Heritage, Culture & Arts

Marlborough’s rich history runs wide and deep, from the earliest Polynesian settlers on Te Pokohiwi-o-Kupe/Wairau, Bar to the European pioneers who built towns and planted our first grapevines.

These people, the way they lived, and how they dealt with history’s major events has shaped Marlborough into what it is today.

Those stories are all here, waiting to be discovered all over again in the places where they happened or in our galleries, museums, art and theatre productions.

Te Pokohiwi/Wairau Bar Heritage

Te Pokohiwi-o-Kupe/Wairau Bar, a gravel bar on Marlborough’s Cloudy Bay coastline where the Wairau River flows into the sea, is a place so historically significant that it is referred to as the birthplace of our nation.

Settled by Māori - the direct descendants of local iwi Rangitāne o Wairau - around 1300AD, it is one of the oldest known settlement sites in Aotearoa.

Te Pokohiwi-o-Kupe (which refers to the shoulder of the legendary navigator Kupe), incredible history was literally dug out by recreational fossickers, farming activities and later, scientists.

Fossicking was how, in 1939, 10-year-old schoolboy Jim Eyles famously found what has come to be described as the greatest archaeological find in New Zealand history: A 20cm moa egg, and a number of Māori artefacts. Modern analysis of the items found they dated from around 1300AD.

Jim’s discovery later led to the excavation of 40 graves of Rangitāne tūpuna (ancestors), some of which were displayed at Canterbury Museum. Ultimately several thousand taonga (treasures) and artefacts were removed. Tools, personal ornaments, moa bones, human remains (kōiwi tāngata) and even buried dwellings have been found.

In the 1960s Rangitāne, as kaitiaki (guardians) of the land, closed off the site to protect what remained of their tūpuna.

In 2009, Rangitāne brought their tūpuna home from the museum. They re-buried the remains at the Te Pokohiwi-o-Kupe, but allowed the Wairau Bar Research Group from Otago University to continue scientific research.

There is no road access to the burial site and it is currently off-limits to the public. By 2012 it was officially declared as wāhi tapu, recognising the land is sacred to Māori for traditional, spiritual and other cultural reasons.

European history

The south side of the Wairau River mouth was settled by Europeans in the 1840s, who set up a port to service Blenheim. James Wynen was the region's first shopkeeper and in 1847, with his brother William, he set up a highly lucrative business at Te Pokohiwi-o-Kupe/Wairau Bar. This included shipping and receiving goods, a store, accommodation house and drinking shanty.

Boats from Wellington and Nelson, not wanting to cross the bar, moored outside the Wairau River mouth. Cargo was discharged into Wynen's whale boats and taken up the river to be stored at his large raupō (bulrush) warehouse located on the banks of the Ōpaoa River. The warehouse was eventually converted into a shop.

A pilot house was built in 1868 to guide ships across the bar. It was the home of pilot James Bulliff, his wife Clara and their children. Today, it is the only pre-1900s building left in the area around the river mouth. The Pilot’s House site is privately owned and being preserved and restored with the support of iwi, the Marlborough District Council, Department of Conservation, Pouhere Taonga Heritage New Zealand, Marlborough Museum and local landowners.

The southern end of Te Pokohiwi/Wairau Bar can be viewed from across the river, accessed by Wairau Bar Road.

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