Journal of the Nelson and Marlborough Historical Societies, Volume 2, Issue 2, 1988
Whether The Maori could Weather The Wither
The author has been Marlborough Regional File Keeper for the New Zealand Archaeological Association for about twenty years and is a past member of their national council. He was President of the Marlborough Historical Society for fifteen years and was for a time a member of the Marlborough Regional Committee of N.Z. Historical Places Trust.
I am continually perplexed by the study of history. If I treat it as an art, it can be exciting and pleasant. I tell people all the nice stories they want to hear, I get away with loose facts and dates, I show earlier generations in a better light than they often deserve, say nothing controversial and we all have a nice time which provokes little, if any, conflict.
If I treat history as a science, then I am almost always in trouble. Locals, students, professors, land use planners and anyone else who feels like it, get all upset. Some laugh up their sleeves, some get angry, some are concerned enough to publish their point of view. This is unfortunate, because a tremendous amount of jolly hard work has usually gone into the subject.
For this article I will endeavour to strike a balance between the science and the art, at the risk of becoming thoroughly boring.
"The Withers", keep the southern boundary at the Wairau Plain, from the Taylor to the Redwood Pass. Bare, dry, brown hills, named not for their withered appearance, but after the Hon. Charles Bigg Wither, who came to Nelson in 1843 and resided mostly at Richmond until his death in 1874. Wither was amongst the first Europeans to farm those dry hills which perpetuate his name, but men were using the area for many hundreds of years before he arrived in Marlborough.
Marlborough has relatively poor documentation of archaeological sites. I believe this is because we are about the only province without a Provincial Museum and because we have no tertiary training institutes or university. In reality, Marlborough is a cultural backwater, if not a desert.
Almost all investigations into the province's prehistory have been conducted by "outsiders", and the resulting collections and publications are scattered and difficult to find. It is therefore not surprising that Marlburians are almost totally ignorant of the prehistory and archaeology of the province. Kaikoura is part of Marlborough, it was the home of the great greenstone workers and has yielded more nephrite artefacts that any other area, but where are they? More can be found in the museums of Europe than in this country. All this is very sad, but there is one thing which I am more concerned about. This is, that the conclusions and opinions of New Zealand's scientific fraternity are based on studies which almost wholly exclude Marlborough, and I believe Marlborough has some unique evidence, especially relative to pits and their various uses. The Sounds has sites in every bay and on almost every ridge. Remnants of pa can be found in numerous places, some untouched and so spectacular, yet what do we know of them? What are their names? Who lived in them — and when? Along the base of the northern hills of the Wairau are many pa or kaianga. Pae Tawa, Ruakanakana, Mautaku, Puketea and many others extending from Raukawa (Cook Strait) to Mangatawai (Tophouse). At the Wairau Bar is the most famous archaeological site in the south Pacific, excavated with a plough and raped by collectors. It is leased out for farming instead of being managed as a reserve. Inland is Ruataniwha, O te Kauae, Kowhai and many more. On the site of the old Blenheim gasworks, now the LPG station, was a pa. Over the river near Budge Street was another. There was once a huge pa in the vicinity of College Park, between Scott and Redwood Streets.
Along the southern side of the plains, remains are known of Huataki, Paranui, Taikawhaiti, Mikonui and so on all the way past Hikurangi at Lake Timara up into Waihopai and the Avon Valley where Tuhawaiki (Bloody Jack) fought the local boys.page 15
Pits are the main indicators of these pa or kainga and most are in what is today bone dry, stoney ground which has trouble growing good grass. Utuwai, at the mouth of the Redwood Pass, has a surprising number of well preserved pits. Pukapuka is one well known site which has at least twenty-five pits, each looking exactly the same as the Howick Road pits, less than 2000 metres away. On an aerial photograph which I have (Survey 3193, Run 4169/5,1969), the garden lines, or low stone walls, typical field evidence of kumara cultivation, can be clearly seen. The late W. J. (Bill) Elvy told me the name for the pa on the ridge running up from Howick Road pits was Matakite. This ridge protrudes into the plain further than any other in the area. Old Bill, who was then blind, said the name meant second sight. Immediately to the east was a swamp, which might even once have been a little lake, providing a good food source. To the northwest were soils which the Maori people found suitable for growing the very special species of kumara which they then had. Today, there are few people who would believe kumara could be grown there. For some years after Bill told me of the site, I wondered whether evidence of it could still be found. Eventually, up the gully behind there, I found one clear sound pit, recorded as S28/2, grid reference 928,236. Earlier this year I could not relocate it, as the site now has very long grass, and is covered with trees. I can only hope it was not destroyed by a bulldozer as others nearby were in recent years. Old Bill would never believe it if he could see the area today. Some years ago, I heard someone had found a "meteorite" pit, high on the ridge above. Investigating, it proved to be an umu ti, or pit for cooking the roots of the cabbage tree (Cordyline sp), to make kauru. It is recorded as S28/1, grid 929,246. Then I had another surprise. A young man from the Lands and Survey found two huge adzes in the "bank section", downstream from the Burleigh Bridge. More have been found since. Here was a Moa Hunter site in a most unexpected place.
Across the paddocks from the Howick Road Pits, towards the Wither Walkway, recent bulldozing destroyed several very similar pits which were just to the east of the old rifle range ridge., Some time after Jenkins built their home on the lower end of the ridge, Mrs Jenkins drew my attention to the Howick Road Pits. They have since been viewed by several of this country's ethnologists and archaeologists, none of whom were prepared to make definite comments. I have always been surprised at the extent and location of Maori sites. Many snippets of information are gathered and they often do not make good sense, until some other evidence comes to light. On page 367 of Cyclopedia of New Zealand (1905), in an article describing Sam Neville, is stated: "Paranui embraces a good deal of low-lying country, including the site of a number of small lakes: and possesses various relics of Maori habitation, — and the remains of underground dwellings". This is surprising stuff. Paranui was leased from the widow of Dr Richardson and was along the Wither foot hills, but "small lakes" and most other features have long since gone.
There are several problems with archaeological sites, especially pits. They are a nuisance to land developers, investigation of them is expensive and, partly at least, destroys them. We know very little about them anyway and, even though they are fully protected by legislation, most choose to ignore it. Many different people have suggested many different origins of the Howick Road Pits. Some say they were water holes, some offal pits, two very intelligent and well respected people are sure they are meteorite pits, one man is certain his father dug them. Without doubt, Europeans have dug holes for all sorts of things, but I will stick to my opinion that these are not the holes they dug. I expect to find kumara storage pits in dry hard ground, but I cannot suppose Europeans would hand dig pits in anything but the softest places, without very good reason. One man said he is sure that the pits will not contain "stone bowls and fossilized kumara". He is probably quite correct and I must agree with him because nor do any of the many hundreds of other Maori pits that I know of.