Tool academy: Māori artefacts from Redcliffs

Kia ora, Recently we had some great finds from Te Rae Kura/Redcliffs.

Unbeknownst to many folks making their daily commute along the Port Hills’ Main Road, a nationally significant Māori archaeological site lies beneath their car wheels, capped by hard fill and asphalt. Despite the many years of residential development in the area since the arrival of Pākehā, archaeologists are still uncovering significant finds. Like these beauties.

A flake core of obsidian (left), and basalt adze (right). Image: Jessie Garland.

To the untrained eye, these may seem like simply rocks or glass, but to archaeologists they have the potential to provide a greater understanding of Māori life before they first encountered Europeans.

The first artefact is a flake core of obsidian, a volcanic glass known to Māori as tuhua. The dormant volcanoes of the South Island don’t produce much in the way of obsidian, perhaps because they were never given much support from their parents in their youth, and still struggle with expressing their creativity. Therefore, when we find it in South Island sites, it’s a sign of the extensive trade networks that operated between iwi groups, bringing obsidian and other trade goods down from the North Island in exchange for South Island goods like pounamu. The greenish tinge on this particular piece when you hold it to the light suggests it’s from one of the most important sources, Mayor Island in the Bay of Plenty (and not that I need corrective eye surgery, Matt).

Flaked to a point. To a point? No flaking. Cooking MCs like a pound of bacon. Image: Tristan Wadsworth

Smaller flakes would have been removed from this core by hitting it with a hammerstone, and then used as cutting tools. This is a pretty hard-core (sorry not sorry) form of technology that was employed by all of our ancestors, and was the dominant technology throughout 99% of human history, as shown in a helpful and very professional image below produced by a very intelligent and super handsome individual. Obsidian produces amazingly sharp cutting tools, and is still used today in surgeries, because flaked obsidian is essentially sterile and produces an edge finer than steel.

An approximate, and highly abridged timeline of human history.

The basalt toki/adze below may be made of local materials, from a currently unidentified source of fine grained basalt among the volcanic rock of Horomaka/Banks Peninsula. Adzes were important tools: in essence a wood-cutting tool like an axe, but hafted sideways, in a fashion similar to a modern grubber or mattock. This tool would have been used in the construction of whare, and the waka that plied the waters of the estuary and the surrounding ocean. Adzes were so important that ceremonial versions were held by rangatira, much in the same way that modern bogans advertise their status through impressive spoilers and exhausts, and popes do so with big as hats. Status among modern archaeologists is similarly established through use of oversized ceremonial trowels.

Side view of basalt adze (left), and an image showing hafting techniques (right), from Hiroa, 1949: 185.


This stubby little toki, however, has reached the end of its life as an adze head, having likely been resharpened many times and has begun to be recycled. The flake scars on the side of the tool show where sections have been removed for re-use as other tools, and there is crushing on the butt end that suggests that it was further used as a hammerstone for working and shaping of other stone tools (Witter, D. pers comm). This kind of recycling is quite common within the Māori tool kit, and shows that our forebears ascribed to the ‘number-8 wire’ mentality as much as we do today.

The butt end of the adze-turned hammerstone, showing: A) a faint line where the stone has been pounded smooth by repetitive impact, evidence of hammer dressing; B) pitting, where impact has removed sections of the stone; C) a scar I got from a turtle at the Taronga Zoo one time. Image: Tristan Wadsworth.

In addition to the artefacts, the site has yielded considerable shell midden, and a fragment of moa bone, providing insights into the diet of Redcliffs Māori (surf and turf), and suggesting that the artefacts, which were found in close association, date to the period prior to moa extinction around 1450 AD (Holdaway and Jacomb, 2000).

A distal (closest to ground) fragment of a tibiotarsus (shin bone/drumstick) of a moa (big old bird). Image: John Megahan, Giant Haast’s eagle attacking New Zealand moa.

Although limited in number, these artefacts each have a story to tell about past use of the area, and add to the greater known context of Māori occupation of this great land. If you want to know more, feel free to adze us your questions in the comments below. Har har har har.


Hiroa, Te Rangi, 1949. The Coming of the Māori. Whitcombe and Tombs Ltd.

Holdaway, R. and Jacomb, C. 2000. Rapid extinction of the moas (Aves: Dinornithiformes): model, text and implications. Science 287:2250-54.