Digging in the Bay of Plenty

View of Mount Maunganui from site
View of Mount Maunganui from site

Archaeology emergency!

When I arrived in New Zealand the plan was that I would spend a few days doing some desk-based research in Hamilton. This was to give me some time to get over my jet-lag and do my safety inductions before going out onto site. However, mid-morning of day two I was asked if I would pack up and head east to the city of Tauranga. There was a site being excavated that was revealing much more archaeology than was anticipated and they needed my help!
Of course I jumped at the chance! Not only was I getting the opportunity to dig on more than one site in New Zealand but I was going to the beautiful Bay of Plenty region (Te Moana-a-Toi in Maori). The excavation is situated on a high ridge in a residential zone in the heart of the city and the archaeology being uncovered dates to hundreds of years ago when the location was settled by the Maori people. The types of archaeological features being investigated are kumara (sweet potato) storage pits, fire scoops, shell midden and post-holes. Together these add up to evidence of a horticultural settlement.

Finding the edges of a complex feature
Jumping right in to the archaeology!

Here is a typical day on site:
8am – Arrive on site and have a brief chat about what each team member is working on that morning (i.e. are you finishing up excavating something from yesterday or are you starting on something new). Everyone then grabs the tools that they need and heads off to the area of the site they are working in. In my case I spent the first few days working on a very long section drawing down the length of the site. So I would grab by trowel, a shovel, long-tape, hand-tape, drawing board, drawing equipment, pegs, and other bits and pieces. If you are focusing on excavating you need your trowel, a hand-shovel, bucket, large shovel, ‘super-scraper’ (basically a converted rake that acts like a big hoe) and maybe a wheelbarrow.

A sun-baked rectangular Kumara pit that has been partially excavated (a post-hole can be seen in the base)
A sun-baked rectangular Kumara pit under excavation by me! (a post-hole can be seen in the base)

10am – Morning tea break! It is very hot and humid in Tauranga at this time of year so we all were opting for water (and lots of it throughout the day) over tea, but a snack is very welcome at this point in the morning. The site is located across the street from a primary school and since it is summer in New Zealand (and the kids are on summer holidays) we used their shaded picnic tables to get out of the sun for a bit. Reapplying sunscreen at this point of the day is also essential. There is very little ozone layer here and my pale skin has been burning very quickly!

Up to my armpit in a post-hole in the base of a Kumara storage pit!
Up to my armpit in a post-hole in the base of a Kumara storage pit!

2pm – Lunch! More water and refueling! At this stage of the day we have been digging for five hours and have gotten quite a lot done. Towards the end of lunch the conversation inevitably strays towards what can be completed in the next few hours and what the plan is for tomorrow. It’s very important to have each archaeological feature excavated and properly recorded (photographed, samples taken and paper work completed) before moving on to the next feature. It’s nice having a later lunch because even though you are hot and tired you go back to site for the last few hours feeling a bit refreshed and ready to dig.

Peeking out from an excavated Kumara storage pit
Peeking out from an excavated Kumara storage pit

430pm – Time to go home. It’s nice to take a look at the features that our teammates have been excavating before we leave. The site is long and narrow and is full of archaeological features so there is something new to see every day. Some of the kumara storage pits on this site are absolutely huge! In the past this area must have been bustling with activity: people gardening, building and living their lives. Once all the tools and gear are packed up we pile in the truck and head back to the dig house, maybe for a beverage or an ‘ice block’ before showering off the dirt.
It’s tiring and hot work but really rewarding. It’s amazing how quickly my archaeological eye has adjusted to the soils and features that I have been encountering here. Identifying archaeological features in the natural subsoil has begun to come fairly easily after only a short time. This week I am back in Hamilton and about to start on a new site. I can’t wait to discover the similarities and differences of excavating on opposite sides of New Zealand’s North Island (Te Ika a Maui in Maori).

View over Tauranga from the dig house
View over Tauranga from the dig house