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Pre-European Maori Village Life Revealed

Wed, 5 May 2004

Pre-European Maori Village Life Revealed

Thirty years of archaeological investigation into an early Maori village will culminate on Friday in the launch of Kohika (AUP), a book drawing a rare picture of pre-European Maori village life.

The remains excavated from the remarkable site of Kohika, a late 17th century AD Maori lake village in the Bay of Plenty, reveal many aspects of the community’s daily life, both at work and at leisure.

Kohika lies in what was formerly a great swamp in the west of the Rangitaiki Plains and was connected by major rivers and then by tracks to the interior North Island. It was abandoned after a flood and fortuitously preserved in peat swamp.

Kohika was rediscovered during agricultural drainage in 1974 and archaeological investigations can now provide a snapshot of the Maori way of life that had developed in the North Island before the arrival of Europeans.

Project leader and editor of the new book Kohika, Professor Geoffrey Irwin, says, “Archaeological sites in wetlands are unusually rich because they can preserve organic materials that rarely survive elsewhere. Normally about 80% of material objects are perishable – including all kinds of wooden artefacts, fabrics, food remains, and microfossils that indicate former environments.”

Unusually, many examples of these rare perishables were preserved at Kohika, thus archaeological evidence for a broad range of activities survived. The archaeologists found houses of varied construction, raised pataka storehouses, cooking shelters and underground storage pits and bins. In addition to a remarkable inventory of wooden artefacts, there were fibre plaiting, cordage and netting, a large assemblage of flaked obsidian and some miscellaneous artefacts of other materials.

These finds, from several excavations between 1975–81, were so rich and diverse that it has taken nearly 30 years for some 20 specialists to find the time to preserve and analyse them.

“The remains reveal many aspects of life”, Professor Irwin says, “such as housing, canoe transport, food production, craft activities, defence, and outside communication. There is also evidence of the community’s social life – music, play, personal adornment, art and religion.”

One of the most exciting discoveries was the remains of the oldest-known carved house in New Zealand, parts of which were found at the outset by members of the Whakatane and District Historical Society.

This unique whare whakairo will now become the subject of a separate, Marsden Fund supported investigation. The principal investigators are Professor Geoffrey Irwin, Mr Pouroto Ngaropo, Deputy Chair of the Runanga O Ngati Awa, and Dilys Johns, Conservator at the Department of Anthropology at the University of Auckland.

All the artefacts found at the site except one were returned to Whakatane in 1998 and ownership is now vested with Ngati Awa.

The remaining artefact is an everyday greenstone adze that will be presented to given to the Trustees of the Kohika collection, which is currently stored in the Whakatane Museum, during the launch at the Museum on Friday 7 May. The launch will be hosted by the Whakatane and District Historical Society.

Kohika: The Archaeology of a Late Maori Lake Village in the Ngati Awa Rohe, Bay of Plenty, New Zealand
Geoffrey Irwin (Editor)
Paperback; b&w and colour illus; $49.99


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