History
Polynesian Resource Center

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Excavation of Cave on Okia Flat, Wickliffe Bay by Ellis Sinclair

The following is a description of an archaeological dig by Ellis Sinclair in 1938 of a cave at Okia Flat on Otago Peninsula and the discovery of a curious Archaic Period figure with broken arms and legs. This little carving is I believe of the Eastern Polynesian War God Rimaroa, Rimaroa meaning long arms and is one of the only Polynesian statues that has a rigid upright stance as opposed to the the classic bent knee stance of Polynesian images. What form the missing arms and legs took and how they related to what remains is mystery that thus far despite much effort I have failed to solve.

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IN 1934 I located in the smaller of the two Pyramids, situated on Lot 7 of Section B of the Otakau Native Reserve on Otago peninsula, a small cave having two entrances. The Pyramid in which this cave is, fairly resembles its Egyptian namesakes, and the cave, roughly funnel shaped, cuts through one of its corners near the base. The bottom entrance, on the level of the surrounding sand-flats, faces east and is filled with water. This cavity extends apparently only about eight or ten feet before it seems to come to a dead end owing to the roof jutting down till it almost touches the water. However, around the corner from this “blind” entrance facing roughly north-east and about twenty feet up the face of the Pyramid is another entrance fairly well obscured by trailing creepers, hinahina, and ngaio trees. This upper entrance disclosed a considerable cave filled with large boulders, the floor sloping right down to the bottom entrance which could be seen as a glimmering of light on the dark brackish water. The length of the tunnel between the two entrances is some seventy feet. Between the boulders, which had apparently come from the outside face of the Pyramid above, and which almost completely filled the body of the cave, could be seen fish-bones and cockle- and mussel-shells. In the loose soil above at the entrance were similar signs and also evidences of burning—charred wood and ashes. I made a rough investigation which convinced me that the cave had been used by the Maoris, at least as a camping site, but the task of shifting the rocks was, as I found by experiment, too much for me alone, besides being dangerous because of the risk of dislodging the loose rock face.

On 28 August, 1938, with my brother I revisited the place with the intention of making a more thorough investigation. We found the cave, so far as I was able to judge, undisturbed since my last visit, no doubt because it was so well concealed. It should be explained that from the top entrance, the roof and the floor both sloped downwards sharply and roughly parallel to one another for about nine or ten feet, after which the slope of the roof became less abrupt and the floor became practically level, extending thus toward the bottom entrance and in a southerly direction for about twelve feet till floor and roof came near meeting one another. From there the boulder face which was the floor fell sharply to the water at the bottom entrance.

We commenced excavating on the shelf where the roof and floor came together toward the back of the cave, and endeavoured to work systematically along a face extending from the western to the eastern wall, a distance of about fourteen feet, the whole width of the cave at this point. We first removed surface rocks to a depth of roughly four feet, the depth gradually increasing toward the entrance where it reached twelve feet. Everything within was very dry, and the air was soon heavily charged with dust.

At the extreme back where the floor fell away to the water, and at a depth of about four feet, a rough bedding was uncovered. It extended from the back at the western wall toward the eastern wall about four feet, and from the back toward the entrance about seven feet. On top the bedding was composed of undressed flax with the suggestion of a weave, but so fragile that very little of the woven flax could be recovered intact. This matting did not cover the whole area of the bedding but was about six feet long and three feet wide. Besides being rotten it was broken in many places by the rocks which were pressing up through it, to a layer of bedding material composed of leaves and grass on top, and bracken and tussock beneath, to a depth in all of about six inches. This was all very hard and compressed by the weight of the rocks on top but was in a remarkable state of preservation, some of the leaves showing a faint green colour and the bracken being practically intact.

The whole of this matting and bedding was spread over the uneven rock surface, which in places where the spaces between the rocks were large, was filled with nigger heads, and tussock-roots with the sandy soil adhering. Altogether it must have been a warm and comfortable sleeping place.

On and about this bedding, which in places was burnt, were cockle- and mussel-shells and fishbones; in fact these were evident wherever rocks were removed. They could be accounted for either by subsequent occupation or more probably were brought in from the entrance by falling debris from the outside deposit already mentioned.

While removing the matting and bedding (beneath which were more shells and fishbones) I found standing in an upright position, beneath a space where the matting was charred by fire, and wedged firmly between the two large boulders, a wooden representation of a man about eight inches in height, of heavy wood, probably kowkai, showing faint evidence of having been painted red at one time. Arms and legs are missing, and the head is slightly charred on one side, this charring probably received when the bedding and matting were burned. The neck (see plate) is extremely elongated. The profile from one side, despite the un-Maori appearance of the whole, is a fair representation of a Polynesian's features. The workmanship is good and the whole figure, though having an unbalanced appearance owing to the absence of the legs and arms, is symmetrical in its lines and the work of a skilled craftsman. It bears no resemblance to any of the groups of Polynesian gods thus far described by Dr. Buck. It shares length of neck and retraction of stomach with the small wooden figures of Easter island, but is otherwise quite unlike them. It seems to stand nearest to the long-necked gods of the Cook islands in the Oldman collection.

Scattered on the bedding and slightly nearer the top entrance were several human foot-bones, one with tissue still adhering, and a shattered portion of a cranium about the size of a half-crown. Here also were a pig-bone (from the leg) and the broken wing-bone of a large bird, probably an albatross.

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On the following visit (10 September) I was accompanied by Mr. David Teviotdale. A thorough search was made under and between the rocks below the level on which the figure was found, in an effort to locate the missing legs and arms. It seemed probable that they might still be in the cave, for the breaks on the figure were clean and apparently new. The complete figure probably stood about ten inches high. On this assumption the legs would be only two inches long and pieces of wood of this small size could quite easily have fallen down through the rocks to any depth. As it was we did not find anything below the mat-level beyond shells, fishbones, and scraps of bedding, although work was carried on to a depth of another two feet. To go deeper was practically impossible owing to the limited working space and the difficulty in disposing of the heavy rocks already removed.

In proceeding with this work from the level of the bedding to about two feet below it (the depth varying according to the nature and size of the rocks), three feet from the western wall and slightly above the level on which the figure was found, were seven human vertebrae, articulated and with tissue still adhering and actually still jointed together by the tissue. These were less than two feet from where the figure and other human bones were found. A few inches away from the vertabrae and still on the same level was the ball end of a human femur which had been broken apparently so that the marrow could be removed. No other parts of vertabrae or ribs or splinters of leg-bone, as one might have expected, were to be found. Close by and together were a paua-shell and a fire-stick, the latter of soft wood and used only a few times. Near by, but now off the bedding, were several bird-bones, varying in size from those of small birds like robins to large bones like those of a kakapo. Many of them, from the skulls found, were pigeons, and two pigeon-feathers were found.

Here we deemed it imprudent to proceed any further toward the entrance until the loose rocks there had been removed, for there was constant danger of the whole loose rocky face above us falling in.

At the top of this face at the entrance was a deposit of charcoal, shells, and fishbones, and in this I found a small flint scraper near the surface. At the side of this deposit on a ledge covered by loose rocks were the skeletons of two pigeons. This deposit was really outside the cave, though protected from the weather by the overhanging rocks at the entrance. Most, perhaps all, of the shell and bones of fish scattered within and on the matting were probably derived from this deposit.

Unlike other Otago peninsula sites which I have visited there was a complete absence of bone artifacts, and the only flint or stone tool found was the small scraper. On 17 December we continued work where we had left off at the entrance of the cave, and found that after about three weeks of very wet weather the soil was wet and difficult to handle. However, hoping that the moisture would not be deep, we carried on to discover that here, near the entrance and working down the face, all traces of shell, etc., petered out. At the top of the face there was heavy bush soil while deep down on the level on which the figure was found was clean sand.

We now moved back to where the bedding was, toward the western wall, to continue work there, where owing to the size and weight of some of the boulders, and the limited space in which to work and remove these, it was practically impossible to work with any system, and the best that could be done in many cases was to work the soil around and under the largest of the boulders thus undermining them and allowing them to roll back over the ground already worked. As a method of scientific excavation this was not satisfactory, for every time a stone was moved, other stones subsided and quantities of loose material fell and filtered down between the rocks below.

Beneath a large boulder near where the figure was found, and on the same level, that is below the level of the matting, but beyond where it was spread, I found a quantity of fine, twisted, flax-fibre line, presumably fishing-line, very fragile and, unfortunately, broken into many short lengths, probably when we moved the boulder. There were, also two very short lengths of cord, twisted of dressed flax-fibre, about one-eighth on an inch in thickness and not much more susceptible to handling than a length of cigarette ash.

Beneath this same boulder and near the pieces of line were several fragments of egg-shell, the largest about the size of a shilling, but from the curve I judged that it was part of a large shell. These fragments were pale green in colour and, like the line, also freshly broken; on only one of the fragments was I able to discover an old break.

As the fragments I had so far found did not make a complete shell, I suspected that the remainder must have fallen between the rocks below, a very close search on the same level not disclosing any further pieces. Another piece of human bone was found here, this being a part of the mandible with two teeth intact. Several bird-bones were here also, one being the skull and beak of a fairly large bird larger than a hen.

A fortnight later (31 December) I obtained the assistance of four friends by whose efforts it was possible to remove some of the heaviest boulders, and to carry on examination of the old occupation-level where I had left off on the last visit. Shell, etc., still continued to be found, and bird-bones, but apart from these the only things of interest were further fragments of the pale-green egg-shell. Placing these together I should judge them to be of an egg six or seven inches in length. They are, however, a complete puzzle, for they do not answer to the description of any known New Zealand egg in either size or colour. There is on exhibition in the Otago Museum a fragment of egg-shell about the same thickness as these, and now faded almost white, which has appended the description that it was green in colour. It was found in a cave near Queenstown by Taylor-White and attributed by him to some species of moa. This description is not satisfactory in the light of other discoveries, but possibly it may be the egg of a species of moa which laid a green egg, though so far all moa eggs found and identified have been biscuit-colour.

According to Mr. John Riddell of Sandymount, who has had early associations with Otago peninsula, several skulls were found over fifty years ago in the bottom entrance of the cave. According to information gathered by a Mr. Taylor from a Mrs. Garrett who lived with the Maoris on Okia flat in the early days, this cave is particuarly tapu, having been the scene of slaughter by Te Wera, presumably about the year 1750. The finding of the broken bones and the absence of many larger bones of the body, along with the way in which the leg-bone had been broken, all point to the fact that the victims suffered the indignity of being eaten by Te Wera and his men. A fate similar to that of the people of Calliope bay (just to the north of Wickliffe bay) whose bones provided material for the fish-hooks and bird-spears of their enemies. According to the tale told by Mrs. Barrett the victims of Te Wera were fugitives from a village where the Taiaroa lighthouse today stands. This seems likely, for though the cave would undoubtedly be an ideal camping-place for bird-hunting expeditions (being situated on the edge of a fairly extensive swamp of brackish water which would supply water-fowl, and right at the portals of heavy forest which would abound in pigeons and other birds) it is a considerable distance from any supply of running water. It is certainly not an industrial site, and is probably to be classed as a place of concealment. It is impossible to determine with any degree of accuracy the age of this camp. It is well over one hundred and forty years if the human remains have any connection with the raids of Te Wera.

The figure found has been deposited in the Otago Museum, where it may be seen by those interested.

In late December of 2012 I spent four days in Dunedin on a scouting trip for a documentary I had been planning on the Okia Flat figure. The cave was now unrecognizable from the scene described by Ellis Sinclair in 1938 with the sea now further off shore from the Pyramids and the interior of the cave now buried in tons of fallen debris and wind driven sand and vegetation.

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