A distinctive landscape feature of Auckland is its volcanic cones, and a good number of them have been shaped by Maori to create living terraces.
In the 1950s geologists and archaeologists were becoming alarmed at the damage to the volcanic cones of Auckland as many were being irreversibly quarried away for the scoria, or were modified with roads to the summit, and water tanks placed on the cones. The physical history of Māori occupation on many of these cones was being damaged or destroyed. Māori have stories about important people who lived on the maunga but archaeology provides details of everyday life, how space was organized within the settlement and the number of times a maunga was occupied.
Through archaeological excavation techniques, archaeologists at University of Auckland and Auckland Museum have been able to learn about Maori occupation on three of the cones prior to quarrying, roading and reservoir projects. Excavations were carried out on Taurere/Taylor’s Hill in Glendowie between 1954-56 in advance of quarrying; Puketapapa Mt Roskill in 1961 before a reservoir was constructed on the summit rim; and Maungarei (Mt Wellington, pictured) on several occasions between 1960 and 1972. There were multiple projects affecting Maungarei including a water reservoir built in one of the craters (1960), a road to the summit and parking area (1965, 1972) and an ambitious plan to build a revolving restaurant and artificial ski lane which never eventuated.
Maungarei (pictured), with excavations in several areas because of the modifications, is the best known archaeologically. The oldest radiocarbon dates for occupation evidence on the lower slopes of the cone date to the early 1500s. There seems to have been a period of intensive use on the upper part of the cone between the late 1500s and mid-1600s. Many of the terraces excavated had been used to store kumara in rectangular roofed pits. Maungarei does not feature in accounts of Maori history from the 1700s suggesting it was no longer an important place of settlement in Tamaki.
Although we think of all the maunga as fortified pa, it is likely only the summit was a place of defense protected by palisades and ditches. The terraces, with their flattened surfaces, were where people lived, and the archaeology revealed postholes, stone edged hearths often found within houses to contain a fire, cooking scoops, midden deposits, and storage pits probably used to hold kumara. While only a small part of Maungarei was excavated (it would take many years to excavate completely), the archaeological work was able to give information about what the people living there ate, where the food came from, and when the people lived there.
Maungarei is one of the four largest maunga in Auckland: the others are Maungakiekie (One Tree Hill), Maungawhau (Mt Eden) and Mangere. All the cones were surrounded by fertile garden areas where kumara and other plants were grown, and people lived in settlements amongst the gardens, occupying the maunga on occasions, or retreating to the pa on the top when feeling threatened. There were also periods when the individual maunga were not occupied at all. We know from Maori oral history that not all maunga were lived on at the same time, and that some were occupied and reoccupied on many occasions. There was a lot of construction and reconstruction of terraces so the form of each maunga today only represents the last use. Excavations on a volcanic cone named Pouerua, in the inland Bay of Islands, showed that there may have been five or six (or more) earlier terraces under the final terraces as earthworks over a period of time cut down or covered over earlier living surfaces. Why this happened is not known but it is likely that larger terraces were constructed over time, amalgamating smaller terraces into one, such as can be seen on the upper slopes of Maungawhau Mt Eden.
According to geologist Bruce Hayward, 15 of Auckland’s 38 volcanic cones have been completely quarried away and another nine have been extensively modified. Only two of the 38 (Rangitoto and Motukorea Brown’s Island) have not been quarried. In addition, houses and roads have been built on the surrounding landscape, destroying or covering over Maori settlement sites. Photograph albums from the late 19th century (e.g. Boscawen Album) are a rich source of information of what has been destroyed on some of the cones. The surviving maunga are the physical remnants of what was once an extensively occupied landscape from the 14th century until 1840 when the town of Auckland was established.
Hayward, Bruce, Graeme Murdoch and Gordon Maitland 2011. Volcanoes of Auckland. The Essential Guide. Auckland University Press.
Davidson, Janet. 2011. Archaeological investigations at Maungarei: a large Maori settlement on a volcanic cone in Auckland, New Zealand. Tuhinga 22: 19-100.
Header picture: Motukorea (Browns island), Hauraki Gulf. Ajith Kumar.