Self-proclaimed historian Noel Hilliam facing $300,000 fine for damaging Māori burial site

Noel Hilliam
Noel Hilliam (Facebook)

A self-proclaimed historian in Northland is now under investigation after claiming to have taken human remains from a Māori burial site.

Crown entity Heritage New Zealand is investigating Noel Hilliam after he told media he had taken bones from the site of a hāngī pit on the Kaipara foreshore, in an attempt to back his claim that Māori were not the first people in New Zealand.

"We've been aware of his activities in the past," Heritage New Zealand senior archaeologist Frank van der Heijgden says.

"It looks like that what's currently being reported is actually something that happened back in the mid-nineties, so we may actually be reinvestigating."

In mid-May Mr Hilliam's claims were published by Northland newspaper the Northern Advocate. The story was followed up by Vice, which exposed Mr Hilliam's connections to far-right advocates in New Zealand.

"We first found out in, I believe, 2009 that this may have occurred," Mr van der Heijden told Newshub.

"It was exhumation of human remains. I'm not sure whether the whole hāngī pit came into the picture at the time but we were aware at the time that he already had exhumed human remains for study." 

Mr van der Heijden says that could result in a criminal conviction. 

"The fines reach from $60,000 for damage to an archaeological site, to $300,000 for complete destruction."

The Northern Advocate article was soon removed and the paper published an apology.

Anyone wanting to carry out work that affects an archaeological site must have a permit or obtain archaeological authority, but Heritage New Zealand has no records of Mr Hilliam having obtained either of those. 

"It's not only an offence but it's culturally insensitive and reprehensible to be honest," says Mr van der Heijden. 

He says Mr Hilliam has been told not to disturb archaeological sites.

Mr Hilliam has refused to name the 'experts' he talked to, and told Vice that while he knew he was breaking the law, he did it because the law was unjust.