Tracing ancient footprints, Brent Southgate

Digging Up the Past: Archaeology for the Young and Curious
David Veart
Auckland University Press, $39.99,
ISBN 9781869404659


When I was about seven years old, I started a museum. It stood in our garden shed, and consisted of bones, shells, birds’ eggs and other curiosities, all carefully labelled. My inspiration for this would no doubt have been the Otago Museum, which seemed a place of wonders to me then, with its intricate scale model of a local pa, glass cases of fish hooks and adzes, and the vast skeleton of a blue whale suspended from its ceiling.

No doubt there are still young people with similar enthusiasms. If so, they would be ideal readers for David Veart’s Digging Up the Past, a well-thought-out and informative introduction to New Zealand archaeology.

The coverage of the subject is broadly chronological, with successive chapters dealing with when and how voyagers arrived from the Pacific, moa hunting, stone tools, and how to interpret a pa site. But Veart has also made room for material with a more specific focus, often highly interesting, that draws on his experience as an archaeologist with the Department of Conservation.

For instance, the opening chapter tells of his visit to a site on the small island of Motutapu, in the Hauraki Gulf. Six hundred years before, when Rangitoto had erupted nearby, Motutapu was covered in fine volcanic ash. In this ash, which had become rock hard, footprints were found, and Veart joined an archaeological dig that was tracing their path. Photos of the 600-year-old footprints – the purposeful human prints, and the more random ones made by dogs racing around or pausing to drink from a puddle – bring the whole scene vividly to life, as do the imaginative reconstructions by artist Chris Gaskin. It makes for an inspiring beginning.

Apart from archaeology as traditionally understood, there is also generous coverage of that more recent development, historical archaeology. So there are chapters on “Plimmer’s Ark”, partly retrieved from its resting place under a bank building on Lambton Quay; on the dwellings of Chinese gold miners; and (with a slight swerve to the south) on the huts of Shackleton and Captain Scott in the Antarctic.

I was unsure that a longish chapter dealing with Veart’s search for the final resting place of some old aeroplanes really deserved its place, particularly as nothing was ever found. But I certainly had no doubts about the book’s final anecdote. This tells of archaeological work undertaken before the building of a new naval museum at Torpedo Bay, on Auckland Harbour. The museum was to be on the site of a 19th-century naval base, and the aim was to find and record all the old parts of the base – wharfs, tramways and suchlike – before they were covered. Unexpectedly, more was found. An undisturbed patch that had been under an old shed revealed layers of hangi.

The top layer, burned earth and stones with pieces of clay pipe, was probably from the Maori settlement that had been there in the 1850s. But the layers went down and down; and, beside the biggest hangi of all, right at the bottom, was a moa bone. This particular stretch of Auckland shoreline, in short, had seen 600 years of continuous human occupation. If that doesn’t excite our young enthusiast, nothing will.

Design and production in general are good. Colour photos rightly include many of actual digs, though these sometimes demand a little imagination from the reader as they tend to look like exquisitely plotted rectangles inhabited by random people with trowels. But there are also, for instance, some enlightening aerial shots by Kevin Jones of pa sites – ditches and kumara pits can be seen vividly.

Besides these photographs, there are repro-ductions of early paintings and, as already mentioned, Chris Gaskin’s imaginative recreations of the original appearance of various sites. I also liked the Pacific map showing early Polynesian voyages of settlement. It’s attractive and easy to follow.

Supplementary text appears in sidebars or single pages using the same type but with a colour background. Usually this works adequately, but there is one place where the running text is interrupted by two and a half pages of background on Lapita pottery and the problems of radiocarbon dating. This seems excessive – readers may have a hard job picking up the original thread.

One other minor niggle concerns the fashion, followed in this book, for replacing the perfectly good expression “19th century” with “1800s”, which surely denotes just one decade, like the 1820s or 1850s. Using it to mean the whole century results in an ambiguity (is this 1800-1809 or not?) that’s not always easily resolved by context.

But this is a useful and attractive publication. Although primarily aimed at a young readership, like many such works its clarity of exposition may recommend it to older readers as a quick general survey of the subject. Scattered through the book are suggested activities; these include visits to the museum collections I once found so inspiring. And among the credits and acknowledgments at the end (no index, but that’s fair enough in a shortish book) there is a handy list of selected publications and websites for further exploration.


Brent Southgate provides our crosswords and is a former School Journal editor.


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