Archaeology tells the story

Extensive archaeological investigations were done ahead of the Hamilton section of the expressway getting under way, and these built a picture of pre-European life in the area.

sketch drawing of a paa - a lookout over the reserve

An artist's impression, based on archaeological work, of the pā site located across the gully from the Tamahere reserve.

The findings are included in storyboards along the 22km route, but many are located in a reserve just off SH1 at Tamahere.

View the storyboards [PDF, 6.3 MB]

Waka Kotahi NZ Transport Agency partnered with Waikato-Tainui on developing a plan before the Hamilton project started, strongly focused on environmental and cultural concerns and outcomes. The new road passes through the rohe of four Tainui hapū - Ngāti Koroki-Kahukura, Ngāti Hauā, Ngāti Mahanga and Ngāti Wairere and these four hapū made up the Tangata Whenua Working Group embedded in the project.

A Cultural Symbolism Plan included the creation of a cultural reserve at Tamahere – Te Whenua Tāpui Ahurea O Tamahere – and  large artworks and storyboards along the route. Bridge abutment designs also tell iwi stories. All bridges have been gifted an iwi name, with many linked to stories from the past which are explained on storyboards.

Blessing the Rototuna bridge upon completion 2019.

A place for reflection, the reserve at Tamahere celebrates both the history of the site and the deep connection to the whenua. Visitors to the reserve can gain a greater understanding of the landscape through which the Hamilton section traverses and learn about Māori life in the area – much of which centred around gardening.

The reserve includes a lookout to view the surrounding landscape and pā sites, a food stage house (pātaka) and a rua (borrow pit) created by Māori gardeners. Within 300 metres of the reserve are the archaeological remnants of two pā sites and evidence of intensive gardening. 

A large Māori garden area was among the discoveries uncovered at Tamahere.

What lies beneath the soil is important 

Archaeologists were called in to investigate before earthworks started on the Waikato Expressway, including on the Hamilton section.

Archaeologists are used on large roading projects to help preserve, record and tell the stories of early people and culture as part of resource consent requirements.

“Archaeology is a non-renewable resource and once it’s gone, it’s gone. You can’t get it back,” says Sian Keith, who worked as a consultant archaeologist on the 22km Hamilton section which opened to traffic in 2022.

Although history can be found in historical records, it doesn’t always tell the full picture. “The missing detail is potentially still there in the ground.”

Archaeologist Warren Gumbley, who worked on the Rangiriri, Ngāruawāhia and Huntly sections, says archaeology gives us clues to how our ancestors lived.

“Archaeology deals with the physical remains of what people have been doing, and often that’s associated with day-to-day activities: how people made a living, how they grew their crops, how they fished for eel, how they went about processing their food to eat and storing it, and what sort of houses they lived in,” says Warren.

Archaeologists working on the expressway projects discovered extensive pre-European Māori gardens at Ngāruawāhia, Huntly, Horotiu and Tamahere and various artefacts. Kōiwi (human remains) were found at several sites, including at Tamahere on the Hamilton project.

The Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga Act 2014 governs archaeological practice in New Zealand, providing blanket protection for all archaeological sites, whether recorded or not, says Sian.

Sian began working on the expressway in 2012, firstly as an archaeologist with Opus International Consultants (now WSP), investigating archaeological sites within the designation, working closely with project staff and iwi. From 2016 she began working independently and continued to support the Hamilton project as consultant archaeologist until its completion.

The archaeological team was supported by kaitiaki from local iwi Ngāti Wairere, Ngāti Koroki-Kahukura, Ngāti Māhanga and Ngāti Hauā.

Archaeologist Sian Keith with some items uncovered in pre-construction digs. The stone tools were returned to iwi.

Initial fieldwork involved walking across the designation and identifying and recording any important archaeological features and sites in the road’s planned footprint.

Before any construction could begin, these sites were formally recorded with the New Zealand Archaeology Association’s database, and an archaeological authority sought from Heritage New Zealand before the road could be built.

“As part of the Act you have to obtain an authority, which is permission to modify or destroy a site,” says Sian. “To do that you need to have written an archaeological assessment, and you need to have been out into the field and had a look, and you need to have consulted and engaged with local mana whenua.”

From winter 2015 through to Easter 2016 Sian focused her archaeological investigations at Horotiu and Tamahere, which mark the northern and southern ends of the Hamilton section.

Testing revealed the remains of Māori gardens – part of an extensive garden landscape spanning multiple sections of the expressway between Huntly and Cambridge.

 “Archaeology really does take detective work,” says Sian. “We look at historic aerials,  photos and plans of an area, and we use all of that to try to identify where we need to target test trenching.”

Sian Keith was the archaeologist on the Hamilton section of the expressway.

At both Horotiu and Tamahere borrow pits were discovered, evidence of early kūmara cultivation. Borrow pits are small sand or gravel quarries. Māori gardeners used sand and gravel from these areas to create well-draining beds for crops such as kūmara.

Once road construction started, a number of archaeological discoveries were also uncovered, including human remains (kōiwi) at Tamahere. Protocols and procedures were in place to ensure work stopped, to protect the site until mana whenua had the opportunity to undertake tikanga and the archaeological team could investigate the site.

The protocols meant kaitiaki (Māori guardians representing local iwi) were onsite during archaeological digs and earthworks, and were encouraged to take part in the archaeological work.

Tangata whenua took the lead on the kōiwi find, including how they wanted the remains treated, whether they would go for further testing, and whether media would be alerted.

Testing revealed these people were vegetarians, and Hamilton’s Tangata Whenua Working Group attended the NZ Archaeological Association conference in Taupō in 2021 where the findings were presented.