Thursday, May 9, 2013

Coastal Sites

  midden at Stanley town site 26

  Have you seen shells and blackened stones eroding out of a bank? There is a new project in Southland – SCHIPS Southland Coastal Heritage Inventory Project – which records Maori coastal sites. 

The pre-European Maori population spent almost all of its time on the coast.  The coast provided food and other resources such as whalebone, the best travelling routes and the vantage points from which to observe the weather and sea conditions and to look for approaching friends or foes.
 Inland it was swampy, thickly forested or dissected with deep rivers. There was food but it was harder to find. Food was collected on the coast and cooked in pits called umus. Heated rocks were placed in the pit and layers of leaves, food, more leaves, mats or bark were added, then buried and allowed to steam. After several hours the food was ready. The discarded shells, bird bones and fish bones were heaped in a midden and it is these rubbish heaps that provide our knowledge of the early diet.

 midden at Tiwai Point

 Much of our coastline is unstable, with erosion and accretion on an irregular cycle. Big storms, extreme tides and tsunamis bite deeply into the shore and windblown sand, suitable currents and tides, and flood debris carried down rivers can build the coast again. The erosion cycle takes away the midden sites; it also exposes new ones. This can be quite exciting, particularly if the site is very old or contains well preserved bones. Sometimes a burial is exposed – a skull perhaps, or a few toe bones. Human remains are a police matter, no matter what their age but the police will refer obvious old burials to iwi for excavation and re-interment.

 A new urupa has been established on Mason Road near Invercargill and some of the bones to be buried there have come from exposed coastal sites. Sometimes there are artefacts exposed as well, or more likely the flakes left behind when stone tools have been shaped.
 I guess each tool means about 100 chips. These can be very numerous and the stone-working site excavated on Tiwai Point before the smelter was built yielded tons of flake.

SCHIPS aims to locate and photograph coastal sites and monitor their deterioration. Observers have been trained and we aim to do perhaps twenty sites each in a year. I recently photographed two in Western Southland.
There is a well-known site near the settlement at the mouth of the Waikoau River on Te Waewae Bay close to the cribs. It has shells and a few rocks and fish bones. It is being eroded by high seas, and vehicle and foot traffic.
I found a new one as well, about a mile west of Gemstone beach. The eroding bank has cut an umu in half and you can see the cooking stones and shells. Let someone know if you find a Maori site on the coast.