The archaeology of natural disasters

When people first settled in Aotearoa, they had no idea that they were sitting upon a slice of one of two supercontinents; Gondwanaland. Around eighty-three million years ago this slice we now live on, known to us as Zealandia, broke away. We wouldn’t recognise Zealandia as it was then; most of it is now underwater. The bits which still protrude above sea level is New Zealand. The earth’s crust is still on the move though, which we can see on the surface through earthquakes, volcanoes and smaller geothermal vents (McLauchlan 2014: 7-8). All of these things are familiar to any New Zealander. While I don’t believe earthquakes and volcanic eruptions are events we’ll ever become used to, we now understand why they happen and are better equipped to deal with the aftermath.

Long before I had even stepped foot on the South Island, on 22nd February 2011 at 12.51pm an earthquake, with its epicentre in Lyttelton and a magnitude of 6.3, struck Canterbury (GeoNet 2018). Although we are now able to understand (thanks to modern scholarship) why earthquakes happen, it does not make the loss of life any easier. Unlike the previous earthquake that had struck Canterbury in 2010, this one took the lives of 185 people and had a devastating effect on the city’s infrastructure and landscape. While the Garden City had felt the effect of earthquakes in past, none had quite the same effect as these ones.

An example of damage to the Cathedral by an earlier quake to hit Christchurch in 1888. Photo: Christchurch City Library CCL PhotoCD 3, IMG0059.

Damage to buildings in the CBD, Christchurch following the February 2011 earthquake. Photo: GeoNet.

Large rock falls in Sumner, Christchurch triggered by the February 2011 earthquake. Photo: GeoNet.

Since nothing with this much of a devastating impact has happened within New Zealand since the Hawke’s Bay earthquake in 1931, how are we supposed to know how to deal with the situation? Well, we don’t really. There is not really a right or wrong answer to this. We, as archaeologists, sit on a cusp of responsibility; to record the archaeology (that is anything pre-1900) for future generations and research whilst the demolition and regeneration of the city takes place, but also to do so quickly and not hinder these vital works whilst providing the best advice we can. I wasn’t here when the earthquakes took place but almost seven years on from the last severe earthquake of 2011, I find myself working on earthquake projects. The city is reinventing itself and will be for the foreseeable future. We’ve spoken on the blog previously about the challenges we face working in archaeology during natural disasters, but I want to take a more theoretical approach to disaster archaeology today. Theory plays a huge role in our interpretations within archaeology, but we tend to leave that for the reports and scholarly papers. I wanted to share with you today the theory I’ve applied whilst studying the impact of earthquakes and (especially) their aftermath.

First on the scene: archaeologists and tanks in the CBD following the February 2011 quake. Photo: Matt Hennessey.

So, here’s the technical bit: as archaeologists here in New Zealand we work under the Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga Act. This however was superseded by the Canterbury Earthquake (Historic Place Act) Order 2011 following the earthquakes. This order meant that the process of application for an archaeological authority was much quicker, and we were able to fulfil that moral obligation of not slowing down works.

Much of the CBD resembled this post quakes. Photo: Matt Hennessey.

The historical facades, that have for so long been associated with Christchurch by many, suffered extensive damage during the 2011 quake and had to be demolished. Photo: Matt Hennessey.

Often when we think of the archaeology of natural disasters our minds jump to the destruction of Pompeii or Pleistocene extinction. But what many forget, including archaeologists, is we all live through natural disasters and the archaeology that they create . In fact, here in Christchurch we have lived through/are still living through such a unique archaeological experience it can be difficult to know what to do with all the information. As it is a requirement by law to have an archaeological authority before altering or removing an archaeological site, you can imagine how much of Christchurch this would have affected. The entire CBD is considered a high risk zone for pre-1900 activity. A positive (for lack of a better word) is the huge wealth of information we’ve been able to retrieve about Christchurch and its formative years during post-earthquake works. Following the initial demolition of unsafe buildings much of this debris has been removed, exposing the 19th and 20th century layers in the archaeological record, which we have recorded as works have happened to avoid this information being lost forever. American archaeologist Shannon Lee Dawdy, who worked as an advisor post-Hurricane Katrina,  rightly argued that the moving of debris, the burying of past living surfaces and the rearranging of the landscape post disaster exposes the relationship between people and their landscape (2006: 720). Here in Christchurch, archaeologists were on the ground and in the red zone immediately. I’m able to talk to my colleagues here and find out how the major and minor decisions regarding the removal of debris and dirt changed the landscape of the city. For the past seven years archaeologists have been working constantly to keep up with the speed of the city’s demolition and rebuild, and now we’re making the transition from earthquake based work back to the ‘normal’ way of doing things.

“The Latin root for resilience is salire, to jump or spring.” – Hayward 2013: 37

When disasters strike a community, the challenges that come with this test more than just our physical resilience, but our economy, democracy, and our emotions (Hayward 2013: 36). A topic that we don’t talk about too often on this blog is the emotional aspect of archaeology. Most people become archaeologists because they want to understand the history of the everyday men and women, not just those in the history books (or at least this was a big factor for me). Through the study of phenomenology (the study of consciousness and direct experiences) and taphonomy (the study of the formative and disturbance processes effecting the archaeological record) I have been piecing together the changes in Christchurch and the impact that has had on the people, specifically their emotional experience and how, through the changing landscape, we’re able to express the way we feel. Emotions can, however, be hard to interpret as (in most cases) we are unable to leave an imprint of our emotions within the archaeological record that will one day excavated or recorded by  future archaeologists. One way we can do this however, is to memorialise the event that took place and the life that was lost. Most scholars agree that the critical ingredient of a disaster is the victims (Torrence & Grattan 2002: 5). To remember these victims’ reaction to disaster is one way we do this; for example we see monuments across the world to commemorate those who lost their lives in war. As material reminders of the past, these monuments form part of the archaeological record, as much as any of the buildings and artefacts left behind. Within Christchurch we can see the poignant 185 white chairs, including one baby seat. This is a temporary art installation by artist Pete Majendie, but there has been an outcry to keep the chairs as they have become symbolic in remembering the victims and the quake. One idea is to permanently install the chairs, each different and individual, at the site of the CTV building where so many lost their lives in an almost ‘ground zero’ nature (185 Empty Chairs, 2016). A more permeant feature to recently be added is the Canterbury Earthquake Memorial Wall, which has the names of those who lost their lives etched into the stone. This is an enduring way to remember those that lost their lives and enters their names into the archaeological record, making our emotions clear for years to come through these commemorations. In fact, the memorial is a fantastic example of how the landscape was deliberately altered to create this monument as they significantly excavated the river bank for the wall.

The temporary art installation 185 Empty Chairs, which is beginning to take a more permanent place in the ‘new’ Christchurch. Photo: Instagram.

Before: the riverbank where the Earthquake Memorial now stands. Photo: Megan Hickey

During: the redesign of the riverbank. Photo: Megan Hickey.

After: The Christchurch Earthquake Memorial, part of the Otakaro Avon River Precinct project opened 2011, where the names of those who lost their lives are to be permanently remembered. Photo: Kathy Davidson.

The landscape of Christchurch changed so quickly that people became lost in their own city, quite literally not able to find their way around, as the landmarks they had once used as guideposts no longer stood. I, for example, never saw the ‘old’ Christchurch that locals speak so fondly of. It’s a strange thought that two people in the same city can have such different relationships with the same place. I have experienced a modern city blossom from destruction, however many people remember the ‘old’ city and its subsequent demolition. Even a year and a half ago when I moved to the city, there were still huge areas of debris and buildings still being pulled down. Within recent months it feels like the rebuild has really picked up momentum, and it’s quite honestly an exciting city to be in. To have played (a small) role in that process has been an amazing experience. We’re living in a city that faced crisis, but rebuilt itself unlike so many ancient civilisations where natural disaster often resulted in the dramatic end of a culture (Dawdy 2006: 720). Is that due to the times we live in and the technology we have at our disposal? Or is it due to the socio-political structure we live in, where the rest of New Zealand came to the aid of Christchurch? Or is it due to a more resilient people? My guess would be a mixture of all three.

Kathy Davidson

References

185 Empty Chairs [online] Available at: https://www.185chairs.co.nz/about-185-empty-chairs/ [Accessed July 2018]

Christchurch City Libraries [online] Available at: https://my.christchurchcitylibraries.com/ [Accessed July 2018]

Dawdy, S.L. (2006) The Taphonomy of Disaster and the (Re)Formation of New Orleans. American Anthropologist. Vol. 108(No. 4): 719-730.

GeoNet [online] Available at: https://www.geonet.org.nz/ [Accessed July 2018]

Hayward, B.M. (2013) Rethinking resiliences: reflections on the earthquakes in Christchurch, New Zealand, 2010 and 2011. Ecology and Society. Vol. 18(No. 4): 36-42.

McGuire, W.J., Griffiths, P.L, Hancock, P.L. and Stewart, I.S. (2000) The Archaeology of Geological Catastrophes, The Geological Society: London.

McLauchlan, G. (2014) A Short History of New Zealand. David Bateman Ltd: Auckland.

Torrence, R. and Grattan, J. (2002) Natural Disasters and Cultural Change. Routledge: London.

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