People have lived in the Christchurch area for at least 700 years, and one of the earliest large settlements was at Redcliffs – Raekura – where a wide variety of naturally occurring foods could be obtained. There were shellfish on the beach and on the mudflats of the Avon-Heathcote estuary, fish could be caught in the rivers and the sea, and there were birds along the coast and in the nearby forest that covered the peninsula at that time. Sea and rivers provided canoe routeways, and stone materials could be obtained from the rocky cliffs for tool manufacture.
One of the casualties of the Canterbury earthquakes was a sewer main that ran beneath Main Road, Redcliffs, from Barnett Park to McCormacks Bay, and putting in its replacement provided a unique opportunity to learn more about the early Māori settlement that had existed across parts of Redcliffs Flat. Evidence of this settlement had been investigated by Julius von Haast, the first director of the Canterbury Museum, way back in the 1870s, and I had carried out some work there myself in the 1960s, but archaeological methods are improving all the time – and besides, there is always the chance of finding something new and exciting!
The sewer pipe installation was monitored by archaeologists who investigated any archaeological evidence that was exposed. At times the digging up of the road was halted while we hand-excavated occupational deposits containing shells, bones and artefacts in a layer of charcoal-blackened sand.
So what did we find?
Most important was the evidence of early Māori occupation in the vicinity of the Redcliffs School, which was radiocarbon dated to the middle of the 14th century – that is around AD1350 or a little over 650 years ago. The inhabitants had left a range of materials from which we were able to get some idea of what they ate and what they were doing here.
Only one small earthen hāngī type oven was uncovered, but the quantity of burnt stones and charcoal was evidence that others occurred close by, outside the narrow confines of the pipeline excavation. Food remains showed that the main food eaten was moa, followed closely by shellfish, principally cockle and tuatua. Other birds included spotted shags, paradise shelducks, penguins, weka, oyster catchers, and swans. Fur seals and Polynesian dogs were also consumed. There were surprisingly few fish bones.
One activity in this part of the site was the manufacture of stone adze-heads (toki) from basalt obtained locally. The manufacturing process was to knock flakes off a piece of basalt with a stone hammer until it was approximately the right size and shape for the intended object, after which it would be ground on sandstone to produce a cutting edge. The number of waste flakes found indicated that this was a large-scale manufactory, probably operated by one or more skilled craftsmen, producing tools for those living here or for trade with groups elsewhere. Other stones materials from different parts of the country, including the North Island, showed a sound knowledge of New Zealand’s geological resources.
The pièce de résistance as far as I was concerned was a small broken ball of baked clay – only few of these have been found from sites of similar age in the South Island.
Less than 600 metres away to the southeast was the other settlement around the end of Moncks Spur. This site was occupied about 150 years later than the one at Redcliffs School. There was no evidence of moa-hunting here, the main food being shellfish (suggesting that moas had become locally extinct in the meantime) nor was there any evidence of tool manufacture.