Pā: visiting Maori archaeology

Archaeology tourism in New Zealand

One of the wonderful things about being an archaeologist is that you get to interact first hand with physical evidence of the past that hasn’t been seen for hundreds if not thousands of years. While in New Zealand I’ve been excavating archaeological remains that aren’t visible on the ground surface. When the topsoil is removed by a machine like an Excavator/JCB these features pop out as dark shapes in the lighter natural subsoil and combined they can tell us a story about the past.

The entrance to Otumoetai Pa in the Bay of Plenty
The entrance to Otumoetai Pa in the Bay of Plenty

For those who aren’t able to dig the archaeology themselves there is a common type of archaeological site on the North Island that can be visited by tourists. Pā sites give a good insight into how some of the Maori people lived in New Zealand before the arrival of Europeans. A Pā is a Maori settlement that is often (but not always) fortified by banks, ditches and palisade walls. Many of these sites are managed by municipal and/or government bodies and have information panels that help you to understand the significance of these sites in the past and present.

Bank and ditch at Otumoetai Pa in the Bay of Plenty
Bank and ditch at Otumoetai Pa in the Bay of Plenty

When you visit a Pā site today what you encounter is a deep ditch and bank that encloses an area of flat ground. This flat area is where structures would have stood in the past. On the high bank there may have been a wooden palisade wall, effectively defending what was inside. Often Pā are positioned on easily defensible areas of high ground that overlooks the surrounding fertile plains. They are also sometimes positioned on the edge of a cliff or on a small island which gave them added natural defense.

Otumoetai Pa from Matakana Island
Otumoetai Pa from Matakana Island

Some Pā are absolutely huge and were defended by a series of banks and ditches and some also feature escape routes like underground tunnels and the ability to sustain a group for a period of time through large-scale storage structures and gardens. Others are not so large but are in close proximity to other Pā, for instance the Miropiko Pā in Hamilton City has a substantial bank and ditch but encloses a smaller area and is part of a series of Pā located along the river. In most cases the Pā were not necessarily permanent homes, but more a place created to defend fertile lands and food supplies. They could also act a refuge when needed and were a clear outward demonstration of the strength (mana) and defensive abilities of the group (iwi). An iwi may have more than one Pā site in their territory and each could in some capacity provide fresh water, stored food and a place to shelter members of the group.

Pou whenua at Miropiko Pa in Hamilton City
Pou whenua at Miropiko Pa in Hamilton City

I visited three Pā sites while in New Zealand, two in the Bay of Plenty region on the east coast and one in the centre of Hamilton City on the Waikato River. All three were placed in impressive positions in the landscape and two (Otumoetai and Miropiko) were situated on the edges of high cliffs. The largest of the three, Mount Maunganui (Mauao), is an extinct volcanic cone on a natural peninsula which juts out into the Pacific and is therefore naturally defended by the sea and its steep slopes. The slideshow at the top shows the changing face of the Mount in all weather. Walking around the base of the Mount you can see ancient shell midden eroding out from the sides of the slopes. The sheer volume of shell I saw is a testament to the long history of this particular Pā site and the number of people who utilised it over many generations.

Shell midden on Mount Manganui/Mauoa
Shell midden on Mount Manganui/Mauoa

There is so much more to say about the Pā than can be communicated in a short blog post. If you are interested in Maori history and culture or would like to learn more about the Pā specifically take a look at these links:

Wikipedia: Pa

Wikipedia: Mount Maunganui

Government of NZ: Northland before European colonisation

Tauranga Memories: Otumoetai Pa

Shells at Mount Manganui/Mauao
Shells at Mount Manganui/Mauao