Tool academy: Māori artefacts from Redcliffs

Kia ora,

Recently we had some great finds from Te Rae Kura/Redcliffs.

Unbeknownst to many folks making their daily commute along the Port Hills’ Main Road, a nationally significant Māori archaeological site lies beneath their car wheels, capped by hard fill and asphalt. Despite the many years of residential development in the area since the arrival of Pākehā, archaeologists are still uncovering significant finds. Like these beauties.

A flake core of obsidian (left), and basalt adze (right). Image: Jessie Garland.

A flake core of obsidian (left), and basalt adze (right). Image: Jessie Garland.

To the untrained eye, these may seem like simply rocks or glass, but to archaeologists they have the potential to provide a greater understanding of Māori life before they first encountered Europeans.

The first artefact is a flake core of obsidian, a volcanic glass known to Māori as tuhua. The dormant volcanoes of the South Island don’t produce much in the way of obsidian, perhaps because they were never given much support from their parents in their youth, and still struggle with expressing their creativity. Therefore, when we find it in South Island sites, it’s a sign of the extensive trade networks that operated between iwi groups, bringing obsidian and other trade goods down from the North Island in exchange for South Island goods like pounamu. The greenish tinge on this particular piece when you hold it to the light suggests it’s from one of the most important sources, Mayor Island in the Bay of Plenty (and not that I need corrective eye surgery, Matt).

Smaller flakes would have been removed from this core by hitting it with a hammerstone, and then used as cutting tools. This is a pretty hard-core (sorry not sorry) form of technology that was employed by all of our ancestors, and was the dominant technology throughout 99% of human history, as shown in a helpful and very professional image below produced by a very intelligent and super handsome individual. Obsidian produces amazingly sharp cutting tools, and is still used today in surgeries, because flaked obsidian is essentially sterile and produces an edge finer than steel.

An approximate, and highly abridged timeline of human history.

An approximate, and highly abridged timeline of human history.

The basalt toki/adze below may be made of local materials, from a currently unidentified source of fine grained basalt among the volcanic rock of Horomaka/Banks Peninsula. Adzes were important tools: in essence a wood-cutting tool like an axe, but hafted sideways, in a fashion similar to a modern grubber or mattock. This tool would have been used in the construction of whare, and the waka that plied the waters of the estuary and the surrounding ocean. Adzes were so important that ceremonial versions were held by rangatira, much in the same way that modern bogans advertise their status through impressive spoilers and exhausts, and popes do so with big as hats. Status among modern archaeologists is similarly established through use of oversized ceremonial trowels.

Side view of basalt adze (left), and an image showing hafting techniques (right), from Hiroa, 1949: 185.

Side view of basalt adze (left), and an image showing hafting techniques (right), from Hiroa, 1949: 185.

Caption

A modern archaeologist chief performing a traditional ritual with a ceremonial trowel.

This stubby little toki, however, has reached the end of its life as an adze head, having likely been resharpened many times and has begun to be recycled. The flake scars on the side of the tool show where sections have been removed for re-use as other tools, and there is crushing on the butt end that suggests that it was further used as a hammerstone for working and shaping of other stone tools (Witter, D. pers comm). This kind of recycling is quite common within the Māori tool kit, and shows that our forebears ascribed to the ‘number-8 wire’ mentality as much as we do today.

The butt end of the adze-turned hammerstone, showing: A) a faint line where the stone has been pounded smooth by repetitive impact, evidence of hammer dressing; B) pitting, where impact has removed sections of the stone; C) a scar I got from a turtle at the Taronga Zoo one time. Image: Tristan Wadsworth.

The butt end of the adze-turned hammerstone, showing: A) a faint line where the stone has been pounded smooth by repetitive impact, evidence of hammer dressing; B) pitting, where impact has removed sections of the stone; C) a scar I got from a turtle at the Taronga Zoo one time. Image: Tristan Wadsworth.

In addition to the artefacts, the site has yielded considerable shell midden, and a fragment of moa bone, providing insights into the diet of Redcliffs Māori (surf and turf), and suggesting that the artefacts, which were found in close association, date to the period prior to moa extinction around 1450 AD (Holdaway and Jacomb, 2000).

A distal (closest to ground) fragment of a tibiotarsus (shin bone/drumstick) of a moa (big old bird). Image: John Megahan, Giant Haast’s eagle attacking New Zealand moa.

A distal (closest to ground) fragment of a tibiotarsus (shin bone/drumstick) of a moa (big old bird). Image: John Megahan, Giant Haast’s eagle attacking New Zealand moa.

Although limited in number, these artefacts each have a story to tell about past use of the area, and add to the greater known context of Māori occupation of this great land. If you want to know more, feel free to adze us your questions in the comments below. Har har har har.

References

Hiroa, Te Rangi, 1949. The Coming of the Māori. Whitcombe and Tombs Ltd.

Holdaway, R. and Jacomb, C. 2000. Rapid extinction of the moas (Aves: Dinornithiformes): model, text and implications. Science 287:2250-54.

6 thoughts on “Tool academy: Māori artefacts from Redcliffs

  1. Having plied here afore, it behooves me to to take up the chalice to Esky a quest iron of you. Sew haere mai quash tai onz:-
    ___ How is the mountainous task of sorting/cattledogging/inkspektink and re porting upon the northern shipyard dig momentous efforts?.

    ___ Has there been any damage assesment & archaelogical digs etc done in the Christchurch vicinity bordering “72 Paparoa St, Christchurch, Canterbury 8053, New Zealand”?.
    This was where my mum grew up, & as yet I’ve been unsuccessful in finding any information as to this magnificent home’s current condition.
    Living now back home in Oz (Coffs Harbour NSW) means of course I can’t go & have a look. But you good folks may well have done some work in that area?.

    Love your works, & great re ports.

    • Hi Noel,

      72 Paparoa Street isn’t familiar to us, off the top of our heads, sorry. We haven’t done much work in Papanui, compared to other parts of the city.

      The Port stuff is coming along, thanks. We’re getting there.

      – Jessie.

      • Thanks Jessie,
        Belated Happy Christmas & Merry New 2017 to you & The Teamus.
        I previously failed to mention my fascination in the photographic evidence of the age~olde art of trowel~gazing. Most intriguing.
        🙂

  2. I’m always amazed by ancient tools – specifically at how well crafted they actually are sometimes.

    That is until I see their medical/dental tools… yikes! Now that’s the stuff of nightmares.

  3. Hi Jessie,

    I am home schooling my girls, and one of them is very interested in Maori archaeology. I was wondering if there are any digs in Canterbury that she could visit?
    Thanks heaps,

    Hannah Riden

    • Hi Hannah,

      Unfortunately, most of our excavations are part of commercial operations with strict health and safety constraints that mean we can’t bring members of the public on site. How old is your daughter? It might be worth getting in touch with the Canterbury Museum about volunteering there? We’re also involved in an interactive excavation event at the Arts Centre on the 16th of October that might be of interest. It’s not specifically about Māori archaeology, but it will be a good opportunity to learn a bit more about archaeology in Christchurch, if she’s interested.

      I’m sorry we can’t be of more help!

      – Jessie.

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