Wakanui, keeper of ancient secrets

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By John Keast

There is a road between fields, houses, a toilet and a vast expanse of shingly beach.

But Wakanui Beach is much more than that; it and the surrounding area are keepers of archaeological secrets.

The full extend of the historical wealth is laid bare in a report by archaeological consultant Michael Trotter to the Ashburton council, which has worked closely with biodiversity groups to fence off an area and plant natives.

Mr Trotter’s report said it was likely the immediate area around Wakanui Beach once supported low-forest vegetation such as kanuka, kowhai and cabbage tree, while older soils would have grown podocarp forest.

Early in the period of human settlement, much of the bush was burnt off to leave the type of coastal landscape we see now.

The area between Wakanui and Rakaia was described in 1844 by Edward Shortland as “no trees in any direction on the plain, the only growth being tufts of grass, stunted fern and tutu”.

And Trotter’s report shows some of the sites at Wakanui may have been occupied from the late fourteenth century.

Some material taken from early excavations was dated by radiocarbon.

Mr Trotter said the radiocarbon date from 1975 could not be considered accurate, but did suggest the site was occupied from that time.

He said Wakanui Creek, now mostly dry, had a varied history.

Its bed was once a branch of the Ashburton River and in the late 1870s, water from the Ashburton was used to work a flour mill before being discharged into the Wakanui.

At the time of an archaeological assessment in 2017, there was no water in the creek bed, but in May this year it had formed a small lagoon at the mouth.

There are five recorded archaeological sites in the area, with four having evidence of human habitation or activity of some kind before European contact.

One site to the west of Wakanui Beach Road was excavated in the 1970 and later.

Many items were collected from the surface, including knives and cutting implements.

Sixty eight 1.5m squares were excavated. Material found included artefacts, bones, shells and burnt and broken firestones.

Most were no deeper than plough depth.

Moa bones were found from two species, and some had been burnt by repeated firing of the “ovens” in which they were found.

Moas were the most important food source represented in the middens, and there were also pieces of moa eggshell and some small birds and sea mammals.

Marine mollusc shells were rare.

Greywacke stone had been used for cutting and many had secondary flaking to modify the edges.

Adze heads were not numerous or well finished.

Also found were a bone point harpoon and a lure fish hook point.

A unique feature was two linked basins that had a clay surface, suggesting they had been built to hold water.

Some stone material came from the North Island.

Aside from archaeological sites, Wakanui Beach was also the site for something quite different – the base after the World War 2 for research into radio propagation.

It was known as the Canterbury Project and work was done with radio on solar bursts.

The installation – a large signal apparatus – was later removed but its concrete base remains.

In all, five archaeological sites have been recorded at or near the beach – and one within the area enhanced by the Ashburton council. Even the name of the area has changed.

It has been known as Whakanui, Hakanui and Whanganui, and the variations are put down by Mr Trotter to southern Maori dialect and attempts to render the name into standard Maori.