Archaeological dig


Salvage excavation and analysis of faunal material from an archaeological site (R27/24) at Pauatahanui Inlet near Wellington

Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa
Technical Report 40 (2009)

B.F. Leach, J.M. Davidson, K.J. Miller, K. Greig and R. Wallace



A small excavation was conducted by the New Zealand Historic Places Trust in an archaeological site (R27/24) scheduled for destruction at Henderson's Bend, Pauatahanui Inlet. Five bulk midden samples from four areas of the site were analysed at the Archaeozoology Laboratory of the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa.

The samples were mainly composed of shell, with 74 percent cockle ( Austrovenus stutchburyi ), which is by far the dominant inshore animal in today's inlet ecosystem. Mud snail ( Amphibola crenata ) at 18.4 percent and mussel ( Mytilus galloprovincialis ) at 2.8 percent are the next most numerous species. Most of the other shells are commonly found in the inlet, but some prefer a rocky shore or ocean beach environment. This suggests that the occupants of the site were also exploiting environments outside the inlet.

The samples contained only small amounts of bone. Minimum numbers of 14 fish from 7 families, 14 birds of 8 species, 8 rats, and 1 dog were identified. The birds are predominantly forest dwelling species, with one duck and one sea bird. The rat is the Pacific rat, introduced to New Zealand in pre-European times.

Charcoal analysis showed that the vegetation in the vicinity of the site during occupation consisted of coastal scrub dominated by kanuka ( Kunzea ericoides ), suggesting regeneration after earlier clearance of forest by fire. Five artefacts were found. Radiocarbon dates suggest occupation between the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries AD.

Measurement of intact cockle valves showed some variation in mean cockle size between the areas sampled. However, these variations are very slight compared with the marked difference in size between the archaeological samples and the cockles studied in a series of modern surveys in the inlet between 1976 and 1998. The archaeological samples are much larger.

Three possible explanations for this difference are considered: different selective harvesting strategies; sustained human predation over a long period; and environmental changes such as turbidity associated with high levels of suspended sediment, salinity, and water temperature, which affect shell recruitment and growth rate. The first explanation is rejected. Pre-European gatherers may have selected for large shells, but they had access to far more larger shells than were present in the modern surveys. The other two possibilities await the result of further research. Analysis of archaeological samples from later prehistoric and nineteenth century middens around the inlet (dating both before and after the 1855 earthquake) and bulk shell d18O/d16O analysis of archaeological and modern shells could help to resolve the issue.


To discuss the full report, contact:

Dr B.F.Leach CNZM (Retired)
2324 Queen Charlotte Drive
Ngakuta Bay, RD1, Picton
New Zealand
Phone (+64-3) 573-5540



Last Updated: 14/12/2015 12:00am