Research aims for the season

Sometimes when we work on the island in November we examine possible locations for the February field school, but this year we already have a location in mind (stay tuned in February for more on that, or look at vlogs/blogs from earlier this year). Instead we returned to the site of Te Mataku for the fourth time in the hopes of figuring out the stratigraphic sequence of features. This time we wanted to open a wider area to understand how the different features fit together with the ultimate aim of understanding how the site was used. We spent a lot of time going back over out previous notes, section drawings, and the spatial data in GIS to help us stratigise the placement of the trench.

Previous excavations revealed a number of large ovens with thousands of broken and complete heat retainer stones, probably for cooking and lots of animal bone. At the end of the season in June we found a row of post holes, but no clear indication of what they might relate to. This week we wanted to figure out their function and how they relate to the fire features found previously.

Post holes mid-excavation

Post holes mid-excavation







Crossection of heat retainer oven

Crossection of heat retainer oven

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Back at Te Mataku!

Hello world!

We are back for one week at Te Mataku in Coralie Bay. We have worked at this site before, but there is still lots to do! Our June discoveries were featured in Archaeology Magazine, so we are continuing excavations to see if we can recover more material remains (including moa and dog) and understand the post hole features we uncovered at the end of the season. Today we uncovered the June excavation area by removing the sand backfill. We had to move a lot of sand before we could get one with excavation.

Stay tuned for more updates this week!

– Rebecca

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Hayley’s Vlog

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Sam’s Vlog

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Vlog day 1

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Every Day I’m Shoveling

Trench tour

Trench tour

Here we are at day 12 already, some of us counting down the days we can sleep in our own beds or shower multiple times a day, some of us yearning for a longer stay, but everyone in a relaxed, good mood after 10 days of hard work , new things and of course, Nick’s culinary skills matched with Simon’s desserts. Every day is a new one where the possibilities are endless due to the mass of new artefacts, bone and useless rocks being excavated. After snoozing the never-ending beeping nightmare of a watch waking me up at 6am religiously every morning, I roll (not too far as I’m on the top bunk) out of bed and to the kitchen for that coffee which turns me into a semi-functioning person. Students are of course, at their full potential after a good wholesome breakfast and a hot beverage. Already the theme song of “every day I’m shovelling” is in my head. The day from here lurches into GO mode which doesn’t stop until the last dish after desert has been put away and the tables wiped. Sunblock, lip balm, socks, shoes, raincoat, rain pants, more sunblock, plasters, hat, sunglasses and of course water bottle and backpack and off we go across to Coralie bay. After a short trench tour of seeing the ever-growing progress from the last day’s work, we settle into our respective trench areas and get down and dirty (literally). The trench tour has been an awesome – and for some, very scary- way of delighting (and horrifying) the lecturers and staff with our stuttering grammar and yearn to describe correctly what is really taking shape through our days of excavation. Cuts, deposits, layers, features, artefacts – slowly we are accustomed to the vocab and lingo we need to start breathing. And we have. And so we trowel, trowel, trowel and shovel, shovel, shovel and sift, sift, sift and label, label, label and then –its morning tea time- lunchtime- afternoon-tea time.



The day goes zoom! So fast. KABAMMM!! The joys of an annoying but nonetheless exfoliating sand storm thanks to the gusting winds means that we keep our backs to the weather and our eyes sometimes shut. In the main EA64 where I am working, (in one of the extension pits to the main area) today is about excavating through the layers and deposits and potential features in order to see if anything else arises. Let me tell you it is a trooper job trying to excavate when the wind is trying its hardest to fill your trench back in with sand. The finds over the week have been phenomenal, one of the more exciting excavations on the island (from what I’ve gathered from the regular excavators on GMI). Back in my trench however, many shiny obsidian pieces are admired and fewer fire-cracked rocks than before (thank goodness), with the hopes of a faunal assemblage or two to appear in the next scrape of the trowel. We fill out the necessarily paperwork for our fire scoop feature and then back to the scrape, scrape, shovel, shovel until the metallic clang of trowel meets artefact. Meanwhile in the trench over the way, EA66, fellow excavators Mana and Sarah are working their way through artefact mayhem – artefact literally every centimetre in a large clump, a hangi feature which they are patiently labelling and classifying. An exciting new game arises across the trenches – “Would You Rather” as we shovel and scrape and excavate into the afternoon. Soon enough it is the mad rush to leave everything to a good place until tomorrow and then the post- excavation work begins. People think studying archaeology must be this glamourous digging around and finding artefacts and exciting things but it is that and so much more. Cooking dinner, cleaning the toilets, labelling continuous pieces of paper with number sequences, drawing diagrams, flatting with 20 something people for days at a time, physical strength, and mental strength are a few others to mention. A little endurance is required at continuing in your trench when other people are coming across amazing bone fragments and faunal assemblages while you stare at your rock wondering if it is even fire-cracked. However – tomorrow is a new day and the opportunity to be surrounded by a real field project is amazing. Field school is an overwhelming experience with a glance into the chaotic yet rewarding all-round experience to the life of archaeology. Thoroughly enjoying the long hard days and the challenge it is presenting to practically learn every day and not just through the words in a textbook – to think on my feet and get stuck in. With only 2 more days of excavation to go – let the exploration and adventure continue!

Ciao for now,

Courtz (Courtney)


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Great Mercury Island day 9 of excavation

The day began with 2 sad (but hearty) jam sandwiches, a strong coffee and a banana, a meal fit for a hard day’s work of excavation. My shoes had dried out after falling into the ocean the day before, I was beginning to communicate with the local sheep and the weather was perfect, with slightly overcast skies and a gentle breeze which took the edge off the heat of the day. Today I was working alongside Kelly in EA 65 continuing our search for a terrace in the Western extension; and I intended to follow Simon’s clear instructions thoroughly to “dig until [we] hit the ‘hard clay-like orangey layer’ (translated from his archaeological lingo). Precise instructions indeed, but we knew what he meant! Strangely this seemingly simple task seemed to take quite a while longer than we had originally hoped, and the ‘hole’ which Kelly seemed to be digging into the side of our trench turned out a significantly large obsidian core and a potential drainage system! Time well spent! Nevertheless, when this job was complete, Tim moved in with his Lidar scanner (a device which looks like a weapon for world domination) and produced a pretty impressive digital image of our trench made up of millions and billions of tiny points shot into his computer using a laser. Simon then decided to move me into the Northern extension of EA 65, where we hoped to gain a better understanding of what was going on with the fire features and hangi pits found in the main trench. So together we spent the latter part of the morning cutting through the turf layer, turning out a decent amount of obsidian flakes and fire cracked rock (luckily no sheep poo this time)! I was hoping that we might find Atlantis, but sadly this was not to be. At dinner time I was informed that great progress had been made in the larger trench (EA 64) and that whilst we were finding only small amounts of artefacts, they were uncovering large chunks of obsidian, bones, and all sorts of exciting things (Lucky duckies!) and Sarah says that in EA 66 “there were so many artefacts that we could barely go down any layers!”.  But the find of the day award went to Matt (our British friend who has just joined our excavation) with his find of a fully formed and polished adze after only an hour of scrambling around in the dirt- a very impressive feat indeed and one which will leave me crying with jealousy all night long (good job I brought my teddy with me). Due to the success of the day, with only a small rain shower dampening our spirits (lame pun) there was a tremendous amount of artefact registration to be done in the evening, so me and some buddies decided to help out! The rest of the night was spent with good company, relaxing, tending to battle wounds and filling our faces which some well-deserved food. Tomorrow we look forward to much of the same (minus the rain shower), and hopefully this time I will beat Matt with the ‘artefact of the day’ award. But for now, I shall retire to bed with a good book, some chur music and my teddy bear Victor.

Richard xo

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Bones. Whether you’re wanting to walk upright or just design a really cool flag for your pirate ship, bones are absolutely invaluable. In archaeology, bones are invaluable because they can provide us with a great deal of useful information. But I’m getting ahead of myself…

Sunday saw the field school team enjoying a well-deserved day off, which was spent trekking around Ahuahu/Great Mercury Island and visiting the survey sites of previous field schools. Refreshed and relaxed after our weekend – and heartened by cloud cover providing some respite from days of beating sun – the team headed back into the field on Monday morning.

Excavation Area 64 (EA64) has proved to be somewhat of an enigma for the team. While it is clear that the site has been the location of one or more occupations, the sandy nature of the site makes interpretation of the archaeological record difficult. Why is this exactly? In short, sand is highly mobile. Think about this next time you’re at the beach. Take a step into the sand and what was once on the surface is now slightly lower. Now think about the all the other processes that can move grains of sand around (wind, rain, rivers, the ocean and animals are some examples) and you suddenly get an idea of just how tricky sand can be. This was the problem the team faced, but things were suddenly about to get a lot more exciting.

Days of excavation at EA64 had resulted in a great deal of artefacts and sites of past activity being uncovered, but suddenly towards the end of last week things began to slow down. Less and less artefacts were being discovered and while some of the team were still working on excavating hangi and fire features, it was thought that we’d uncovered most of the significant material in the trench area and were reaching what is known as a sterile layer. When this happens there are two courses of action; the first is to simply make the trench bigger by de-turfing an additional area and enlarging the excavation with the view of finding more material. The second is to dig smaller deeper pits – known as test pits – into the existing excavation area, again with the view of finding more material. Dr Louise Furey from Auckland Museum decided the best course of action was to dig a test pit and was immediately surprised to find that not only were there more artefacts to be uncovered, but that they were bigger and occurred with greater frequency than those found in the layers above. The team were back in business.

Obviously it would be a huge undertaking to dig the entire excavation down to the new layer, so in cases like this archaeologists hedge their bets somewhat and make an educated guess about which parts of the existing excavation to extend. It was decided to dig deeper on only two sides of EA64 and after a rousing speech by Alex Jorgensen the team were furiously digging with the view of reaching the depth of Louise’s test pit.

Suddenly Murphy’s Law – or a variant thereof – struck. New, larger, artefacts were being uncovered with astonishing frequency after only a few bucketfuls of sand had been removed from EA64 – testament to the tricky nature of sand; just when you think it’s game over, you’re on the next level. Literally.

So what did we uncover? Well, among copious amounts of large obsidian artefacts were chert flakes, fire cracked rock, and charcoal.

So what about bones?

Waiting underneath the sand layer which we previously thought to be sterile, was a small number of mammal bones, an exciting find for all on the field school, staff and students alike.


While, naturally, further excavation will be required to find out more about the mammal bones and what they can tell us, we can infer several things from this exciting find. The first is that we can now be relatively certain that animals were being killed – and perhaps cooked and eaten – at the site. Whether this find can tell us about a larger subsistence strategy on Ahuahu/Great Mercury Island remains to be seen, but bones can tell us many other things. For instance, perhaps the bones are from a mammal species that once lived in the area but were hunted to extinction – at least on a regional level – if we can compare this information against historical or ethnographic records, it may assist us in obtaining a relative date for the occupation of EA64.

As usual, the answers lie (mostly) in one place: underground.




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More wind!

It was windy again today. We had 70km an hour winds to start off the day, which lessened by perhaps 2 or 3 km an hour throughout the course of the day. Intermittent squalls paid us a visit during the first few hours of excavation, which had all of us working on Excavation Areas (EA) 64 and 66 temporarily making a strategic retreat to the comfort of a lone, old pohutukawa tree. After lunch the sun came out to warm us up; natures reward for continuing our excavation through all she through at us. She could have turned off the AC though.

After hopping between Simon’s trench in EA65 and the big EA64 during the previous excavation days, today I (Emma) finally claimed an excavation space of my own. Alongside Logan and under the watchful eye of Alex, we had de-turfed a 2 by 3m extension to EA64 in the SW corner and cleaned it up yesterday, bringing it down to the cultural layer. The area was chosen due to the presence of some visible rocks seemingly in a line to the west of EA64; the aim was to explore further west and bridge these rocks with the current edge of EA64. Today in the extension we spent schnitting (German for digging off a thin layer with a shovel; but a hell of a lot more fun to say) to quickly bring us down onto a mottled yellowish deposit whilst still systematically collecting artefacts. Speaking of artefacts, we found some obsidian, quite a few fire cracked rocks, and even some ochre. Back to the layers; both the cultural deposit, the more mottled yellow sand deposit and a more organic looking ruddy brown deposit, which made its appearance in the NE corner of the extension, reflected deposits present in EA64 proper. Most interestingly was a dip present in the baulk of the trench (aka sides; we love German words, in case you hadn’t picked up on that), about half a metre before we hit the stones on the west side. There was some clay visible and the area went straight from the cultural deposit to the yellow deposit. We speculated that perhaps this indicated a filling in of the space to create a flat area for cultural activities; the stones would act as a barrier to line the edge. However it is still early days in our trench. The plan is to bring the whole area down another layer and keep investigating the relationship of the large row of stones in the centre of EA64 and the ones we have in our trench.

Thus concludes my novel of a blog entry. All this despite the fact we were all eating more sand than excavating it thanks to our lovely little breeze.

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Day 4: The Wind Begins

If Wednesday was the day of rain, Thursday was the day of wind. We arrived on site to discover overnight rainfall had carved a new channel taking our stream out to sea. The dampness is often useful for revealing features not visible in dry sand or soil. We began the morning with a quick trench tour so all the students have an idea of what is happening in different trenches. After the trench tour we began work. I have been working on a trench to the north of the stream, where coring last year revealed promising material deep under the sand. Because we are working in two different locations we have to set up two total stations to survey the trenches. I have been running the second total station over the last few days. Survey is a very different task to excavation, but it gives you a very good overview of what is happening in the trench. You have plenty of opportunity to think about deposits, even though you don’t dig them, and to think about the different artefact distributions across the trench. We have a lot of evidence in our trench to suggest slope wash has moved artefacts down-slope, so we are interested to see if we can get down to a layer that is less disturbed.

The rain was gone by morning, but in its place a fresh south westerly. The wind increased throughout the day to the point where digging was stopped in some areas, we lost our sieving tripod, and empty buckets were flying. The temperature was much more bearable, but the wind certainly saps energy levels. Once again the day finished with a swim and evening work. Tonight students received a lecture from Zac, an MA student at the university. Zac was actually a student on the very first field school on the island, and has pursued a research interest on the island. His research examines the distribution of archaeological features across the island and how this relates environmental variables and use of place. We are all very relieved to be back inside out of the wind and are looking forward to another (hopefully slightly less windy) day of excavation tomorrow.



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