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Research themes

SPAR runs active research programmes in New Zealand and Pacific archaeology. We work within the research environment of the wider University and SPAR projects involve graduate students and research partners from a number of institutions from New Zealand and overseas. SPAR projects are funded from contestable sources, such as the Marsden Fund which has supported three of our major research programmes.

Aotearoa's first industry

CJ excavating nephrite cache
Chris Jacomb excavating Pounamu adze cache at Kawatiri, West Coast, New Zealand.

The Māori toolkit was dominated by flaked stone tools, which were replaced in the nineteenth century by iron tools. Māori craft specialists were highly proficient adze makers, and they sourced stone over a wide geographical area. Nevertheless, it is often assumed that the manufacture of stone tools in Aotearoa was a relatively small-scale or household-based activity.

It is now apparent that within a decade or so of arrival in this country, a highly sophisticated and complex stone tool industry had been established. Like the industries of nineteenth century Europe, it was based on the sourcing and transport of raw materials through long-distance networks, the setting up of specialist manufacturing sites, and the redistribution of finished products through national exchange systems.

The mass production of adzes in specialised workshops, and their distribution via maritime transport systems represents New Zealand’s first manufacturing and export industry. It now appears that the exchange systems, around which the early stone tool industry was based, were also intimately tied to the success and viability of the new colony.

The SPAR team is carrying out research on the various stages in the industrial chain of activities that took place at the quarries, primary and secondary production zones, and the networks themselves that define the country's first large-scale industry.

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Extinction and interaction: new molecular and imaging approaches

SPAR has ongoing partnerships with researchers around the world seeking innovative new ways to explore aspects of human and animal interactions in Aotearoa and the Pacific. By far the most important terrestrial resource in early Aotearoa was the flightless moa, which was hunted to extinction by the early 1400s. Although the timing and general nature of the activities that led to the loss of the moa is broadly understood, little is known of the process itself; how the birds were hunted, and how their decline over time affected the people who had come to rely on them. New SPAR research focusses on a number of areas:

  • Micro-structure of moa egg-shell. Working with specialists at the Smithsonian Museum, we are looking at structural markers in predated moa eggshell to determine the incubation stages at which eggs were taken.
  • Bayesian modelling of radiocarbon dates. Bayesian modelling of radiocarbon dates from moa-hunting sites has allowed us to refine the age and duration of highly specific hunting and processing events.
  • Seasonality models. Other models of hunting patterns are being constructed using SEM imaging of marine shell from moa hunting sites to determine seasonality of hunting.
  • DNA Meta-barcoding. With partners at Curtin University in Western Australia, we are working on DNA meta-barcoding of midden remains from moa-hunting sites to build more in-depth pictures of the range of hunted prey.

Moa eggshell under SEM
Scanning electron microscope image of moa eggshell from Wairau Bar.

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Late Holocene human expansion through island Melanesia

After five decades of Pacific research, archaeologists have developed a basic outline of the timing and pattern of Austronesian expansion into the Pacific. SPAR’s Melanesian research programme now aims to develop more detailed models for local processes of cultural adaptation and change through excavation based research in the Solomon Islands and New Guinea.

There are two major research themes. The first concentrates on the long-discussed issue of interactions between culturally diverse communities during the first expansion phase. Here we are concentrating on Karkar Island off the northeast coast of Madang Province, New Guinea, where we are examining the interaction between new Austronesian speaking arrivals, and existing Papuan language groups. The second is about long-term processes of settling into new ecosystems, and establishing viable communities.

This work is centred on both Karkar Island, and Isabel and Choiseul Provinces in Solomon Islands. Current work there is focusing on the excavation of late Lapita sites in the Arnavon Islands and northwest Isabel.

Sikopo island
Mapping ancestral shrines on Sikopo Island, Solomon Islands.