Archaeological Sites

Motutapu is one of the earliest Maori settlement sites in the Auckland Region. The island was settled way more intensively than other islands in the Hauraki Gulf except for Motukorea (Browns Island). Ash from the Rangitoto eruption destroyed villages, gardens and forest but also provided a new wealth of rich ash modified soils enabling settlement to be re-established.

The island was visited between Rangitoto's ash showers as evidenced by the discovery of human and dog footprints in a block of eroded Rangitoto ash block discovered at the Sunde site on Motutapu's northern western shores

But even before the eruption of Rangitoto, Motutapu (Te Motutapu a Taikehu) had been the home of Maori for several generations. The name means the sacred island of Taikehu.

Over 370 Maori Archaeological sites recorded

  • The cultural landscape of the archaeological sites include pre- eruption archaic campsites and adze making sites
  • There are a number of significant pa sites on the island, together with numerous undefended settlements, terraced house sites, pits for storage, cooking areas, middens and stone working sites.
  • 372 sites have been recorded (as of May 2008) but is is likely many more subsurface deposits remain unrecorded. It is also highly likely that some sites will have been damaged or destroyed by farming or military activity. Refer a map of the sites (source: The Prehistory of New Zealand)
  • Settlement sites are spread across the whole island with some apparent clustering on the western leeward side and around the mountain and causeway stream catchments, open stream mouths and adjacent spurs.
  • The clustering around stream mouths and high number of distinct sites might suggest a rotational gardening system.

The Sunde Site - Motutapu's 'Pompeii'

The Sunde site discovery is one of the most aclaimed in New Zealand and has also aroused international interest. There is no known equivalent discovery anywhere else in New Zealand. The footprints have been dated as mid fifteenth century.

The Sunde site at West Point beach May 2010


The site was first discovered by archaeologist Rudi Sunde in 1958 when he noted a collection of artifacts that were eroding onto the beach. The area has been called the Sunde site ever since.

It is Motutapu's earliest recorded settlement, radio carbon dated to between 1250 and 1450

In 1981, Reg Nicol from Auckland University carried out more intensive excavations and found the footprints beneath the ash layer. The footprints were of an intrepid group of at least eight individuals (three children) and their dogs.

  • When people first settled here, the island was cloaked in native forest. They had quite a varied diet including fur seal, dog, tuatara, 25 species of bird, and fish (mainly snapper), but only 3 species of shellfish.
  • The excavations in 1970 located post molds, earth ovens (haangi) and hearths which all suggest an established hamlet.

Other facts about Sunde

  • A slab featuring the footprints and weighing around 250kg was removed from the site, blessed by Maori at a special ceremony 2nd Nov 2005 and lent to the Auckland War Memorial Museum.
  • Cultural material present both below and above the ash layer has provided valuable information about the timing of the eruption and its impact on Maori communities nearby.
  • It is also significant as an early adze manufacturing site. The early Maori residents may have come for the kai but they also came for the important local stone resource known as greywacke. The hard fine grained rock could be made into adzes and drill points which were important for fishhook production.
  • It is also one of the few surviving archaeological sites in the Auckland region dated from the inital period of Polynesian settlement and exploration of New Zealand.
  • The large quantity and range of artifacts recovered from the site suggests that the inhabitants were forced to flee during the Rangitoto eruption leaving behind many of their possessions.
  • No human remains have been found preserved under the ash layer so it is considered likely that they all managed to escape without any casualties. Likely they paddled their canoes to Waiheke, Motuihe or the mainland.
  • There is evidence that they returned, at least four times over several years, in between bursts of activity that sent showers of volcanic ash over the island.
  • The excavations in 1970 located post molds, earth ovens (haangi) and hearths which all suggest an established hamlet.

Gardening on Motutapu

The eruption of Rangitoto destroyed much of the island's forest but created a fertile soil for gardening. It is believed this was the main reason for the post eruptive settlements on the island. Kumara was probably the main crop and its cultivation is suggested in part by the large number of storage pits. Small patches of taro still grow in marshy areas and conditions here would have been suitable for gourd cultivations. Fern root may also have been encouraged, fragments of fern root have been identified from both storage pits and hearths.

Motutapu's most important conservation resource 

Motutapu is one of the largest , most diverse and easily accessed archaeological landscapes in the Auckland Region. The island has been the focus of some of the earliest systematic archaeological  surveys and investigations in New Zealand. The archaeology on Motutapu has contributed to important understandings of prehistory both at a national and regional level.

Archaeological sites and Pastoral Farming

Although farming has caused damage to sites in the past, pastoral farming carried out with proper understanding of the resource is one of the most satisfactory ways of preserving sites while enabling their surface features to be viewed.

Pastoral farming prevents the establishment of trees whose root action can lead to the eventual destruction of sites. The great majority of sites will continued to be managed under grazing. Other sites may be managed by establishing low growing native grasses such as Microlaena stipoides.