‘Archaia’ and ‘Logos’, what even is archaeology?

The word archaeology comes from the Greek archaia (“ancient things”) and logos (“theory” or “science”). So, archaeologists study past societies through the material culture. In other words, we write the history analysing what people threw away or left behind. That’s what it is, although the origin of archaeology was quite different!

Back in the day, great discoveries of ancient civilizations enchanted the curiosity of those intrepid explorers who travelled the world looking for antiquities. The ruins of Troy and the image of Henrich Schliemann’s wife wearing the Priam’s Treasure (referred to as “Jewels of Helen”) as well as the Tutankhamun tomb are probably two of the most iconic finds of the last centuries. On 22 November 1922 when Lord Carnavon enquired anxiously “Can you see anything?” and Howard Carter replied “Yes, wonderful things”, expressing the grandeur of the ancient world. Those expeditions became the excuse to plunder historical sites to boost either personal or museum collections, with no further interest other than hunting treasures, contradicting the rightful purpose of archaeology.

Left: Sophia Schliemann wearing some of the gold jewellery from the Priam’s Treasure. Right: Howard Carter and the Tutankhamun tomb. Images: Wikimedia Commons.

The archaeological discoveries at ancient cities also inspired the decoration on contemporary ceramics. Tea, table and serving wares also became a mechanism to emulate the magnificent past. Idyllic depictions of exotic and remote places, scenes with ruins of Greece, Rome and oriental inspired scenes are all relatively common finds on Christchurch archaeological sites.

Left: Medina patterned plate. It is likely that this pattern draws inspiration from Medina, the city in Saudi Arabia to the north of Mecca. Image: J. Garland. Right: drainer decorated with the Corinthian pattern, the name of which refers to one of the three Greek architectural orders: Doric, Ionic and Corinthian, with ruins and columns depicted on the scene. Image: M. Lillo Bernabeu.

From left to right. We don’t know what the title of the pattern was, but the fragment clearly features a hand painted Grecian figure. The name of the following patterns: Egyp[t] or Egyp[tian] and Persian also evoking past cultures. However, in these examples, the scene depicted is unknown as we only found a tiny piece of ceramic! Image: M. Lillo Bernabeu.

At that time of treasure hunting in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the object itself pulled out of its place was the centre of attention. And that’s not our job. Rather than treasures by themselves, artefacts are precious because they help us to interpret and understand how people used to live. That’s their actual value. And that’s possible to achieve when studying the objects in relation to the context in which they were found. During the latter half of the 20th century, archaeology grew up as science, with the development of methods of fieldwork, recording and cataloguing and the use of specific tools and technologies, shared with other disciplines like anthropology or geology. Archaeology is a social science, so archaeologists are scientists. Unlike fossickers or curio hunters, archaeologists always take notes and make drawings and plans. This is key, because archaeology is essentially preservation by record.

Archaeologist in action! Left: Hamish taking notes on site. Image: T. Anderson. Right: Hamish and I drawing and old curb in the city. Image: H. Williams.

By the sounds of it, the real profile of an archaeologist is unlike the idealised portrait of it. We are far away from one of the most popular archaeologists ever. Who pops up in our minds when thinking of archaeology? Of course, Indiana Jones… except for Hamish! Both share part of the outfit, it’s not the whip but the cool felt hat! Well, archaeologists wear usually safety helmets on site, but in their spare time, wherever archaeologists go, the hat would be a perfect accessory, aye?

Left: Indiana Jones. Image: Rex/Shutterstock. Right: Hamish wearing his felt hat at the Edwin Fox Maritime museum in Picton. Archaeologists do love to soak up the local history! Image: H. Williams.

The fictional image of a female archaeologist is probably even less accurate. Can’t find anything in common between Lara Croft and us. Well, she is presented as a highly intelligent, athletic and beautiful archaeologist… Maybe it is a little bit like us.

Beyond the stereotypes and the history of archaeology, constructed by and starring male archaeologists like Carter or Schliemann, there were women archaeologists as well, although it was ‘not a common thing, for obvious reasons’ (Star 15/04/1914: 7). Perhaps because those were so obvious (irony on going!), none of those reasons were nuanced… Anyway, the point is that Jeanette Le Fleming was an archaeologist. She married in 1885 Sir William Le Fleming, born in Christchurch in 1861, eight Baronet of Rydal and prominent settler in Taranaki district (Evening Post 3/11/1945: 11).

New Zealand’s newspapers in 1932 reported Jeanette’s return to New Zealand after a long trip. ‘In her capacity of archaeologist’ (crikey!), she had visited Norway, Sweden, Estonia, Finland, Latvia and Denmark and investigated ruins in Zimbabwe. Among her experiences overseas, she considered her study of the ruins at Zimbabwe the most interesting of her professional experiences. There Jeanette analysed the acropolis and temple erected under the influence of Babylonian civilization. She wrote many articles on travel subjects, ancient history and archaeology. She published under a nom de plume, ‘which she keeps in complete secret’ and not even her sister was aware of her identification with a certain writer and archaeologist (Evening Post 25/01/1932: 10). Apart from Europe and Russia, Jeanette also travelled to Central and South America, India, China and Japan, among many other places. She preferred travelling alone (yes, a pioneer of women solo travellers!) as she was never afraid, and always keen to nature, climates, archaeology, medieval and other modern curiosities, as well as the present economic conditions of each country (Evening Star 14/12/1936).

Honestly, I’m so jealous! What an inspirational woman! Loving what I also love (and archaeologist in general!), travelling, exploring new places and cultures, being curious all the time, asking questions and looking for answers! Eventually, Jeanette Le Fleming died at her home in 1944, after a long and undoubtedly interesting life! (Evening Post 3/05/1944: 8).

Jeanette Le Fleming. Image: Evening Star 24/09/1938.

As archaeologists working in post-earthquake Christchurch, we also have stories and the archaeology of the early city to tell you through Christchurch Uncovered blog, Facebook, Instagram and public archaeology events. Unquestionably, scientifically recording the past is the best way to preserve it in partnership with all of you, committed people, aware of the significance of our heritage as the witness of the history, the vestiges of the past from which we can learn so much.

To conclude, a summary that describes best what an archaeologist is, how our current day-to-day goes… Love it.

Maria Lillo Bernabeu

References

Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2018. [online] Available at: https://www.britannica.com/ (Accessed October 2018).

Paper Past, 2018. [online] Available at: https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/ (Accessed October 2018).

Archaeological challenges in the Hundred Acre Wood

Hello everyone! Belated happy new year and welcome back.

We’ve decided to begin the year by talking about problems (just to start on a positive note). Well, sort of. We’re participating in an international round-up of blog posts this month on the subject of grand challenges in archaeology (you can see the whole thing here). Obviously, we’re approaching this from the perspective of Christchurch (and, to a degree, New Zealand) and the challenges we face here – both in the sense of difficulties encountered and challenges to be met.

To this end, three of us – with different areas of interest and experience in archaeology – got together and had a bit of a discussion about the challenges that stand out to us the most, the salient points of which are presented here. However, partly because it amuses me and partly because I want to see if any of you can guess who said what, I have replaced our real names with the names of Winnie-the-Pooh characters for the purposes of this post.

Imagine, if you will then, that Christopher Robin, Tigger and Owl, playing at being archaeologists for a day, are sitting around a fire in a clearing of the Hundred Acre Wood. Their conversation turns, as it always does when archaeologists congregate, to their (current) profession, and some of the challenges they’ve encountered while uncovering the mysteries of the past. For the purposes of this tortured metaphor, The Hundred Acre Wood is not always a place in England but sometimes a city in New Zealand (just go with it, okay?).

(In reality, we sat at our computers and carried out an online conversation over a couple of days when we should have been doing other work. The truth is always so much less fun than fiction.)

It was a situation not dissimilar to this. Image:

See, doesn’t this look much better than people hunched over computer screens?

This conversation ranges from the specific and often practical difficulties they have faced in their daily work to some of the broader questions facing archaeology as a profession and field of research. Two major themes start to emerge: one revolves around the engagement of archaeology with the world today, the other encompasses the research potential of archaeological work, especially when it comes to answering big, broad questions.

The challenges of research – from the practical difficulties of realising it, to the scale at which it can be approached and the questions to be asked and answered – is perhaps the most obvious to the three participants, given the scale of work and amount of archaeological data being gathered in the city after the earthquakes. The last five years have resulted in over 2000 new recorded archaeological sites in Christchurch, approximately 1000 (or more) boxes of artefacts and the systematic excavation of the first 50 years of a whole city (not to mention several earlier Maori archaeological sites as well). It can be a little overwhelming.

“Indeed,” says Owl, hootingly. “Just from a practical perspective, there are the challenges presented by the time and money required to undertake research, by issues like databases and data management and accessibility and so on. A lot of which is made more challenging by the fact that all of the archaeological work in the city is done by archaeological consultants, who have neither the time nor funds to actually do the research.”

“Yeah,” says Tigger, bouncing up and down (please feel free to imagine this said in a Tigger voice, it’s kind of hilarious). “It’s the perennial problem of realising the research potential of archaeological consultancy, where most of the work happens but not much of the research. Unlike universities and research institutes, where most of the research happens, but less of the work. I mean, less of the initial data collection and excavation. I would never suggest that academics do less work.”  

In which Tigger bounces and

In which Tigger bounces and muses on the challenges of research in archaeological consultancy at the same time.

“Maybe,” says Christopher Robin (who has been uncharacteristically silent until now), “we’re excavating too many sites. There does seem to be too much data and not enough people to work with it. But it’s also important that we don’t lose the information offered by those sites.”

Owl nods. Wisely. Because owls are wise. “It’s not just the amount of information we have from sites being excavated and investigated right now. It’s also all of the accumulated information we have from old sites, which is constantly being re-analysed and integrated into new databases and new methods and new research questions.”

Christopher Robin gently suggests that Owl try not to be such an Eeyore, and think instead about the potential of this information. “The fact that so much data has been accumulated makes possible some really interesting challenges as far as research questions go. We can look at bigger, broader questions of life in the past that we couldn’t before. Ideas like the birth of the modern city, the development of regional architectural styles, the development of identity at different scales and at different groups.”

“Capitalism! Consumerism! Colonialism!” hoots Owl, in a momentary loss of dignity.

Tigger, in the typically positive manner of tiggers everywhere, reminds the other two that this potential is one of the most exciting things about working in Christchurch. The other two agree, nodding solemnly in the firelight. Christchurch has immense potential when it comes to broad research questions in archaeology, uniquely placed as it is to explore the past through the lives of individuals and communities and the global processes that changed the world. We’re excavating on a site by site basis, but accumulating a city wide dataset that fits within a much wider context. The scale of the archaeology (in every sense of the word) has so much to offer.

Owl, the ruffled feathers and dignity from the previous outburst settling back into place, adds “There are some challenges inherent in that as well, though. There’s a need for comparative data from other places and time periods in the world, especially if we want to address these questions on a global scale over time. Accessibility and data compatibility – and comparability – is a real challenge, as other archaeologists have already talked about elsewhere.”

“It doesn’t mean that incompatible or incomparable datasets can’t contribute to a bigger global conversation, though,” says Christopher Robin, reasonably.

“True” Owl continues, on a roll. “It’s not just the practicalities of it, though. It’s not always easy to reconcile different scales of research potential. When you’re looking at big picture questions, it can be hard to hold on to the nuances and details of individuals and things and easy to over generalise or simplify complicated situations and concepts. But, at the same time, these are the questions we need to be asking, the ideas and changes that are most relevant to the world we live in today – and some of the most exciting to pursue.”

Owl holds court on

Owl holds court on research potential in Christchurch.

It is at this point that a second big theme begins to emerge from the conversation: the challenge of engaging archaeology with the world today. Again, it is one that is particularly obvious to those of us working in Christchurch, where the value and relevance of heritage in the present day is a complex and often controversial topic. So much of the city’s visible heritage has been lost and the significance and future of those elements that have survived (the cathedral is a case in point) is very publicly and contentiously negotiated. The challenge goes beyond this, however, beyond the very obvious examples of symbolic heritage buildings to the ways in which archaeology (and heritage in general) is engaging with the world and lives of people today.

“Exactly,” says Owl, slightly long winded-ly. “There’s so much potential, especially with the situation here, to make use of all this information we have about the history of the city in the context of the world around us now. Like the parallels and contrasts you can see between the social, political, and urban processes that are occurring in Christchurch now, after the earthquakes, and those that occurred during the first decades of European settlement in the 19th century. Our past is relevant to our present (and our future) and we need to be better at communicating this.”

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They may not look like much, but sites and features like these can answer all kinds of questions on all kinds of scales. A small midden (left), when combined with other information, might shed light on how humans have impacted the environment in the past (through progressively smaller shellfish sizes over time, for example) or where and how people were getting their food. Historic rubbish pits and artefacts (right) might, when placed in a larger dataset or context, tell us about individual and collective consumption choices (and what those choices tell us about people and societies) or manufacturing and trade processes in the Victorian world. The potential of individual objects, sites and assemblages to contribute to a wider understanding of the past is something we’ve covered often here on the blog (because it’s something that’s important and needs to be talked about). Images: T. Wadsworth (left), J. Garland (right).

Christopher Robin adds, thoughtfully (everything Christopher Robin does is thoughtful), “There’s definitely a lot to be said for the value that relevance adds to archaeology, as well, especially from the perspective of non-archaeologists. That’s one of the biggest challenges for me, you know – the public perception of archaeology and the apparent lack of value that people place on heritage in Christchurch (and New Zealand), outside of a few select examples.”

“That’s something that archaeology faces all over the world, I think,” says Tigger.

“Yes,” says Christopher Robin. “It’s that issue of archaeology, and heritage in general, being seen as something that halts or holds up development and is therefore a nuisance, rather than something useful to society.”

Owl hoots in agreement. Or something.

ChristopherRobin

In which Christopher Robin ponders the challenge of archaeology and public opinion.

“For New Zealand in general, though” Christopher Robin continues, “it does seem like we place a lot of value on our natural heritage, which is such a huge part of our national identity, but not as much on our cultural heritage. Maybe, as a profession, one of the challenges to be met here is how we present what we do to the general public. Maybe we should be focusing more on what the public wants out of archaeology, rather than what we think they should know about.”

“Maybe,” says Owl. “It’s true that I am often surprised by the kinds of stories and discoveries that people – archaeologists and non-archaeologists, alike – think are interesting and cool. It turns out that the things that owls find interesting are not always interesting to other people.”

“Who knew,” says Christopher Robin, only a little sarcastically.

“It’s not just what we’re communicating,” says Tigger, still bouncing. “It’s how we’re communicating it. We need to be better at making archaeology accessible to non-archaeologists. Tiggers watch a lot of YouTube videos, you know, and a lot of the archaeology channels are dry. They should be active, experimental or – if we’re talking about that natural heritage focus – taking place in relation to the landscape. Time Team was a good example of that.”

“I miss Time Team,” says Owl, mournfully.

“And if we’re talking about individual artefacts or sites or even archaeologists,” adds Tigger, “they need to be personalised in some way.That’s it! We need to personalise the past, make it engaging and accessible.”

“What, like writing an entire blog post as fictional characters from our childhoods?” asks Christopher Robin.

“Sure,” says Owl. “That sounds like a good idea. Could be fun.”

Fun,” agrees Tigger. “Fun, fun, fun, fun fun.”

It is here that we shall leave our three intrepid archaeologists, although their conversation continues long into the night, as the flames of their campfire flicker through the trees of the Hundred Acre Wood. There are other challenges to be solved, other adventures to be had and discoveries to be made, but these are tales for another day.

(Or, the online conversation occurring in reality deteriorates into a series of typos and comments on coffee and shoes and the subject is tabled for another day.)

Owl, Christopher Robin and Tigger.

Acknowledgements:

The fantastic, fabulous work of A. A. Milne, of course.

From bottle to basement: uncovering a repository of information

Late in 2014 we were contacted by contractors working on a rebuild project in Christchurch’s city centre. It was reported that a number of bottles had been uncovered during routine earthworks and the area cordoned off until our arrival. The bottles themselves were in pristine condition but what was of particular interest was the area in which they were found. Behind us was a mound of dark dirt, strewn with displaced wooden planks and broken bottles. I’ll be the first to admit, it wasn’t one of the prettiest features I’ve ever seen and, oh yeah, it was 2 metres below the surface of the city. So, today I’m going to take you on a little ride, a pictorial one as such, down through that ugly mound of dirt, the archaeology involved and the story it told.

And so our tale begins…

It began with a phone call one Friday afternoon (when I was already thinking about a cold brew at the closest drinking hole), but it was answered and soon I was joined by fellow archaeologists, decked out in hi-vis vests and mud-caked boots, with WHS trowels in the back pocket ready to work.

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The feature on the arrival of the archaeologist. Image: K Bone.

 

Due to the unknown extent of the feature we established a simple quadrant system to allow us to record any material collected as we removed the debris from the area. This involved removing all the planks of wood that were no longer in situ, along with any large amounts of soil.

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Initial excavations following the removal of debris. Image: K Bone.

 

2014-11-21 Beam Placement & Cellar Dig 011

Excavation begins… Image: K Bone.

Once the area was cleared of all debris, we set out to define the full extent of the feature, which was beginning to look a lot like a floor. Three trenches were dug, along the western, southern and eastern sides of the feature (the northern side had already been dug out during the earthworks). Following the completion of these three trenches, we established a grid system for the collection of artefacts.

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The feature once fully exposed, and the three trenches excavated . Image: K Webb.

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Artefacts from below the floorboards, many complete bottles were recorded but were mostly damaged or broken. Image: K Webb.

Once the top layer of dirt and debris was removed and all structural wood was exposed the feature was mapped using a Trimble M3 total station.

SC161 Site plan 2

Site plan. Image: K. Webb.

At the same time, the stratigraphy of the northern baulk was drawn (this was the only stratigraphic profile that could be recorded, due to the sheet piling around the section).

This….IMGP0474

                       Was recorded as this…

161 strat (2)

                which became this….CS161 strat Kim amended

Then the wooden floorboards were removed and excavation of the subfloor space began, revealling a treasure trove of artefacts and structural information.

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The remains of some upright boards nailed to the bottom plate at the south end of the feature. Image: K. Webb.

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The stone piles supported the wooden floorboards. Three rows of piles were found, one down each of the east and west sides and one down the centre of the building. The piles were unevenly spaced. Image: K Bone.

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During the excavation samples of each of the different timber elements were taken so we could identify the species at a later date. Image: K. Webb.

Once the field work was completed preparation of the report began, with the historical research. Maps and newspapers revealed that this section of land was the site of Barnard’s repository and later Tattersall’s horse bazaar.

Next up: the artefact analysis, which was conducted by one of our in-house artefact specialists. The artefacts are analysed according to their material classes and recorded by a number of attributes, with research including place of manufacture, product type, company name and date of production. This research contributes to our final interpretation of the site.

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Clay smoking pipes were found below the floorboards: a John Reynolds pipe (top) and a J. M. Heywood pipe (see next week’s post for more on this interesting fellow from Lyttelton). Image: K. Bone.

PLYMOUTH

Plymouth gin tin capsule, still attached to the cork. Image: K. Bone.

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Two bottle capsules still attached to the cork, and the bottle. This suggests that these bottles had not been opened at the time of their deposition. The manufacturer of the capsule at right was the Victoria Stores distributor; that at left could not be identified. Image: K. Bone.

COINS

One of two coins found on the site. This particular one has a profile of the young Queen Victoria, with the date 1853. The other coin was a George IV coin, with the date 1826. Image: K. Bone.

Following the artefact analysis a series of spatial distribution maps were produced to determine whether or not there were any patterns in the distribution of the artefacts.

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Example of one of the spatial distribution maps. This looked at the relationship between the different forms of glass recovered from the feature. Image: K. Bone.

So what does it all mean? The location of the floor 2 metres below the ground surface indicated that it was a cellar floor. The artefacts found indicated that the cellar was primarily used to store alcohol bottles and leather goods. Conveniently, the historical research indicated that there had been both a hotel and a saddlery on site.

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And that’s how the discovery of a few bottles led to us uncovering a unqiue piece of Christchurch’s history. From the field work to the research, the artefact analysis to the final write up, the process is important in allowing us to tell the story of Christchurch.

Kim Bone

Frequently asked questions #2

Continuing on from our last FAQ post, here are the answers to a few more of the questions we face regularly here in Christchurch.

1)      Are you doing this for a school project?

Yes, seriously. This gets asked more often than you might think. While it’s perhaps in part a result of the fact that a lot of the archaeologists currently working in Christchurch are under 30 and could, if you squinted (in bad light*), conceivably still be at school, it’s also symptomatic of the larger misconception that archaeology isn’t a proper job. Or, at least, that it’s not a viable method of making a living.

I discussed the job thing in the last FAQ post, so I won’t get into it again here, but thank you (we think?) for entertaining the possibility that we’re still under eighteen.

2)      Really? You don’t look much like an archaeologist.

This one always confuses me. What is an archaeologist supposed to look like? Is it the lack of tweed? Am I not weather-beaten enough? Not dirty enough? Not beardy enough? Were you expecting more khaki?

Contrary to popular opinion, we really do just look like people, I promise. Occasionally dirty, but entirely capable of using a shower. Sometimes incapable of growing a beard. Not always comfortable in tweed. Well acquainted with the protective properties of sunscreen, PPE and hats. Often mistaken for secretaries, architects, history enthusiasts, school teachers and “soil people”, apparently.

All manner of archaeologists

Archaeologists, as they appear in the wild. Not a speck of tweed to be seen. Image: Underground Overground Archaeology.

3)      Found any moa bones recently?

Other variations include “So, you’re looking for bones right?” and “what’s the coolest bone you’ve ever found?”

Someone asked me the last one at a party recently and I had no idea how to answer it (mummified cats?). Bones aren’t nearly as common in Christchurch sites as artefacts are and when we do find them, their greatest point of interest is as a collection of faunal remains that can tell us something about what people were eating or what kind of animals were on a site. We almost never, in Christchurch at least, find a single bone that’s interesting and cool out of context (I would take this back if I ever found a Haast’s eagle skull. Haast’s eagles are awesome). We certainly don’t find moa bone that often in Christchurch, mostly as a result of the primarily 19th century sites we’re dealing with in the post-earthquake work.

Bones!

Bones! Image: K. Bone.

People also inevitably ask about human remains – how we identify them, what happens to them, if we’ve ever found bodies – and the answer is, again, that we usually don’t come across them in Christchurch. When we do, there are procedures and policies in place to make sure that they’re dealt with respectfully and carefully.

Artist's representation of Haast's Eagle (awesome) attacking moa (also awesome).

Artist’s representation of Haast’s eagle (terrifying but brilliant) attacking moa (also cool, although slightly less terrifying). Image: John Megahan via Wikimedia Commons.

4)      How do you know this is old?

We’ve addressed this question before here on the blog, to a degree, but it’s one that comes up in the field a lot. The answer varies depending on the object, but is almost always related to deciphering the manufacturing and stylistic clues left on the artefact.

5)   How much is that bottle/plate/pipe/adze/fish-hook worth?

I like to think of this as the Antiques Roadshow question. The thing is that, unlike Antiques Roadshow, a lot of the artefacts that we deal with have very little in the way of monetary value. They’re often broken and/or damaged from the century or more that they’ve spent in the ground, or such commonly found items that they’re not worth anything to collectors. Their value to us is in the information that they provide, through the archaeological context in which they were found, the assemblage that they were part of and the people to whom they belonged.

Even when we do find items that might have some kind of monetary worth, the information value of those artefacts is almost always higher. I can’t remember the last time I looked at an artefact and wondered how much money it would fetch: usually, I’m too busy thinking about who owned it, where it came from and how it can help me figure out what happened on a site. To me, that information is priceless (and so easily lost through fossicking and treasure hunting).

A selection of the various artefacts found in Christchurch over the last three years. Top row from left:

A selection of artefacts found in Christchurch over the last three years. The possible monetary value of these is nothing next to the information they offer about life and people in the past. Image: J. Garland.

6)      What happens to all these artefacts/information?

Well, it depends. All the material we recover from a site is recorded, catalogued and analysed by a trained archaeologist. That information is written up into a report that is then submitted to Heritage New Zealand and interested parties (i.e. the client). Those reports are publicly available from Heritage New Zealand, if anyone is interested. Sometimes, the artefacts are then sent to a museum or similar institution for display. Other times, they are returned to the owner or retained by archaeologists as reference collections. Sometimes, depending on the significance of the material recovered, assemblages may also be held by one of the universities for further research.

7)      How much study did you do to be an archaeologist?

Also phrased as the slightly less diplomatic, “So you went to university to learn how to stand around and watch diggers/learn to use a spade?”

The short answer is, usually, four years or more. Most commercially employed archaeologists will have an Honours degree (four years), many will also have a Masters degree (another 1-2 years) and some will have a PhD (generally another 3-4 years).

The longer answer is that, while digging (and monitoring mechanical excavation of sites) is part of what we do, it’s actually a pretty small part of the overall process and thus a small part of what we learn at university. Our degrees teach us a range of things, from research and analytical techniques to the ethics and principles behind preserving and interpreting the past.

At a more specific level, archaeologists use a range of technological aides, from total stations and GIS (geographic information system) to electronic databases, graphic design programs like Adobe Illustrator and, in some cases, techniques like laser scanning and 3D modelling. We (as a whole, not specifically in Christchurch) also use a wide variety of scientific techniques and methods, including XRF analysis (x-ray fluorescence), radiocarbon dating, chemical residue analysis, DNA sequencing and palynology (pollen analysis), to name a few.

On top of all this, we learn how to interpret the raw data that we’re gathering when we record a building or excavate a site. On one level, this consists of learning how to approach a collection of information and use it to figure out what happened on a site or in a building, from dating that material to determining deposition processes or sequences of activity. Statistical analysis often plays a part in this, as does analysis of spatial patterns and distribution, along with a range of other techniques and tools. On another level,  we also learn how to relate that information back to people, to examine the data and gain an idea of the human behaviour and activities that it represents, always looking for the why and the who and the how of the things we find.

8)      What have you found from the earthquake stuff?

The short answer to this is a lot of stuff. Like, a LOT.

We’ve talked about this a bit before on the blog, but the longer answer is that we’re uncovering the growth of a city, from a small settlement on a swamp to a thriving urban society. We’re finding and recording the physical remnants of Christchurch’s history for the first fifty years, in the individual lives of its inhabitants and the society and culture that they were part of. We’re learning about how people coped with new lives in a new environment; how they maintained connections to the places they came from; how they shaped the development of a city and how that city shaped them; how people built businesses and industry and homes and how those things changed; how Christchurch’s economy developed and functioned during the 19th century; how people lived their lives day to day and how these things are represented in the material culture they left behind, among so, so many other things.

Jessie Garland

* Not that I mean to imply that anyone I work with looks old…just, you know, not adolescent.

Peeling back the onion of time

Recording standing structures not only involves architectural drawings and photography, but can also be quite destructive. In an attempt to modernise an old house owners will often cover “old fashioned” features with new materials, plasterboard being the chief culprit. So, during building recording part of our job often involves removing these modern linings (by any means necessary) to reveal the fabrics beneath, going back in time to see what the building was like originally. And, as you can imagine, taking to a wall with a hammer and crowbar is also good for stress relief.

Through extensive use of the notorious hardboard previous owners of this house had gone to great lengths to cover nearly every inch of original decoration inside the house in order to cut down on the weekly chore of dusting.

Through extensive use of the notorious hardboard previous owners of this house had gone to great lengths to cover nearly every inch of original decoration in the house. Every moulded shirting board, architrave and door panel was covered.

Every moulded skirting board, architrave and door panel in the house was covered with hardboard. Photo: K. Webb.

  Hardboard was used on the exterior of the house too. To cover up weatherboards and this decorative cast iron frieze along the top of the veranda.

Hardboard was used on the exterior of the house too. To cover up weatherboards and this decorative cast iron frieze along the top of the veranda. Photo: K. Webb.

Extensive investigation of the kitchen uncovered this finely moulded paper mache dado. This is the only example found so far of this product in Christchurch.

Extensive investigation in the kitchen uncovered this finely moulded paper mache dado. This is the only example of this product found so far in Christchurch. Photo: K. Webb.

Plasterboard and other modern wall linings sometimes have their merits though. They often have the unintended function of doing a really good job of preserving what is beneath it, particularly wallpaper.

wallpaper-layers

Wallpaper is usually found in multiple layers with a backing of scrim. It is sometimes possible to separate the layers right back to the original wallpaper, as long as no one has painted over it of course. Photo: L. Tremlett.

newspaper-wall-lining

We may even get a pleasant surprise when we get to the bottom layer. If there was not much money available for decorating, or for extra draft protection, people would often line their walls with newspaper. Photo: L. Tremlett.

This hand written note was found adhered to the tongue and groove match lining of a cottage in Lyttelton.

This hand written note was found adhered to the tongue and groove match lining of a cottage in Lyttelton. It was well preserved beneath a layer of scrim and plasterboard. It gives details of the sailing of the S. S. Grafton from Hokitika in (we think) 1880. What it was doing stuck in the middle of the front room wall of a cottage is a mystery. Photo: J. Garland

Digging deeper into the fabric of a building one may come across some interesting and sometimes, perhaps, elusive objects inside the walls and under the floors.

This book published by the Scottish Temperance movement in 1877 was found behind the tongue and groove lining in a house in Ashburton.

This book entitled Three Years in a Man-Trap published by the Scottish Temperance League in 1877 was found behind the tongue and groove lining in a house in Ashburton. In this case the books were used as a filler, instead of strips of wood, to even up the gap between the match lining and wall. Photo: J. Garland, H. Williams.

Quite often shoes are found concealed beneath the floors of houses.

Shoes are often found concealed beneath the floors of houses in Christchurch. During the 19th century in Britain and some European countries it was a common custom to conceal shoes within the fabric of the building as magical charms to protect the occupants of the building agains evil influences such as witches and ghosts. We can’t say for sure if this was always the case in Christchurch. Photo: K. Webb

We quite often find other items under the floors of houses, such as animal bones, bottles and other domestic rubbish, as well as the odd mummified cat. These items were most likely not deposited under the house for superstitious reasons, we hope. The cats are later given a proper burial.

This cane riding crop was found beneath the floor of the house of John Cracroft Wilson.

This cane riding crop was found beneath the floor of the house of John Cracroft Wilson. Image: I. Hill.

Beyond the superficial appearance of a structure there is a lot we can learn by quite literally peeling back the layers of a building, or excavating it, if you will. Buildings like these can be more than just houses once lived in. There’s history written in the walls, from the changing tastes in interior decoration to things intentionally hidden, covered up or accidentally lost. Whatever the reasons for these hidden bits and pieces, be they mundane, superstitious or inexplicable, they show us that it’s always worth looking beyond the surface of a building to find the treasures within.

Kirsa Webb