Major Themes in the Research Programme

Moa Hunting

One of the most famous archaeological sites in New Zealand is at Wairau Bar on the southern shore of Cook Strait. Some estimates suggest that more than 8000 moa were killed by the hunters of Wairau Bar and more than 2000 moa eggs brought to their settlement. But most other early sites in the region have yielded remains of very few moa. So how important was moa-hunting to the early Maori of the region? How long did moa hunting last? What was so special about Wairau Bar? Laboratory studies of moa and other faunal animal remains from key sites such as Wairau Bar itself and Foxton will seek to answer these questions.

Sea Mammal Hunting

Archaeology has shown that sea mammals, and particularly fur seals, were a more important quarry than moa for early Maori hunters in many parts of New Zealand. Remains of sea mammals have generally been found in the same Cook Strait archaeological sites that contained moa bones. European sealers are believed to have been active in the outer Marlborough Sounds from the 1790s onwards. The programme will look for archaeological evidence of this early European activity and will also investigate the role of seals in the diet of the late pre-European Maori in the region.


Maori hunting of birds other than moa has been well documented in a few places in the Cook Strait region, notably Palliser Bay, Paremata, and Marfells Beach. At the Washpool site in Palliser Bay, it was shown that some forest birds, such as tui and parakeets, had been hunted for their feathers. Laboratory studies of bird bones from other sites, such as Foxton, will improve our knowledge of birding throughout the region and of the rate of extinction of various species.


Fishing was an important aspect of the food quest for Maori in the region at all times. James Cook and his companions commented on the great abundance of fish in Totaranui (Queen Charlotte Sound) in 1770 and the importance of fish in the diet of the Maori inhabitants. Recent archaeological research on fishing has revealed changes through time in the proportions of different fish caught and also in the mean size of particular fish species. In several cases the mean size increased over time. The reasons for these changes are complex and may include changes in natural abundance, changes in fishing technology, choice of different fishing grounds, and the effects of human exploitation on the inshore zone. Further studies will expand on findings to date,

Kumara Gardening

The Cook Strait region was climatically marginal for the kind of gardening brought to New Zealand by the tropical Polynesian ancestors of the Maori. Only kumara (sweet potato) and gourd could be grown so far south. Archaeological evidence of gardening and crop storage is clustered in a few parts of the region: Palliser Bay, D'Urville Island and the outermost parts of the Marlborough Sounds, and the Kaikoura coast. Archaeological studies have shown that the early Maori inhabitants of Palliser Bay devoted considerable effort to gardening, laying out neat plots bounded by low walls of stones. In the 1770s, James Cook and his companions found no signs of Maori gardens in Totaranui (Queen Charlotte Sound). This suggests a trend in the opposite direction from that normally described for New Zealand prehistory in general, in which gardening is assumed to have become increasingly important as moa and other big game declined. A project is underway to explore the economics of kumara gardening through two experimental kumara plots, one on each side of Cook Strait.

Shellfish Gathering

Shellfish provided a regular but mundane source of protein in the Maori diet, unexciting compared with hunting, fishing or gardening. Archaeological sites often contain large volumes of shells, discarded remains of former meals. An archaeological study in Palliser Bay showed that shellfish gathering had an impact on the rocky shore environment. There have been no other good studies of Maori shellfish gathering in the region. Laboratory analyses of archaeological assemblages from different coastal environments will establish the relative importance of difference shellfish species in the diet at different times and explore the long term effects of gathering on shellfish populations.

Fern Root Gathering

It is clear from the accounts of James Cook and his companions that the rhyzome of the bracken fern was the main source of carbohydrate in the diet of Maori people in Totaranui (Queen Charlotte Sound) in the 1770s. The history of fern root gathering is difficult or impossible to establish from archaeological evidence and is a major gap in the understanding of pre-European Maori diet. Experimental gathering and processing of fern root by Ngati Hinewaka and proximate analyses to establish protein, fat and carbohydrate yields will contribute to a better understanding of this neglected aspect of Maori diet.

Trade in Stone Resources

The most tangible sign that Cook Strait can be seen as bridge as well as barrier in pre-European times is the archaeological evidence for the movement of valuable stone resources between the North and South Islands. Obsidian from a number of sources in the northern half of the North Island moved southwards while metasomatised argillite from the Nelson-D'Urville Island area and pounamu (greenstone) from remote southern and western parts of the South Island moved northwards. In the study area, D'Urville Island has two of the largest and most important early stone adze manufacturing sites. Evidence of stone adze making is found in the form of stone flakes on many of the beaches in the outer Marlborough Sounds. The extent of the distribution of products from these manufacturing sites can be established by locating examples from known find spots in museums around the country.

The Archaeological Landscape

Past interactions of people with their environment are reflected in the nature and distribution of archaeological sites in the landscape. The often rugged coastline on both sides of Cook Strait was not an easy environment for human settlement. The ability to see traces of earlier human presence can enhance our appreciation of the modern landscape as well as contributing to a better understanding of past lifeways. Although parts of the region have been intensively surveyed for archaeological sites, other parts are still poorly known. Moreover, sites are subject to damage by both natural processes and modern developments and there is a need to revisit and reassess archaeological sites that were first recorded many years ago. Site surveying can be an easy and enjoyable introduction to archaeology and is an area where volunteers can make a real contribution.

Archaeological Excavation

Excavation is only one component of archaeological research but it is a very important component. Excavation can range from a small test pit to establish the structure and if possible determine the age of a garden wall, to the extensive exposure of a large area of a village or other settlement site. Various excavations have been carried out in the study area in the past. Some of these used poor excavation techniques, failed to recover material systematically, or were never adequately written up. Even so, much can still be learned from laboratory analysis of whatever material was retained. Any future excavations will be carried out to the highest standards.

Laboratory Analysis

Excavation is only the tip of an archaeological iceberg. It is the laboratory analysis of material brought back from excavations that enables us to piece together a fuller picture of how people lived in the past. In this project, laboratory studies are central to the understanding of themes such as moa and sea mammal hunting, fishing, birding, and shellfishing. Archaeological assemblages excavated over the last 30 years are providing the material for the first stages of the programme but it is expected that new excavations will also contribute material. Analyses are being carried out at the Archaeozoology Laboratory at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa and the Archaeological Laboratories in the Anthropology Department of the University of Otago. Laboratory work is another area in which volunteers can make a valuable contribution.


Continuity and change in the diet of people living in the Cook Strait region over a long period is one of the overarching themes of the programme. Although much can be learned by exploring the separate strands such as moa-hunting, fishing or gardening, it is also important to draw the threads together: to discover the relative importance of moa-hunting and fishing at Wairau Bar, or of birding and shellfishing at Foxton, and how these changed over time. To do this it is necessary to understand not only how many moa or fish of various kinds were caught, but how much food was obtained from each, and what the protein, fat and carbohydrate contribution of each kind of food was.

Historic Maori/European Interactions

Totaranui (Queen Charlotte Sound) was the scene of some of the most sustained early contacts between Maori and European. Detailed accounts were left by some of these visitors: Cook and his companions on his three voyages between 1770 and 1778, and Bellingshausen and his officers in 1820. Sealing began in the outer sounds in the 1790s. The presence of Europeans in turn contributed to new tribal movements into the area. The introduction of new crops such as the potato and the establishment of shore whaling stations offered new economic opportunities for Maori, who became heavily involved in shipping, sealing, whaling and maritime trading. Although the initial contacts have been studied in considerable detail from documentary sources, the more mundane aspects of economic transformation are not well understood. The region provides an excellent location in which these later transformations can be documented through archaeological research.


In some cases, the only remaining archaeological evidence of early contacts between Maori and European is in the form of shipwrecks. The Marlborough Sounds is well known as an area with numerous wrecks. Locating, assessing and surveying some of these wrecks will be part of the fieldwork programme.

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