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Nelson Historical Society Journal, Volume 2, Issue 2, June 1967

Rotokura — an Archaic and Classic Maori Site at Cable Bay

Rotokura — an Archaic and Classic Maori Site at Cable Bay

This site differs from the previous ones discussed, in that it represents both the Archaic and Classic phases of Maori Culture. This type of site is not yet well represented in archaeological investigations. We have Mr. R. Tobin to thank for bringing this site to my notice last year and the Archaeological sub-committee unanimously agreed to its immediate excavation in view of its importance to Nelson's pre-history. The property owner, Mr. F. D. Stuart, has been extremely co-operative and has been of considerable assistance on many occasions.

The early Maori name for the small lagoon which lies adjacent to the site is Rotokura—Red Lake—certainly a more euphonius name for the site than Cable Bay, and one too which localises the site more efficiently.

The surrounding topography—lagoon, boulder beach and hillside—has had the effect of restricting the Maori inhabitants to a semi-flat area measuring approximately 35 yards long by 20 yards wide. This has reduced considerably the scatter of occupational residue and consequently the concentration of artifacts, midden refuse and structures has been considerable. To date, approximately 550 square feet of the site has been excavated and an impressive list of artifacts has been catalogued. The natural stratum consists mainly of beach boulders and this makes for extremely difficult excavation in some areas of the site. The clean-cut work of the Heaphy excavation is almost impossible to duplicate at Rotokura.

Although no carbon dating (or any other form of dating) has yet been carried out for the site it would seem reasonable to assume, in view of the present evidence, that Rotokura was first occupied page 11some 500 to 600 years ago. The first inhabitants were undoubtedly Archaic or Moa-hunter Maoris. The first meals eaten on the site comprised at least three of the seven genera of moa. Large, often long, flake knives of argillite have been found among the moa bones. These quickly made, but effective tools, would be used for cutting up moa flesh and dismembering the Southern Fur Seal, the bones of which also occur in quantity in the earliest occupation. One piece bait hooks were made from the thick walled upper leg bones of the moa and many fragments of these hooks have been excavated. Some have been broken during the manufacture while others have been broken during use. Fishing lure shanks made from bone and a variety of stone are well represented in the Archaic layer. A variety of shellfish was eaten, but at a time when the moa and seal provided a plentiful food supply, shellfish did not form an important constituent of the Archaic Maoris' diet. The Polynesian Dog is also represented in the earliest occupation and several bones with gnawed surfaces, indicate the presence of the Polynesian Rat. Adzes were manufactured mainly from argillite, although some of greywacke occur. The occurrence of completed adze portions indicates far more than an adze manufacturing centre, but the restricted nature of the site does not support the idea of a sizeable population in Archaic times. It seems far more reasonable to assume that the site was occupied only seasonally and that the main settlement area existed somewhere else, within a radius of say, four or five miles. A cache of three argillite adzes has been found in the Archaic level and two of these are typical of the massive quadrangular adzes manufactured in Archaic times. As Archaic occupation progresses, moa and seal bones gradually diminish and artifacts previously made from green or fresh moa bone, are now being rendered in old or sub-fossil bone. It seems quite possible that the decline in moa bone supply was responsible for certain changes in the manufacture of bait fish hooks. Large pieces of bone were no longer available for the manufacture of one-piece hooks and so the hook was made from two smaller portions of bone, one piece being drilled to take a lashing, and the two pieces were then lashed together to form an all bone composite bait hook. Later still in Classic Maori times when the only sizeable bone readily available was human, the bait hook consisted of a curved wooden shank with a small barbed bone point attached. It must be pointed out that this is as yet unproven, but seems to be borne out by excavations at Rotokura.

Some 60 to 70% of the occupation at Rotokura can be assigned to the Archaic phase, and then unfortunately due to lack of artifacts, an indeterminate zone of occupation occurs, before the Classic Maori phase is represented close to the surface. It had been hoped that some light would be cast on the transitional period between Archaic and Classic cultures but this has not yet been the case. The Classic page 12phase at Rotokura is undoubtedly representative of tribal invasions from the North. Adzes are still of argillite, but are generally much smaller and are Type 2B in Duff's classification (the typical adze of the Classic Maori). Fishing gear is represented by the small barbed bone points of composite fish hooks, some of these being manufactured from dogs' teeth which require little modification. Shellfish now predominate in the middens, with a wide range of mud-flat, sandy beach and rocky shore species being represented. Bird spear points and small bird bone fragments are more numerous than in the Archaic context and small polished fragments of greenstone tools are present. Drill points are less numerous than in the Archaic occupation which is understandable in view of the change in fish hook type. European contact is represented by the presence on top of the occupation layer, of portions of the stem of a clay pipe and some very rusty pieces of an old iron "go-ashore" pot of the type commonly used by sailing ship crews.

The picture which is emerging, of the sudden termination of Maori occupation at Rotokura is indeed an interesting one. Although historically unsubstantiated, it is most likely that Te Rauparaha and his allies were responsible. The scattered fragments of a finely made patu onewa (stone club) probably testify to the vengeful destruction of a weapon which was raised against the invaders, while a few smashed fragments of human skull tell an even sadder tale of the fate of at least one defender.

Undoubtedly one of the most interesting features of the site at Rotokura is the association with man of three different kinds or genera of moa. The presence of the small Northern Bush Moa (Anomalopteryx didiformis) is not unexpected as it had previously been recorded from the Tahunanui and Anapai Archaic sites, but the presence of Dinornis torosus (a representative of the large moas) is most notable. Although remains of this large bird have occurred in occasional middens in the North and South Islands, its distribution in association with human occupation has been most limited, and until a few years ago, Dinornis was believed to be extinct prior to the arrival of the Polynesians in New Zealand. Megalapteryx, the other moa represented on the site, can be likened in many ways to a giant kiwi. This South Island bird is far more characteristic of the southern part of the island. Two other extinct birds represented in the midden material are the extinct swan and the little extinct weka.

I am indebted to Mr. R. J. Scarlett of the Canterbury Museum, for his identification of the bone material.