New Zealand Archaeology Week – 28 April to 6 May 2018

Written by guest writers Kathryn Hurren (Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga) and Mary O’Keeffe (Heritage Solutions)

Kathyrn Hurren
Kathyrn Hurren. Photo: Alison Dangerfield
Mary O'Keeffe
Mary O’Keeffe at a pile of the torpedo wharf, Mahanga Bay, Wellington. Photo: Rex Johnson

This blog has been written as part of the New Zealand Archaeological Association National Archaeology Week which will take place from 28 April to 6 May 2018. As such we would like to thank Wellington Museum for being part of the event.

Archaeology is the study of people via their material cultural remains. Many people associate archaeology with large scale excavations, Indiana Jones and grand structures such as pyramids, ancient cities, Stonehenge or civilisations such as the Mayans, Aztecs, Greeks or Romans.

While looking further afield we forget that we have our own history of settlement in New Zealand and our own very distinct archaeological record.  New Zealand was the last landmass to be settled in the world and the types of archaeological sites found here are nowhere else in the world. We are a young country but one with a unique archaeological record.  We have Maori archaeological sites tracing the change from Polynesian people to Maori, war sites (New Zealand wars, World War I and II), industrial sites, shipwreck sites, as well as Chinese and European sites.

We also forget that it is the little things found at a site which can tell us extraordinary things about our history as well as the people who lived here. Food rubbish or any rubbish for that matter can tell us a lot about people such as what they were eating, what they were throwing out and possibly why they were throwing things out, socio and economic class and a lot more.

In this blog we would like to highlight how small things can tell big stories.  Below are three very distinct items – a musket ball, a midden site, and two maple leaves.  You may not think much about these items but to an archaeologist they provide important information, make us question what we know about our history and tell us stories about the people who once lived here.

Photo: Mary O’Keeffe

This is a small stone object.  It’s a flint from a musket – a musket is a very early type of rifle, and the flint was used to create a spark to light the charge. This flint was found lying on a sand dune on the Kāpiti Coast, north of the Waikanae River.  We can’t be sure of its origin, but we can make a few guesses.

There was a large and important battle on the Kāpiti Coast in October 1839, fought between Te Ati Awa and Ngāti Raukawa.  It was fought in the dunes beside and inland from the river, and was known as the ‘running battle’, as the combatants ran up and down through the dunes.  Each side had muskets.

It’s possible that this flint was dropped by someone running hard along the dune – perhaps he was chasing someone?  Perhaps he was running for his life?  I wonder how he felt when he realised he’d dropped his flint.

Photo: Mary O’Keeffe

This patch of shells is an archaeological site known as a midden.  It was recorded on the Kāpiti Coast. At first glance it doesn’t look much – it’s basically someone’s rubbish. But this ‘rubbish’ can tell a big story…

It can tell us about the environment at the time that people ate this meal.  What kinds of species were they eating?  Are they the same as the species found on the Kāpiti Coast today?  If they’re not, then why not? Is this typical of archaeological sites found on the Kāpiti Coast?  How does the archaeology of the Kāpiti Coast compare with other regional coastlines around New Zealand?


Photo: Wellington City Council


These are two maple leaves and they’re a long way from home.  They’re from Nova Scotia in Canada, but they were found in a shipwreck in the middle of Wellington city.

The Inconstant was launched in Nova Scotia in 1848, but crashed on the coast in Wellington in 1849.  The ship was rescued, towed to the shoreline beside Lambton Quay and operated by John Plimmer as a floating warehouse.  This was before the 1855 earthquake, when the beach was just the other side of Lambton Quay, so the boat was floating in the shallow water. The big earthquake left the boat high and dry, she was partially dismantled and then swallowed up by reclamations.  Buildings were constructed over the top of her.

She was rediscovered in 1996 when the historic buildings over her were being refurbished. The keel of the boat was investigated by archaeologists, and the maple leaves were found right down by her keel. They saw daylight again almost 150 years after they’d left Canada.

Without looking at the small things we can miss the wider picture of how people lived, where they went, what they did and we can imagine what they must have thought and felt.

Please visit for a full list of events and to see what is happening around New Zealand as part of New Zealand Archaeology Week 2018.