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Ngā Tohuwhenua Mai Te Rangi: A New Zealand Archeology in Aerial Photographs

Landforms and Māori settlement

Landforms and Māori settlement

Most archaeological sites in New Zealand are located near the coast, since Polynesians generally had a well-developed maritime subsistence base. The strong maritime economic base, coupled with the desire for coastal voyaging for trade, dictated the paramount need for good landing places. Being long, straight and with little freeboard, canoes were not well suited to taking steep or breaking waves, all characteristic of exposed near-coastal waters, so that open beaches were frequently impassable. Bays or estuaries and river or coastal terraces are four broad classes of landform of key importance in describing Māori settlement throughout New Zealand. 7 In larger bays the inner reaches and sheltered inner bays were the most important. In estuaries, the rapid inland shallowing of channels, accentuated at low water, constrained settlement to the outer reaches. This produced a distinctive settlement pattern on the seaward reaches of the major channels and on the stable landward end of bars or spits, where archaeological sites are frequently found throughout New Zealand. Another advantage is that the coast had a climate with generally warmer temperatures than inland, was less susceptible to frost, and page 34
Pā on the coastal terrace at Te Kaha, eastern Bay of Plenty

Pā on the coastal terrace at Te Kaha, eastern Bay of Plenty

The uplifted marine terrace so important for Maori horticulture and settlement of the coastal Bay of Plenty is here at its maximum width. Traces of the ditch and bank defences of a pā (named Te Kaka) can be seen along the coast edge in the foreground and lower left. Much of the coastal terrace, covered in fertile airfall-ash since it was uplifted perhaps 40,000 years ago, would have been used for gardening in pre-European times, although positive evidence showing on the surface is limited. The view is to the south-east.

hence well suited to horticulture, as we have already seen at Aotea south head. Illustrated here are the mouths of the Waita and Haast Rivers, showing a more or less natural vegetation cover away from modern settlements.

Unfortunately, the surface features of sites near estuaries are seldom distinctive because of the instability of sand or gravel surfaces. Where volcanic ash or stones are common, however, the surfaces may be more stable and features such as storage pits or stone rows (part of the system of garden plots) may be seen. Examples illustrated in later chapters show such features on the coast at the mouth of the Whangaehu River, near Whanganui, and on the coastal strip at Palliser Bay. Coastal areas, page break particularly the shores of estuaries, have also often been developed for housing or major industrial locations, obscuring the archaeological sites. Critically important though they are, this book cannot usefully depict many of them.

The importance of terrace landforms in Māori settlement is not intuitively as obvious as the importance of bays or estuaries. Terraces are important on the coast and are uniquely important in river valleys, such as the Waipāoa River, East Coast, or the Waikato River. The geological forces that created terrace landforms were, on occasion, much more dramatic than those operating today. During the ice ages of the last two million years, ice and water deposited great volumes of sediment in river valleys and on the coast. In the preceding Tertiary geological era, this process was on an even'greater scale. Tertiary terraces of great height may run for many kilometres but are not always readily recognised because of faults or erosion. The volcanic eruptions of the Taupō region also flung out molten rock and ash, and the vents of Mount Taranaki over time released lahars; both volcanic processes created flat land surfaces. Where this volcanic activity spilled out to the seashore, it left landforms not dissimilar to coastal terraces in superficial form, for example, in western Taranaki or the Tauranga region.

Once terrace landforms were created, coastal wave-action, rivers and streams cut into them, creating steep slopes down to the sea or the river; where rivers joined each other or the sea, points were formed. The terraces seen today range from 3 to 300 m above sea level depending on the rate of geological uplift in an area. Coastal or river terraces were important landforms much exploited by Māori settlement for horticulture, using the soils and climate, and for defence, taking advantage of the steep cliffs and points. North Island examples occur in the Bay of Plenty (Te Kaha is illustrated here), 8 the East Coast, Hawke's Bay, Wairarapa and Taranaki; in the South Island, notable examples are at Clarence River and the Kai Kōura Peninsula.

Rivers were also important in the location of Māori settlement. The ease of transport by canoe, and the accessibility of alluvial terrace edges, combine to produce a remarkable density of settlement in strips along the river course. Rivers have been continuously depositing soils and re-working or creating new terraces in the span of human settlement, 9 a process which, although significant, is not as frequently encountered on the coast. River
A natural forest pattern north of the Waita and Haast River mouths, West Coast

A natural forest pattern north of the Waita and Haast River mouths, West Coast

In the centre are a series of lakes created between the coastal dunes and the high terrace lands (left). The Waita River is in the middle distance and and the Haast in the far distance. A distinct change in vegetation occurs from the coast back, with a wind and salt-swept shrubland giving way to a māhoe and totara forest by the righthand margins of the lake. On the terrace land is a cover of mature rimu forest. The rimu forest extends down to the sea on the fertile alluvial deposits of the Waita River (above centre); it has been killed by flooding or fire on the near side. The tiny modern settlement on the Waita River mimics the probable location of pre-European settlement. Pre-European Maori may also have settled on the coastal margins of the lakes, although no sites have been recorded. From these locations they had access to the sea, to the fish and freshwater mussels in the lake, and the abundant fowl of the inland forests.

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Pukemaire, a pā on the high river terrace at Tikitiki, Waiapu River valley

Pukemaire, a pā on the high river terrace at Tikitiki, Waiapu River valley

The long, ploughed-out ditch and bank in the foreground, marking a slight rise in level inwards to the defended area, may have been the bank of a former course of the river. The wider area of the pā within the defensive perimeter has been ploughed many times and little surface detail shows. Although pre-European in origin, the pā was occupied by Pai Mārire adherents and was attacked by Ngāti Porou kūpapa and colonial forces in 1865.

Towards the church, the interior of the pā (behind the third ditch) has been left intact and shows the distinctive outlines of raised-rim kūmara storage pits. The view is to the north, and the church (St Mary's) is about 35 m long. The flat surfaces were the river bed during the Pleistocene (ice ages).

page 37 terraces may be naturally flood-free, in which case they have stable, fertile soils that once had a forest cover or they may be the lower terraces of the modern flood plain, and therefore by definition liable to flooding. 10 The flood-free terraces existed more or less in their present form at the time of first settlement 800 years ago, and were lived on not much later. 11 The surface of these terraces may be as much as 15 m above the level of the river at normal flows, creating tactically useful defensive positions. They may have been cut into by subsequent river action, again forming steep banks. Intermediate terraces, between the flood plain and the flood-free terraces, were also of use in Māori settlement and horticulture. The topsoils and silts deposited by flooding formed very thick topsoils in time, and were of lasting fertility under Māori cropping. 12 Examples of the use of suchtiigh, flood-free terraces in Māori settlement are prominent near Tirau on the Waikato River (chapter 8) and on the East Coast at Tikitiki (illustrated here) and at Waerenga ā Hika (chapter 10). The photograph of Waerenga ā Hika, taken after a major flood in 1948, shows the pattern of flooded (under light-grey silt) and flood-free terraces particularly clearly.

Today the intermediate terraces are protected from flooding by stopbanks, and archaeological sites have been destroyed, but their importance for Māori settlement should not be underestimated. The lowest river terraces hold no interest archaeologically, since both the deposits and their surface layers are too young to have had significant settlement. The pā, Marama Tāwhana, illustrated at the end of the previous chapter, is an example of archaeological features on the older terrace soils which peter out on the younger terrace soils. 13

We cannot leave low-lying country such as river valleys or the coastal strip without discussing the importance of swamps and dune lands. Both the higher and lower river terraces were swampy away from the river, at their margins with the surrounding hill country. Swamps offered important opportunities for settlement because of their high productivity (water fowl and eels). Below the marine or coastal terraces there may also be a coastal strip lying only slightly above sea level. Often partly swampy, it would have comprised complex belts of dunes interwoven with lake- or river-borne sediments, and was also of importance in Māori settlement. Late in pre-European history, swamps also offered defensive tactical advantages and many pā were built in them, for example, Te Awamate on the Rangitīkei River, illustrated in the following chapter. Swamps and wetlands have been widely drained in New Zealand for agricultural purposes. No other process, including deforestation, has so spoiled a sense of what New Zealand was like in pre-European times.

The emphasis so far on coastal and terrace landforms and lowland settlement leaves aside the obvious: New Zealand is a very hilly country. In areas such as Northland, a good proportion of the landform is steep hills, while on the East Coast or in Taranaki the proportion of steep country is even greater. 14 Both on the coast and inland, but not always adjacent to easier terrain, fortified sites occupy the tops of lower hills nearer the valley floor. Access to the resources of the valley floor— water, fishing, transport, perhaps gardening—was easy for the occupants. The search for naturally defended places also meant that any locality with steep slopes around it could be used for a fortified pā, often close to hills or at the ends of ridges adjacent to the river where there was a good outlook down the river. Such low headlands or hills also become good mental markers in traditional narratives, because from the valley floor they dominate the view. Higher hills, which from the air or any distant viewpoint appear more prominent, are less likely to have fortifications on them, but may still have been important points of traditional reference; an example is Mount Hikurangi. High, steep hill country remote from rivers is generally not settled for reasons of unsuitable climate, poor access and poor soils.