Destruction at Māori archaeological site 'ignorant and misinformed' - experts

Up to a metre-and-a-half of digging along creek beds was discovered at Awamoa Creek after previous reports of casual fossicking.
Up to a metre-and-a-half of digging along creek beds was discovered at Awamoa Creek after previous reports of casual fossicking. Photo credit: Supplied / Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga

Archaeologists, historians and iwi authorities have been disturbed at news someone has illegally helped themself to an archaeological site, destructively digging as much as a metre-and-a-half through an site used by early Māori.

Jane MacKnight, the Otago-Southland manager of Heritage New Zealand/Pouhere Taonga has visited the site, on Awamoa Creek near Oamaru, and has seen the damage.

She said that while the full extent of the damage was unknown, the earth had been turned over about a metre-and-a-half, mostly on the northern side of the creek bank but also partly on the south side.

"We don't know what's been taken or what's been disturbed because a lot of the clods had been put back into position if you like," she said.

"Presumably they were looking for something they considered might have been of tradable value, Moa bones or perhaps adzes."

The area was chiefly a mahinga kai site, where early Māori processed and ate moa. Such material was removed from the site by the 19th century naturalist Walter Mantell, who was a collector of moa remains.

"We also understand it to be part of a travelling route for early Māori, which is potentially of greater significance, because a lot of the South Island is really important for the travelling routes rather than say occupation sites," MacKnight said.

"In terms of working with mana whenua, we have been working closely with Te Rūnanga o Moeraki and we'll continue to work with them in relation to the site."

She said the damage was a "selfish act", that was taking away from a site that was for all New Zealanders.

"It's taking away stories, it's taking away the potential for later research of the site and it's largely misinformed, based upon what we know about the site ... they won't arguably have the knowledge to understand what they're disturbing."

While the group would look at prosecuting over the damage, they were unable to move forward without the identity of who had done it.

"Our process is that we will record the site damage, our archaeologist has been on site earlier this week as well and made a report, but we don't have any evidence as to who did the damage and so unless we have that evidence, we're unable to prosecute," she said.

"The disturbing thing is that it's very blatant fossicking of a site that's protected and clearly signed as protected."