EARTHWORKS The view across a terraced ridge towards Whakaari-White Island, at Onekawa Te Mawhai Regional Park between Ohiwa Harbour and Bryan’s Beach.

HERE in the Eastern Bay we are blessed with a rich cultural heritage and archaeological history.

When we first think of our heritage, we more than likely think of buildings or structures that have an obvious and explicit connection to our past. However, human history in this country stretching back centuries has left a rich and dynamic story written in the landscape around us.

The rolling hills, ridges, and natural terraces of the Eastern Bay made ideal pa sites, while valleys were home to extensive floodplains and wetlands. Rivers and smaller streams provided abundant resources as well as an extensive transport network.

This was especially the case in the lands surrounding Ohiwa Harbour, one of the most densely populated areas of the country prior to European settlement. The Eastern Bay was a highly desirable area to settle, no doubt for many of the same reasons people continue to be attracted to the area today.

While this may be common knowledge among tangata whenua, it was not until the mid 20th century that the extent of pre-European population and settlement became apparent to archaeological researchers and historians. In an early site survey by Opotiki historian and farmer David White, 200 pa sites were estimated to be present in an area from approximately 12 miles east to 12 miles west of Opotiki.

EARLY SETTLERS: A shell midden exposed by erosion at top of coastal cliffs at Waiotahe. The clearly visible group of rounded rocks are hangi stones.

Since then considerable work has been completed researching, mapping, and excavating archaeological sites, confirming the extensive and complex networks of whanau and hapu that resided in this area.

Like most areas of New Zealand, these culturally significant sites have suffered many ravages, despite protection through legislation. Quarrying has destroyed maunga and pa sites, roads and tracks have been driven though and over the top of archaeological sites and urupa, and agricultural development has all but obscured the rich layers of history preserved within our whenua.

Despite this, when we look around us, we can see the imprint on the land of a highly organised and culturally rich society taking advantage of topography and supported by rich resources of the land and estuaries.

High points with extensive views over the Ohiwa harbour and coastline were the sites of regionally important pa sites, where human-made earthworks can still be recognised by the terraces we see left behind today.

Onekawa – Te Mawhai Regional Park is the site of five closely neighbouring pa sites, now thankfully preserved and protected from further damage within the park. A vigorous walk up the steeply sloping track from the entrance at Bryans Beach takes one past several exposed shell middens and standing on the flattened top of the Onekawa pa site one gets a sense of how important this site would have been in observing movements in and out of the harbour, of both friendly and hostile visitors to the area.

Archaeological excavations at sites elsewhere on the coastal margin of the harbour have recovered material including obsidian scrapers from Great Barrier and Mayor Islands; greywacke from Motutapu (Auckland); basalt from the Tahunga quarry in Coromandel; and argillite from D’Urville Island.

Evidence shows that the earliest settlers on the Ohiwa Harbour arrived over 700 years ago, during the period described as the “archaic” or “moa-hunter” period. The archaic period pre-dates 1500AD, while the period post 1500AD saw the development of Maori society and culture as encountered by the first European explorers.

Abundant marine resources would have sustained both an Ohiwa population, as well as providing a significant regional resource. The fertile ash and pumice cloaked hills and terraces with their fertile, free-draining soils were ideal for cultivating crops.

The harbour itself would have been an important shelter and waka landing place on an exposed coastline with few sheltered harbours in the immediate vicinity. The diversity of stone artefacts recovered from this area provide evidence of extensive, country-wide trading networks.

As technology and methods for research and surveying continually improve, we find there is still a wealth of knowledge and history to be gained from exploration of our whenua.

Coming up on April 27 and continuing until May 5 is the New Zealand Archaeological Association Archaeology Week. This year Opotiki Museum will be hosting several events, while a guided walk on April 28 will take in Onekawa and Te Mawhai Regional Park, and several nearby sites on the harbour edge.

For more information, go to the Opotiki Museum website or Friends of Opotiki Museum Facebook page. Also keep an eye on your local media for venues, times, and other updates.

In researching this story, I would like to acknowledge Whakatohea Research and Archives Trust, Upokorehe kaumatua, and Lynda Walter (archaeologist).

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By Llmars Gravis