Dr Susan Bulmer

1933 – 2016

Pioneering archaeologist in New Guinea and Aotearoa
Founder of the Friends of Maungawhau
Namesake of the hefty New Guinea fruit bat, Aproteles bulmerae

Sue Bulmer (née Hirsh) was born in Ithaca, New York and grew up in California. It wasn’t until 1957, the year she arrived in New Zealand as a 24-year-old Fulbright scholar, that she got properly hooked on archaeology. Her earlier studies at Cornell University (BA) and the University of Hawaii (MA) were in anthropology. Sue had been introduced to field archaeology in Hawaii, and once in New Zealand she leapt into excavations in Auckland and field trips to the Coromandel. By all accounts, it was the music making and camaraderie as much as the excitement of digging that fuelled her enthusiasm. In 1958 she enrolled for MA studies in archaeology at Auckland University under Jack Golson, an early champion for Auckland’s volcanic cones and the only archaeologist on the university staff at that time.

In 1959 Sue began her pioneering archaeological fieldwork in the New Guinea highlands, initially in the company of her newly-wed husband, anthropologist Ralph Bulmer. In the years following their return to New Zealand in 1960, Sue had three children (Alice, David and Kenneth) in quick succession, delaying completion of her MA until 1966. The family spent another five years in Papua New Guinea. Sue’s research in Port Moresby became the basis of her PhD which she began in 1973 and completed in 1978, mainly to improve her chances of securing a position at a university or museum. Her marriage, however, was not a match made in heaven. She and Ralph divorced in 1980.

Outspoken and far-sighted, Sue was an independent scientist for most of her career, apart from 15 years at the New Zealand Historic Places Trust (now Heritage New Zealand) and the Department of Conservation from 1979 until her retirement in 1994. As the HPT’s first Northern Regional Archaeologist, Sue built up a team of more than 20 archaeologists and contract staff who carried out many site surveys in the Auckland region and brought a strong focus on archaeological research to the HPT’s role.

Sue first encountered Auckland’s volcanic cones in 1957 on a bus tour for university students. When Thor Heyerdahl visited the major Auckland maunga in 1965, he was surprised that none had ever been mapped. It was Sue who in 1978 produced the first archaeological map of Maungawhau, from survey work done by graduate students. Sue used to bring copies to our meetings and urge us to mark anything of historical interest we might be lucky enough to discover.

During the 1980s and 1990s, Sue completed a great many archaeological studies and papers on the Māori settlement of Tāmaki Makaurau, including pā sites on the cones, gardens on the volcanic fields, and early historic sites in downtown Auckland. She campaigned for preservation of the Ōtuataua stonefields and for World Heritage status for the Auckland volcanic cones a decade before DOC took up the cause. In 1981, when the summit carpark on Maungawhau was repaved, Sue carried out the only archaeological excavations that have ever taken place on the mountain. Her passion for Māori history and her recognition of the immense value of the maunga as cultural landscapes was far in advance of the local authority management ethos through those frustrating decades.

Dr Susan Bulmer 2003
Confronting a developer in 1986
Sue and Ian, Love Your Mountain Day 2007

Sue’s academic and advocacy work, and her connections with Māori historians, led naturally to her gathering together a group of conservationists, colleagues and local citizens to campaign for the maunga’s preservation. The Friends of Maungawhau was incorporated in 2002 under a constitution written by Sue.

Never one to shrink from robust debate or forthright action, Sue combatted the powers that be on every level. In 1986 when a developer was demolishing houses at the entrance to the domain, she stood in front of the bulldozer and brought the demolition work to a halt. Her petition for a land swap ultimately failed and an insurance company now occupies the site.

Sue regarded Maungawhau as a single historic heritage site and argued in her many submissions to Council and government that the volcanic cones should be administered as a special reserve category by a dedicated trust or board with its own trained staff. Her vision was to remove the cars and cattle and conserve the entire maunga. She supported our ecological conservation work and participated in Love Your Mountain Day every year it was held.

In 2014, the year in which we published our book dedicated to Sue, much of what she had advocated since the 1980s came to pass. Following an historic 2012 Treaty settlement, the Tūpuna Maunga o Tāmaki Makaurau Authority was established as an independent statutory body and Maungawhau is now administered by a small, dedicated team in Auckland Council.

Sadly, Sue’s health deteriorated in her latter years after the death of her second husband Terry O’Meara in 2010. Her feisty determination and big-picture vision will continue to be an inspiration to all who knew her.

Bulmer, Alice. 2016. A matter of life and death (3): Farewell, Sue
Bulmer, Sue. 2004. A New York Yankee in Aotearoa. Archaeology in New Zealand 47(4): 58-61.
Golson, Jack. 2016. Susan Bulmer, an archaeological pioneer. Archaeology in Oceania 51 Supplement 1: 11–18.