Maori Wetland Deposits

ResearchBlogging.orgI’m studying sacrificial deposits made by people of a lo-tech culture in Sweden 3000 years ago, largely in wetlands. This was long before any word relevant to the area was written. The objects were mainly recovered during the decades to either side of 1900. Yesterday while trawling through back issues of the Journal of Wetland Archaeology I came across a really cool paper on a similar theme. It’s about wetland deposits made by lo-tech people and excavated during the 20th century. But in this case the stuff was still being deposited in the 19th century AD, the objects are perfectly preserved, and the ethnic group in question is still around with an unbroken oral tradition.

People came to New Zealand only in about 1280 from Polynesia. On the islands they eventually developed Maori culture. It was one of the last areas of the planet’s land mass to be colonised by people, and also one of the last to be invaded by Europeans in turn. This happened at a time when colonial genocide was no longer comme il faut, and so the Maori are in unusually good shape today for an indigenous minority.

Caroline Phillips et al.’s 2002 paper treats Maori wooden objects found in wetlands. They range from combs and small tools over pieces of canoes to ornately carved lintels for ceremonial buildings. As so often with wetland small finds, the contexts are generally very poorly documented, but there’s enough archaeological, historical and ethnohistorical information to state that the deposits were made for several distinct reasons. Many finds can probably be explained by a wood-carving technique where pieces were stored in a bog behind the workshop between carving sessions in order to keep the wood soft and free from cracks. Others look more like votive deposits. And then there’s a fascinating episode from the 19th century that is alluded to only very briefly in the paper.

A group of Maori built a “house of parliament”on the North Island, in the traditional style with fine carvings. A brief period of use was cut short by an influenza epidemic, which I assume would have been highly lethal to the long-isolated Maori. The survivors tore the building down, deposited the carvings and structural timbers in a bog, and declared it taboo! This suggests to me that many pieces of fine wood carving found in New Zealand bogs were not placed there to keep the wood soft and did not remain there because a wood carver happened to get killed in one of the perennial raids.

Bronze Age deposits in the Lake Mälaren area, at least the subset of objects that farmers and ditch diggers have selected for submission to museums, consist almost exclusively of bronzes. There is no known practical reason to dunk them in a fen. But still, it’s fascinating to think that Maori archaeologists are in a situation relative to the prehistoric period they study that is comparable to if I had begun my research into the Bronze Age some time in the 5th century BC. I wonder if there are stone axes in those New Zealand bogs as well.

Caroline Phillips, Dilys Johns, & Harry Allen (2002). Why did Maori bury artefacts in the wetlands of pre-contact Aotearoa / New Zealand? Journal of Wetland Archaeology, 2, 39-60 Oxford.

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7 thoughts on “Maori Wetland Deposits

  1. But in this case the stuff was still being deposited in the 19th century AD, the objects are perfectly preserved, and the ethnic group in question is still around with an unbroken oral tradition.

    “Unbroken” is not entirely correct for a lot of iwi – given the massive post-settlement population decline and the concerted efforts at assimilation, a lot of oral stuff was lost (or merged with European traditions – there are a bunch of “authentic” Maori myths which are very clearly syncretised from Biblical stories). Written records from the 19th century, from both Maori and Pakeha, can be just as important as oral traditions for the study of Maori history and culture.


  2. As an archaeologist, journal editor, public speaker, skeptic, atheist, lefty liberal, bookworm, and father of two how do you view this?

    Government officer applies religious test. Unconstitutional

    and this

    There is no complaint. Let us cover this up. You don’t belong to our religion

    Would I file this under Humanities & Social Sciences?


  3. Oral tradition can be “tradition”. A good example is Fiji. Some of the villages claim to be the place where the first canoe from Tanganyika landed twenty or so generations ago, and therefore they are socially higher than the other villages. They even know the name of the canoe: Kaunitoni.

    The problem is that the story was the winning entry to a writing contest arranged by London Missionary Society in late 19th century. At that time the dark skin of Melanesians was explained as an African influence.


  4. Well, Maori tradition was oral prior to colonisation and European contact. Since post european contact its debatable what portions of Maori are traditional versus post modernist adoptions of culture.

    As I recall the stories I have been told, and these are recorded in part through current academic literature, bogs where a common place once used by tribes for habitual purposes. But, more to the point, I do recall stories where certain woods where placed in bogs for a special reason. One of these was to strengthen and harden the wood for the purposes of carving a taiaha, tewhatewha, kotare and so on.

    I also understand, that sites significant to tribes, carved items where hidden to protect tribal histories from being captured by warring or marauding tribes. Colonisation and christianity ushered in another period where Maori simply removed carvings and buried them into bog pits.

    So, your article has some interest. Our taonga, through the aid of our tupuna (spiritual side), are making a return; but in there own time and to the right people.


  5. Jeez, “look at the size of that”! Clearly not practically useful tools. It surprises me that the investigator seems to assume that they were deposited at a time when the lake bed was dry. But maybe he thinks that it was such a large lake that it would have been unlikely for anybody to paddle out in a canoe and sacrifice the axes.


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