Written by Ray Prebble, September 2017
On 4 April 1969 (Good Friday), an amateur expedition from Napier discovered the remains of five moa in a cave at Urewera National Park, near Lake Waikaremoana. The expedition members were Rod Gallen, Fred and Maire Prebble, their son, Ray, and his friend, Christopher Dempsey. Ray and Chris were 12 years old at the time.
Rod owned a bach on Onepoto Road, near the lake. He had discovered the cave on a hike and thought it worth looking at. The Prebbles and Chris drove from Napier up to Waikaremoana on 3 April and set up a caravan next to Rod's bach. Next morning, after breakfast, they set off for the cave.
The cave entrance was "just a black hole in the bank from the outside, with the bank rising sharply above it, dripping with a variety of ferns" . It was reasonably accessible (just under person height), and very roomy inside, but the floor sloped steeply and torches were needed. Rod went in first, sliding down the loose earth and leaves, and discovered what he identified as moa bones on the cave floor, where it flattened out just before ending in a rock face. Fred, Ray and Chris soon joined him. There was a hole in the cave floor leading to another cave, over 2 metres down, and it was clear there were a lot more bones down there. The party went back to Rod's bach for more equipment, including ropes and hand shovels, and returned around an hour later.
Fred enlarged the hole in the cave floor with his fold-out army shovel, and after a brief discussion about safety, Chris was lowered down on a rope. He became very excited about the huge number of bones, and Ray was lowered next. There was only enough room to squat. The lower cave was around 1.5 metres wide, 1 metre high and 6 metres long, with a dog-leg at one end. The boys carefully dug up a large quantity of moa bones and passed them up to Rod and Fred in a bag. Ray was interested in archaeology at the time and was aware of the need for care, but the excavation was driven more by excitement than science. The digging was made easier by the fact that many of the bones that had become buried were under a layer of pumice.
The party made two more trips to the cave over the weekend. On one trip Rod met with a park ranger, who gave his permission to excavate the bones on the understanding that they would eventually be returned to the park.
At the end of the holiday weekend the bones were taken back to the Prebble house, at Chaucer Road, Napier. Fred and Ray washed them under a hose on the driveway. Ray then laid out the bones on newspaper on the rumpus room floor. On Fred's suggestion they coated them to preserve them. Ray tabulated the various bones from all the moa, and it soon became obvious that there were a great many missing. Another expedition was needed, and this was planned for Queen's Birthday weekend (31 May to 2 June 1969).
Ray, Fred, Maire and Rod travelled to Waikaremoana, this time in Rod's car. A lot more bones were excavated (by Ray, Fred and Rod) on this second trip. The bones of another small moa were found in another cave (making six in all).
Back at home Ray worked on fitting the skeletons together, sorting, gluing broken bones, and attempting to allocate them to the five skeletons based on size, state of decomposition and colour. Fred and Maire knew Ron Ordish, who worked at the Dominion Museum, and so Maire helped Ray write to him. Ron was an entomologist, and so passed the letter on to Dr J. C. Yaldwyn, Assistant Director of the Museum and curator of moa bones. Dr Yaldwyn helped greatly by supplying Ray with a technical monograph on moa, and made helpful comments on various descriptions and drawings Ray sent over several years.
The largest moa had very robust bones, but they were dark brown, crumbly, soft and fairly decomposed. The second-largest moa had yellower bones, very hard and generally in good condition, and there seemed to be a fairly complete skeleton, so Ray decided to concentrate on this one. The number of vertebrae a moa should have according to the literature appeared to make the neck far too long,and so Ray adjusted the number back accordingly. The vertebrae were less well preserved than the other bones, and it was sometimes difficult to distinguish the vertebrae of the two largest moa.
Based on drawings Ray sent, DrYaldwyn pointed out that the bones in the tarsus of the constructed moa had not fused properly, indicating an immature bird. From their size and other characteristics (including the relatively slender leg bones). Ray decided it must be a specimen of Dinornis maximus.
When Ray had put together what he thought was something like a complete skeleton, Fred constructed a wire frame and a wooden base for the moa, complete with stabilising wires, and it was constructed, head erect (like an ostrich), in line with the photographs Ray had seen. Despite having a large number of (what Rod Gallen had identified as) oesophageal rings, Fred and Ray could not work out how to incorporate these in the skeleton and they were set aside. The completed moa skeleton was placed on the glassed-in front verandah of the Prebble house for all to admire.
Rod contacted the Daily Telegraph newspaper, who sent a reporter up to the house. Chris came home with Ray from school one Wednesday, and after moving the moa outside onto the lawn, they had their photos taken with it. The article and photo in the newspaper caused a fuss at Napier Intermediate School. Ray's Form 2 teacher. Miss Ellen B. Roberts, brought her ornithology group to see the moa, and Ray was forced to do a presentation.
The completed skeleton was to be given back to the park, but there was the question of what to do with the other bones. Maire and Fred thought it would be educational to donate some to Napier Intermediate School, so Ray took them to school, but what followed was far from educational. The principal selected the best bones for himself, then came and placedthe box with the remaining bones on a desk and offered them to Ray's class. There was a free for all as children grabbed bones and argued over who had the best piece.
Rod Gallen then contacted Ron Ward at Wycliffe Intermediate School, at Onekawa, Napier. He offered to take the moa up to Waikaremoana and have it on display at Camp Kaitawa, a camp for school children, until a new museum had been built by the lake. The skeleton was transferred to the school, propped with pillows, and with Ray lying on his stomach holding the neck, which protruded from the back of the station wagon. It arrived, with a few broken toes, at the school.
It was on display for some time at Camp Kaitawa. However, In November 1972 Ray's brother/ who was finishing his teacher training, was looking around Wycliffe Intermediate School for a job possibility and happened to see the moa stashed away unceremoniously in the boiler room. The Prebble family retrieved the moa from the school.
The Napier Museum was not interested in the moa, and after holding on to the skeleton (and the boxes of additional bones) it was eventually donated by Fred and Maire Prebble to the Taupō Museum through Ken Niven, who became Director of the Museum in 1980.
The re-articulation of the moa skeleton was not a cheap process and very time consuming. First the moa would need to be completely dismantled then packed and moved to a conservation studio, the glues and coating removed, repairs made to broken bones and only then could the skeleton be re-constructed and transported back to the museum.
The fundraising for the project was driven by the 'Friends of the Taupō Museum' and there were generous donations from the community.
Judith Streat began work on the moa in 2017. She set up a studio in the Niven room and the first stage was to dismantle the skeleton. A time consuming job that Curator Bernise Williams was pleased to help out with. Each bone was given an identification number and label so that the skeleton could be re-assembled in the correct order.
Unfortunately Judith was unable to complete the re-articulation process due to personal reasons and the project was picked up by Mike Huaki and Steven Brookbanke - two museum technicians with a vast amount of experience of working with artefacts including skeletons at Te Papa and Auckland Museum.
In February 2020 Mike and Steven delivered the finished skeleton to the museum and installed it in the main gallery.