It might shine a light on a slice of New Zealand's past,
but a Stewart Island archaeological project could also make
history, writes Shane Gilchrist.
Price's Inlet in Kaipipi Bay, one of the many coves that
comprise Paterson Inlet, is, like much of Stewart Island,
Yet recently it has been the focus of plenty of activity as
archaeologists have gone beneath the surface in an attempt to
''fill in the blanks'' in its history.
Last month, three archaeologists - two marine, one
terrestrial - headed to Price's Inlet, home to a Norwegian
whalers' base (otherwise known as ''Kaipipi Shipyard'') that
operated between 1926 and 1932. Their goal: to collect and
collate field notes, measurements and photographs in an
attempt to better protect the site.
Known as ''Project Njord'', the Southland Coastal Heritage
Inventory Project (Schip) endeavour aims to be the first
archaeological survey to result in the protection of a
post-1900 marine heritage site in New Zealand under the
Historic Places Act (1993).
Project manager Matthew Schmidt, the New Zealand Historic
Places Trust regional archaeologist (Otago/Southland), says
New Zealand's marine heritage is a forgotten aspect of our
history and is not well-protected under the Act.
''The Act only applies to vessels that sank before 1900. That
means any vessel built before 1900 that sinks after then is
However, under Section 9 (2) of the Act, a post-1900 site may
be declared an ''archaeological site'' if there is
significant evidence relating to its historical and cultural
''At the moment, because it is a post-1900 site, the
Norwegian remains don't have any legal protection under the
Historic Places Act,'' Dr Schmidt says.
''If people tried to take things, the usual theft laws would
apply, but we wanted to increase the protection in regards
the heritage because, at present, we couldn't get involved if
someone stole something. To get a declaration would mean it
is classed as an archaeological site.''
Though the isolation of Price's Inlet reduces the risk of
fossickers taking historically significant items, the site
has suffered nonetheless.
''In terms of fossicking, it's the big stuff like propellers
that we are worried about,'' Dr Schmidt says.
''All the loose stuff has gone, so someone would have to make
quite an effort to take anything. It is quite inaccessible,
but looking at the Otago goldfields ... well, people do want
to get stuff.''
Dr Schmidt, who hopes the declaration will come into effect
by the end of the year, says the reason he and his team are
going to such lengths is because of the ''special nature'' of
the Price's Inlet remains.
''It is a highly intact early 20th-century whalers' base. You
can walk around and see how people lived and did things. It
has also got a really good marine archaeological record, as
we found out.
''It is a unique site. There are other whaling sites around,
but this is unique because it is about a Norwegian company
having a foothold in New Zealand to exploit whaling in the
In their article Pioneer Whalers in the Ross Sea,
1923-1933, New Zealand historian James Watt and American
co-author William Barr wrote that the Norwegian whaling
factory ship Sir James Clark Ross, commanded by
Captain Carl Canton Larsen, reached the Ross Ice Shelf on
Christmas Eve 1923, accompanied by five catchers (smaller
They had been dispatched by a Norwegian whaling company which
had gained permission to hunt from the British Government.
''During that first season, they killed and processed 221
whales [211 blue whales and 10 fin whales], which yielded
17,300 barrels of oil,'' the authors note.
During the following decade, Norwegian ships employed by the
Rosshavet company killed and processed 9122 whales, about
half the total harvest of all ships operating in the open
waters of the Ross Sea south of the pack-ice belt.
According to Barr and Watt, 18,238 whales (mainly blue
whales) were killed, producing 1.49 million barrels of oil.
''From 1924 onwards, the Rosshavet catchers wintered in
Paterson Inlet on Stewart Island, and from 1925 onwards a
well-equipped shipyard, Kaipipi Shipyard, operated on Price
Peninsula in Paterson Inlet to service the Rosshavet ships,''
the authors stated.
Dr Schmidt says close to 40 people worked at the Norwegian
base at Price's Inlet before it was abandoned in 1932.
''The base acted as a repair centre for the boats. The chaser
boats would go down to the Ross Sea, catch whales, process
them and the oil would go on to the factory boat, which would
sail off and these guys would come back to the base, where
guys would have different jobs.
''Some would have been engineers, who would talk to the
boatmen about what needed to be fixed; others would have
operated a winch or pull boats up the slipway; there would
have been a cook, a carpenter. They all worked hurriedly to
get the boats ready for the next season.
''But the most important guy on the base was the diver. His
job was dangerous. He'd wear one of those old 'John Brown'
diving suits; he'd walk around under water with pipes
attached to him and check for damage. He had his own hut, a
tin building. He lived near the manager's house,'' Dr Schmidt
''Brilliant'' weather last month helped the Project Njord
team immensely. Water visibility allowed marine
archaeologists Matthew Carter and Andy Dodd unhindered access
to structures such as a slipway and the Othello, a vessel
with its own interesting history.
''It's an amazing structure,'' Dr Schmidt says.
''It was built in the United States in 1853 as a sailing
whaler and was used for whaling for about 15 years before
being sold. Eventually, it was used as a coal barge near
Bluff. The Norwegians towed it over from Bluff because it
wasn't watertight and used it as a dry jetty. So it is a
complete whaling ship from 1853 - that's really uncommon.
''We knew the Othello was there but we didn't know
what condition it was in or the amount of debris that was on
the seabed or how far the slipway extended into the water.''
A dozen volunteers from Stewart Island also helped. They
spent a day clearing vegetation, enabling Dr Schmidt to have
''a good look around''.
''I knew where the features of the site were but, with only
four of us on site, there was no way we could have cleared
the vegetation. The Stewart Islanders are quite passionate
about their heritage. They see it as an essential part of
''We weren't sure how intact the different evidence of the
buildings was. It was all overgrown. We knew there were
foundations to the manager's building but were unsure what
standard they were in so we had to get that cleared.
Likewise, the winch.
''Previously, only two of the piles to the bunkhouse had been
found. We discovered the remaining two . . . We also wanted
to check the number of propellers and other pieces left on
The Southland Coastal Heritage Inventory Project
(Schip) is a partnership between the New Zealand Historic
Places Trust (NZHPT), Environment Southland, the Department
of Conservation, the New Zealand Archaeological Association,
the Southland District Council and Te Ao Marama Ltd.