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

8 — Waikato and Coromandel Peninsula

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Waikato and Coromandel Peninsula

This chapter covers the Coromandel Peninsula, the Firth of Thames, and the broad lowlands and west coast of the Waikato. The Waikato area is more or less defined by the Tainui description of their rohe: 'Mōkau ki ruaga, Tāmaki ki raro' (from the Mōkau River to Tāmaki). Tainui is a broad confederation, including among its member tribes Ngāti Maniapoto of the central Waikato. Among the important traditional sites of the region are Mounts Moehau, Taupiri, Pirongia and Maungatautari, and the Kāwhia and Aotea Harbours. Kāwhia is the final resting place of the Tainui canoe. This canoe landed at Whangaparāoa in the eastern Bay of Plenty, sailed to the Waitemata and Tāmaki, and was there dragged across to the Manukau Harbour. 1 Tainui and Aotea are the founding waka of the iwi of Waikato and Taranaki 2 respectively. The Aotea Harbour will occupy an important position in this chapter because of its well-preserved pre-European and nineteenth-century horticultural and agricultural landscape.

In pre-European times, Māori closely settled the Waikato region, especially on the coast and along the major rivers. Among the themes that may be more fully discussed with respect to Waikato and Coromandel sites are the history of archaeological research into changes in Māori culture over the millennium of settlement in New Zealand, gardening in inland regions prone to frost, mission settlements and early farming in the Aotea Harbour, and sites of the Waikato wars. Mercury Bay and the inner reaches of the Firth of Thames were important landing places in 1769 during the course of the Endeavour's voyage, and the pā, Wharetaewa, at Mercury Bay, was discussed in chapter 3.

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Coromandel region

The Coromandel Peninsula comprises a range of hills of ancient, partly volcanic origin. Some of the rocks have substantial mineral values. 3 The soils are poor even where they are not excessively hilly and the streams are not navigable, so pre-European Māori settlement was largely confined to a narrow coastal margin. The peninsula has nevertheless been very important in the history of New Zealand archaeology. 4 In the 1950s it was the location of Jack Golson's excavations at Sarah's Gully, from which he described an example of early North Island Polynesian horticulturalists. 5 Prior to this time, only the earliest South Island archaeological sites had been described, and there was no horticultural evidence. These early sites, occupying sheltered coves on the northeastern tip of the Kuaotunu Peninsula, are not visually impressive from the air, with few surface archaeological features. Views of the peninsula and Sarah's Gully featured in a discussion of vertical and oblique aerial photographs in chapter 1.

A prominent feature of the peninsula landscape is Mt Tahanga, one of the most important sources of stone for making adzes in pre-European New Zealand. Adzes made in this stone are often of the earlier types, not dissimilar to the patterns of adze made at Wairau Bar and in East Polynesia at the same time. The stone was used from the earliest periods and traded throughout the northern and eastern North Island in large quantities. 6

The visually conspicuous Coromandel Peninsula sites date mostly from a later age, from the period immediately before or contemporaneous with European arrival, and are principally coastal headland pā—for example, Wharetaewa in Mercury Bay. In 1769 Cook noted the importance of fishing and the quantity of fernroot eaten, and drew attention to the low population numbers and relative lack of horticulture and inland settlement. This
Mt Tahanga, a volcanic dome and site of early Maori quarrying for adze stone

Mt Tahanga, a volcanic dome and site of early Maori quarrying for adze stone

Stone at the summit has been quarried, with floors of flaked stone in many places around it, although they do not show in this photograph because of the scrub cover. The summit may have been a pā since it appears to have been defended by a low stone wall or stone-faced scarp, visible in this photograph taken from the north-west.

page 113 is not unexpected for an area which overall has a physical geography (mountainous and with generally poor soils) so unsuited to human settlement. On the headland pā, for example, storage pits are not as frequent or prominent as they are elsewhere in the northern half of the North Island. The early sites, however, such as Sarah's Gully, did have layers with storage pits, although relatively few of them. The site lies at the entrance to the gully, not far from the high water mark, where there would have been a number of localised patches of sandy soils well suited to Māori horticultural practice.

Firth of Thames

The lower Waihou River drains into Tikapa Moana, the Firth of Thames; the surrounding plain is" a vast, poorly drained locality. When Cook visited in 1769, he travelled up the Waihou and described villages which, for the first time, he called 'towns'; he had seen no settlements of this size on the East Coast where the Endeavour had just been. 7 Some of these settlements, notably the pā Oruarangi and Pāterangi, were excavated in the 1920s and 1930s and their artefacts deposited in the Otago and Auckland Museums. They served an important historical role in defining in archaeological terms Classic Māori culture. 8 On the banks of a bend in the Waihou River, able to be navigated by Cook's small boats in 1769, the pā were subsequently cut off by a change in river course. 9 Today they lie in featureless dairying country and show as slight mounds by the abandoned river course, disfigured by sheds constructed to take advantage of the raised ground. The landscape impression of these sites is negligible from the ground, and only from the air does their true significance show.


The coast and the Waikato River and its basin are the dominant landforms influencing human settlement in this region. 10 Much of the southern area is dominated by a relatively sterile volcanic landscape, derived from catastrophic eruptions from what is now the Taupō volcanic basin. There is little Māori settlement, except near the Waikato River itself. A line running from the low coastal ranges at Kāwhia, down through the King Country and up to about Putaruru on the southern ranges, and from there north to Thames, defines the main areas of pre-European settlement. Settlement is confined in the north by the ranges west of the Firth of Thames and the Hunua Ranges. The Waihou River catchment is linked to the Waikato by the Hinuera gap, 11 a lowland area in the vicinity of Tirau and Matamata, where many pā survive in good condition.

In the wider region, pā and other sites are concentrated along both the Waikato and Waipā Rivers, with a scatter along the ridges of the low foothills forming the basin to the south and the east. There is also a major concentration in the Te Awamutu and Te Kuiti vicinity. These lie in favourable local climates at the southern edge of the swampy, north-facing basin drained by the Waipā River, the hilly western margins of which were the beginning of a major land route from the Waipā River into the headwaters of the Mōkau River and the Taranaki region. Ngāti Raukawa are one of many groups to have entered the south-western North Island through this route in the nineteenth century.

In pre-European times the extensive swamps of the Waikato basin were an important resource base. Many pā are known adjacent to the swamps or in the swamps themselves, where the swamp was calculated to add to the defensive effect of palisades. 12 Swamps also occupied the low ground on either side of the lower reaches of the Waikato up to its northernmost extent, where dunes drifted inland about 10 km from the coast. The basin is narrower here, defined by low ranges to the west towards the coast, and to the east towards the Hauraki Gulf. On ridges running down into the lower Waikato River from the general run of the eastern ranges are many pā. These locations had tactical rather than strategic value in pre-European times, and they should not be read as offering control of the Waikato basin as a whole. Hongi Hika of Ngā Puhi travelled up the Waikato and Waipā in 1822, apparently unopposed, to the vicinity of Pirongia where he successfully attacked the pā, Mātakitaki, at the junction of the Mangapiko Stream and Waipā River. 13 Fortifications built on the lower (northern) course of the river, designed to bar access to the basin as a whole, mark Māori opposition to the encroachment of European military forces later in the century, in the 1860s.


The Waikato basin, although favoured by its generally north-facing aspect, was prone to frost damage to young plants because of its inland location. Frosts were avoided by cultivations in the lower hill country, in positions page break
Oruarangi and Pāterangi, on a former course of the Waihou River, near Thames

Oruarangi and Pāterangi, on a former course of the Waihou River, near Thames

Opposite. Occupying an important position in the history of archaeological thinking in New Zealand, these two pā are almost imperceptible in the aerial view. They are the two slightly elevated areas of land adjacent to the broad curve of the former bank of the Waihou River; the better drainage has permitted the growth of slightly taller shrubs since the period of initial land clearance. Excavations by museum staff, Fisher and Teviotdale in the 1920s, recovered large numbers of artefacts. These artefacts were later characterised by Golson as typical of Classic Maori culture. The photograph was taken in 1944.

Below. An oblique view of Oruarangi (top left partly showing in the vicinity of the shed) and Pāterangi (right foreground). The defensive ditch on Pāterangi shows right foreground and the former bank of the Waihou River runs middle top to bottom right.

page 116 where broad ridges caused cold air to drain away down to the lower-lying swamp land. Swamp and forest edges may have been chosen for settlement because of their influence in reducing the incidence of frost. 14 Soils were improved by adding gravels to increase their warming properties. Such techniques were needed to make effective use of the relatively heavy soils of the Waikato River terraces: in their natural state, these soils would not have suited the Māori crops. The gravel was 'borrowed' to add to the adjacent soils on the terrace surfaces, and the 'borrow-pits' can still be seen in the river landscape. They are sometimes dug from the flat surface of the terrace, but more commonly dug into the bank at the edge of the terrace where it descends to a lower river terrace. In the vicinity of Cambridge and Tirau, many borrow-pits are readily seen from the road, particularly where they were cut into the edges of the higher river terraces, but their overall pattern is clearest in the aerial view. Borrow-pits at Tirau were illustrated in chapter 4.
Some areas have large numbers of pits, especially within pā. Some pā are so packed with pits of the open rectangular variety that it has been suggested that they were principally defended food stores. 15 Impressive examples of pā lie on the hills near Tirau. 16 This emphasis on storage, the modification of soils and the careful choice of location to avoid frost and cold air leads to a
Two pā on hill country near Tirau

Two pā on hill country near Tirau

A pā about 250 m long is at centre, with a smaller one at the top. The larger pā extends out to the ridges on either side of the centre where its pattern is obscured by the shadow of the forest (to the right) and somewhat worn banks (to the left). Raised-rim pits about 2 by 3 m in plan can be seen on the edges and at the foot of the terrace scarps in the near part of the pā, suggesting a pattern of houses and open living areas on the terraces with pits on the periphery. The pattern of segmentation with double ditches and banks on the weakest access points can be clearly seen. The view is to the north-east.

page 117 quite different pattern of horticultural usage compared with places further north. Northland saw the use of southern faces, enclosed valley floors and swampy soils for horticulture—locational choices that were not possible in the Waikato climate.

Many sites have been recorded by archaeologists along the west coast of the region. These have limited visual landscape impact, although there are some coastal headland pā. Nevertheless, some parts of the coastal area present striking horticultural features. In the Aotea Harbour vicinity, and near Taharoa south of the Kāwhia Harbour, extensive areas of dunelands were stripped of their vegetation cover as long as 500 years ago. The soils here were created from surface layers of volcanic ash, erupted from the volcanic vents of the southern Waikato such as Mt Pirongia. Until planted in pine's in recent years, these dunes were drifting sand that intermittently covered the old settlements. As the loose sand was blown away, the pre-European activities on the underlying soils were revealed very clearly and over unusually large areas. The ash surface of the oldest sand dunes has a hard weathered crust, created during the formation of the original soils. The ash is at its thinnest on the natural ridge crests of the extensive dune areas; cut into it are extensive groups of borrow-pits, storage pits, house-terraces and pā. In surrounding areas the ash-based soils had sand from the borrow-pits added to improve physical condition. 17

These settlements and the borrow- and storage pits can be seen clearly in aerial photographs of the stable dune-country in the areas just to the north of the Aotea north head reserve. Here, in open farmland, the sand is stabilised by the firm volcanic-ash cap and a cover of pasture. 18 The storage pits tend to be rather amorphous in plan (not clearly rectangular) because the ash crust has become broken down by stock. The massive pā, Manuaitu, some 600 m long, 19 was probably occupied by Ngāti Koata, prior to their departure from this area in 1815 under pressure from other tribes of the Waikato. 20

Southwards again, areas of currently drifting sand are now in the north head reserve. The bare sand in the reserve is a dark grey iron-sand, forming a significant contrast with the bright white of middens, scattered down slopes from areas of settlement sheltered by ridges from the prevailing winds. Across the harbour entrance on the south head, similar country with middens was the site of the first planting of kūmara by Turi of the Aotea canoe, discussed in chapter l. 21 Spectacular evidence of horticulture like that at north head does not show as clearly, yet the reflection of tradition in the archaeological record is noteworthy. There are, for example, some pits evident on the surface of Turi's pā, Turi Matai Rehua, and taro survives in small swamps in the dunes. 22

Nineteenth-century sites

The Methodist Mission in New Zealand, initially established at Kaeo near Whangaroa Harbour in the far north, later established other mission stations, especially on the west coast harbours such as Hokianga and the Mōkau River. The wider area of the Aotea north head was converted to agricultural uses by the 1840s. Some of the missionaries, such as the Revd Cort Schnackenberg, were poorly supported by church stipend, and had to farm and trade for a living. In 1844 a farm and school were established by the Methodists at 'Beechamdale' near Raorao-kauere on the north-eastern side of the inner reaches of the harbour. In 1846 a mill was constructed under the direction of the Revd Gideon Smales. 23 After 14 years at the Mōkau River station, Schnackenberg moved to conduct the Kāwhia 'circuit' (including Aotea) from 1858 through the testing period of the Waikato wars, settling finally at north Aotea in 1864. By 1869 the Revd John Moore was in charge for a short period at Aotea. With Māori adherence to Pai Mārire and increasing European settlement, the mission to the Māori community became limited in scope. Schnackenberg bought land at Aotea in 1873 and appears to have farmed there from that date. 24

The mission was therefore established before the Waikato wars, abandoned just prior, and then re-established after. This prolonged period of farming appears to have been responsible for a most remarkable assemblage of ditch and bank fences at north head, in the same general area as the pre-European settlement discussed in the preceding paragraphs. The fences form complete enclosures or groups of enclosures ('yards'), enclosures formed against steep cliffs, and lengthy 'boundary' fences. One boundary fence, in particular, has been cut along the length of the pā, Manuaitu, using the pre-European defensive ditch and bank for part of its length. It may have served to fence off a considerable area of north head sand dunes from the northern farmland, preventing stock wandering in relatively unproductive country. The fence has been described as a pre-European 'track', an unconvincing interpretation.

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Pā and pits on old dune country near Aotea Harbour

Pā and pits on old dune country near Aotea Harbour

Up to four pā may be detected on this photograph. The largest of the pā (centre right), Manuaitu, is 600 m long and composed of six different defended segments. The photograph was taken in March 1944. The lines across the centre of the photograph are scratches on the positive transparency copy from which this photograph was prepared. Borrow-pits for sand show as depressions on the ridges about the pā. The sand was probably laid as a mulch over garden soils. Most of the gardening is somewhat away from the coast; there are few pits closer than 800 m to the beach, probably because the prevailing south-west winds prevented horticulture in those areas. Storage pits occur near or within the pā perimeter, but they have an irregular (not rectangular) shape in plan because of the action of stock breaking down the crust of hard sand through which the pits were originally dug. Ditch and bank fences near the house above Schnackenberg Bay can be seen more clearly. The fences may be the original ditch and bank fences of Schnackenberg's farm.

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An oblique view of Manuaitu, looking to the north-east

An oblique view of Manuaitu, looking to the north-east

A ditch and bank fence runs from the south-west to the southern perimeter of the pā, following the pre-European defensive ditch and scarp, and then out bottom left over the modern farm road. A similar view in colour is on page 53.

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The Rangiriri fortifications, lower Waikato River, in their tactical setting

The Rangiriri fortifications, lower Waikato River, in their tactical setting

This oblique view of the Rangiriri locality, looking southeast and up-river, shows the strategic significance of the narrow stretch of dry land extending along the banks of the Waikato River. To the west is the river, to the east the swampy margins of Lake Kopuera, a lake big enough to be difficult to outflank. The swamps, lake and river and the presence of the state highway have forced housing and light industry to encroach on the limited areas of high ground, all of which were occupied by Maori at this famous battle site. The line of the principal trench crossed the low hill in the foreground. The position of the fortification at its centre is marked by the white posts of the cemetery fence. The surviving redoubt in the rear of the main Maori line is just to the right of the small building on the extreme left middle of the photograph.

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The central fortification in the principal Maori line of defence

The central fortification in the principal Maori line of defence

The area within the fence is an historic reserve. The Imperial troops were repelled from the near face of the fortification which projected forward from the double trench across the neck between Lake Kopuera and the Waikato River. The double ditch runs towards the camera viewpoint but is not clearly visible.

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A contemporary view of Rangiriri

A contemporary view of Rangiriri

The transverse ditch runs across the narrow ridge. The view is to the south with the river in the distance. The central fortification is at right.

In chapter 6, Pāterangi, in the southern Waikato, was discussed as an example of nineteenth-century Māori fortifications. Further to the north, the swampy lower reaches of the Waikato River also provided opportunities for strategically strong positions, and were attacked by British forces earlier in the Waikato campaigns. Here, the main valley of the Waikato narrows in its lower reaches before it is blocked by the Hunua Ranges and turns west to the sea. A number of long ridges come down from the surrounding ranges, cutting through the swamps towards the river. Near the river, these ridges had for long been sites of Māori settlement and pā. Control of the Waikato depended on securing these ridges, and from them the Kingite (Māori) forces attempted to prevent the entry of British Imperial forces in 1863. Having pushed a road south from Auckland into the Waikato Basin, the British resorted to armoured river transport to drive further into the Waikato. 25 Fortifications were created along the road from Auckland and on a line from the Firth of Thames to the lower reaches of the Waikato, terminating with the massive Queen's Redoubt at Pokeno where the Great South Road 26 reached the Waikato. The key forward fortifications of the Māori side were on the Waikato River in the earlier stages. Later, Māori fortifications were created in the heartlands, particularly west of Te Awamutu, defending routes from the Waipā River, and later southwards towards Ōrākau, near the higher forested hill country in the south of the basin. The fortifications were not dissimilar to those of the lower Waikato, but more elaborate because of the tactical difficulties posed by the topography. The defences at Pāterangi, for example, covered a broad area of several linked ridges and comprised several major redoubts and some 2 km of flanking and linking rifle page break
The battlefield at Orākau, south-east of Kihikihi

The battlefield at Orākau, south-east of Kihikihi

British troops established a broad line on the north-west of the field on the approach route from Kihikihi. The modern road follows the broad ridge and then swings down into the swampy ground surrounding the battlefield to the east and south-east. British troops and the Forest Rangers occupied positions on the high exposed points by these swamps. The pā was on a low rise now cut by the road, where the monument (marked by a line of shrubs) is today. Eventually, the British sapped along the line of the road for some 100 m. Rewi Maniapoto and his forces then broke out into the swamp to the south, suffering further casualties, although most escaped.

page 124 trenches. Photographs of this locality are in chapter 6. In the event, the Māori positions were not attacked but outflanked to the south along the Mangapiko River in a British movement on Rangiaowhia, the principal Māori settlement, and finally Ōrākau, perhaps the most famous site of the New Zealand Wars, to the south-east.

Some of the major European fortifications of this period are relatively well represented in reserve areas. The Rangiriri and Meremere redoubts are typical examples. They are in fact on parts of the line of Māori fortifications of the campaign of 1863; some of the Māori positions were subsequently converted to European military use and revamped into more or less orthodox forms. In the original Māori forms, the fortifications were part of an extensive array of rifle trenches along ridges set at an angle to the river and surrounded by swamps or lakes. The central parts had elaborate bastions, forward and flanking rifle pits, and intricate networks of rifle trenches. Although these rifle trenches survived, were visited by James Cowan in the 1930s and show in 1950s aerial photographs, 27 only the Europeanised redoubts are now visible on the surface.

The final stages of the campaign, then, were fought in the heartlands from the Waipā River through Pāterangi to Ōrākau. 28 After bypassing Pāterangi, the British struck south and west towards Rangiaowhia aiming at 'lines of communication, political rallying points and, above all, at supply bases'. 29 These objectives having been fulfilled, there remained the finish at Ōrākau. Here a medium-sized Kingite force (150 men), mainly Tūhoe and Ngāti Raukawa, built a small redoubt on a slight rise on open ground on a broad low-lying ridge. The wider setting of the pā was carefully described by James Cowan. 30 Rewi Maniapoto was reluctant to fight here. 31 As if anticipating the enormous symbolic significance of this action— 'Rewi's Last Stand'—set in the midst of the dying remnants of those flourishing settlements of the 1850s, he said:

Whakarongo mai te runanga, me nga iwi: Ko te whawhai tenei i whaia mai e tatou, a i oma hoki hei aha? Ki toku mahara hoki, me mate tatou mate ki te pakanga, ora tatou ora ki te marae o te pakanga.

Listen to me, chiefs of the council and all the tribes! It was we who sought this battle, wherefore, then, should we retreat? This is my thought: Let us abide by the fortune of war; if we are to die, let us die in battle; if we are to live, let us survive on the field of battle. 32

The British forces unsuccessfully assaulted the pā, then encircled it, placing units in close order at many points about 250 m from the perimeter. Then they commenced a sap. The disposition of the British forces and the evident intent to force a finish is clear from the aerial photograph view, as clear indeed as it was to be several years later at Ngatapa, East Coast. Eventually, the Māori defenders were forced to break out of the pā, and against light resistance at the natural slope to the swamp at the south, a large number escaped, including Rewi Maniapoto himself. The successful escape to what became known as the 'King Country' brought much condemnation from European quarters on the British field commander of the day. 33

1 Te A. Davis and Wilson (1990: 4-5).

2 Except Taranaki tribes descended from the Kurahaupō canoe.

3 G.J. Williams (1974: 87-90).

4 See Law (1982).

5 Golson (1959); Green (1963; 1970); Davidson (1984: 123, 166-169).

6 Davidson (1984: 132).

7 Cook (1955: 205-210). 'Towns' probably did exist on the East Coast but were simply not seen by Cook (K. Jones, 1988a; 1989b).

8 Golson (1959); S. Best (1980); for artefacts, see Green and Green (1963).

9 Shawcross and Terrell (1966); S. Best (1980).

10 Selby(1982).

11 Selby(1982).

12 Bellwood (1969); Cassels (1972).

13 S.P. Smith (1910a; 224-238). A photograph of Mātakitaki is in chapter 6.

14 Cassels (1972) underestimates the importance of kūmara cultivation, concentrating more on fernroot gathering.

15 Law and Green (1972).

16 Discussed in Lilburn (1985: 37-71,125-127).

17 Walton (1983).

18 These areas are just to the north of the areas where Cassels and Walton worked, and have not been planted in pines.

19 Fox (1976: 44-45).

20 Kelly (1949: 305-308).

21 Phillips (1989: 14-17).

22 De Lange (1992, pers. comm.).

23 Hargreaves (1961: 227).

24 Court (1976); Hammer (1991: vii, 63-87).

25 Cowan (1983, Vol. 1: 289-335); Belich (1986: 119-157).

26 State Highway 1.

27 Cowan (1983, Vol. 1: 316-336).

28 Belich (1986: 158-165); Cowan (1983, Vol. 1: 336-413).

29 L. Barber (1978: 22).

30 Cowan (1983: Vol. 1, 364-407).

31 Belich (1986: 167).

32 Cowan (1983: Vol. 1, 384).

33 Belich (1986: 175-176).