The beauty of archaeology in story telling


“When archaeology and local knowledge come together they tell a beautiful story”.(Sandra Heihei)

Three Te Tai Tokerau women, Jemma Burling of Waima, Waiana Collier of Rāwhiti and Mangonui-based iwi cultural heritage advisor Sandra Heihei, recently took part in a day-long wānanga convened by Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga as part of a course that will sharpen their practical skills and understanding of archaeology. Under the guidance of Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga Regional Archaeologist Dr James Robinson, and Northland Manager Bill Edwards, Jemma, Waiana and Sandra completed their first field assignment – a survey of Whare Rā Pā; the pā where Ngāpuhi rangatira Hongi Hika spent the last period of his life. 

Dr. Robinson noted that the survey of the pā, which is close to Kaeo and on private land, is part of a wider project led by Whangaroa Papa Hapū to identify and protect sites of significance to Māori with a view to them being scheduled by Council, and thus protected.

“This site is not widely known, but its historical connection to Hongi makes it one of the most important surviving pā in Northland. It’s also in excellent condition for the most part. Its archaeological features are easily identified, and in many ways it’s the perfect site for students to work with. In addition to passing on knowledge and practical skills, by the end of this process we will have measured and mapped a very important archaeological site in Northland.”

Sandra Heihei's passion for archaeology began about 27 years ago when, as tangata whenua, she worked alongside James Robinson, Ani Bocsh, field archaeologists and the local kaumatua, kuia to develop the Whakaangi survey report in partnership with DoC recording sites of significance to Māori.

Field work for the project took place over a decade, with over a hundred sites recorded – all done the good old-fashioned way cutting through gorse and using measuring tapes.

During that time I found that archaeologists only see remnants – on the ground surface or what is exposed. For me, in Taemaro, Ngāti Kahu I was able to connect whakapapa, names of the Pā to the archaeological drawings, bringing to life the household of my Ancestors / Tupuna,” says Sandra.

A pā site was a household or place of function – just like we have shops and bedrooms. There were no factories, shops, or resources of today – it was a time when people lived and breathed the land. If you didn’t grow, or gather your food or make your clothes you did not live long. We had collective tribes; groups and hapū – our tūpuna worked as a collective. I was given shared stories of events, place names and our whānau kōrero, not knowing at the time that this knowledge was to bring the pā sites and history alive – which is a real privilege,” she says.

Sandra is passionate about sharing the history of how Māori lived with the community.

"When archaeology and local knowledge come together they tell a beautiful story,” she says.

Everyone needs a succession plan in life. Mine is to share and pass on the small parts of our history that have been given to me. We can look back and understand how people lived, and this gives a sense of belonging.

"History is awesome. By sharing this history, people’s understanding increases, along with their appreciation of things like pa sites and other taonga on the land. Greater appreciation ultimately results in better, more sensitive development.”

Already an experienced excavation field worker, and a cultural heritage advisor whose skills are in high demand, Sandra is taking the next step and has signed up to do papers towards a Masters in Archaeology Practice with Otago University this year. The survey of Whare Rā Pā will count towards her practical experience in the field as part of pre-course requirements.

Waina Collier is also a veteran of archaeological excavations – most recently at Mangahāwea Bay in the Bay of Islands. Like Sandra, Waiana has studied the Māori history of Aotearoa-New Zealand and has listened to oral Kōrero and traditions within her whānau and hapū.

"Archaeology seemed to further enhance those learnings, and had me very excited. As with Mangahāwea, the opportunity to examine how my tūpuna lived over a period of time and how that could possibly align to our traditional kōrero through an archaeology lens was both spiritually and intellectually very meaningful for me,” she says.

"When I heard that Heritage New Zealand was offering the opportunity to gain field experience in archaeology within the Te Tai Tokerau rohe I leapt at the opportunity to become involved. Hands-on learning in the field is a great way to learn and understand the disciplines of archaeology.”

For Jemma Burling, an interest in archaeology is an extension of an interest she has always had in the relics of history. 

"I've always liked old stuff. When it comes to archaeological sites it’s the story that’s attached to the remnants that’s most intriguing. When it comes to wāhi tapu, it’s a feeling – and you either know it or don’t know it. When you do, it’s that which drives you to ensure they are not interfered with,” she says.

I learned a lot, and it was good to converse with like-minded people. Bill and James have a knack of explaining intricate details and funny little moments in history which often go unmentioned, but it paints a picture that helps explain the personalities of the people within old stories.

"Both of them have an ability to look at a landscape and go back in time. They point out the old markers, old house sites, trails, old streams and other features and teach you how to recognise them.”

An advocate for the preservation and protection of archaeological sites and wāhi tapu, Jemma is concerned about a lack of resourcing for heritage protection in Northland – which she says is causing sites to be “exploited, damaged, modified and destroyed here in the north”.

"We have a single archaeologist to cover this huge region – and often we face the repercussions of that on the ground. Something has to be implemented to ensure Māori are better able to protect Māori sites of significance,” she says.

Honing her hands-on archaeological skills is a useful step towards that goal – and she’s enjoying this new voyage of discovery.

"The fire pits within the old house sites got me. Those are my favourite sites on Whare Rā because you know that people would sit around these fires, yarn over them, cook on them and sleep beside them."

For James Robinson, the on-site wānanga provided the opportunity to pass on specialist knowledge and experience to a new generation of budding archaeologists.

As well as a deep interest in archaeology and history, these impressive women carry their own iwi, hapū and whānau histories and kōrero. This just adds to their already significant kete of knowledge, he says.

When the two disciplines of archaeology and traditional cultural knowledge are combined, the result is people with specialist skills who are potentially able to give a much more nuanced and broader understanding of our past. People with these skills have the potential to shape and reshape our understanding of how we do archaeology in this country

The next step for the students is to help turn the data they collected into a detailed plan outlining the features of Hongi's pā.