Accurate dating of Maori past using sea shells thanks to successful cross-collaboration funding


The archaeological collections of the Auckland War Memorial Museum will be used in research project AAccurate dating of the Maori past using sea shells after receiving a prestigious and much contested grant from the Marsden Fund of the Royal Society Te Apārangi.

From mid-2022, the grant is awarded to an interagency collaboration led by Associate Professor Fiona Petchey of the Radiocarbon Dating Laboratory at the University of Waikato with associate researchers, Professor Atholl Anderson, Dr Louise Furey ( archeology curator at Auckland Museum), Dr Gerard O’Regan (Māori curator at Otago Museum) and Dr Magdalena Schmid (statistician at Kiel University, Germany).

The three-year research program aims to document the variation in the marine radiocarbon signal (also known as 14C) using marine shells from Maori archaeological sites. A “South Pacific Calibration Curve” will be constructed to convert measured radiocarbon years to calendar years in order to give greater precision in the timing of major events and phases of Maori history, including arrival at Aotearoa, changes in the economy and changes in material culture.

Dr Louise Furey, Curator of Archeology at the Auckland Museum, said: “The project is long overdue and will make a significant contribution to reinterpreting our understanding of the Maori past using archeology. We rely heavily on radiocarbon dating to interpret results from archaeological sites and place them in the context of 500 years of Maori history before the arrival of Europeans. Age refinement will also allow for more precise focus of Maori and whakapapa stories and alignment with archaeological findings.

Changes in 14C over time reflect climate change and this research aims to refine radiocarbon dating at Aotearoa by measuring radiocarbon levels in marine shells in Maori clusters (or garbage piles) against 14C in coal. of wood and bones of land birds of the same profession. lying down.

The 1300s to 1500s were a critical period with the onset of the “Little Ice Age” and environmental changes that affected the Maori settlement, the ability to garden in some areas, and access to other food resources. The Auckland Museum’s collections from this period will play a large role in the dating project.

Radiocarbon (14C) is an isotope of carbon naturally present in all plants and animals. After death, the radiocarbon decays very gradually and the remaining amount can be used to estimate the age of animal or plant remains. This project goes beyond conventional radiocarbon methodologies by combining archaeological material from land and sea, allowing the team to observe more connections between people and environmental change.

Dr David Gaimster, Managing Director of the Auckland War Memorial Museum, says: “As Aotearoa’s oldest research institution, working with other institutions collectively strengthens our research results. This collaboration made it possible to make revolutionary archaeological discoveries.

The new South Pacific calibration curve will also benefit the more than 4,000 existing shell dates at New Zealand sites and significantly reduce the calendar age range, thereby increasing the dataset to understand regional histories.

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