Volume 44 1935 > Volume 44, No. 173 > Evidence of cremation by the Otago Maori, by David Teviotdale, p 32-35
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- 32

NEAR Otago heads, on the northern side of Otago peninsula, I have been engaged excavating a small Maori encampment. Unlike most other Otago sites this one is on a small spur. It overlooks Pilot beach, and the road to the lighthouse at Taiaroa head has been formed across it, covering some of the likeliest spots. The Maori who lived here were evidently in contact with Europeans, as beads, bowls of tobacco pipes, and occasional pieces of iron, are found on the hut sites.

In the course of digging I came on a large bed of charcoal about five feet long by four feet wide and about twelve inches in maximum depth, thinning out to the edges. Some of the timber used as fuel had been at least four inches in diameter, and I recognized broadleaf, mapau, and treefern amongst it. One or two pieces appeared to have been squared and dressed. One of these pieces was at least eight inches wide and two inches thick; another was about five inches wide and bevelled from two inches thick at one side to one inch on the other. These pieces were probably about four feet long, but, half the heap being under the road formation, I had to burrow under the bank and therefore broke the charcoal into small pieces before I could lift it out.

Mixed with the upper surface of the charcoal-heap were human bones burnt and broken into small pieces. In addition to these there were some unburnt toe-bones, fragments of pelvic bones, the base of an adult human skull, one almost complete human lower jaw, and fragments of three other lower jaws. One of these jaws belonged to a young child, one to an elderly person, one to a person whose wisdom teeth had not erupted and who was, presumably, under twenty-five years of age, and the remaining one was under twenty: apparently a family group. The - 33 child's jaw was on the earth beside the charcoal, and I also saw burnt fragments of a human skull too thin to be adult. The other lower jaws were lying close together above the charcoal, but how they escaped burning is not clear. Every part of the burnt bone, even of the limb-bones, was in small fragments. The broad board just mentioned lay on top of the heap above the bones and charcoal. The only artifact found with the bones was a well-made straight bone cloak-pin three and three-quarter inches long. This was close to the jaw-bones and was slightly discoloured by heat at one end, otherwise it had escaped the fire.

About twelve inches of earth had been heaped over all. This earth contained a few seal-bones, shells, and some sandstone polishers, a small piece of partly-worked greenstone, a small fragment of soapstone and a few scraps of kokowai. A medium-sized boulder was on the east end of the heap and a similar one on the west end. Above this was about two feet of clay and stones forming the bank of the road; as stated above, this prevented the excavational work being done in a satisfactory manner.

Only a few feet from this pyre was a large fireplace, and around it I found several articles made of greenstone, and also some fragments of iron and some old nails, showing that the inhabitants had been in touch with Europeans. About three feet from the fireplace, on the inland side, was the stump of a post about four inches in diameter, and about the same distance from the fireplace, on the seaward side, was the stump of another post. This post had been squared or dressed to about seven inches wide and three inches thick. Close beside this post I found a fish-shaped greenstone pendant. It evidently had been cached there. Both posts had been burnt off at the ground-level, and the part in the ground was too rotten to lift out or handle. The dressed timber and treefern in the charcoal suggest that the hut had been used to provide material for the pyre. 1 The strip of ground worked here is about fifty feet long by twelve feet wide. - 34 The hut-site was at the western end, then the pyre, and beyond that a fair-sized umu. On this area I found six pieces of soapstone or steatite. Three of these fit together and all are undoubtedly fragments of a soapstone bowl or ipu. Two of the fragments were in the hut-site, one in the material covering the pyre, one alongside the pyre, and two between the pyre and the umu. This distribution of the fragments may suggest a ceremonial breaking of a valued possession of a dead relative. Mantell, 2 describing his finds at Awamoa, states: “At the old Kahaunui Kaika, about four miles south (of Awamoa), 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, the history of which I may give you at some future time.” 3 Dr. Hector, writing on “Recent Moa Remains,” 4 also states: “Near the old Maori middens on the coast, Mantell discovered a very curious dish made of steatite, a mineral occurring in New Zealand only on the West Coast, rudely carved on the back in the Maori fashion, and measuring twelve by eight inches and very shallow. The natives at the time recognized this dish by tradition and said there were two of them. It is very remarkable that since then the fellow dish has been discovered by some gold-diggers in the Manuherekia plain, and was used on a hotel counter at the Dunstan township as a match box, till it was sent to England, and, as I am informed, placed in a public museum in Liverpool.”

At Little Papanui, on the eastern coast of Otago peninsula, in the largest midden I found the burnt and broken bones of two children, and in another part of the same midden the charred and broken bones of an adult, but as these bones were scattered and mixed with the rest of the midden refuse I believe the rest of the bodies to which they had belonged had been eaten.

At Waipapa landing, near Kaikoura, I found the charcoal of a large fire containing the charred bones of one adult individual. Beside these bones was a large and - 35 well-made bone comb decorated with the usual conventional bird's head. This comb was burnt to charcoal and lay in many fragments. It has since been pieced together and is now on view in the Otago University Museum. It seems certain that the bone comb was thrust into the knob of hair of the individual whose body was burnt at this spot. This suggests, though it does not finally prove, ceremonial cremation.

Elsdon Best 5 says that cremation was “occasionally practised in order to stay the spread of disease” and was also sometimes used by a war-party in an enemy's territory to dispose of their own dead. The finding of the bones of four persons of various ages, whose bodies had been burnt together, would suggest the death of a whole family during some epidemic, the bodies being burnt to stay the disease. This explanation of the bones near Taiaroa head is the more probable since a series of epidemics decimated the Otago Maoris between 1800 and 1840. 6 It is said that in one of these epidemics whole families died and the huts were burnt over the bodies, thus cremating them. In the case under discussion a funeral pyre appears to have been built just outside the hut which supplied material for the fire, and the bodies piled upon it.

The burnt bones and the accompanying comb at Kaikoura also seem to be evidence of cremation, but of a different kind. It is possible that they belong to a northern toa who died in one of the raids of the early nineteenth century and who was cremated so that his bones might not be used as fish-hooks by the enemy. But that burnt human bones are not always evidence of cremation is clear from the bones found in the midden at Little Papanui.

It may be added that whilst the bowl found by Mantell is now in the Auckland Museum, nothing is known of the whereabouts of the bowl recorded by Hector.

1   At Long beach recently Mr. S. V. Johnson found a greenstone adze close beside a post very similar to the one described. He believes it was the side-post of a doorway to a hut, and that the adze had been hidden there.
2   New Zealand Spectator, 27th August, 1853.
3   This bowl was later placed in the Auckland Museum by Mrs. Mantell, widow of the son of W. B. D. Mantell the finder.
4   Transactions New Zealand Institute, vol. 4, p. 116.
5   The Maori, vol. 2, p. 69.
6   E. W. Durward, J.P.S., vol. 42, p. 69.