Heritage, Culture & Arts

Marlborough’s rich history runs wide and deep, from the earliest Polynesian settlers of the Wairau Bar to the first European pioneers who built our towns and planted our first grapevines.

These people, the way they lived their lives 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.

Marlborough has a wealth of arts and culture, from art galleries to museums through to concerts and theatre productions.

Follow the Marlborough Arts and Crafts Trail, enjoy a glass of wine while listening to live music at a vineyard or on stage at Marlborough's new ASB Theatre.

Wairau Bar Heritage

The Wairau Bar, on Marlborough’s Cloudy Bay coastline, is a place so historically significant that archaeologists have referred to it as the birthplace of our nation.

Local Maori call the boulder bank Te Pokohiwi o Kupe (The Shoulder of Kupe). The Boulder Bank’s 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 Maori artefacts. Modern analysis of the items found they date from around 1300AD.

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

In the 1960s Rangitane, as kaitiaki or guardians of the land, closed off the site to protect what remained of their tupuna.

In 2009, Rangitane brought their tupuna home from the museum. They re-buried the remains at the Wairau Bar, 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 wahi tapu, recognising the land is sacred to Maori for traditional, spiritual and other cultural reasons.

European history

The Wairau Bar’s southern side, across the river from the Wairau Bar, 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 the entrance of the 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 raupo (bullrush) warehouse located on the banks of the Omaka River. The warehouse was eventually converted into a shop.

A pilot house was built at the Wairau Bar in 1868 to guide ships across the bar. It was the home of pilot James Bulliff, his wife Clara and their children. Ttoday, it is the only pre-1900s building left in the area around the rivermouth. The Pilot’s House site is owned by Alison Orchard and is being preserved and restored with the support of Iwi, Marlborough District Council, DOC, Historic Places Trust, Marlborough Museum and local land owners.

The southern side of the Wairau Bar is open to the public and accessed by Wairau Bar Road.

Search & book

View My Trip