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Garden turned into 'treasure chest'
Digging deep: Don Millar beneath a replica of the Maori rock drawings he discovered at Pigeon Rock, Opihi River,
South Canterbury, in the late 1940s.
Excavation: Don found more than 1000 artefacts in his mother-in-law's
back garden at Tahunanui in Nelson in the 1960s.
By CAROLYN VEEN
I was 16 years old when Theo used our scout camp at Raincliff
as a base while he was working on copying Maori rock drawings in
the Opihi River area. Viewing those fascinating and haunting images
on the limestone created a lasting impression for me.
Totally shocked, was how Napier
author and archaeologist Don
Millar felt when learned he d won
the New Zealand Archaeological
Association s Public Archaeology
Award for 2011.
I m not a professional archaeol-
ogist, says the modest 80-year-
old, whose interest in archaeology
began when he was a teenager.
He believes it was always just a
case of being in the right place at
the right time, referring to the
buried treasure he found in his
mother-in-law s garden in 1964.
At the time all I wanted to do
was show them how an
archaeological site was excavated,
and half jokingly suggested set-
ting up a grid square in their back
garden. My mother-in-law was an
immaculate gardener and I was
very surprised when she agreed.
He proceeded to dig a small test
hole and this was progressively
excavated over five years. It
proved not only a section rich in
archaeology, but a training
ground for several future
His field archaeological
experiences began 65 years ago,
assisting Theo Schoon in
recording rock art in South Can-
I was 16 years old when Theo
used our scout camp at Raincliff
as a base while he was working on
copying Maori rock drawings in
the Opihi River area. When the
camp was over, a few of us stayed
behind for a couple of days to help
Theo -- carrying the camera gear
and sketch board.
Viewing those fascinating and
haunting images on the limestone
created a lasting impression for
About four years later, Don had
a hunch that Theo had not visited
another area where rock drawings
were a possibility. To satisfy his
curiosity he biked out to the
Pigeon Rock area and wandered
along the riverbed to a limestone
cliff face that was masked by wil-
Not only was it extensively
obscured, but the river had
changed course, undercutting the
rock shelter and leaving a deep
backwater between the limestone
face and the rapidly growing
willows. I knew what to look for
and sure enough there on the rock
face were several dark humanoid
shapes and other unrecognisable
forms. I was sure Theo had not
recorded this site.
Don knew it would be tricky to
record these drawings, so he and
three mates hatched an ingenious
plan and a month later they were
ready for the challenge.
We borrowed a small truck and
took several tractor tyre tubes to
the site, along with a small ladder
and enough timber to make a
small raft. Floating it on the back-
water enabled me to superimpose
a visual grid for copying the draw-
ings, and then I sent a copy of
them to the Canterbury Museum.
Sixteen years later, Don was
greatly disappointed when he
made a casual visit to the site
because the Pigeon Rock drawings
had virtually disappeared.
The increased humidity,
caused by the backwater and the
lower light levels from the shade
of the willows, had led to exten-
sive moss growth and eventual
flaking of the limestone surface.
That was sad but I was able to
record a brief review of the
remnants of the drawings and
forwarded it for inclusion in the
site recording scheme.
Later, in 1992, a review by
Aidan Challis of Canterbury rock
art sites noted this was the only
site where a record of successive
visits had been filed. Today, a
crayoned replica on a thick piece
of roughened polystyrene holds a
dominant position in his home.
It reminds of the privilege I
experienced in recording those
rock drawings more than 50 years
A former school principal and
honorary keeper of Maori taonga
at the Hawke s Bay Museum &
Art Gallery, this keen historian is
a collector of old bottles.
Two years ago, he and fellow
author Des Harris poured a fasci-
nating dose of local history from
their extensive collection of old
medicine bottles into their book
Napier's Medicine Makers giving a
clear picture of the unusual occu-
pation of our early chemists from
1860 to the 1950s.
In the late 19th century it
seems the pharmacist was one of
the most important dignitaries in
society. As well as mixing and
making potions, pills and
powders, these chemists worked
long hours and often had to take
on the role of the dentist, optician,
doctor and even the vet!
And, their shops were full with
everything. From standard
general-store items and panaceas
that promised miraculous results,
which, in hindsight, contained
some dangerously dodgy ingre-
dients, through to jars of imported
live leeches to aid in the
shuddering practice of blood-
Short of producing the genie,
their hilarious newspaper adver-
tisements claimed to magically
cure everything from liver
problems to loss of hair -- often
with the same bottle of potion! It s
not surprising to learn that a
number of these pioneer drug-
gists had more faith and enthusi-
asm than training and qualifi-
Living in Gisborne in the mid-
70s Don found shards of old medi-
cine bottles buried in his garden
and this led him on the path to
research the history of New Zea-
land pharmacies and the Amer-
ican glass manufacturers.
When I moved to Napier about
35 years ago, Des and I eventually
got to meet, and our parallel inter-
ests led to the desire to catalogue
Napier s intriguing medicinal his-
tory, says Mr Millar, who also
illustrated the book.
In many ways these chemists
were the early paramedics.
The book is now a key reference
for historic archaeology in the dis-
These brief accounts barely
scratch the surface of what this so
called amateur archaeologist
has achieved over many years and
in a variety of voluntary roles.
Don Millar has enhanced the
archaeological record in New Zea-
land; providing detailed and
meticulously drawn records, cata-
loguing a number of significant
collections for museums and most
significantly sharing his deep
knowledge and enthusiasm with
many hundreds of others.
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