Archaeology is Amazing

Professor Simon Holdaway leads a team on Mercury Island excavating the remains of human settlement.

Drone view of Mercury Island.

Professor Simon Holdaway leads a University of Auckland and Auckland Museum team that’s excavating the remains of human settlement on Great Mercury Island. The past is being uncloaked in amazing detail. Thousands of fragmented stones, fish bones, and fire-cracked rocks are combining to build our understanding of human history on the island.

New Zealand is one of the last examples where people settled a previously uninhabited land. So ours is an important story to tell on the world stage.


The emerging story

Researcher uncovering evidence of early settlement on Mercury Island.

Great Mercury lies about 8 km off the coast of the Coromandel Peninsula. Imagine the gently sloping, sandy beach of Coralie Bay at the beginning of Māori settlement. This perfect landing point, sheltered from the prevailing westerlies, was a busy transport hub. Criss-crossed by waka, the bay saw people arrive and leave, carrying their possessions.

Moa were probably ferried in by waka. Their bones sometimes emerge from the dig – but with all the rich seafood available, we infer that they weren’t part of the islanders’ everyday diet.

The many stone artefacts are also highly illuminating. For instance, all the major obsidian sources in the North Island are represented in the recovered implements. We’ve determined this by measuring the relative proportions of the trace elements they contain. We also have artefacts crafted from stone that probably originated in the Nelson argillite belt. Clearly, the first people of the island were intent on moving about, exploring this fantastic new land.

Archaeology is less about the objects themselves, and more about the interrelationships among them. Onsite we record each object’s location in 3-dimensions, using laser technology. Back in the lab, these data feed into a computer model of the excavation. From patterns in the way the artefacts were abandoned, we can peer back in time and make fascinating inferences about people’s lives.

Student opportunities

Archaeology students working on Mercury Island.

Mercury Island is also a classroom. A field school involves senior students gaining first-hand experience – identifying a site, planning and executing an excavation and, most importantly, analysing then reporting on the materials that they discover.

With this sort of experience, our graduates are employed in many different parts of the world. For example, commercial archaeology companies need graduates to conduct fieldwork and heritage assessments where sites are threatened by development. The mining industry is another avenue for employment. And government agencies such as Heritage New Zealand employ our graduates to help with the conservation of our national heritage.

We also involve graduates from the Great Mercury field school in our overseas research projects – in places like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Australia, Hawaii, Samoa, the Marquesas, and Rapa Nui.

The ongoing project

Archaeology students working on Mercury Island.

Our ten-year project is a collaboration between the University of Auckland, Ngāti Hei, who hold mana whenua over the island, the Fay and Richwhite families, and the Auckland Museum.

Great Mercury Island is farmed in a sensitive manor by the current landowners, the Fay and Richwhite families. The level of development on the island is much less than on mainland Coromandel, meaning that archaeological landscapes are well preserved. So Great Mercury Island is still highly productive – not only with the farming of today but also in terms of the rich knowledge being harvested there.

The University of Auckland ranks 10th in the world for Archaeology and 41st in the world for Anthropology in the QS World University Rankings by Subject 2018.

Learn more about studying anthropology at New Zealand’s leading university.

Professor Simon Holdaway, Antropology, School of Social Sciences.