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.


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.


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.


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


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).


                       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.


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


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.


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.

Pipes 3

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


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.


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.

20150521_114912 (1)

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.


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

The house that Thomas built

I’d like you to meet the Reverend Thomas Richard Fisher, a devout Wesleyan whose ill-health – preacher’s throat, no less – unfortunately prevented him from preaching for some time. He arrived in New Zealand in 1857 and promptly set himself up in business in Christchurch (apparently he arrived with quite a lot of money, and made even more – but don’t say I told you). Since his arrival in Christchurch, he’s devoted himself to worthy activities – a founder of the British and Foreign Bible Society and a minister for the Wesleyan church, and he’s even preached for the Congregationalists and the Presbyterians from time to time. Such a religious chap. It’s 1885 now, and he’s 79 and he’s slowing and settling into his retirement, during which he and his wife Sarah would love to spend as much time as possible with their ever-increasing family of children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren (of whom there will be 36 by 1890; Press 13/1/1890: 5). Such a fortunate man! Colonial life has been so good to him!

Cotswold House, 2012. Photo: M. Hennessey.

Cotswold House, 2012. Photo: M. Hennessey.

Unfortunately, we don’t have a picture of Thomas or Sarah Fisher, but until the earthquakes, we had two buildings that Thomas was intimately associated with, both of which we recorded. Many of you will be familiar with the Fisher building, one of the central city’s most prominent 19th century buildings. But you’re probably less familiar with Cotswold House, the house the Fishers built in Parlane Street (then Clifton Street).

An 1860s advertisement for Fisher's business. Image: Lyttelton Times 22/12/1864: 6.

An 1860s advertisement for Fisher’s business. Image: Lyttelton Times 22/12/1864: 6.

Thomas Fisher set up shop on the corner of High and Hereford streets in c.1860, establishing a grocery shop there. By the late 1870s, Thomas’s son William had joined the business, and they built new premises, designed by no less an architect than William Armson. Clearly, the rumours of wealth were more than just rumours…

The resulting building was a glorious Venetian Gothic number, as suited the prosperous businessman in the years before Commercial Classicism became the style du jour. Built in brick with limestone detailing, it occupied its corner site well. This was a three-storey building, with a stone-lined basement underneath. The numerous limestone carvings drew on nature for inspiration (echoing some of the themes in last week’s post). The underside of the veranda was pressed tin and the veranda brackets were an excellent example of Victorian excess.

The basement found under the Fisher building. Photo: M. Hennessey.

The basement found under the Fisher building. Photo: M. Hennessey.

Rondels on the Fisher building. Photo: K. Watson.

Rondels on the Fisher building. Photo: K. Watson.

Veranda post on the Fisher building. Photo: K. Watson.

Veranda post on the Fisher building. Photo: K. Watson.

A window, Cotswold House. Photo: M. Hennessey.

A window, Cotswold House. Photo: M. Hennessey.

But what about Richard and Sarah Thomas’s house? It was built in 1885, but we don’t know who the architect was (not Armson, as he’d died in 1883). Thomas and Sarah’s new house was a bay villa. Although it looked relatively plain, after studying the building, I am left with the sense that it was richly decorated, but in a calm, restrained way. There was little in the way of Victorian excess here, with the exception of the cast iron fretwork around the veranda. The richness came in the little details: the corbels, the pediments, the angle-stops, the panels under the windows, the porthole-style ventilation holes. Small details, well executed.

It was big. About 16 rooms (although the newspaper advertisements said 11 or 12, but apparently some rooms just don’t count). With seven bedrooms. Why did a retired couple need seven bedrooms? I guess there were all those children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren to come and stay. And there must have been at least one servant, although all the bedrooms were generously sized, and all had fireplaces.

The breakfast room fireplace. Photo: J. Hughes.

The breakfast room fireplace. Photo: J. Hughes.

Most of the original decorative features inside the house were long gone when we recorded it, but some fireplaces remained, as did skirting boards, a ceiling rose and some cornices. The original fireplaces weren’t those from very best rooms, but there was one from the breakfast room and two in the upstairs bedrooms. And the interesting thing about these was that they matched – not just each other, but also the external decoration. Oh, the one from the breakfast room was a bit fancier, but all three were of the same basic design, and they matched the corbels on the exterior. Not immediately obvious, but it’s these small things that matter. We all know that Victorians were fairly over-the-top by our interior decorating standards, and often every fireplace in the house was different. Not in this case. Maybe it was cheaper to buy a bulk lot, but I prefer to think that the Fishers were paying close attention to the decoration of their home, and ensuring a consistency of design throughout.

The first floor, upside down. Photo: M. Hennessey.

The first floor, upside down. The tongue & groove floorboards are at the bottom, with the insulation boards above, running between the joists & supported by fillets. Photo: M. Hennessey.

There’s just one other detail about the house I’d like to draw your attention to: the floor of the upper storey was sound-proofed. Yep, that’s right. We’ve only seen this in two other 19th century buildings in Christchurch, and they were both commercial. Not a common thing to do then. So why did the Fishers go to the trouble of sound-proofing their home? Good question. Maybe it was those hordes of grandchildren and great-grandchildren, creating a ruckus upstairs and disturbing the genteel entertainments of the Reverend and Mrs Fisher.

Two buildings representing the two different faces of the Reverend Thomas Richard Fisher. The central city business, designed to catch the eye and draw the customer in, reflecting the successful businessman. The suburban residence, presenting a restrained, genteel façade, reflecting the refined tastes of the Wesleyan minister and his wife.

(As a side note, it’s interesting to compare Cotswold House to William Bowen’s house, featured a few weeks back.)

Katharine Watson


Lyttelton Times. [online] Available at:

Press. [online] Available at:

Telling time in days gone by

A little while ago, archaeologist Matt Carter was investigating a brick-lined basement on a site in Christchurch when he came across what turned out to be a small 19th century pocket-watch (below). You can imagine his surprise (and excitement) – artefact finds like this are rare in archaeological excavations, since people tended to hold onto and take care of valuable items like watches (as we do now).


Engraved gilt-metal pocket watch found in a buried basement in Christchurch. This watch is currently on display as part of the Canterbury Museum’s Quake City exhibition. Photo: K. Webb.

Of course, our watch didn’t look quite like this when Matt found it. Although it’s been cleaned carefully since being excavated, the corrosion on the watch means it’s difficult to make out many characteristics that would help us identify it further. What we know so far is that it’s likely to have been gold-plated and it has an engraved fish scale-like pattern on the back and a decorative engraved floral pattern on the gilt face. It’s just possible to distinguish the black enamel numbers on the face. We think that the watch probably used a keyless wound lever mechanism: such mechanisms were introduced to watches during the 1850s and 1860s to replace winding methods that required a separate key to work.

3D CT scan of the pocket watch found on the wreck of the Swan. (Image: National Museums Scotland.)

Computerised tomography (CT) scanning may be able to reveal engraved maker’s marks or manufacturing dates on the watch. This technique has been used successfully for a pocket watch found on the wreckage of the Swan, which sank in 1653 in the Sound of Mull, off the coast of Scotland. The resulting images revealed not only the type of mechanism but also the name of the maker – “Niccholas Higginson, Westminster” – engraved on the back.

Gilt-metal ‘clock watch’ by German watchmaker Peter Henlein, dated c. 1510.  (Image: Wikipedia.)

The first watches evolved after the coiled spring was introduced as an alternative form of motive power to the pendulum. This meant that timepieces no longer needed to be big enough to house the pendulum, but could be made small enough to be carried unobtrusively.

Some of the earliest watches have been attributed to the maker Peter Henlein of Nuremberg. An example of one of his watches is kept at the Germanisches National Museum, Nuremberg, Germany. Dated 1510, this ‘clock watch’ is contained in a gilt metal drum-shaped case with a single hand indicating the time on an engraved gilt metal dial. These early examples were designed to be hung around the neck by a cord rather than carried in the pocket.

Some early examples of watches have been depicted in contemporary paintings such as this untitled painting attributed to Tommaso Manzouli dated c. 1560. (Image: Science & Society Picture Library.)

Around the time of the introduction of pockets to clothing during in the first quarter of the 17th century, when a pocket was a fabric pouch worn underneath your petticoat or tied around your wrist or belt, watches developed into the form we know today in order to be carried in the pocket. The watch was housed in a case and a crystal or glass cover was added to protect the hands and dial.

The site where our watch was found was once the property of Herman Franz Fuhrmann, an affluent German immigrant, who owned the section until his death in 1907. Fuhrmann was an undertaker and cabinet maker and had established himself in Christchurch by 1869, having arrived by way of Melbourne. In 1873 Fuhrmann expanded his business to include a saddler and the following year became involved in the insurance industry. He also made profits buying and selling Molesworth station (in Marlborough).

A newspaper article advertising a watch similar to that found in the Christchurch basement.

From the small size of our watch (just 3 cm in diameter) we know that it was probably owned by a lady. She must have been a lady of some wealth – intricately detailed gilt pocket watches such as this were not cheap, although they were available in Christchurch from at least the 1860s and were advertised in local newspapers of the time.

What we don’t know is why the watch was discarded. Watches such as these were repairable and a quick search of Papers Past indicates that watchmakers were well represented in Christchurch so it is unlikely that it was broken. Was it thrown out deliberately? Was it lost accidentally? These are the kind of questions archaeologists seek to answer every day, to help us better understand the lives of those who came before us.


 Kirsa  Webb