the ground. These minutiae and traces of people before us provide an insight into their everyday experiences. At Papanui Inlet coastal erosion is exposing the remnants of lives long gone,  giving an opportunity to test the traditional narratives against the archaeology. 


Koreana Fiona and others

Excavating a unit


Erosion at Papanui Inlet has been a concern since the 1960s, when archaeologists from the Museum first noted how much of the foreshore was being washed away. However, it’s only over the last ten years that systematic archaeological monitoring has been carried out: retrieving artefacts, measuring erosion against a base line, and undertaking rescue excavations where necessary. Some of the taoka retrieved have been pretty glamorous – the partial waka hull excavated in 2014 was featured on prime-time tv, and still invites excitement at its conservation facility at Ōtākou Marae.  Although the vast majority of archaeology at the inlet is a little more mundane, it is still making a huge contribution towards understanding the antiquity and range of activities that were taking place there. 

Recently, archaeologist Shar Briden and I led a team from Otago Museum, Te Rūnanga o Ōtākou, the University of Otago, and the wider community, in excavating small discrete areas at the Papanui site.  An increased concern at the rate of erosion over the last couple of years and the need to salvage information and artefacts before they became lost to the ocean were at the heart of the excavation. A decade of monitoring with a focus on rescue rather than systematic excavation means that there is still very little known about the site, although the waka and other material have given glimpses of the site’s history.


Monday volunteers

Collaborative effort – crew from Otago Museum, the University of Otago, and Te Rūnanga o Ōtākou


The seven days spent on site will result in fresh information to add to what we already know. One of the prime objectives was to excavate appropriate material which can be dated. Although braided fibres found in association with the waka hull were radiocarbon-dated to the mid 15th century, faunal remains such as moa bones, and the range of artefacts retrieved so far, point to the site having been occupied during the first centuries after East Polynesian settlement of Te Wai Pounamu, and again in the century or two before Europeans entered New Zealand’s historical record – in the period of Tarewai and his escapades!  At the moment, there is thought that the site could potentially be one of the larger coastal settlements that are typical of the earliest centuries of southern Māori history (such as the Shag River Mouth site, featured in the Tāngata Whenua gallery at the Museum).  But there is a lot more work and research to be done before we can state that with absolute certainty!