NZTA 'disappointed' excavated Kauri tree isn't a waka

The New Zealand Transport Agency says it is "disappointed" a discovery by Pūhoi motorway is not a waka as first thought. 

In April the agency said staff working on the Ara Tūhono Pūhoi to Warkworth motorway project found what they thought to be a 10m-long waka near the Ōkahu inlet, north of the Johnstone's Hill Tunnel on State Highway 1.

Crown-Māori Relations Minster Kelvin Davis said it was an exciting and significant discovery.

But after further inspection of the discovery, project archaeologist Sarah Phear says "our original interpretation of the discovery has changed now that we have exposed more of the trunk."

This week the trunk was lifted out of the ground so archaeologists could study its underside, complete 3D scanning and check the ground where it lay. Nothing significant was found, so it was decided not to conserve the trunk.

However, Dr Phear maintains there is evidence the Kauri tree has been culturally modified, with "stones and rocks wedged into the wood to try to split parts off", but these findings are "not consistent with waka carving". 

"There are branches and logs around and under the trunk that appear to have been placed deliberately, so it was likely being prepped for processing," Dr Phear says. 

The site where the discovery was made floods every time the tide comes in, so the archaeological investigation, in consultation with project treaty partners Hōkai Nuku, Heritage New Zealand and the Ministry of Culture and Heritage, has been "muddy and complex" NZTA says. 

"We are all disappointed it's not a waka," says NZTA's senior manager for project delivery Chris Hunt.

But he said he's "very pleased with how we dealt with this challenging situation and how all parties and partners have worked together to achieve an agreed cultural outcome that respects the discovery." 

Hōkai Nuku spokesperson Gena MosesTe Kani supports the interpretation that it is not a waka, and requested that the Kauri be reburied where it was found.

"It would have been amazing to find a waka," says Dr Phear. 

"It's really important to date the tree and get core samples to look at pollen counts and the vegetation growing in the area at that time. They're all pieces of the wider archaeological landscape relating to pre-European settlement."

The discovery was made when a digger hit something under the surface of the inlet, and workers carefully removed the surrounding mud to expose the rest of the object.