Thursday, January 15, 2009

Wairau Bar

Remember the controversy over the repatriation of Rangitane koiwi from Canterbury museum that raged in the Press newspaper last year? Well following the resolution of this tug-of-war, excavation work is under way at an old burial site on the Wairau Bar in Marlborough as archaeologists also prepare to rebury ancient Maori bones. The site just outside Blenheim and considered one of the most important in New Zealand has not been deeply probed since the 1960s.Source for photo's: Carl Berenston...Liquid Sky Photography

Local iwi Rangitane refused to give consent for further archaeological work until its ancestors' bones removed by Canterbury Museum in the 1940s and 1950s were returned to the earth. A deal with the museum and Otago University last year paved the way for their reinterment, expected in April. Professor Helen Leach is based in Otago; her work has dealt extensively with Maori horticulture.

At the powhiri to welcome Otago University archaeologists, team leader Richard Walter said he was conscious the world would be watching.

"If I do anything wrong, my career is over," he said. "This is likely to be the last time any archaeologists work on this site ... and we have to get it right.

"We don't want to gather more material to put on museum shelves.

"We are here to get the tupuna back into the ground with the least possible damage to the site."

The 15 archaeologists will spend the next three weeks locating suitable places to rebury the bones, and gathering fresh information on the historical inhabitants. Rangitane chairwoman Judith MacDonald described the start of the dig as hugely significant.

"When we started this, we didn't see that there would be a need to have archaeologists. We didn't see that we should be having to meet other people's needs as part of the project. For us, we had a very simplistic view that our people had been taken unceremoniously out of the ground and taken away from their lands and that they should simply be returned and put back into the ground."

However, MacDonald said the iwi recognised the modern expertise of Otago University's archaeologists, and trusted their ability to return their tupuna without disturbing graves.

Walter said his team would focus on the different occupation layers at the site.

"One of the layers is a village site, so we want to be able to identify which layer it is, get very good radiocarbon dates from that layer and from that we will be able to match that information to the material that is in the Canterbury Museum."

Early excavation of the Wairau Bar provided the first direct link between New Zealand and the islands of East Polynesia. Bones from the site have been dated back over 700 years.

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