Volume 40 1931 > Volume 40, No. 158 > Notes on the excavation of a cave near Taieri Mouth, by David Teviotdale, p 87-90
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NOTES ON THE EXCAVATION OF A CAVE NEAR TAIERI MOUTH.

[See illustration at the end of previous article]

THIS cave was discovered by Mr. H. D. Skinner while on a holiday visit to Taieri Mouth, about thirty miles south of Dunedin, and, acting under his instructions, I arrived at the site on the afternoon of Wednesday, 4th September, 1929.

The cave is situated at the extreme southern end of the sandy beach running southward from the mouth of the Taieri River. It is a small recess worn in a low cliff by the action of the tides, and subsequently filled nearly to the roof by material weathered from the roof and by the rubbish of human occupation. A short distance away is a similar but much larger cave, which is filled by the tide every day. It would appear that the cave excavated had originally been similar to this one, but had been made habitable by a heavy fall of earth across its mouth which had been so firmly consolidated that for centuries it had kept out the tide. The roof and walls consist of a conglomerate of schist stones held together by clay, with a few waterworn basaltic stones mixed through them.

The front of the cave is lapped by the tides, which had cut away the clay and stones of the deposit filling the cave, leaving a nearly vertical face about seven feet high. Across this face narrow bands of charcoal mixed with occasional sheels and fish-bones could be seen. Probably owing to the salt spray and the action of the sun, this material was very hard and tough, but by undercutting with a trenching tool I managed to bring it down in large blocks, which were then easily broken up and sorted over.

Starting work a few inches below the lowest band of charcoal, I worked toward the back of the cave and found that the various charcoal bands united into two occupation layers, each about six inches thick, with a band of about - 88 ten inches of clay and stones between them. The material forming this band had fallen from the roof. The whole deposit sloped down toward the back of the cave and was now very easily worked.

The length of the habitable portion of the cave (see plan 1) was about fifteen feet and the width of the floor at the entrance was fourteen feet six inches. About the centre, the height from the bottom of the lowest layer of midden refuse was six feet six inches, and the width of floor eight feet six inches. At the end of the midden refuse the height of the cave was eighteen inches and the width about three feet. The cave extended a little further in a low narrow cleft which could only be entered by rabbits, whose burrows were all through and under the deposit.

The deposit was formed as follows from above, downwards (see plan 2):—

  • A—18 inches of loose dusty material
  • B— 4 to 6 inches of sheep manure and vegetable matter
  • C—10 inches of clay and stones
  • D— 6 inches of midden refuse
  • E—10 inches of clay and stones
  • F— 6 inches of midden refuse
  • G—12 inches of clay and stones
  • TOTAL 68 inches.

Below was clean beach sand. I did not lift the lower layer of clay, but sank holes through it at frequent intervals. Near the inner end this clay band was very thin, and was mixed with ashes. About six feet from the end of the deposit the two layers of midden refuse (D and F) merged into one layer, which was sixteen inches thick in one place and lay almost on the clean sand. On the clean sand a moa toe-joint was found, and some fragments of egg-shell (probably moa). From the lower deposit (F) a few fragments of moa-bone, apparently broken preliminary to manufacture, were secured.

Near the centre of the cave was a smoke-blackened spot on the roof of the cave and in the upper layer of midden refuse (D), and immediately below this black spot was a small area of burnt clay and stones and ashes. Alongside this a small file or polisher of close-grained sandstone was lying.

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On the right side of the cave and level with the bottom layer of midden refuse the rock was reddened with fire, and before this charred surface lay a number of hard waterworn stones, each about the size of a man's fist. These had been brought in from the beach and were marked by fire. They lay around two larger stones set on end in the clay, and were evidently part of a small oven.

The midden refuse consisted principally of mussel shells, some paua and a few pipi shells, with a few fish- and bird-bones. The shells had evidently been thrown toward the lower part of the cave, and especially toward the inner end. In the thicker part of the midden deposit, near the end, I got a number of human bones: several ribs, two collarbones, three vertebrae, one or two small pieces of femur and tibia evidently broken for manufacturing purposes, and several small bones of the foot. There was no sign of the skull, and the scattered position of the fragments among the midden refuse would suggest a cannibal feast. The size of the fragments points to the owner being of very stalwart proportions. On the clay below the midden-refuse I found a well-made bird-spear point of human bone, and near it was a stout fragment of human bone, evidently a bird-spear point in the first stages of manufacture. These certainly belonged to the earliest inhabitants or campers in the cave.

From this scarcity of artifacts and the smallness of the cave I conclude that it was never regularly inhabited, but was simply a camping-spot for stray parties benighted when travelling in cold stormy weather.

As to the probable age of the deposit, there is too little data to base an opinion on. The fragments of moa-bone show that such bones were used for manufacturing purposes, but though the egg-shell, and also, perhaps, the toe-joint, would suggest the use of the moa as food, still there is not sufficient evidence to make sure of that fact. The fusing of the two bands of midden-refuse also makes definite conclusions impossible. From the appearance of the cave I should judge that a heavy fall of debris from the front and roof of the cave first shut out the tide—then the natives roughly levelled the fallen material and put down the first layer of refuse. Probably they cooked the mussels at the small fire against the side of the cave and threw the empty - 90 shells behind them as they ate. Considering the small amount of meat in a mussel and the healthy appetite of a Maori after a long day's tramp, it need not have taken long to put down a layer six inches thick. The intervening layer of clay was due to a fall from the roof which covered most of the habitable portion of the cave when levelled, and formed a slope toward the low inner end of the cave. The shells and offal, being thrown down this slope, united with the shells already deposited there, thus forming one layer. This part of the deposit was only covered by about twelve inches of dusty weatherings from the roof.

The two human-bone artifacts and the broken fragments of moa-bone and the fragments of what is presumably moa egg-shell were left by the earliest campers. If, as seems probable, these folk were moa-hunters, then the moa-hunters made occasional use of human bone for implements, and the bird-spear point was an element of their culture. 1 It is not certain that the other human bones were of the same date, but it seems highly probable.

The only sign of European influence was a fragment of a small old-fashioned clay pipe. It was amongst the sheep-droppings in the upper stratum.

1   The culture of the moa-hunters was Polynesian, but whether the bone bird-spear point occurs elsewhere in Polynesia I do not know. It should also be noted that it is possible that such spearpoints were used for spearing fish as well as for birds.