Volume 68 1959 > Volume 68, No. 3 > Murdering Beach collecting and excavating. The first phase: 1850-1950, by H. D. Skinner, p 219-238
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THE NAME “MURDERING BEACH” has probably received more publicity than any other New Zealand site-name. First causal factor in this publicity is the name itself. A second causal factor is the large number and very wide dispersal of artefacts found there. The depredations of commercial diggers, mainly in the 'eighties and 'nineties, led to a dispersal among the museums of England and the United States. There has also been a wide distribution among New Zealand museums. A third factor in publicity has been the linking of the Beach with the name of James Kelly, famous figure in Tasmanian early history. In an open boat, he had been first circumnavigator of Tasmania, and later he was to hold the exacting post of harbour-master of Hobart. Kelly's account of his Otago adventure, published in the Hobart Town Gazette 1 in 1818, republished forty years later by the Otago Witness 2 and again by Augustus Hamilton 3 and Robert McNab, 4 was, in the nature of things, sensational.

In the present paper it is intended to describe the collecting and excavating that took place at Murdering Beach in the century between 1850 and 1950. It is hoped that papers by other hands may bring the excavation record down to current date.


Eccles records 5 Murray Thomson's statement that though the name Murdering Beach appears on the first survey map of the district, that of Arthur, dated 1863, Murray Thomson never heard the name used until the 'seventies or 'eighties. Before that, the names Driver's Beach or Coleman's Beach appear to have been used to designate it by those with whom Murray Thomson was in contact. Who supplied Arthur with the name Murdering Beach is not known, but his probable source was Pilot Driver, who at an earlier date had lived in the cave at the eastern end of the sandflat and whose vegetable garden and look-out - 220 were on the spur terminating in Pilot's Point, which bounds the Beach on the west. He would therefore almost certainly be consulted by Arthur as the best local authority on the matter.

It appears that about 1890 the Dunedin group comprising Chapman, Hamilton, Hocken, and probably John White were discussing the problem presented by the burnt village at Murdering Beach and the artefacts recovered there. One result of this discussion was the republication by Hamilton of Kelly's version of events at Otago in December, 1817. 6 In an introductory note Hamilton indicates that Chapman was dubious about the identification of “Small Bay” with Murdering Beach. In the previous decade there must have been Otago Maoris living who had at the least been spectators of the events of 1817. In an attempt to contact these witnesses, Hocken wrote J. Breen, who interviewed some of the Maori families living at Karitane and reported their replies in a letter to Hocken which he presumably handed to Chapman. This letter is now in the Turnbull Library, and not in Hocken's correspondence in the Hocken Library. 7 Breen stated that he could secure no information whatever regarding Kelly, but he gave information about a Maori family quarrel ending in murder, which can, in my view, have had no connection with the name Murdering Beach.

I think it probable that the name Murdering Beach came into use as a grim replacement of the name Small Bay among the longshore remnant of European sealers and whalers who lived on the east Otago coast into early settlement times, and that it was due to the deaths at that bay of Brown and his boat's crew of six and of the three members of Kelly's crew. Thus the name Murdering Beach would be known to Pilot Driver, but would not be current in the Maori community.


Murdering Beach, which lies two miles west of the entrance to Otago Harbour, is second and smallest of the three beaches running westward from Hayward's Point, which is the western head at the entrance to Otago Harbour. The first of the three is called Kaikai's Beach and the third is Long Beach. Murdering Beach is separated from its neighbours by steep spurs six hundred yards apart. Behind a line of low sandhills lies the sandflat from which so many artefacts have been dug. At the point where the stream reaches the sandflat, three or four hundred yards inland beside the eastern boundary spur, is a group of inconspicuous hummocks which excavation shows to be turf-covered sandhills formed at a time when the sea covered the site of the present sandflat. Among these, recent excavation has reaveled a Moa-hunter site. The Beach was deserted in late Maori times, presumably after December, 1817, and from the 'forties onwards was occupied by single European families in succession—Driver, Coleman, Hunter, and Murray Thomson.

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The Beach faces due north, and is perfectly sheltered from prevailing winds. The stream already mentioned and a smaller one at the western end provide ample fresh water. It has the disadvantage that food drawn from bush and sea would soon be exhausted, though potatoes, introduced by sealers soon after 1800, would mitigate this. It is the snuggest village site in the South Island south of Banks Peninsula. The best account of it in early European times is given by Murray Thomson in the book already mentioned. 8 A good deal of disjointed information about curio collecting on this and other Otago coastal sites is recorded by Alfred Reynolds in a series of newspaper articles. 9

Surface Collecting

This has gone on at all stages in the Beach's European history. Murray Thomson's important collection, now in the hands of his son-in-law, Mr. Peter Stewart, was made in this way. And much else that he found was either given away or sold to collectors, including George Thomson, Willi Fels, and the present writer acting on behalf of Otago Museum. Murray Thomson records 10 that an onewa was picked up by William Coleman in the late 'fifties and that in 1863 Mrs. Hunter picked up one of the medals distributed by Cook during his second voyage in the Pacific (1772-5). It was probably given to a Maori at Ship Cove, Queen Charlotte Sound, where Cook spent 117 days during that voyage. It had presumably come south along the much-used east coast route, perhaps in exchange for Murdering Beach nephrite. “During the years (1862-65) that I lived with the Hunters we were continually finding all kinds of Maori relics in stone, bone and shell . . . But it was not until 1883 that methodical, scientific digging with the spade was introduced. The credit for imparting method to the work belongs to Alfred Reynolds.” 11


From Murray Thomson's report and from Reynolds' own published notes it is possible to deduce Reynolds' methods. The ground was first examined and the position of a whare determined by the discoverey of its stone fireplace. One such fireplace, presented to Otago Museum by Murray Thomson, is floored by a single schist slab measuring twenty by twenty-six inches and is walled by four appropriately sized pieces of water-worn basalt. It is a lidless rectangular stone box, measuring externally twenty-six by thirty-two inches, and having an overall depth of eight inches. Having determined the whare's position Reynolds sank a trench deep enough to retrieve any caches of artefacts beneath the whare floor. He then carefully worked forward, taking care to have a sufficiently wide working space between the excavational face and the pile of worked sand thrown back from it. James Murdoch, friend and - 222 contemporary of Reynolds, told me that most of the pieces retrieved were found along the line of the walls, often in groups by the corner posts, suggesting that they had hung in small flax kits which fell to the floor when the whare were burnt. But finds were occasionally made by the fireplaces, as though cached below floor level there. Every house investigated by these early collectors had been destroyed by fire.

Murray Thomson states 12 that over much of the flat that was dug in his time three occupation levels existed, but that nearly all the artefacts recovered came from the surface layer just below the grass. The whare timbers had all been burnt off at ground level. These statements were confirmed by James Murdoch and by the excavations carried out by Otago Museum.

Public and Private Collecting

Frederick Revans Chapman, afterwards Sir F. R. Chapman, Judge of the Supreme Court, whose important ethnographic collection was presented to Otago Museum in 1921, had a strong distaste for commercial diggers and so never collected at Murdering Beach. In his collection of more than three thousand pieces, the only artefact from that site was the hei-tiki found by Willie Norman and given by him to Mrs. Hunter who gave it to Chapman. In addition to Murray Thomson's collection already mentioned, two collections were made by diggers who worked at Murdering Beach in the 'eighties and 'nineties, one by James Murdoch, the other by F. R. Smith. Though Beach material formed an important part of each of these collections, in neither case was the collection exclusively from that site. In 1920 the Murdoch collection, meticulously localized, was presented to Otago Museum. After being offered for sale in Dunedin in 1912, the Smith collection was taken north and was ultimately sold to Auckland Museum.

There were two principal buyers from the diggers at Murdering Beach—Murray Aston, Government Insurance agent, who would pay £10 for a hei-tiki and who sold to tourists principally, and John White, well-known Dunedin barrister and solicitor, who made a very large and important private collection. Much of his material was purchased from one or other of the Reynolds brothers. Chapman states: 13 “Mr. John White tells me that of his collection, comprising six hundred pieces of worked greenstone, about four hundred came from Murdering Beach.” It is probable that, in the decade that followed, these numbers were considerably increased. On Mr. White's death in 1904 his collection was divided into two parts, one which included all the nephrite and one composed of non-nephrite pieces. The latter, which included a fine ancient Arawa paepae and many important pieces in stone and bone, was given to Otago Museum in 1922 by his son Mr. Neil White, M.A. The nephrite was valued by Augustus Hamilton, then Registrar of the University of Otago, his figure being £500, and was sold to an Englishman named Robinson, then touring New Zealand. Shipped to England, it was unpacked only after Robinson's death about 1912, when it was - 223 offered for sale to the British Museum and other museums. Selected pieces were purchased by the British Museum, the Bristol Museum, the Pitt-Rivers Museum, and the Devizes Museum. In 1915, the hei-tiki of the collection were on exhibition in Bristol Museum, where I saw them, figuring them in the Journal of the Anthropological Institute for the following year. 14 The bulk of the collection, that is, all of it apart from the pieces purchased by English museums, was later sold to T. E. Donne.

Donne kept the hei-tiki, the other pendants, and two or three other special pieces, selling the remainder, by far the largest part, to the Field Museum, Chicago. The rest of Donne's collection, including the John White pieces just specified, was later sold to Armytage. Its subsequent history is sketched by K. Athol Webster. 15 Through Mr. Webster's patriotic and generous action, the Armytage collection, and a vast amount of other Maori material, have returned to New Zealand. Due to Mr. Webster's special intervention, the best of the Otago pieces from the Armytage collection are now in Otago Museum, among them the most interesting of the Murdering Beach artefacts. Augustus Hamilton, who was thoroughly conversant with the John White and all other Otago collections, estimated that by about the year 1900 three and a half hundredweight of worked nephrite and near-nephrite had been dug out of Murdering Beach. The site can be ranked among New Zealand sites thus far investigated as having incomparably the largest concentration of worked nephrite and near-nephrite.


With the death of John White and the departure from Dunedin, about the turn of the century, of Frederick Chapman and Augustus Hamilton, interest in Otago archaeology languished. In 1919 a Keeper of Anthropological Collections in Otago Museum was appointed, who almost at once became also Lecturer in Anthropology in the University of Otago. Interest in archaeology, general and local, revived, and an Archaeological Section of the Otago Branch of the Royal Society of New Zealand was inaugurated. In January, 1925, the Section, acting on behalf of Otago Museum and moved to action by the enthusiasm of Dora de Beer, undertook excavations at Murdering Beach. The present writer directed operations and his wife, Eva Skinner, acted as quartermaster to the excavating party. Expenses were shared by all members of the party, Otago Museum not being at that time in a position to make any financial contribution. No member had received instruction in archaeological field methods or had previously taken part in any archaeological excavation. In this 1925 party personnel varied day by day. A regular visitor at weekends was Mr. Willi Fels. A member throughout the season was James Murdoch, regarded with respect and affection by all who worked with him. A second season's digging was carried out by the same party in 1926. A visitor during this season was - 224 A. S. Kenyon, of Melbourne, born in Dunedin but bringing with him the exhilarating aroma of a lifetime spent on Victorian irrigation and among Australian field archaeologists. In 1935 a season was spent by the writer and his family and relatives and David Teviotdale in tents pitched at the western end of Murdering Beach. The only significant finds that year were made at Kaikai's Beach.

Murray Thomson had generously allowed the 1925 and 1926 parties to use his house and to pitch a tent on his property, but had refused permission to dig on his land. Mr. H. Thomson, whose farm stretched from Hayward's Point Road down to Murray Thomson's boundary fence on the sand flat, freely gave digging rights to the party and made over to Otago Museum any material they might find. An irregular triangle of land between the stream and the boundary fence with apex to the south, was chosen as excavation area and was shown by work in this and later seasons to have been the most thickly occupied part of the sandflat. The excavation carried out with the permission of the present owner, Mr. Robert Pinney, in January, 1956, by Leslie Lockerbie and Dr. R. E. Bell, Professor of Archaeology in the University of Oklahoma, demonstrated that the village had been defended along the bank of the stream by a palisade, a continuation of which doubtless surrounded the village. The butts of the posts had been burnt off at ground level. 16

The first excavation trench in the 1925 season was cut along the eastern side of the boundary fence, and subsequent trenches were cut at right angles to this one, working towards the stream. There had been much disturbance by the earlier diggers, and no fireplaces remained, though these must originally have been present in numbers. In undisturbed ground a vertical section showed 48 inches of sand above the water-table. The sand was white wind-blown beach sand, marked at three points by horizontal brown bands, the topmost of which, immediately below the grass, was the thickest, varying from three or four inches to double that depth and showing frequent masses of ash. Wherever whare timbers were found, they had been burnt off at ground level. In this stratum the 1925 and 1926 parties found an appreciable amount of worked nephrite and bowenite. The second occupation level was observed eighteen inches below the surface and this layer is probably present over much of the sandflat. The only artefact recovered from it was an axe of bluish-green nephrite. A third layer, at a depth of 48 inches, corresponding with the water-table, was present at all points where this depth was reached. To a party composed principally of women removal of the overburden presented such difficulties that this lowest occupation level could not be investigated. Proper investigation of it could be carried out only if mechanical excavators or a team of professional shovellers were available. Wherever reached it yielded charcoal, oven stones, fish bones, and shells.

The excavations carried out on Murdering Beach sandflat by successive Otago Museum parties have confirmed the earlier reports of Murray Thomson, Alfred Reynolds, and James Murdoch, namely that - 225 there are three occupation levels; that the top or surface level is associated with the burning of a palisaded village; and that this surface layer is characterized by abundance of nephrite, near-nephrite, and soapstone. The finds from all three layers will be discussed later.

On the last day of the 1926 season, when equipment was being packed ready for sledging up the hillside to Hayward Point Road, what we and our predecessors had always regarded as a tree stump burnt off at ground level was at last correctly diagnosed as the burnt-off butt of an unusually large house-post. It stood forty feet east of the boundary fence. Beside it, about eight inches below floor level, Eva Skinner uncovered a nephrite adze. The post is 5 ft. 7 in. in length, the maximum diameter being 1 ft. 1½ in. The water-table mark is clear, 4 ft. below the ground level. Below this mark on the post, the pattern of careful adzing is perfectly preserved. Below the water-table mark is a large carefully cut oval knob measuring 14 in. by 8 in. Around the knob was part of a light flax rope which had doubtless been used in dragging the post from the place in the bush where the tree from which it was made had been felled. Such a post might have been part of a large communal house (whare puni) or it might have been part of a food platform (whata). In southern Maori villages whata were normally erected on the outskirts, whereas this post was in the heart of the village. The finding of a nephrite adze cached beside the post supports the view that the post did not stand in the open but was a house post. It may be concluded that, in conjunction with one or two others, it supported the ridge-pole (atui) of the village communal house. The butts of the other posts were not found, nor were any signs of walls detected, due probably to the digging over of the ground by earlier excavators. Charles Driver, who came from his farm up the valley to sledge our equipment to the road, remembered the whare puni at Purakanui still standing about 1870, thirty or forty feet long, roof and walls covered with totara bark, and having a large hole in the roof as smoke vent. In front of the whare puni would be the village meeting-place (marae). It is probably to this marae and whare puni that Kelly is referring when he speaks of “the yard of the chief's house” in which some sixty Maoris were standing.


That the destruction of the village should be dated later than 1772-75, the years of Cook's second voyage, is indicated by the finding on the sandflat of a medal distributed in the course of that voyage. Since Murray Thomson stated that the medal had been trodden out by the cows, it must be a surface piece. There is evidence, however, that the village was occupied much later than 1775, in fact when European contacts with the Otago Maoris had become relatively frequent.

  • (a) In January, 1925, a trench forty feet long parallel with the course of the stream was carried across the end of a large midden, judged to be the common village midden. The midden's thickness was about 12 inches. Embedded in the top inch of the midden, Marion Scott
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  • excavated a piece of china measuring 1 in. by 1 in. It was submitted to Mrs. Laura Purdie, who diagnosed it as English of a type manufactured from 1800 onwards.
  • (b) Immediately beneath the grass a piece of iron about the thickness of hoop iron, three inches long, was recovered. One end had been given a chisel edge set skew. The setting skew of cutting edges is a common feature of Maori adzes and chisels made of nephrite. Hence the shaping of this piece of iron may be regarded as Maori work.
  • (c) In the Murray Thomson collection is a gouge of typical Maori shape, sawn from a sheet of copper by the same sawing method as the Maoris used in sawing nephrite. This copper gouge must also be regarded as a Maori product.

Several pieces of rusted iron were found in surface sand, but these, though they may date back to the Maori village, may possibly have been dropped on the sandflat by Driver, Coleman, or even by the Hunters. However, the china, the hoop-iron chisel, and the copper gouge demonstrate that the village was occupied by Maoris influenced by European contact. The earliest European contact with eastern Otago was due to sealers and probably began about 1810, since about that year the first known European place-name, Port Daniel, was given to Otago Harbour. A year later the brig Matilda lost an officer, Brown, and his crew of six at a place that can with probability be identified as Small Bay. The evidence is provided by McNab's researches published in Murihiku, from which the following extracts relating to Kelly's visit are taken. 17 Some additional dates have been added in brackets. Passages judged inessential have been omitted, and these omissions are indicated by dots.

The Sophia (Mr. James Kelly, Master) sailed from Hobart Town on the 12th November, 1817, on a sealing voyage, and anchored at Port Daniel, on the south-east side of the southern part of New Zealand, on the 11th December (a place only known to Europeans within the last seven years). The master, Mr. Kelly, with his boat's crew, went ashore the same day, and met with a friendly reception from the natives . . . On the following day [December 12th] Mr. Kelly went in his boat with six men to Small Bay outside the harbour's mouth and distant from the vessel about two miles. The natives here also received them kindly . . . Mr. Kelly made the chief of the village a small present of iron, and proceeded to his dwelling to barter for potatoes, leaving one man to look after the boat. On reaching the house of the chief Mr. Kelly was saluted by a Lascar who told him he had been left there by the brig Matilda, Captain Fowler. During a long conversation Mr. Kelly enquired after a boat's crew that was said to have been lost near Port Daniel, and learned that Brown who had charge of the boat, with six men, had been killed and eaten by the natives . . . By this time a great number of natives had assembled in the village, about sixty of whom were in the yard of the chief's house where the boat's crew were standing. In an instant an horrid yell was raised by the natives, when Mr. Kelly, John Griffiths, and Veto Viole were thrown down by the - 227 mob. Tucker, with the remaining two, (Dutton and Wallon), were also seized, but got out of the mob and ran to the boat, where they found the man Robinson, who had charge, reeling on the beach from a blow on the head. Thinking it impossible that any of the rest could escape, they immediately launched the boat. In the meantime Mr. Kelly was engaged in a dreadful contest with the natives, and, luckily having about him a new billhook, he miraculously made his escape, being only speared through the left hand, after wounding his principal opponent on the head. In escaping through the gate of the yard Mr. Kelly saw Veto lying on the ground but did not see Griffiths any more . . . Tucker was still on the beach. Dutton, Wallon, and Robinson were in the boat, backing her out of the surf. Mr. Kelly made the boat, and was dragged by her through the surf . . . a number of savages rushing down the beach armed with spears and hatchets. Tucker was speared on the right thigh by the man Mr. Kelly had wounded on the head, and who was then covered with blood, and immediately knocked down in the surf, where Mr. Kelly saw the unhappy Wioree cut limb from limb and carried away by the savages, having only had time to utter, ‘Captain Kelly, for God's sake don't leave me.’

Kelly and the survivors rowed back to the Sophia which they found packed with Maoris, presumably inhabitants of the village on the present site of the Kaik, off which the brig would be anchored. Kelly states that the united crew cleared the decks, with heavy Maori casualties.

The gallant chief Corockar, seeing that his men were completely defeated, made a desperate attempt to kill one of our men with a tomahawk, but was seized by his arms, thrown down into the cabin, and locked up in the store-room till next morning. We then threw overboard sixteen bodies that were killed by the knives. The number who jumped overboard and were drowned must have been about fifty, and as many were wounded in the fight. We were fortunate, however, to find that only two of our men were slightly wounded in the affray. After cleaning up and washing down the decks, we sat down and congratulated each other on the very narrow escape we had from being taken and murdered by these savages.
We kept a good watch during the night, in case of being attacked by a large number of canoes that were laying on the beach in front of the town. The next morning [Dec. 13th] about 6 o'clock a large number of natives were gathered round the canoes. We expected that they were going to make an attack on the brig, and that they thought their chief Corockar was killed; they cried out often for him to come on shore.
We tied his hands and let him come on deck. When they saw him there was great rejoicing. He called to them to bring a large canoeload of potatoes alongside, to pay us, as we thought, for his liberation. A canoe was launched off the beach, with two men to paddle her off to the brig. On the canoe nearing the vessel one of the men that was stationed aft called out ‘The canoe is full of men!’ We all rushed aft, and saw the canoe had a large number of men lying in her bottom covered over with mats. Our firearms being all ready loaded, lying on the deck, we lifted them and fired a volley into her. The natives, who were all armed with short spears and clubs, jumped over the sides of - 228 the canoe, and tried to pull it alongside the brig. Had they succeeded, they must have boarded and taken the vessel in spite of all that we could do. There were nearly forty of them, and only fourteen in all of our crew. Several of them were shot and run through with boardingpikes in trying to get up the sides of the vessel. Corockar jumped overboard to get to the canoe, but was shot in the neck. Two of his men swam to him and took him on shore in a most gallant manner, but he died next morning [Dec. 14th] of his wounds. Thus we had another narrow escape of being taken and murdered. We kept a good watch all night, expecting to be boarded and taken at daylight [Dec. 14th].
Next morning being the 24th of December, 1817, a great number of natives were on the beach making a great noise, seemingly lamenting and crying because of the death of their chief Corockar. They were preparing to launch their canoes. We thought they were coming off to try and take the brig, and thought it better to stop them if possible. We immediately manned our two boats, and, taking arms and ammunition, pulled close to the beach where the canoes were lying. It was thought most expedient to destroy all their navy at once, to prevent them from making the attempt. As soon as the boats came near the beach, the natives all ran away over the bank. We landed one boat's crew, and kept the other boat afloat to cover the men on the beach with their muskets. We then commenced with two long cross-cut saws cutting the canoes up, each into three pieces. They were forty-two in number, large and small, all of which we destroyed, and, as we wanted firewood, we split them up and took them on board. As soon as they saw all the canoes destroyed they rushed with clubs and spears up to their necks into the water trying to get hold of the boats, but they did not succeed in wounding any of our men.
We determined at once to land, set fire to the town, and burn it to the ground. This was the 26th of December, 1817. It was a fine clear summer day, blowing a fresh, hot wind out of the north-west. We landed nine men, but kept the boats afloat. On our approach the natives all ran to the rising hills, and left us in full possession of the town. This town consisted of about six hundred fine houses, and perhaps a finer town never was seen in any part of New Zealand. The fire was lighted at the weather end, and in about four hours the beautiful City of Otago was laid in a heap of ashes . . . On the 27th December, 1817, at daylight, we weighed our anchor and left Port Otago, and sailed for Chatham Island. Hundreds of natives came down to the shore to see us off. We fired a volley of musketry towards them . . .

Kelly's account was supplied to The Hobart Town Gazette and Southern Reporter of 28th March, 1818, three months after the events happened. It would be read by Kelly's crew and by the families and friends of Griffiths, Viole, and Tucker, killed at Small Bay. It is therefore likely to be factually correct, though the number of Maoris involved would doubtless be exaggerated. Its clear and vivid style is exemplified by such passages as this: “This was the 26th December, 1817. It was a fine, clear summer day, blowing a fresh, hot wind from the north-west.” But the description of events between December 14th and December 24th has obviously been cut out. What is the reason for this excision?

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From Kelly's account it is clear that in December, 1817, in the district about Otago Heads, there were two sizeable villages. One of these was the village called by Kelly “The City of Otago”, which can with certainty be identified as the village now called Otakou, formerly Otago or The Kaik. This is the village which Kelly states that he burnt. The second village was at Small Bay, at which three of Kelly's crew were killed. Such evidence as we have suggests that this was the place at which four years earlier Captain Fowler of the Matilda lost Brown (his mate) and a boat's crew of six. McNab states that the Matilda sailed from Sydney in August, 1813, bound for New Zealand and then Tahiti. She is stated to have been manned by Lascars, which should mean Malays. But it is probable that the Hobart Gazette reporter, on whose account McNab depends, meant to indicate Tahitians. The date of Captain Fowler's visit to Otago Harbour may be taken to be the end of 1813. McNab states: 18

Prior to the Otago Heads massacre in 1817, Mr. Kelly was told by one of the surviving lascars of the Matilda that Mr. Brown, with six men, had been killed and eaten by the natives.
In Captain Fowler's description of what took place at Otago [Harbour] no mention is made of his loss of men and boats . . . The loss may be presumed to have taken place after he left Otago [Harbour], but from the evidence we can equally conclude that the scene of the disasters was not very far away from this locality.
Small Bay was probably the place.

“The City of Otago” was burnt by Kelly on December 24th, 1817, as described by him. Was it Kelly who also burnt the village at Small Bay, afterwards called Murdering Beach? The deaths at Small Bay of Brown and his crew and of the Sophia's three would give Kelly a much stronger motive for burning the village there than for burning the village of Otago. The text as it stands strongly suggests that an extensive passage has been cut out between the paragraph ending “expecting to be boarded and taken at daylight” and the paragraph beginning “Next morning, being the 24th December, 1817”. The date of the events described in the earlier paragraph is December 13th. With no break indicated, we are launched into December 24th and the burning of the “City of Otago” two days later. What had happened in the days intervening? It appears likely that Kelly had taken the Sophia round to Murdering Beach and burned the village, and had returned to his former anchorage on the off-chance of securing potatoes, sole object of his visit to Otago, only to find the Maoris there “more inflexible than ever”. What motive could there be for excising this part of his account?

It is suggested that Kelly wrote a full account of the events which had occurred at Otago Harbour and Murdering Beach between December 11 and 27, 1817, and handed it to Brent, editor of The Hobart Town Gazette. Aware of the very severe penalties that might be evoked, and thinking that the deaths of so many Maoris and the burning of two - 230 villages was too drastic a reprisal, Brent, it is suggested, cut out the passage describing the burning of the village at Murdering Beach and left the account as reprinted by McNab. 19

These are the grounds on which it is judged that Small Bay and Murdering Beach are one and the same place, and that the Murdering Beach village was burnt by Kelly.


My first meeting with Murray Thomson took place at Murdering Beach about 1910. He expressed the opinion that the village had been burnt by the crew of the Sophia. I asked him why the Maoris had not returned to the village immediately after the fire to retrieve the nephrite, including weapons and more than a score of hei-tiki. He replied that there was a tapu on the Beach and that this tapu had been lifted by a tohunga from the north, brought to the Beach by Maoris from the Kaik when Murray Thomson was living with the Hunters (1862-65). It is not known why the tapu was imposed, but such a tapu seems the most probable explanation of the failure of the owners to retrieve immediately so many finished objects and so much nephrite hidden by no more than a thin layer of ash.


The most important petrological paper on New Zealand nephrite and allied rocks is by Dr. F. J. Turner. 20 A companion paper by the present writer 21 deals with nephrite mythology and with the localities in which the Maoris collected nephrite. It may be concluded that, though some high grade nephrite was still being brought into Otago from northern Westland during the period of early European contact, the principal source of supply at that time was north-west Otago, in particular the Dart Valley and Anita Bay, Milford Sound. Herries - 231 Beattie's informants stated 22 that the former locality produced the inanga variety of pounamu. Anita Bay produced takawai or tangiwai. Heaphy notes 23 that the Maoris living at the mouth of the Taramakau, in what has always been regarded as the heart of the pounamu country, secured some of their pounamu from the neighbourhood of Lake Wakatipu. Presumably this was the inanga variety.

1. Hammers

Very large nephrite boulders, such as have occasionally been washed out in Westland by alluvial goldminers, would defy the tools available to the Maoris. Smaller boulders would be reduced to workable size by the use of stone quartering hammers. This process would normally be carried out where the boulder was found. No such quartering hammers have been recorded from Murdering Beach. The smaller hammers, which must have been plentiful there, are also unrepresented by collections. An obsession with nephrite characterized, with a few exceptions, the early collectors, and all the commercial diggers. So the only recorded Murdering Beach hammer is one made of nephrite (plate V lower). It is of the cylindrical type widely distributed in Polynesia and had last been used for pulverising haematite. Occasional pieces of nephrite are susceptible to hammer dressing and occasional nephrite adzes have been shaped by this method. I have not seen any Murdering Beach examples of hammer-dressed nephrite.

2. Grinders

Where possible, slabs of nephrite were reduced to approximately the desired thickness by grinding on a large piece of sandstone, for preference a dish-shaped piece. Such grinders must surely have been turned out by early diggers on the sandflat but none have been recorded. Another type of grinder is the long and narrow file or rasp. This would be required in narrowing down the grip of the mere pounamu and shaping the ridges on the butt.

3. Saws

Nephrite boulders of suitable size, and large nephrite slabs produced by the quartering hammer and brought to proper thickness by the grinder, were normally reduced to required outline by sawing. Two types of saw were used by the Maoris: the toothed saw, used in cutting wood and bone, and the attrition saw, used in cutting stone.

The toothed saw was made from rock characterized by conchoidal fracture, quartzite being the usual Otago choice. The teeth could be staggered either all from one side, or else alternately from each side. In the former case if the saw were moving in a scarf the scarf inevitably ran in a curve. A curved scarf was often desired when bone was being cut. In the case of the toothed saw with teeth staggered alternately, the scarf would inevitably run straight.

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The principle of the attrition saw was different, the cutting being done by grains of sand. When the saw was made of sandstone these grains might be supplied by the blade itself, but many saw blades are made from rocks other than sandstone. In that case cutting was done by grains of quartz sand supplied from an outside source. Lumps of amorphous quartz are often found on sites on which they do not occur naturally. If such lumps were broken by a hammer into sand which was then fed into a scarf, the grains would be a much more effective triturant than quartz grains derived from sea or river sands or from sandstone.

The saw blade, bottom specimen in plate V upper, is made of sandstone and is much above average size. The blade above it in Plate V upper is made of basalt; its triangular shape is probably derived from the triangular saw blades of much smaller size designed to be grasped in one hand, the index finger lying along the anterior slope. These small blades are common in Otago and are widely distributed in Oceania.

In the literature relating to the material culture of the American North West Coast it is recorded that nephrite was cut by moving slats of wood, the cutting being done by abrasive sand. It has been suggested that similar wooden slats were used in New Zealand in cutting nephrite. Otago Museum has a large piece of sawn nephrite found by Robert Gilkison at Purakanui which strongly suggests that method.

4. Drills

The only type of drill recorded in New Zealand is the bow drill. As elsewhere in Oceania the wooden arm, which is a part of the bow drill in most areas, is lacking. Shortland, 24 describing the working of pounamu at Puketiraki, Otago, figures a drill which is weighted with two water-worn stones bound on the shaft. He says that holes are drilled with the aid of a little fine hard sand and water. Heaphy, who saw mere pounamu being made at the mouth of the Taramakau, Westland, states: 25

The most difficult part of the work is to drill the hole for the thong in the handle. For this pieces of sharp flint are obtained from the Pahutani cliff, forty miles to the north, and are set in the end of a split stick, being lashed in very neatly. The stick is about fifteen or eighteen inches long and is to become the spindle of a large teetotum drill. For the circular plate of this implement the hardened intervertebral plate of a whale is taken; a hole is made through and the stick firmly and accurately fixed to it. Two strings are then attached to the upper end of the stick, and by pulling them, a rapid rotatory motion is given to the drill. When an indentation is once made in the pounamu the work is easy; as each flint becomes blunted it is replaced by another in the stick, until the work is done.

The old North Island drills that I have seen have a wooden flywheel, the outer rim of which is made of supplejack or some similar bendable wood.

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The characteristic features of the Maori hei-tiki were set out in 1940 by the present writer, 26 and the alleged significance of various features was discussed in 1932. 27

The first stage in making a hei-tiki would be to reduce the selected pounamu to the required outline and thickness by the use of the tools already described. There is no Maori information as to the order in which succeeding steps were taken. The most difficult of them was presumably the drilling of the suspension hole, the difficulty being to keep the drill-point rotating accurately on one point on a convex or a sloping surface. To meet this difficulty normal practice was to cut a scarf in which the drill-point would be caught and held in place. The detailed sculpture of the hei-tiki was carried out, according to Shortland, 28 “by rubbing with a pointed stick, sand, and water”. The difficulty of keeping the sand applied on a convex surface would be met by a preliminary etching “as the Tuhoe folk explain, with a pointed piece of quartz”. 29 “I have been told,” says Chapman, 30 “and can readily believe, that a great deal of cutting was done with wood and wetted sand.” In Otago the scratches left by quartz sand appear to have been obliterated by rubbing with Moeraki mudstone. Final polish came from incessant handling.


The overall interest of the material found on the sandflat is that it represents more clearly than any other site yet excavated the final phase in Maori material culture, the “greenstone phase” of Dr. Roger Duff. The most notable feature of the artefacts recovered from the burnt village is the high proportion of them made from nephrite, nearnephrite, bowenite, and soapstone. This high proportion, in a stratum belonging to the concluding phase of Maori culture, is a feature not limited to Murdering Beach but found on other South Island sites between Foveaux Strait and Kaikoura; it will doubtless be found in northern sites also. It was noted by the first New Zealand archaeological excavator, W. B. D. Mantell, who records 31 that he found no greenstone in his excavation of the North Otago Moa-hunter site to which he gave the name Awamoa. Of the much later Kakaunui kaika site, about four miles south of Awamoa, he says: “I not only found many pounamu ornaments, but a stone ipu about twelve inches in diameter, with two grotesque heads roughly carved in a soft variety of jade.”

New Zealand Polynesians normally made their bowls of wood, but other materials were occasionally used. Three examples made of soapstone or near nephrite are known, all of them found in Otago. Mantell's ipu is now in Auckland Museum. Fragments of a second were found by - 234 Teviotdale on Tarawai Point near Taiaroa Head and are now in Otago Museum. A third example was found by Miss J. de C. Hughes in the ruins of a miner's hut at Luggate, Central Otago, and was presented by her to Otago Museum. It is surprising that no soapstone bowl was found at Murdering Beach. It seems likely that the rare nephrite artefacts found in Moa-hunter levels were made from nephrite secured from the Arahura and Taramakau gravels in Westland in the course of early exploration by sea. But all present evidence agrees in indicating the Dart Valley and north-west Otago as the principal source of the bulk of the nephrite and near-nephrite found in the upper layer of Otago sites. I have the impression that the nephrite taken from the Arahura and Taramakau gravels is generally harder and of a darker green colour than that found in Otago. In my judgement, Otago nephrite and near-nephrite varies in hardness from asbestos, soapstone, and the bowenite of Anita Bay, to soft bluish nephrites, and finally to apple-green and dark-green nephrite. It is probable that occasional supplies of Westland nephrite were brought south into Otago by the Haast Pass route, even in the latest phase of Maori history.

The bulk of the nephrite and near-nephrite rock retrieved by the Maoris in the Dart Valley, in north-west Otago, and at Anita Bay seems to have been carried to sites about Otago Heads, of which Murdering Beach is the best-known. Here it was worked up. The surplus would go north, together with preserved mutton-bird flesh, and would be distributed by a process of reciprocal giving, northern products being received in exchange. Otago Museum has examples of these latter in the feather box finely carved in Ngati-Porou style, collected in Southland and presented by Frederick Chapman; the fine flax cloak with taniko border collected in Ruapuki Island and presented by James Murdoch; and the box full of huia feathers, found in a rock shelter on the Talla Burn and presented by the finder George Rae.

The artefacts figured in the plates are all from the Otago Museum collections.

  • BEATTIE, Herries, 1920. “The Southern Maori, and Greenstone.” Transactions of the New Zealand Institute, 52:45-52.
  • BELL, Robert E., 1956. “Archaeological Investigations at Murdering Beach, Otago, New Zealand.” Journal of the Polynesian Society, 65:35-40.
  • BEST, Elsdon, 1912. The Stone Implements of the Maori. Wellington, Dominion Museum, Bulletin No. 4.
  • CHAPMAN, F. R., 1891. “On the Working of Greenstone or Nephrite by the Maoris.” Transactions of the New Zealand Institute, 24:479-539.
  • ECCLES, Alfred, (ed.), 1944. A Pakeha's Recollections. The Reminiscences of Murray Gladstone Thompson. Dunedin.
  • HAMILTON, Augustus, 1895. “On an Account of a Massacre at the Entrance of Dunedin Harbour in the Year 1817.” Transactions of the New Zealand Institute, 28:141-147.
  • HEAPHY, Charles, 1862. “A Visit to the Greenstone Country.” Chapman's New Zealand Monthly Magazine, 1:107-111, 166-171.
  • Historical Records of Australia. Series 1, Vol. VIII.
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  • McNAB, Robert, 1909. Murihiku. A History of the South Island of New Zealand and the Islands Adjacent and Lying to the South, from 1642 to 1835. Wellington, Whitcombe & Tombs Ltd.
  • — — 1913. The Old Whaling Days. A History of Southern New Zealand from 1830 to 1840. Christchurch, Whitcombe & Tombs Ltd.
  • SHORTLAND, Edward, 1851. The Southern Districts of New Zealand. A Journal with Passing Notices of the Customs of the Aborigines. London, Longman, Brown, Green, & Longmans.
  • SKINNER, H. D., 1916. “Evolution in Maori Art.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 46:309-321.
  • — — 1932. “Maori Amulets in Stone, Bone, and Shell.” Journal of the Polynesian Society, 41:202-211.
  • — — 1935. “New Zealand Greenstone.” Transactions of the Royal Society of New Zealand, 65:211-220.
  • — — 1940. The Maori Hei-Tiki. Dunedin, Otago Museum, Booklet No. 1.
  • TURNER, F. J., 1935. “Geological Investigation of the Nephrites, Serpentines, and Related ‘Greenstones’ used by the Maoris of Otago and South Canterbury.” Transactions of the Royal Society of New Zealand, 65:187-210.
  • WEBSTER, K. Athol, 1948. The Armytage Collection of Maori Jade. London, The Cable Press.
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Four Murdering Beach hei-tiki.

Top left

Largest hei-tiki from the Beach. Height 5¼ in. Found about 1910 by Leslie Cooper, near Driver's Cave. On the owner finishing this tiki, the surface has proved so poor that he has begun to regrind, hoping a lower surface may be more attractive. Gift of George C. Thomson.

Top right

Found “on a Christmas Day in the middle 'eighties” by Alfred Reynolds. Lower edges of femur are notched, there is much etching on the legs, and the navel is clearly etched. Etching presumably executed by pointed quartz. John White Collection. Purchased Fels Fund with co-operation of K. A. Webster.

Bottom left

Found in 1951 by Lewis on house-site by palisade west of stream. Made of very attractive light nephrite or bowenite. Fels Fund.

Bottom right

Found in 1881 by W. Norman. A small but well-made tiki of dark inanga. Chapman Collection.


Pendants of nephrite, near-nephrite, and bowenite.

Top row

Fourth from left is thought to be a flax scutcher.
Fifth is a pendant in form of thin adze; perforation sawn, the scarfs being set skew to the cutting-edge. This type of nephrite pendant is present in Chinese Chalcolithic and Bronze Age.
Sixth, soapstone.
Seventh, nephrite point of composite fish-hook.
Eighth, nephrite triangle with serrated base.

Second row

Second from left, bowenite pendant in form of chisel.
The three on right express the bird motive. The middle example has the finest cutting known.

Third row

The three on left are anthropomorphic.
Fourth represents some animal.
Fifth, ? anthropomorphic.

Fourth row

First on left represents human leg.
The rest are anthropomorphic.

Fifth row

First on left, ? anthropomorphic.
Second, amorphous.
Remaining four are in form of adzes and chisels.

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Nephrite drill-points, chisels, gouges. One hoop-iron chisel.


Two at bottom are drill-points. Chapman states, presumably on Maori authority, that nephrite drill-points were used to drill holes through which passed the cords binding top-strakes to hulls of Maori canoes.
Chisel at top is made of hoop-iron, and has edge set skew.


Mainly gouges.
Specimen at bottom has grip beautifully cut.
Fifth from bottom has groove cut by first drilling holes and then joining them, a process often used in bone.


Seven nephrite adzes, and an axe.

These are a sample of many scores.
The third specimen in the middle row has, seen sideways, a straight cutting-edge formed by the intersection of even bevels: it is thus an axe, an artefact exceedingly rare in New Zealand. Found in the second layer, depth 18 in.
Fourth specimen, middle row, is the specimen in inanga pounamu found beside the base of the whare puni house-post.



Four attrition saws. Top three basalt. Bottom, sandstone.


Cylindrical hammer of nephrite.




Two patu onewa.


Butt of whale-bone patu. The heads presumably represent birds.


Artefacts connected with fishing.

Left column

At bottom two broken shanks of composite hooks.

Middle column

At centre, one-piece bone hook, an import from east coast, North Island.

Right column

Mainly points made from seal canines.

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Toggles, Pendants, Amulets.

Centre left


Top left

Three human teeth.

Top centre

Two circular pendants (?), with serrated edges.


Nine shell necklace units in form of human incisors.

Centre lower

Four curved pendants made of whale ivory and bone.


Pendants, curved and straight.


Five bone wind instruments.


Five whale-bone combs.

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1   March 28, 1818.
2   August 21, 1858. The terms used in introducing the account suggest that ‘Old Timer’, who supplied it, was a Hobart Towner, contemporary with the events described.
3   Hamilton 1895.
4   McNab 1909:225-230. The source of the quotation is not specifically stated but a general acknowledgement (ref. 13, p. 225) mentions the Hobart Town Gazette of March 28, 1818. There are occasional unimportant verbal differences from Hamilton's version.
5   Eccles 1944:48.
6   Hamilton 1895.
7   Mr. Leslie Lockerbie drew my attention to this letter in the Turnbull Library. A copy may be consulted in the Hocken Library.
8   Eccles 1944.
9   Otago Witness, June 1892—January 1894. A transcript by David Teviotdale is in the Hocken Library.
10   Eccles 1944:54.
11   Eccles 1944:50.
12   Eccles 1944:51.
13   Chapman 1891:501.
14   Skinner 1916: plate 15.
15   Webster 1948.
16   See Bell 1956. It is hoped that recent work will be further described by Leslie Lockerbie in a subsequent paper.
17   McNab 1909:225-230.
18   McNab 1909:217.
19   Mr. G. S. Parsonson has supplied me with the text of the ordinance which might have been invoked against Kelly. By proclamation dated 1st December, 1813, Governor Lachlan Macquarie required the owners of all vessels sailing for New Zealand or any other island of the South Seas to sign a bond of £1,000 sterling, undertaking to “peacably and properly demean themselves and be of their good Behaviour towards the Natives of New Zealand or of such of the Islands in the South Seas as the vessel may touch at in the Course of her Voyage.” The proclamation concludes: “And Whereas the Natives of all the said Islands are under the protection of His Majesty, and entitled to the good Offices of his Subjects, all Persons whatsoever charged by the Oaths of credible Witnesses with any Acts of Rapine, Plunder, Robber, Piracy, Murder or other Offences against the Law of Nature and of Nations against the Persons and Properties of any of Natives of any of the said Islands, will, upon due Conviction, be further punished with the utmost Rigour of the Law.” Historical Records of Australia VIII:96 ff. Kelly's Otago visit was long remembered. McNab 1913:100-101, publishes a letter from J. B. Weller, of Weller Bros., whalers at Otago Heads, dated May 21, 1833, warning Kelly that the Maoris well remember him and have threatened to take his ship the Amity, Captain Lovat, in revenge.
20   Turner 1935.
21   Skinner 1935.
22   Beattie 1920.
23   Heaphy 1862:166, footnote.
24   Shortland 1851:117-119.
25   Heaphy 1862:169.
26   Skinner 1940.
27   Skinner 1932:205.
28   In Chapman 1891:515.
29   Best 1912:58.
30   Chapman 1891:498.
31   New Zealand Spectator, August 27, 1853.