THE WAITARA SWAMP SEARCH
This is a story of a search for buried treasure, not the traditional hoard of gold and silver but for articles of stone-age craftsmanship hidden a century and more in the cool mud of a Waitara swamp by wood-carving artists of long ago. It is a story of how Maori and Pakeha this summer made important contributions to our knowledge of the old-time Maori and created also a precedent for combined archaeological research which should prove of incalculable value in the years to come.
Here then is the story of the planning, the hopes, the disappointments, the successes, the excitement and the fun of an absorbing project which gripped all who were privileged to take part.
Let's go back to the beginning, the very begining. Let us look at Waitara in the days before the white man came. Here where the land slopes gently north on the sunny side of Taranaki which the pakeha calls Mount Egmont, the Ati-awa people made their home. To their north lived the descendants of the Tokomaru and Tainui canoes, to their south those of Aotea and Kurahaupo. While they themselves had elements of all these in their ancestry, yet in the main it seems they went back in time to the great ancestor Awanui-a-rangi who was of the pre-Fleet people. In this they were associated with other branches of the far-flung Awa tribes in many parts of the country.
Aside from the mountain itself whose northern slopes lay within their territory, and the unique islands now called the Sugar Loaves near the present city of New Plymouth, the main geographical feature of the area is probably the Waitara River around whose mouth was a considerable settlement for hundreds of years. Beyond doubt it was a centre for the people who preceded the Fleet of 1350. At the time we are considering, the principal pa of Ati-awa at Waitara was Manukorihi. Its inhabitants were Ngati Manukorihi sub-tribe.
Manukorihi is situated about three-quarters of a mile from the mouth of the river and on its north bank. High bluffs facing the river formed two sides of the pa while the inland area was protected by a series of great trenches and ramparts flung across flat land. Beyond this again was rolling country intersected by shallow, swamp-filled hollows whose waters found their way slowly through flax and raupo to the river or to the sea. In these swamps Ati-awa concealed their treasures.
The pa was a large one. Elsdon Best, for instance, said that “… unquestionably the place would accommodate several thousands of natives in times of stress.” It was a bastion to which the scattered sub-tribes could retreat when war threatened.
And in the late 1700's and early 1800's such threats were all too numerous. Raids were made on many occasions by war parties from North Auckland and the Waikato, well armed swashbucklers who smashed through Ati-awa on their way to the territories of the Taranaki and Ngati Ruanui tribes or who lingered north of the mountain to try conclusions with Ati-awa itself.
In times such as this it was the known custom of the Maori to hide carved panels from his superior houses in nearby swamps, the preserving nature of which was well known in those days. This course was justified as the excellent state of preservation of the carvings recovered all over the country can bear witness. Because of the time taken to execute the carvings and their value as art treasures of the people there is little doubt that they were considered worth while taking particular care of.
Then again, in the early 1800's Ngati Manukorihi twice migrated from their home to accompany Te Rauparaha in his expeditions. After the first, in the early 1820's, they returned for a time and then in about 1825 or 1826 left the district for many years.
If the carvings were hidden at the time of the wars or the migrations there would be a number of reasons for not recovering them when elements of the tribes eventually returned. One would be that knowledge of the carvings was lost, another that because of the situation—the Puketapu feud or tension with European settlers, for instance—it was considered best to leave them where they were. Certainly no clear traditional account of their concealment has survived to the present time.
A further reason for the presence of the carvings in the swamps, that they were placed there to sea
Pupils of the Waitara High School, Pakeha and Maori, took part in the search. This cheerful quartet includes, from left to right: Glenys Kelly, Felix Ngatai, Moana Cameron and Loma Puke. (TARANAKI DAILY NEWS PHOTOGRAPH)
So from time to time carvings have come to light as drains have been cut through the swamps. Many of the museums of the country have an example or two of the art of the Taranaki wood carver but most of them have come to light in comparatively recent times. As superb examples of carving the lintels have pride of place. To the present writer's knowledge nine of these pare are in existence and of these perhaps seven were found in swamps. Another group of carvings preserved are epa or panels of storehouses. About half a dozen have been found over the years.
And that brings us back to the present. In April, 1958, Mr A. G. Barnitt, working on his father's farm on Richmond Road, Waitara, found an epa. The same month Mr P. Cole discovered a similar panel on his property on nearby Tikorangi Road. News of the finds brought the curator of the Canterbury Museum, Dr Roger Duff, who was attending a conference at Wanganui, to Taranaki. He was strongly of the opinion that a methodical search of the area should be carried out and he persuaded the New Plymouth Library and Taranaki Museum Committee to back the project on the understanding that any artifacts found would go to the museum.
Now let it be understood that the properties to be searched are not Maori land. The pakeha owners were most co-operative and no practical difficulty existed to stop a search as soon as it could be organised. No practical difficulties, perhaps, but there were moral ones. Dr Duff said firmly that he would have nothing to do with the project without the goodwill and absolute approval of the Maori people of the district whose ancestors had put the carvings in the swamps.
I was priviledged to be present at several of the meetings at which Dr Duff met the Maori people of Waitara and explained the objects of the search and asked for their co-operation. While his friendly manner and obvious sincerity were convincing enough when linked with logical argument, few Maoris indeed would have been able to withstand for long the appeal of a pakeha scientist—and a distinguished one at that—who paid them the compliment of speaking to them solely in their own loved mother tongue.
So it was decided that the Maori people had no objections. It was not decided quickly—in fact the whole of the organisation took about two years. The most searching question put to Dr Duff was that of an Ati-awa elder, Mr R. Watson, the gist of whose query was this: “If the old people put the carvings in the swamp with the idea of some day recovering them, I say seek them and place them in the museum. But if they put them there for ever, I say leave them there for ever. Can Dr Duff assure us that the carvings were put
Dr Roger Duff (left) and the Rev. Manga Cameron examine a carving found in the swamp some years ago. Dr Duff, who is curator of the Canterbury Museum, Christchurch, directed the search at Waitara in January and February on behalf of the Taranaki Museum. Mr Cameron, who is an Anglican Maori missioner at Waitara, conducted a unique service at Manukorihi Pa before the search began to remove any suggestion of tapu which might be thought to linger over the works of art laid in the swamp by stone-age carvers. (TARANAKI DAILY NEWS PHOTOGRAPH).
Dr Duff gave the assurance. Not only was there no opposition but many Maoris joined in the search day after day for over a month.
After the first meetings, but some time before the search began, interest was fanned to fever heat by the discovery right in the selected area of a magnificent pare, perhaps the finest of all the carvings ever recovered from Taranaki swamps. It was found completely by accident on Good Friday, 1959, by a 12-year-old Waitara schoolboy, Shaun Ainsworth. Shaun had slid into a ditch to release a frog from the school aquarium when he saw part of the carving projecting from the bank.
Before the search began a church service was conducted within the carved walls of Te Ika-roa-a-Maui, Ati-awa's fine meeting house set among the green lawns of Manukorihi pa. The lesson recalled how God had called Bezaleed, son of Uri, and had filled him with the Spirit of God “in wisdom, understanding and knowledge, and in all manner of workmanship” even “… in carving wood, to make any manner of cunning work.”
The Rev. Manga Cameron, Church of England Maori missioner at Waitara, said that while the searchers were paying a tribute to the ancient craftsmen they were also paying tribute to God who inspired artist and artisan alike. Elders had told him that if they had had to undertake a similar project their approach would have been to refer to those who had passed beyond the veil and to say to them “Peace be unto you”, asking also that the searchers be not hindered or harmed. Today the prayer was the same—a request that the project prosper—directed not to the ancient craftsmen but to their Maker.
The gathering of several hundred people, both pakeha and Maori, joined in the service and later greeted Dr Duff and members of his party. These included a member of the Canterbury Museum staff, Mr R. Scarlett, and members of the Canterbury Museum's Archaeological Club. Interested people from as far north as Whangarei were also present, as were representatives of the many organisations which assisted in the organisation of the search, notably the Taranaki Museum Committee and the Waitara Borough Council.
That was Sunday, January 17. On Monday morning the first sods were turned in a swampy hollow on the farm of Mr F. Olsson, Richmond Street, just on the outskirts of the eastern part of Waitara.
This area had been chosen because although little more than two acres in extent, it had in the past yielded three pataka panels and one pare. It was one of four areas which had been surveyed for the search in the previous months. As it happened the search for the next four and a half weeks was entirely concentrated here and the three other areas have yet to be explored.
Acting under Dr Duff's instructions, the surveyors, Messrs A. D. McLennan and T. E. A. Astwood, had laid out a baseline of three chains on the bank of one arm of the swamp. Where this arm met the main flow of the swamp—indicated
by a deep ditch—the baseline was cut by another line at right angles. On these two lines a grid consisting of 5ft. 6in. squares (one-twelfth of a chain) was built, each square bearing its own letter and number. Thus excavation could proceed according to plan and thus any find could be easily mapped on a master plan.
About 50 people—Maori and pakeha—took part that first day, including a number of children. The first trench was opened by the Canterbury party, many of whom were veterans of other archaeological expeditions. Others soon learned the basic technique and work got under way in three separate trenches.
The pattern which quickly developed under Dr Duff's quiet but efficient direction was for the sods to be cut by adults and piled in heaps by children. Then the top soil was carefully dug until the spongy peat was encountered when care dictated whether spades or trowels should be used.
There was a picnic air about the whole procedure from the first day to the last. Each trench was placed in the charge of an experienced worker and the work went merrily along notwithstanding the hot weather which prevailed most of the time. Each morning water seeped into the trenches and had to be bailed out. A pump operated by a motor was also used.
The first find was made on January 21 in No. 1 trench where a number of young people, pakeha and Maori, were working under the direction of Miss K. Fletcher, of Christchurch. The discovery was a ko, a digging implement complete with its teka or footrest. A remarkable feature was that the lashing of split vine which bound the teka to the ko was still in position although very brittle. The careful excavation showed that the ko had not been placed there haphazardly but had been put carefully upon short pieces of stick and covered with fern. Stones had been used to hold the fern packing in position. The ko was excavated with extreme care, packed in moss and damp peat in a specially made box and placed in a cool store where it will be allowed to dry out very gradually.
This find set the pattern for the whole dig. In all 20 ko and 12 tekas were found. In the words of an editorial in a local newspaper it was “… almost as if the party had taken the roof off a Polynesian tool shed.” It was a remarkable achievement, unprecedented in New Zealand archaeology, as was the further discovery of evidence of wood-working. Day after day the searchers found at the bottom of the peat, where stones and sand showed the position of an ancient stream bed, piles of adze-cut totara chips, some charred by fire and many bearing the clear marks of the stone adzes. There were thousands of these chips of all sizes and bushels of them are now in the basement of the Taranaki Museum.
To complete the picture of wood-working, two totara logs were found bearing evidence of having been worked right there in the swamp. In one case the workers found bundles of sticks in the mud near one of these logs leading to the conclusion that they were placed there to form a path. It looked as if the Maori carvers may have searched for swamp timber and carried out their work on the spot. Then, perhaps, the carvings were placed in the swamp to season.
In addition a food bowl of the kumete type was found and also a fern root pounder, both in wood and in reasonable condition.
These material accomplishments of the search
Shaun Ainsworth, son of Mr and Mrs F. H. Ainsworth, Richmond Street, Waitara is shown here with the carving he found in the swamp on Good Friday, 1959. This picture is a reconstruction of the discovery. The carving, a lintel or pare which of old adorned the doorway of a superior house, was briefly placed back on the bearer which had supported it in the peat for a century or more. Shaun, who was nearly 14 when he found the pare, is kneeling in the ditch he was walking along when he saw a piece of the carving protruding from the side. (TARANAKI DAILY NEWS PHOTOGRAPH).
were all the more heartening in that they were unexpected. What was hoped for, the discovery of some exquisite piece of the wood carver's art, did not occur—at least at the site of the search. Two significant finds, however, were made by accident by other people in the district, finds that keyed up the Richmond Street diggers and made them all the more eager.
The first of these independent discoveries was made by Mr A. E. Gernhoefer, a Waitara Borough Council employee who was working on the site of a new children's playground close to the Waitara River. His find was a carved lintel, smaller than that found by Shaun Ainsworth but nevertheless a most interesting piece of carving. That was on January 26. Then on January 29 Mr J. Kilpatrick who was operating a mechanical ditch digger on a farm at Motunui, a mile or so out of Waitara, threw out of the black ooze in which his machine was working a splendid pataka panel. It was a gem of its kind, a deeply-graven slab with writhing, serpentine figures of the kind typical of Taranaki carving. It probably took its place on the right hand side of a storehouse as one faces it and therefore had one side longer than the other to conform with the sloping roof beam. Its longest side was 4ft. 2in., its shortest 2ft. 9 ½in. It was about 14in. wide and in parts 4½in. thick. The steel jaws of the ditch-digger's grab did only superficial damage.The search ended on February 17. The material gains have already been mentioned but the less tangible ones are probably more important. These include:
The impressive and unprecedented co-operation of both races in a project of this nature with all the value that such a precedent has.
The intense interest the project has aroused in Taranaki from which the museum has already benefited by way of numerous gifts and from which it must continue to benefit.
The training of a large group of young people in the fundamentals of archaeological work and the arousing of their interest in an educational, absorbing and healthful activity. It might be noted that so valuable was the experience counted by educational authorities that selected pupils of the Waitara High School worked for nearly two weeks of normal school time in the area.
And what of the future? Well, the dig will continue as weather permits. A core of adults will assist about 30 young people who have formed themselves into an archaeological club. Both older and younger enthusiasts include members of both races. They will be directed by the curator of the Taranaki Museum, Mr Rigby Allan, and there are high hopes that more light will be thrown upon the life of the old-time Maori through their endeavours.
That in the long run must be the purpose of all such excavation. It is not so much the article found but the circumstances in which it is found that is important for only by examining one in the light of the other can worthwhile conclusions be reached, conclusions which widen our knowledge of other days and deepen our respect for those who have gone before. Without skilled direction, systematic planning, careful recording and thoughtful subsequent analysis, searches such as the Waitara one can easily become mere trophy hunting and curio collecting. When curiosity or cupidity become the aims, the works of our ancestors might well be left to lie concealed for all time.
ARCHAEOLOGY AND THE MAORI PEOPLE
“Archaeologists are interested in the Maori race here and now; they have love and respect for the Maori here and now and it is a gross untruth to think that their study is only of the dead Maori.” This was said by the curator of the Canterbury Museum, Dr Roger Duff, in an address he gave at Hawera during the time he was directing on behalf of the Taranaki Museum a search at Waitara for buried Maori artifacts.
Dr Duff, who certainly practised what he preached while he was at Waitara, went on to give sound advice to all who were interested in archaeology in New Zealand. Even when not working over Maori land, he said, the archaeologist was seeking lost Maori property. Thus, however tempting a site might be, it was essential not to excavate against the wish of the present Maori people. This had been done at Waitara and what was more, a religious ceremony had been conducted also which helped greatly to allay any understandable misgivings some of the people might have had regarding the project.
The pakeha had not produced any art in New Zealand comparable with that of the Maori stone age, he said, and the Maoris themselves had lost much of the power and beauty of their art since the coming of the white man. The ancient craftsmen of the area in which he was searching at present had drawn inspiration from Mount Taranaki and from the legends of his ancestors but later craftsmen had not been capable of producing the masterpieces of former times.