I’m studying sacrificial deposits made by people of a lo-tech culture in Sweden 3000 years ago, largely in wetlands. This was long before any word relevant to the area was written. The objects were mainly recovered during the decades to either side of 1900. Yesterday while trawling through back issues of the Journal of Wetland Archaeology I came across a really cool paper on a similar theme. It’s about wetland deposits made by lo-tech people and excavated during the 20th century. But in this case the stuff was still being deposited in the 19th century AD, the objects are perfectly preserved, and the ethnic group in question is still around with an unbroken oral tradition.
People came to New Zealand only in about 1280 from Polynesia. On the islands they eventually developed Maori culture. It was one of the last areas of the planet’s land mass to be colonised by people, and also one of the last to be invaded by Europeans in turn. This happened at a time when colonial genocide was no longer comme il faut, and so the Maori are in unusually good shape today for an indigenous minority.
Caroline Phillips et al.’s 2002 paper treats Maori wooden objects found in wetlands. They range from combs and small tools over pieces of canoes to ornately carved lintels for ceremonial buildings. As so often with wetland small finds, the contexts are generally very poorly documented, but there’s enough archaeological, historical and ethnohistorical information to state that the deposits were made for several distinct reasons. Many finds can probably be explained by a wood-carving technique where pieces were stored in a bog behind the workshop between carving sessions in order to keep the wood soft and free from cracks. Others look more like votive deposits. And then there’s a fascinating episode from the 19th century that is alluded to only very briefly in the paper.
A group of Maori built a “house of parliament”on the North Island, in the traditional style with fine carvings. A brief period of use was cut short by an influenza epidemic, which I assume would have been highly lethal to the long-isolated Maori. The survivors tore the building down, deposited the carvings and structural timbers in a bog, and declared it taboo! This suggests to me that many pieces of fine wood carving found in New Zealand bogs were not placed there to keep the wood soft and did not remain there because a wood carver happened to get killed in one of the perennial raids.
Bronze Age deposits in the Lake Mälaren area, at least the subset of objects that farmers and ditch diggers have selected for submission to museums, consist almost exclusively of bronzes. There is no known practical reason to dunk them in a fen. But still, it’s fascinating to think that Maori archaeologists are in a situation relative to the prehistoric period they study that is comparable to if I had begun my research into the Bronze Age some time in the 5th century BC. I wonder if there are stone axes in those New Zealand bogs as well.
Caroline Phillips, Dilys Johns, & Harry Allen (2002). Why did Maori bury artefacts in the wetlands of pre-contact Aotearoa / New Zealand? Journal of Wetland Archaeology, 2, 39-60 Oxford.