Volume 66 1957 > Volume 66, No. 2 > Evidence of Maori occupation in the Castlepoint area, by Susan Davis, p 199 - 203
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- 199

THE AREA VISITED was on the east coast of the Wairarapa, in the Castlepoint vicinity, 1 including the Castlepoint area proper, and a distance about two miles to the south along Christmas Bay, as well as the beach and foreshore area about a mile to the north of the Whakataki River.

The beach at Christmas Bay and along the Mataikona Road is backed by high rugged cliffs, whilst the Castlepoint beach backs onto a series of sandhills and sloping hills. The rocks consist of soft Plio-miocene strata, sandstones and mudstones in bands a few inches thick, and these outcrops all along this coast. 2 Notable features are the “between tide” rock platforms produced by wave action and these are particularly noticeable in the area north of the Whakataki River.

Vegetation along the coast in this area is sparse—exposure to southerlies and scarcity of soil on the cliffs contributing to this. Where there is vegetative cover it seems to be mainly native flax (Phormium tenax), toitoi (Arundo kakaho), marram grass (Ammophila arenaria) and a few karaka trees (Corynocarpus laevigata), one group on the north side of Castle Rock, the other in a gully on the Mataikona Road. There is also a considerable amount of tauhinu (Cassinia leptophylla).

The first area to be investigated was in the immediate vicinity of the Castlepoint lighthouse (area A on map). An examination of the beach itself, in the southern bay, and a cursory survey of the belt of sand-dunes behind revealed no trace of occupation and streams coming down from the hills showed no evidence in cross-section. The whole area is practically enclosed and in all probability shell-fish were not obtainable there which would account for lack of midden evidence. The investigation was continued over the ridge to the south along the beach known as Christmas Bay (B on map). The beach is narrow and the cliffs are about 300 feet high.

A small hangi area was discovered about 1,000 yards south along this beach (No. 1 on map). It was disclosed by a spill of shells down the face of a sandbank about 50 feet out from the base of the cliffs. A section was dug through it and a number of beach boulders fractured by heat were recovered, together with a quantity of charcoal and shell. The shell most frequently represented proved to be the paua (Haliotis iris) and it seems to have attained great size here, one example being over 8 inches in length. Other shells in this hangi were Lepsia haustrum, Amphidesma sp., Cookia sulcata, Zediloma atrovirens, and Cellena radians. A rough diagram (Fig. 1) gives an idea of the section revealed.

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Twenty-five yards further south, spilling from under a flax bush, was another small hangi (2 on map), situated 6 feet above the beach. A stream coming down from the hill had cut a deep gully through the sandhill and destroyed most of the hangi but investigation showed a layer about 4 inches deep still existed, under about 6 inches of blown sand. It contained the usual charcoal and burnt stones. Shells noted were Haliotis iris, Cellena radians and Lunella smaragda.

A further search three-quarters of a mile south yielded nothing further of note, the cliffs here coming practically to the water's edge.

A second investigation was carried out for approximately one and a half miles north of the Whakataki River (C on map). The first evidence of human occupation was a large midden (3 on map) situated about half a mile north of Christensen's house. It was quite spectacularly displayed in the cross-section of the sandhill which fronted the beach, the sandhill standing about 8 feet high. Once again the predominant shell was that of Haliotis iris. The deposit started about one foot below the surface—which had a covering of tauhinu (Cassinia leptophylla) and native flax. The length was approximately 13 yards and the depth of the deposit varied from a few inches on the edge to well over a foot in the centre. Other shells noted here were Cellena radians and Cominella maculosa. The whole face of this midden is fast eroding. It is probable that it extends back under the sandhill but over a foot of sand would have had to be removed to prove this.

About a quarter of a mile further north is a larger hangi-midden area of roughly 50 yards square, although the true area is hard to estimate because the action of sand and wind has led to much material being scattered over a very wide area (3a on map). Seepage of water from the hill behind has bisected the main midden area—(the stream thus post-dating the midden)—leaving on both sides a clear cross-section of a deep, very burnt deposit, varying from a few inches to over a foot. Haliotis iris again appeared the predominant shell remains and the large amount of shell and burnt stone indicate that a vast amount of food must have been consumed here at some time. There is a possibility it may be connected, as may other midden deposits in the vicinity, with the battles between the Wairarapa natives and the Ngati Awa 3 which were reputedly concluded in 1839 at a spot a few hundred yards up the beach. In this midden was picked up a piece of chipped flint 2¼ inches by 1 inch by ½ inch, the only evidence of worked stone that was found on this brief survey.

North of this point the sandhill area widens to about 200 yards and throughout this area are scattered shell and beach boulders. Whether they were put there by human agency or not is hard to say.

The next midden to be discovered was one situated in the left hand bank of the cutting on the Mataikona Road, just before it dips down to the beach (4 on map). This cross-section was particularly interesting because it showed two distinct midden layers, separated by 23 inches of - 202 natural soil. The bank was 4 feet high and the length of the deposit visible was about 11 yards. A diagram (Fig. 2) explains the position of the layers. A brief investigation was made of both layers, the shell in both cases being common to the area, Haliotis iris predominating in both in a fractured state, as well as Cellena radians and Cominella maculosa. Charcoal discoloration was noticeable through both areas. The lower layer was proved to be a genuine layer, rather than a fall of debris from the upper layer, when a small trial excavation was dug several inches into the face of the section. Blackened burnt stones were conspicuous in the lower level.

A hundred yards north of this, across the road and almost at the beach, a stream cut down through the hill, past Wharepouri's Mark, and discernible in the south bank was further midden material (5 on map). The deposit was about 6 yards in length, 6 inches deep, and about 2 feet below the surface which was covered in moss and toitoi (Arundo kakaho). A few yards nearer the sea and on the north bank was a deep layer of charcoal blackened soil, showing very few traces of shell. This was very deep in places and had wind blown sand on top of it in depths varying from 4 to 6 feet. The accumulation however of sand in such close proximity to the beach must be fairly rapid.

Near where the stream crosses the road, stands Wharepouri's Mark (6 on map), a stone monument erected to commemorate the termination of hostilities between the local Maoris and those of Wellington. The inscription reads:—

Wharepouri's Mark. This spot and mark commemorates the peace between Te Whanganui a Tara and Wairarapa Maoris. Pledged 23 September, 1839. Original stone mark erected by Te Whare-pouri in 1842.

This concluded the area investigated on this coastline.


General conclusions drawn from such scanty evidence must necessarily be cautious, no actual artefacts or settlement areas being discovered in this area. This coastline would be most inhospitable in winter, there is little shelter except for the upper Whakataki valley, and the hills and cliffs that front the beach support a very scanty vegetation. One is inclined to think that settlement was inland and these middens represent the debris left after foraging expeditions. Paua seems to have been the most sought after shell-fish, its shells appear most frequently in the middens and shell-fish must have been the main food taken from these beaches as it would be extremely hard to launch a canoe for fishing off-shore because of the surf and rocks. This view is supported by the complete absence of bone of any form—fish or bird in the middens investigated.

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Nonetheless, this is an interesting area of the coast and one or two of the larger middens might well be excavated to good purpose. Further enquiry in the neighbourhood as to the landscaping of hills—i.e., pits and terraces either on the coast or inland, might well bring forward further information, as well as artefacts, and contribute to the understanding of this little known area and its prehistoric inhabitants.

  • BEST, Elsdon, 1919. “The Land of Tara.” Journal of the Polynesian Society, 27:99-114.
  • BRODIE, J. W., 1950. “Moa remains at Castlepoint.” New Zealand Science Review, Nos. 9 and 10:87-88.
  • KING, L. C., 1930. “Raised Beaches and Other Features of the South-east Coast of the North Island of New Zealand.” Transactions of the New Zealand Institute, 61:498-523.
1   Brodie 1950:87-88 mentioned Maori occupation of this area, in connection with moa remains.
2   King 1930:498-523 included Castlepoint in a geological survey.
3   Best 1918:107.