People often ask what we’re learning as a result of all this post-earthquake archaeology. Quite a lot, as this blog reveals. But, to date, the blog has focused on the individual sites and/or stories – there’s not been much of the big picture stuff. So, as the third anniversary approaches, we thought we’d share some of that higher level stuff with you. These are not well-researched, academic observations. These are our own personal observations about what all this archaeological work is telling us.
Old houses fascinate me: there’s that sense of walking into someone else’s life and, as with all archaeology, that sense of mystery and the possibility of discovery. In spite of this, when I started to think about this post, I was surprised to realise that I rarely imagine the lives of those who lived in these houses. It turns out that I’m more of a scientist than I thought: I want to quantify the details of these buildings, and establish chronologies and typologies, and then think about what those patterns mean. I guess that’s what makes me an archaeologist.
Thus far, we’ve learnt little details about houses (there’s been no time yet for any detailed overarching study). The progression from double-pane sash windows without lugs, to the same with lugs and then onto single pane sash windows (and then to casement windows, in the early 20th century). There was a change, too, from bow to box bay windows. And a change from match-lining to lath and plaster, although that may have been a class difference (and in some cases room lining related to room function). Rusticated or ship-lapped weatherboards were big in the 1870s. Rooflines changed in shape and pitch as the villa became the predominant house type. And the villa reached maturity in the 1880s.
I love the variables that tell us about class, status and use of space: the hallway arch that differentiates public and private spaces; the skirting boards that shrink from the front to the rear of the house; the ceiling roses (far fewer around than I expected, although that may be a product of how well they survive); and that the number of windows into your front rooms (two or three) tells me something about the wealth of the builder/occupant, as does the size of the house.
And these details add up to much more. The fact that you used sash windows without lugs in an 1880s villa tells me that you’re using recycled building materials (yes, even then). The fact that you have rusticated weatherboards on the street front of your house but not the sides tells me that you were aware of fashions but couldn’t quite afford to keep up with them. Your skirting boards are the same size throughout your house? Well, clearly you were well-off – or had more money than sense. Likewise if you had quite an odd arrangement going on with your skirting boards and architraves. Or if you built a brick house – although in this case it was equally likely that you were a bricklayer or a brickmaker.
So you see, by observing and recording those small details and, yes, by quantifying them, I’m starting to build up a picture of the people who lived in the house. As the book title goes: “in small things forgotten”. And it’s seeing these things in bulk, as it were, that makes a difference. That’s what makes us so lucky to be carrying out archaeology in Christchurch right now: the size of the sample. In the space of three years, we’ve generated the quantities of data that would normally take decades to come by. The next challenge is to do something more with that data.
Artefacts and people
It’s quite difficult to articulate some of the things that we’ve learned from the archaeology of Christchurch over the last three years, largely, I think, because of the sheer scale of material that’s been found. There’s just so much information to be gained from individual objects and individual sites and from those sites and objects as whole assemblages or landscapes.
As an artefact specialist, I have to say that one of the things that has jumped out at me most during my time working here is the diversity of Christchurch’s archaeology and past. It’s not just the variety of artefacts that’s noteworthy – although we are finding a range of artefacts on a scale that’s unusual and exciting – but also the diversity among the people who owned and used them.
As an archaeologist and anthropologist, the variety that exists among people isn’t something that I should be surprised by, but I have been a little, I think, in this context. The ‘English’ origins and culture of Christchurch are so often talked about as one of its defining characteristics as a city, yet we’re finding connections to places all over the world in its archaeological record.
We’ve found artefacts from Australia, England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Germany, France, the Netherlands, Denmark, the USA, Canada and China on sites throughout the city. Many of these are just as varied in their uses as they are in their origins, from children’s toys to unusual foods, messages in bottles and barbaric or ill-conceived medical products. We’ve also come across the stories of settlers from as far afield as Palestine and as close to home as Australia, settlers who came from every echelon of society, with all kinds of social and professional backgrounds. Connections like these – to people, places and materials – remind me that Christchurch wasn’t just a small colonial settlement at the bottom of the world. Instead it was an integrated part of a much broader story of migration, trade, globalisation, and changing ways of living in the English-speaking world during the 19th century. The archaeology of this city has as much to contribute to that story as it draws from it.
However, it’s not just where these people have come from that stands out to me, but also what we’ve learned of their lives here in Christchurch, particularly the way so many of them contributed to building of this city. There’s a real sense of entrepreneurship in much of the archaeology and history of Christchurch, in the stories and products of people like John George Ruddenklau, James and William Jamieson, H. F. Stevens, John Baxter and George Bonnington, James and William Willis , John Grubb, Thomas Raine and all of the city’s soda water manufacturers – even Charles Henry Cox, our resourceful shoe-polish fraudster. So many of these people built and ran successful businesses from the ground up, in a totally new and untested environment and, regardless of whether those businesses were successful or not, it’s this adventurous, entrepreneurial spirit that, I think, plays a large part in the character of Christchurch – both at its origins and now, as the city rebuilds after the earthquakes.
Katharine Watson and Jessie Garland