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Hillforts in Aotearoa

Wednesday 5 February 2020

Kia Ora! That’s a greeting from the Far Side of the World. This hillfortian has been travelling around New Zealand for the past ten days, visiting Māori pā sites. These look very like our own hillforts, but were constructed between AD1400-1840 (unlike the Chilterns hillforts which mostly range from 1100- 400BC). In many cases we have documented accounts of how, why, and by whom they were built – something an Iron Age prehistorian like me can only dream about!

I’m on this trip largely in my capacity as Secretary for the Hillfort Studies Group (I’ll take on the mantle of Chair in November) and there are about a dozen of us from the Group here making this research tour. Founded over 50 years ago the HFSG is devoted to understanding hillforts better, and in April they will be paying a long weekend visit to our very own Chilforts, offering expert observations.

I’ve been touring the sites in the North Island of NZ, not only seeing some amazing earthworks, but meeting with the archaeologists who have been recording them, museum curators who look after the finds recovered, and the heritage management teams who are facing exactly the same sorts of challenges we face in caring for our Chilforts. I’ve also been learning a lot about Māori culture and the intangible elements of building and maintain pā. The layers of rituals and formalised behaviour which we know from oral tradition amongst the Māori gives an inkling of the complexities that may have occurred in Iron Age communities, but are completely invisible in the archaeological record.

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Of course it hasn’t been all archaeology – I have seen stunning landscapes and some of the best rivers the North Island has to offer. Drier than normal winters and now a very hot summer have led to dried-up river beds in some places (a familiar Chilterns problem!). I have talked with farmers growing avocado and kiwi and discussed ongoing challenges in how to balance heritage land management, water procurement, and their production requirements. I’ve also been lucky enough to spot some fantastic local flora and fauna, and yes, I have even managed to fit in a little fishing!

They say travel broadens the mind; I am certain that my Antipodean experiences have opened my mind to a much broader range of possibilities when thinking about the preservation and interpretation of our Chilterns prehistoric landscapes. If only I could bring back this 25 degree weather….

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