Archaeologist Mary O’Keeffe is Wellington’s answer to Indiana Jones

By Benn Jeffries
Photography by Anna Briggs

Featured in Capital #70.
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Veteran archaeologist Mary O’Keeffe talks to Benn Jeffries about diving on shipwrecks, digging up ancient roads, and uncovering New Zealand’s complicated past.

Nestled between tall buildings in the drone of city noise sits Antrim House, a curious slice of Wellington history, and an architectural gem. Historian Michael King said if New Zealand has anything to offer world architecture, it is our wooden structures. Appropriate then, for the Heritage New Zealand headquarters to occupy such a building. Mary O’Keeffe runs from its grand front doors to meet me in a café on a rainy Wellington day. She isn’t wearing a cobweb-covered fedora, nor is she running from a five-ton boulder barrelling down the hill, but she is Wellington’s answer to Indiana Jones.

‘I’d love to say I was that kid who sat in the back yard and dug things up, but I wasn’t. It was sheer serendipity.’ In the 1980s when the government still ran summer job programmes Mary got involved in one that focused on history. She had no idea what to expect and ended up spending the summer recording archaeological sites in the Bay of Plenty in anticipation of the kiwi fruit industry. Mary became hooked and went back for the next few summers, eventually going on to study archaeology at Otago. In the early ‘90s she began her own company, Heritage Solutions, a one-woman outfit not afraid to get her hands dirty. Over the years, Mary has helped unearth some of our country’s buried secrets, piecing together clues to unravel our tangled narrative.

‘Small things tell big stories,’ she says.

‘The fundamental purpose of archaeology is storytelling and national identity. What does it mean to be a New Zealander in the twenty-first century? What are we like as a people? How do we live our lives? And how has that changed over the several hundred years that people have been running around New Zealand? That’s a fantastic story. Archaeology gives us the physical evidence of that story.’

In the grand scheme of human history, New Zealand’s isn’t very long. The first Polynesian people are thought to have arrived around 900 years ago.

‘People often say “Oh but, it’s so recent”. Actually, that’s part of the story. New Zealand was the last major landmass to be discovered and settled, which means we’re the last chapter in the story. That puts us in a really particular place.’

I told Mary our interview would only take half an hour or so, but within five minutes of our meeting it became clear I had seriously miscalculated. She speaks with a kind of passion for her work that marks a master of a trade. During the interview, she apologises several times for her giddy excitement over the topic she loves so much.
Over three decades, Mary’s work has taken her all around New Zealand.

One of her most memorable projects was beneath Lake Waikaremoana, surveying two 19th century shipwrecks.
I had to double-check I’d heard right: ‘Shipwrecks in Lake Waikaremoana?’

‘It’s a neat story,’ she says.‘The Department of Conservation wanted to analyse the wrecks but at the time there weren’t any maritime archaeologists in the county. I was an archaeologist and I knew how to dive.’ In good Kiwi fashion Mary made things work. ‘I was the only show in town,’ she says, grinning. While the wrecks readily capture our imagination, Mary maintains they are only a small part of the narrative. ‘It’s not just the shipwrecks,’ she says, ‘it’s the storytelling. Why are they there? How did they get there?’

The wrecks date back to 1869, during the New Zealand land wars. Government forces were chasing Te Kooti through Te Urewera and thought they had him trapped at the north end of the lake. Instead of walking around the lakeside, they build two 30-foot boats to sail across to him in a surprise attack. Te Kooti escaped to the Bay of Plenty, of course, so the government troops scuttled the boats for fear they’d fall into enemy hands.

As Mary’s career progressed and a family came along, she focused her work in Wellington. She mentions two of her favourite digs in the capital.

‘The first one has to be Plimmer’s Ark under the Old Bank Arcade. As they renovated the building in 1996, my colleague who was the archaeologist on site needed an extra pair of hands, so I went to help her. The whole premise of the site is mental, because shipwrecks are normally out at sea – and here’s a shipwreck in the middle of the city. Most of the keel was buried under the building. We just kept finding more and more bits of the ship.’ It’s part, she says, of Wellington’s story pre and post the 1855 earthquake. ‘It shows us where the shoreline was. We were really excited by the find, the developer not so much.’

The developer or client normally bears the cost of archaeological investigation when something of interest is found. Tools are laid down and progress on the construction comes to a halt. ‘It’s a complex relationship’ Mary says, ‘but I find once the client has the story explained to them, they get it and they buy into it.’

The other project Mary had to include in her list was the more recent McKay’s to Peka Peka expressway. Because the proposed road was going through land that was completely unmodified, Mary knew the archaeology would be intact. Every ounce of fresh soil that was turned during the construction process, Mary was there observing.

‘I was the principal archaeologist on the project. I recorded two hundred and thirty-something new sites. But it’s not so much the individual sites I recorded; once again it’s the totality of the story. I call the coastal dunes of the Kāpiti coastal area “the fish and meat aisle of the supermarket.” People weren’t living there permanently. I found no sign of permanent occupation or pre-European Māori garden. It appears people went to this area for really specific resources like the kaimoana. They had these intense shellfish gathering sessions and processed everything on the spot. There also appeared to be an extensive network of navigable wetlands. So rather than carrying this huge amount of food on their backs, they just chucked it in their waka, and paddled it home. It really did feel as though they were stocking up the fridge.’

The irony is it took the construction of a modern highway to reveal the ancient road. The process was destructive, but it yielded data Mary couldn’t get any other way. In her public talks about this project she calls it ‘paddling down the highway.’

While New Zealand’s history tells the stories of two distinct peoples journeying to and settling Aotearoa, Mary prefers the more ancient of the two.

‘The Polynesian story is far more kick-ass. The whole story of Polynesian voyaging through the Pacific – God-damn! These are not people who were drifting, these were deliberate voyages, they were cracking good navigators. An amazing story. Polynesian voyaging is one of the great stories of humanity and we’re not really giving it the front and centre it should have.’

Mary is currently working on a national database of all of New Zealand’s archaeological sites at Heritage New Zealand. It’s an important piece of work but I can tell she’s twitching to plunge her hands into soil again.

‘Favourite Indiana Jones film?’ I ask.

‘Got to be the first one. Classic Indie getting chased by that big stone ball. Can I just add, my stock whip skills are not as good as his, but I’m working on it,’ she says with a grin.


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