Our final days of an archaeologicool experience

Busy final day

Kia Ora Whanau, friends and all other forms of being. I am about to take you on a journey of my experience so far on our archaeological adventure on Ahuahu island. 

Today we finished our final day of excavations on this stunning island and let me tell you, we kicked it up so many gears you’d think we were in a fast and furious movie. Dirt flew through the air as we worked to reveal as many secrets as possible before we leave to rejoin society.

Our spectacular setting

Many many postholes littered the base of our trench before we started today and by the end it was covered in them. We continued to excavate a peculiar linear feature that cut into the underlying dune. It seemingly runs from the SW corner of the site all the way to the northern face and looks to continue through the baulk. It is quite puzzling as to its purpose, theories continue to be thrown around, everything from a drain, a palisade and a tiny water race for tiny horses (my own theory). Whatever it turns out to be it would have been an impressive structure to behold and a rather unique one at that too. 

The more I look at this island and the more the directors open my eyes to what I am seeing, the more awe-filled I become, thinking of what this island looked like during its prime. The landscape is completely unique and is even more special given the occupation that took place on this land as well.

I have been lucky enough to find a number of unique artefacts such as drill points, adze flakes, a charred shark tooth and (my favourite) a beach pebble with a pattern etched into the stone. I feel honoured to be able to uncover anything, let alone artefacts as special as these. 

I have throughly enjoyed my time on this island and have created many memories that I will cherish till the day I die.

This trip has been my first proper taste of archeology, it has opened my eyes up to the wonders (and horrors) of archaeology all of which  have strengthened my resolve to one day make this job my career.

I would like to thank all the staff and people who made this possible. I think I can say on the behalf of everyone that we are all grateful for your late hours an tireless work, thank you once again and I hope we haven’t been too much a pain to deal with.

Nga Mihi Katoa


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Day off!

Student listen to discussion on wider landscape

Day 6 of the GMI project. By some small fortune I still haven’t been voted off the Island yet. This gloriously sunny Sunday marked the first half-day we have had during the excavation of our sites. Our work seemed to race past as we scraped the sandy layers back in spits to reach the red paleo-dune. In the space of 3 hours we managed to uncover an array of objects, including hoanga and fragmented adzes, as well as a variety of other stone artefacts, bones, and features. Both excavation sites were a hum of activity. Working on registry with Rebecca, we were inundated with bucket-loads of fire cracked rocks and water-rolled pebbles. These are analysed in the field as opposed to the University of Auckland lab, as this provides a broader context of their distribution as well as saving on resources. By the time that 11 o’ clock came around, we had all completed a substantial quantity of work.

Walking up Matakawau Pa

After arriving back at home-base, we prepared for our walk around previously excavated areas. These date back to Jack Golson’s excavation at Stingray Point Pā in the 1950s. We were nearly blown off the side of Matakawau Pā as the winds picked up. Louise Furey elaborately detailed the island’s history, pointing out visible features in the landscape in order to help us to differentiate between natural and cultural occurrences. As we investigated, I was overwhelmed by the beauty of the island, and felt reinvigorated to continue our excavation. With so much history, I wonder what new mysteries we will find in the coming days.

~ Sophie

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The (Bird) Bones of It All

Walking to site after the rain

By some small miracle, I awoke in my tent at 6:00am having had a solid night’s sleep despite the torrential rain bucketing down around me throughout the night. A week ago I couldn’t have imagined willingly waking up before sunrise. I had been in ‘holiday mode’ since the conclusion of semester 2 exams, where sleeping in until 10:00am was not uncommon.

However, at field school I have found myself thrust into a new rhythm – and I feel better for it! In fact, I am beginning to believe that I have been brought to a secret health camp. We operate with the birds – up at sunrise and droopy-eyed by sunset. We spend a solid 7 hours in the field flexing our biceps, oblique’s, and knee-caps, and we are provided three healthy (and extremely delicious) meals a day. Swimming in the cooling ocean is almost mandatory and always warmly welcomed, and a belly laugh during a game of Cards Against Humanity in the evening is a frequent occurrence.

Example of current bird population

I am a big fan of birds, and today my enthusiasm for them was displayed in the field. Working in Quadrant 6 I came across a bird bone deep within a deposit. I was immediately able to discern that it was a bird bone due to its light and hollow composition. This swift and confident conclusion was no doubt appreciated by my trench supervisor Matt, who has exhibited immense patience throughout six days of incessant questioning over whether or not a rock is fire cracked or (most likely) not …

Progress so far

We are at the halfway mark of the 2017 field school. In a mere 6 days I have forged strong friendships and even stronger biceps (from troweling!). My more experienced colleagues have made me feel at home in an unfamiliar environment whilst also guiding me through the process of learning. Coming from a family of avid non-campers, I am taken aback by how comfortable and settled I am feeling.


Bring on the next week!

~ Gala

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Day 3: Unearthing the nitty gritty

Today marked the 3rd full day of our excavation. By 8am we were at site and ready to work, the sun merrily sitting in the east and foreboding clouds in the west accompanied by a pleasant breeze which, after two days of excavating under the hot sun, was most welcome.

Trench talk

As we get further into the excavation we have ‘trench talks’ to fill each other in (pun intended) on all of the interesting things revealing themselves to us as we venture gingerly below the surface. Quantities and types of artefacts are shared (using words to quantify them other than “lots” and “heaps”.) Having these discussions prior to starting excavation for the day helps paint a holistic picture of what is happening in the entire excavation area, as one can get very engrossed in their own square metre. It also helps prepare us budding archaeologists for big, serious academic talks we might have to give one day.

The Total Station

Once the group has touched base most of us go back to troweling, but two lucky candidates are daily appointed to be on the total station; the ominous looking yellow tripod which sits atop a hill ever-watching, kind of like a super hi-tech eye of Sauron. I had the good fortune to be on the total station yesterday alongside Tara. At first it was extremely intimidating to have this responsibility thrust upon the very shaky foundations of my knowledge about such things, but after a few hours Tara and I grew more confident.

Surveying with the total station

The total station is an integral part of the excavation; it is particularly important for processing information once we put our trowels down and go behind a computer screen to analyse the artefacts we have collectively found that day. Basically, the total station shoots and scans the excavation area, sediment levels, and all the artefacts in a 3D map which can be shared among the team members, even those who weren’t on site to give them a reference. Once Tara and I had our turn on the total station, Josh showed us all the points we shot on the GIS (the software we use to process the data collected by the total station) and we could see all the artefacts we had spent the day shooting. Once all the artefacts are shot on the map, the brains behind the excavation can start chugging away at drawing inferences about how they could relate to how people lived in the past.

Excavation in full swing

Prior to this field school I had never been on an excavation (excluding all the ones seven-year-old me conducted in the backyard uncovering old bottles and bottle caps). Having the opportunity to finally go out, excavate and apply all the knowledge I have spent the last two years learning has been a profound experience. Knowing that what I am uncovering is not just any stone or obsidian flake, but an artefact that a person had manufactured, used or lost is very rewarding.

Student notebooks

I certainly feel very privileged to have the chance to uncover stories of lives led on this land well before my time here. Furthermore, the friendships and camaraderie developing here over our shared passion of archaeology adds to the tapestry of the entire experience. I will certainly be sad to eventually leave this lovely island and all the treasures we have found here, but having the knowledge that I have contributed in aiding the understanding of her previous inhabitants is something I will quite happily hold on to.


~ Dacia

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Time lapse from first full day of excavation

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First Full Day of Excavation

Beautiful day on site

And a beautiful day it was. But the hot sun and clear blue skies comes at a price – a price paid in sweat and thirst. Loose, dry dirt quickly coated clothes and skin, but it’s all a regular part of the job, as the new hands quickly learned.

Everyone worked hard excavating in the areas that were deturfed yesterday. At the rear of the dunes down towards the creek, the majority of the team tackled EA69. Further up the hill, Louise and a small team of 2-3 students began excavating EA70, a small area of erosion where material was exposed.

Hard at work

The goal for the day at EA69 was to strip back the dark grey topsoil layer (exposed by deturfing) down to the next layer down. All 86 square metres of it! Queue 30 or so trowels, coal shovels, buckets and knee pads. Two sieve tripods were also set up at either end of the excavation area. A sizeable portion of the topsoil layer was removed by the end of the day. A bucketful of stone artefacts (mostly obsidian, with some chert and basalt) was found, along with many more small fragments in the sieve. Fire-cracked rock was also fairly common.

Survey crew

As usual, the survey team of Josh and Patricia was on hand to record the locations of all artefacts and sample areas with the new Trimble total station.

Another aspect of field work is not only the actual excavation, but also the download of data in the evenings. I personally am involved with the photograph download. This involves obtaining copies of all of the photographs taken with our cameras, renaming them with unique ID numbers and describing them in the photograph database. This is an important task as the photographs are a valuable visual record of our fieldwork (once the sediment and artefacts are removed, we can’t return them to their original context!). The ultimate goal is to have a single photographic database spanning the entirety of the project, one which can be searched and queried, making it easy to find any photo that has been taken.

In all, it was a solid first full day of excavation, and a good introduction to archaeology for the students. Everyone indulged in a well-deserved swim on return from the field, and as I write are now shovelling (pun intended) down some tasty BBQ and potato salad, replenishing the energy reserves for tomorrow.



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Day 1

Calm start to the morning

In this field season, the 6th fieldschool of the University of Auckland on Ahuahu, we are working again on EA64 in Coralie Bay on the east side of the island. We have excavated on the same site for the last two summers and the results raised questions that we are attempting to answer by excavating a different part of the site.

Previous excavations focused on the top of the ridge where a cooking area was uncovered in the first season, and underneath this an earlier occupation which had stone flakes and moa and dog bones. A large amount of obsidian (volcanic glass) was recovered, and analysis showed many different sources of obsidian are represented. The presence of moa bone indicates, even without radiocarbon dating, that we are dealing with a site from the early end of the sequence of Maori settlement of the island, perhaps from 6-700 years ago. We didn’t understand how the layers were formed and what influenced the deposition so we extended the excavation in 2016.


Similar material was found and we think the wind has played a large part in moving sand around on the ridge while modifying the surfaces people actually lived on. We are interested in whether the adjacent valley, just off the ridge, also contains cultural material associated with the site on the ridge and some test pits placed across this area in June 2016 revealed stone flakes.

View from the total station

One test pit had a posthole in the base, which was all we needed to encourage us into opening up a larger area this summer. It seemed logical to us that the valley was more sheltered from the wind and therefore a more attractive place for residential sites than on the ridge top. We are pursuing the theory that the land in the valley was used as part of the same settlement.


Excavating first deposits

Ahuahu is very dry this summer, and the constant wind is not helping the situation. In the valley we are more sheltered than up on the ridge, where we frequently had to chase hats, plastic bags and paperwork blowing away in strong wind gusts. The downside to no wind is increased heat. Today was the first day of work, where 14 3rd year students who have never taken part in an excavation before were introduced to the early stages of excavation – the grass cover in a defined square area was cut into small squares and removed to expose the sandy layer underneath. Despite the hot sun, and the large area to be deturfed, the students were very cheerful and enthusiastic throughout the process. I think this is going to be a good excavation.

~ Louise

Sieving material from the first deposit

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Pre-field school

Surveying the dunes

Before the field school begins, an advance crew is working out on Ahuahu getting the house ready, preparing the site for excavation, and completing some outstanding tasks. Because we host up to 30 people during the height of the field school, organising the house is a really big job. For me figuring out menus and food shopping lists is one of the biggest jobs. Food shopping for 30 people for two weeks, on an island with no shops can be challenging.

Josh, Matt, and Patricia (survey crew) have been setting up permanent stations around the tombolo (central area of the island) for total station set ups. This saves us time later. Because they are set up in positions with good visibility across the tombolo, when we move to a new area we don’t need to worry about discrepancies in the spatial data. Because there are stock moving around, smaller pegs get moved. Now we have very large, deep wooden pegs as permanent stations.

Louise explaining to graduate students how to record eroding areas

We also worked on a survey along the dune recording areas of eroding archaeological remains. These areas are exposed due to a range of processes including stock movement and wind erosion.

Recording large exposures

We’ve also had the privilege of working with Veronika Meduna (of Radio NZ fame) this week on audio and video clips about our research on the island. We have greatly enjoyed working with Veronika and look forward to the results of her hard work.

Veronika talking to Rod Wallace

We eagerly await the arrival of the field school students and are excited about the work ahead!

Stay tuned for more updates 🙂

~ Rebecca

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Archaeology is Amazing

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EA64 time lapse

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