It was settled by Europeans in the 1840s and served initially as a port and major entry point to Blenheim (then known as Beavertown), and fossicking for artefacts was a common pastime for residents.Agricultural work over several decades in the 1900s unearthed hundreds of bones (including some from moa), stone adze heads – some famously stored in old benzene boxes on the main farm – and who knows what else sold off or saved for the mantelpiece under the assumption or excuse that the peoples they represented had no connection with local iwi.In 1939, 13-year-old schoolboy Jim Eyles, whose family lived and farmed on the bar, discovered what has come to be described as the greatest archaeological find in New Zealand history.
Using a piece of No 8 wire, he dug out what he first thought was a gourd but which proved to be a 20cm moa egg.
Further digging unearthed bones – human and hollow moa bone “reels” – as well as a large necklace with a sperm whale tooth. The egg and necklace were put on public display in the window of Jim’s uncle’s fish and chip shop, and were transported each night in a Bycrofts biscuit tin back to the local bank for safekeeping.
After much discussion, Eyles sold his findings to the Dominion Museum in Wellington for £130.
Three years later he was digging a bomb shelter on the family farm when he unearthed an oven pit and more small artefacts.
Wairau Bar – a long finger of gravel and rock, wind-driven and isolated, stretching out between the shallow lagoons at the mouth of Marlborough’s Wairau River and a wild Pacific Ocean.
The quiet is deafening, the history – and it is because of the history we are here – is everywhere.“It’s a site that presents a very rich and very successful society, and a society right at the beginning of the New Zealand sequence,” says University of Otago archaeologist Richard Walter.“The archaeology, the DNA evidence, the isotopic analysis of human remains – we have found early sites before but this is the only one we are certain about.This is the closest candidate we have for a founder site where [ocean-going] canoes came ashore.” The birthplace of a nation? If that phrase means anything, it is more relevant to Wairau Bar than any other place in the country,” says Walter, also co-director of Southern Pacific Archaeological Research (Spar).“The birthplace of New Zealand”, our “collective hearth”, “the country’s first capital” – at the end of a long and unremarkable road through scrub and farmland, Wairau Bar has become the focus of scientific attention both here and abroad not only as the earliest settlement centre for New Zealand (maybe, perhaps, probably, say the scientists) but also as journey’s end for the last major wave of human migration that began around 3500 years ago.Evidence from human remains and artefacts unearthed from Wairau Bar several decades ago and from recent excavations and analysis over the past four years is now showing that this massive and highly successful diaspora from east Polynesia ended here, a site unlikely to be mentioned in classroom history sets but which makes New Zealand one of the few countries in the world to pinpoint what could be its first important place of landfall, so representing a baseline from which to trace the evolution of a unique culture.