Month: April 2018

A glimpse into the Palaeolithic

Museums worldwide preserve and record the remains of technology used by our predecessors. Use of particular materials has led to a way of categorising whole groups of people in specific places and times. We refer to people of the Palaeolithic Age, the Neolithic Age, the Bronze Age, the Iron Age and more recently, the Industrial Age.

Stored safely in small drawers in a Whanganui Regional Museum collection storeroom is a whole series of Palaeolithic stone tools produced by our human and pre-human predecessors. This amazing collection of stone tools was collected by H W Seton-Karr in North Africa during the late 19th century and donated to our Museum in 1935.

Looking at these tools leads to a sense of wonder about the people who made them, who they might have been and what their lives were like.

1. Oldowan stone tool

 Oldawan stone tool

One drawer holds extremely ancient, rounded chipped stones called Oldawan tools which were created by pre-human hominids over 1.5 million years ago. These very clever hominids called Homo habilis (known as the Handymen) walked on two feet, lived in Africa and used stones gathered from around them as their technological solution to practical tasks. Perhaps they were skinning animals, cutting meat, or processing plant materials. The tools are rounded stones, small enough to fit into a modern human hand and flaked at one end, probably to create sharp stone fragments to use like a knife.

2. Acheulian hand axe

 Acheulean stone hand axe

Yet another iteration of humankind, living in the period from  1.8 million to 300,000 years ago, developed much greater skill in working stone, creating teardrop shaped tools called Acheulean hand-axes, named after the valley in Europe where these tools were first discovered. These tools are shaped, working hand-axes made from stone by an upright-walking hominid species called Homo erectus (or Upright man), who used fire, created pigments and transported different kinds of stones across great distances. The remains of Homo erectus have been found associated with Acheulean tools. Acheulean tool technology lasted more than a million years and several hundred thousand of them have been discovered in numerous localities across Africa, Europe and Asia. A significant collection is held in Whanganui Regional Museum. Acheulean hand-axes are also associated with the hominid species, Homo heidelbergensis.

Stone tool manufacture was further developed by two later human species, Homo sapiens neanderthalus (Neanderthals) and Homo sapiens sapiens (us). This period of greater technological advancement is referred to as the Upper Palaeolithic. The tools are more intricately worked, with evidence of many more flakes of stone being removed, greater care in the overall shaping of the tools and a wider variety of tools created, including arrow-heads and spear-points.

3. Neolithic stone axe-head

 Neolithic stone axe head

Over thousands of years the technological skills of Homo sapiens sapiens became increasingly more complex and stone tools were created that are instantly recognisable to us today. One Neolithic stone axe-head in the Museum collection resembles a modern axe-head. It is a beautifully made tool, smooth, carefully shaped and fit for purpose. The person who made it was probably not all that different to us.

At some time in the far distant future, as with all the ages of humans who have gone before us, our discarded technology could provide a picture of who we are and how we lived.


Margie Beautrais is the Educator at Whanganui Regional Museum.

Pat Hanna and The Diggers

Even as we go through the first days of autumn, there is still unfinished summer business to attend to before Easter. New Zealand is playing England in a test match, with a pink ball it is true, but nonetheless a traditional highlight of the season since 1879 when the first England team sailed into Christchurch after a thorough drubbing in Melbourne – and en route to a showdown with the gentlemen of Hoboken, New York.

Even though it wasn’t until 1956 that New Zealand won an official test match, and another 22 years before they finally beat England, cricket dominated summer sport here for a hundred years or more. There were dozens of clubs in Whanganui, many hundreds around the country, and a swirling social life beyond the boundary. Visiting teams came and went, though for many years not the cream of Australia as we were usually considered worthy only of non-test playing B teams – mixtures of old stagers and up-and-comers.

New Zealand did provide Australia with one legend of their game, Clarrie Grimmett. Born in Dunedin on 25 December 1891, Grimmett took his leg spin skills to Sydney at the age of 22 and eventually became the first bowler to take over 200 test wickets, all of them for Australia. Although his team mate Bill O’Reilly described him as “the best Christmas present Australia ever received from that country”, he joins Phar Lap and Russell Crowe as one that got away.

2. Pat Hanna, WWI

 Pat Hanna in uniform during World War I. Courtesy of the Australian Variety Theatre Archive

The Whanganui Regional Museum has unearthed a cricketing link with another trans-Tasman celebrity amongst its extensive collection of early gramophone records. Pat Hanna was a member of the Otago Regiment which fought in Egypt, France and Belgium during World War I, and remained behind with the occupation forces in 1919 as an entertainment officer. This posting grew into a fully-fledged vaudeville troupe called “The Diggers”. On Hanna’s return to New Zealand, the troupe was demobilised into “Pat Hanna’s Diggers”, a concert party of up to 25 singers, dancers and humourists, which toured the country to great acclaim.

His on-stage showstoppers, developed from war-time routines, were monologues in the role of a stereotypical army chaplain. The best-known of those were “The Gospel According to Cricket” and “Discourses on Cricket – Even Unto the Fifth Test Match”.

1. Pat Hanna recording

 Pat Hanna recording: Pat Hanna Discourses on Cricket. Ref: 1802.7093

Hanna, like Grimmett, was soon lured away to Sydney where he became a bit of a star, first with the increasingly Aussie “Diggers” and then as a solo artiste. His stage and radio fame led to a recording career. A 78 rpm thermoplastic disc of one of those old hits, “Discourses on Cricket”, is in the Museum collection. He later tried his luck on the big screen as writer and star of the second-ever Australian sound movie called, perhaps inevitably, “Diggers”. Next he moved into directing with the sequel “Diggers in Blighty”, which was not a great success. Undeterred, Pat Hanna continued in film and radio for decades before retiring to Britain where he died in 1973.


Frank Stark is Director of the Whanganui Regional Museum.

Reunited with the bones of their ancestors

Over the last few years the Whanganui Regional Museum has been working on repatriating the human remains in the collection.  After extensive research and testing, these tūpuna are finally being sent home to rest.

Check out the last repatriation here:


The Raetihi Inferno

Recently we saw the 100 year anniversary of the Raetihi Fire. It started with a customary scrub burn-off which gale-force winds fanned into a devastating inferno that transformed the landscape, and memories, of the local people.

Doris Wallace remembered the events of 19 March 1918. She woke to a strange stillness and a dark sky and thought she could smell smoke. She recalled that the wind was so strong she was afraid to let go of her son’s hand in case he was whipped away from her. Her husband Bert returned from gathering rams and told her “Raetihi was burning”. Around 10.00pm the night before, a red glow had been seen on the horizon, and that glow had evolved into a massive fire stretching from Mangoihe to Makaranui, about 26 kilometres wide, burning everything in its path.

1. Letter exerpt

Letter from Charlotte Barron to Annie Montgomerie. Charlotte was looking after Annie’s property while she was in the UK with her sons during the war. This part of the letter reads, “You would read in ‘Auckland Weekly’ the account of that awful fire, we had doors blown in and windows blown out and the house was in an awful mess, leaves and twigs everywhere, the fire would have been through here too only for the rain coming when it did, that hill of Fernie’s (over from Brass’s flat) was blazing and the sparks had set fire to some of the trees on this side of the river so that the fire had only to get into this bit of bush on the track in front of the house and the whole thing would have gone, I cannot describe to you how awful it was we had got that basket of silver out of the sitting room and clothes and a few other things and were preparing to go to the shearers where when down came the rain”.  Ref: 2017.35

The autumn had been long and dry with little rainfall, and fighting the fire was very difficult. Some families had been evacuated, while others had tried to get out on their own, but the smoke was so thick that they were driven back into their homes. The Wallaces decided to stay at home on their farm, their young son lying on the floor so he could breathe better. While the phone lines still worked, neighbouring farms rang each other intermittently to see how they were faring.

At midday the smoke was so thick it nearly blocked out the sun. Bulls School was closed because of the smoke covering the town, and even Wellington was affected by a smoke pall forcing motor car drivers to put on their lights.

Like many families in the region, the Wallaces started to patrol their house and douse the many sparks that tried to take hold. Then finally, relief. The wind changed direction and the rain began to fall. Despite the rain, the fire continued to flare up throughout the night so that, according to Doris Wallace, “the hills twinkled with a myriad of lights and darkness was shot with showers of golden flowers”.

Doris also remembered trying to make a simple cup of tea to settle everyone after the awful events. The water in the tanks, however, was smokier than a ham, and the river was full of dead fish and ash. She put out milk pans to collect rainwater over night, but found her son swimming in them the next morning!

Stories about the fire are filled with near misses and close calls. The very heavily pregnant Mrs Sopp was at home with her two children when the fire hit their property.  They escaped the house and had to crawl along the fence line to get away from the flames and smoke. Dr Crawford of Whanganui sent his Model T Ford up to the farm to rescue the family.

2. Bags of potatoes

 Bags of potatoes harvested from the Kowhai Park gardens, ready to send to Raetihi as a gift after the fire. Ref: 1802.3160.

Another man ran from his house holding his baby but slipped into a culvert and three feet of water. He somehow managed to hold the baby above the water, and his wife was able to rescue them both.

The devastation was huge. Thousands of acres of farmland were destroyed and nearly sixty homes and businesses were burnt. The Akersten family became the only human casualties. They were found in their house dead, the mother and the father shielding their baby in a vain attempt to shelter it. While most cattle sought refuge in the river, thousands of sheep perished in their paddocks and were found piled against fences or hiding under logs, and many of those that survived were so badly burnt that they had to be destroyed. The smell affected the area for weeks.

Government loans helped to alleviate the suffering, and allowed for crops to be replanted and new stock purchased. Families lived with friends and relatives or in tents until their homes could be rebuilt, which was difficult as much of the milled timber had been destroyed in the fire.

But the optimistic spirit of the region persisted. When government and local authorities visited, the women insisted on making them lunch while the men showed them areas where the grass was already beginning to grow again.

(Ref: The Generation Gap: Unimportant People and the Parapara. Wallace, Doris; 1973)

Sandi Black is the Archivist at Whanganui Regional Museum.