Unravelling the mysteries of Mangahawea Bay

A recent archaeological excavation at Mangahawea in the Bay of Islands - believed to be one of New Zealand’s earliest sites of Polynesian settlement - reflects a solid working relationship between two iwi and archaeologists.  Find out more about the excavation, and watch a fascinating ten-minute video.

The Lottery Tuia – Encounters 250 Programme provided a grant of $250,000 that covered the excavation, a series of wānanga looking at traditional voyaging knowledge, and the carving and installation of a pou reconnecting Aotearoa back to the Pacific. The Lottery fund was set up to support community events and projects that align with the kaupapa and priorities of the national commemoration for 2019, Tuia – Encounters 250 (Tuia 250).

The fascinating 10 minute video kindly created by Mo’olelo, a company headed by journalist Michelle Curran and videographer Joe Faga, visited Mangahāwea in January.  The video provides a personal and visual insight into the work being undertaken and its meaning for those involved.

"The archaeological evidence and features uncovered during the excavation at Mangahawea Bay in the Bay of Islands complements the oral traditions held by Ngāti Kuta and Patukeha," says Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga’s Director Kaiwhakahaere Tautiaki Wāhi Taonga, Mita Harris.  

"These clearly link Mangahawea Bay to Polynesian voyaging in the Pacific. This oral history also provided a human link to the people archaeologists wanted to learn more about. That relational approach provided a perfect example of traditional knowledge informing scientific enquiry."

Ngāti Kuta kaumatua, Matutaera Te Nana Clendon ONZM, stayed with the team on the island for the full two weeks of the excavation and provided the tikanga under which the work was undertaken. Mr Clendon shared a whakataukī clearly illustrating the voyaging connection between the Pacific and Aotearoa, which was adopted by the excavation team to underpin their work:

Rākaumangamanga titiro ki Rapa Nui

Rapa Nui titiro ki taputapu atea

Raiatea taputapuatea titiro ki rākaumangamanga

Rākaumangamanga titiro ki motu Rangiātea

Motu Rangiātea titiro ki Mangahawea, Moturua ka tau.

The Mangahawea team
The team with the pou. Image: Hans Baderexpand/collapse

"The whakataukī speaks of the voyages from Raiatea (Tahiti) in the Eastern Pacific through to Rapa Nui (Easter Island), and to the maunga (mountain) Rākaumangamanga in the Bay of Islands. It finishes with where the team was working – Mangahāwea Bay on the island of Moturua. This bay is sheltered by the small island Motu Rangiātea Island. Since Rangiātea is another form of the name Raiatea, it has a distinct echo back to the Pacific homeland," says Mita.

"Towards the end of the excavation the team was uncovering evidence that appears to support the understanding that Mangahawea Bay was a place of early Polynesian settlement."

Artefacts recovered from the area included obsidian believed to have originated from Mayor Island, moa and seal bone in abundance – often an indicator of early habitation – and evidence that fish hooks were manufactured on site.

One fascinating find – and a surprise to the team of archaeologists – was a ta moko chisel used in tattooing. It has staining that could reflect a residue of tattoo ink. 

The most exciting find, however, was a regular pattern of shallow indentations on the edge of a former stream bed.

"The initial indicators from archaeologists are that this could be individual taro plants within a taro garden. Since these lie under – and therefore predate a more recent-made garden soil – it is hoped that dating the charcoal found at the base of each plant may confirm an association with the first settlers in the Bay. If that proves to be the case then we have direct evidence of gardening by the earliest settlers in New Zealand reinforcing the oral history around voyaging and early settlement," says Mita.

"The strong sense of partnership between iwi and the archaeological community has shaped the direction and kaupapa of this excavation and has been integral to its success."