Archaeology: Expectations Versus Reality

I thought we could do with a bit of light-hearted reflection this week, so this blog post is going to be about stepping into archaeology: expectations versus reality of working in the field of commercial archaeology.

For many of us, archaeology has been a field of fascination since we were very young. There is nothing more exciting than reading about the discovery of a lost city, nothing more mysterious than the lives of people who haven’t been around for thousands of years. What did they do? What did their homes look like? Did they also have to complete homework assignments, and did they too try to cheat off their friends’ work? These questions drove me as a child. There were endless archaeological sites across the world to occupy my mind – Petra in Jordan, Pompeii and Herculaneum, Troy, Machu Picchu, Skara Brae. These came to me as enormous storyboards with sporadic puzzle pieces that one could fit together as many times and in as many different ways as they wanted to. Any blanks in this colourful canvas were filled in by equally colourful depictions of archaeology in the media (often involving aliens, treasure hunting, and the destruction of an astonishing number of fictional archaeological sites). We’ve all seen them – Indiana Jones, Lara Croft, The Mummy, The Mummy Returns, The Mummy versus Tom Cruise (actually, I haven’t seen that one). There is even a found-footage “horror-adventure” movie based around a team of archaeologists in Egypt (Cloverfield 36: this time it’s personal) which I’m sure is great. Movie night, anyone? And of course, who could forget the TV show Time Team, probably the most accurate depiction of (presumably well-funded) archaeological research digs. But it didn’t stop there, in fact it didn’t even start there. My earliest introduction to archaeology and a fascination with lost cities began with video games.

Cluefinders 3rd Grade: The Mystery of Mathra” which taught me nothing about ancient civilisations but plenty about maths and English in the setting of a lost civilisation. They must have all been math whizzes if they needed that many fractions to unlock their doors. Image: Cluefinders Fandom. 

In fact, a worldwide fascination with lost civilisations meant that there was an abundance of games set in ancient abandoned cities – and yet not one of them let me excavate or analyse any of the data. Very disappointing. More modern games about ‘archaeology’ and lost civilisations (for me, personally, Uncharted and Tomb Raider) follow the popular adventure archaeologist/treasure hunter narrative that we have seen in so many Indiana Jones and Tomb Raider movies. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve helped Nathan Drake and Lara Croft save the world – who knew the past could be so dangerous! Who knew there were so many dastardly organisations out there trying to destroy the world- oh, wait, never mind.

A fairly typical day for an archaeologist; Lara Croft gets ready for a long day on site – essential tools only. Image: 

Figure 3. Extreme buildings archaeology: Nathan Drake and his associates plan out the best way to properly record these suspiciously well preserved 17th century wooden buildings in the thick of the jungle on a fictional island near Madagascar. The precarious nature of these types of buildings means you have to be well prepared; a quick glance at this picture shows some serious safety breaches. Where are their hardhats and high vis?! Image: reddit

The next step was an obvious one, it was time to accrue tens of thousands of dollars of debt and get my own consulting company. I’m joking – I just went to university.

Ain’t that the truth… Image: memedriod. 

It was here I began to get a more grounded idea of what archaeology was really like, and the sorts of things looked at by modern archaeologists. Most importantly I learned what archaeology could tell us about the history of our own Aotearoa, early Polynesian settlement of the islands, and of Māori history. Every day I learnt something that I didn’t know I didn’t know, and expanded or completely turned the tables on things I thought I did know. I learnt that the difficulty of your multichoice and essay questions relied entirely on who your lecturer was, and that the best way to get amongst other archaeologists and archaeology students was to join them for drinks at the pub. It must be said, however, that university did very little to prepare me for actually working as an archaeologist, although we did have at least one lecture concerning the Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga Act 2014 (or so I’ve been told.

The key difference between working in commercial archaeology and my university education, is that we were essentially trained by research archaeologists to become research archaeologists. By this of course, I mean neat 1×1 m excavation squares with string lines, careful stratigraphic drawings and excavating down in 50 mm spits, recording the scene thoroughly at each level, and in some cases, thoroughly and systematically GPS’ing the precise location of every single artefact. On my field school, which took place at a Māori silcrete quarry site, this was a tremendous undertaking, although there is something to be said about how satisfying that level of intensive recording can be. Of course, there are many significant situations in which this approach is still important and used, although these can essentially be narrowed down to ‘well-funded research archaeology digs.’ Some of the most useful techniques our field school taught us was to never get separated from your lunch (trust me on this one), to take plentiful, clear and detailed notes, to write clear information on all bags, and how to survive on 3-6 hours of sleep.

Here you can observe an archaeologist in their natural setting, a green field where they doubtless have been encamped for the night. When observed awake at this time of the evening, an archaeologist can often be found inebriated, and preparing for an early start to the next day. Image: picuki. 

Overall, going to university with the aim of working in commercial archaeology gets a solid A+ for providing a crucial and truly indispensable understanding of New Zealand history and the sort of archaeology you might encounter, but honestly a B- from a practical perspective. Nevertheless, my time at university did give me a number of expectations for what working in this field would end up being like. These can be organised into three broad categories; work outfits, travelling for work, and fieldwork.

Work Outfits

Expectation: The classic archaeology look is professional and a little bit hardcore. Dressed in shades of tan brown or green, usually with a cowboy hat or hardhat (which either way looks like it came straight out of Indiana Jones or The Mummy), the archaeologist looks like they are ready to simultaneously traipse through a desert, a jungle, or navigate a complicated cave system. The archaeologist will have a glowing and even tan. The archaeologists tool kit includes a small water bottle, several types of trowel, detail brushes, and measuring tapes.

Runescape provides a clear outline for a successful archaeological work outfit. You might have noticed the medals adorning his right shoulder – it is important for all who encounter an archaeologist to know their achievements at a glance. I’m personally still working out how to fit my degree onto a badge, but when I do it’s over for you bitches. Image: artstation. 

Reality: You are covered in dirt and mud. Even if you haven’t lifted a finger you are still covered in a fine layer of dust and dirt. Your eyebrows are seemingly permanently four shades darker and are four times more sand than hair. When you have to reapply sunblock, you spread the dirt more evenly across your face; you might not have an even tan (or a tan at all) but at least no one else can tell. In winter this is a lost cause. You are dirty. Everyone is dirty. The tan or green coloured pants are just designed to blend in with the dirt. You are one with the soil. Your work boots are your most valuable asset – they are the most comfortable shoes you own, and they make you feel powerful. You are powerful dirt. You wear high vis at all times; you must be careful with this as wearing high vis for extended periods of time may result in psychological difficulty wearing normal clothes at other times. You have at least two different high vis vests and at least two different high vis coats. You own a pair of wet-weather pants but never think to put them on before going out into wet weather. You own four pairs of safety glasses and all of them have scratches in the middle of the lenses which make it impossible to see, either into the trench or at the ground in front of your own two feet.

Dirty archaeologists: The Dangers of Sieving. Directed and produced by Archaeologists Inc. Image: R. Adam.

We questioned some local archaeologists on the scene. Despite the conditions, one archaeologist when asked said “I’ve never felt more alive.” Back to you in the studio Glenn. Image: Underground Overground Archaeology.

Travelling for Work:

Expectation: An archaeologist travels as part of a small herd. Good companionship is plentiful, alongside campfires, suspiciously well-equipped tents, and a good supply of food and alcohol.

Reality: You live out of a suitcase; this is more annoying than you had anticipated. You always forget at least one vital item. Friendship is tested continuously while you attempt to team-draw a strat; no one can decide what should and shouldn’t be included as a layer, tensions are high.


Expectation: An archaeologist is built for fieldwork, and nothing gives them more joy. This involves painstakingly careful 1×1 m square excavations and carefully brushing down artefacts with small brushes. Often situated in a cave for maximum drama. An archaeologists field book is full of detailed notes, maps, and drawings, deciphering of puzzles, clues from earlier in the cave which may later help them open the secret door at the other end of the cave system once they have defeated the forty gun-toting bad guys who somehow made it into the cave first. An archaeologist has impressive arm strength and somehow becomes fitter just by product of being an archaeologist. Always finishes early on a Friday.

Reality: Your field book is full of scribbled notes and maps that you are SURE are oriented north (surely?!), and that word definitely says uh… dandy gnome… no wait-that doesn’t make sense. It’s not exactly puzzle-solving, but interpreting this stratigraphy definitely comes close, and re-interpreting the stratigraphy from the notes in your field book can definitely be classed as puzzle solving. You often helpfully take photos of things but without any notes or follow-up context photos. This is inevitably not as helpful as you thought it would be.

Ancient symbols recovered from an archaeologist’s field notebook. Some interpretation is required. This does not count as useful contextual information. Image: R. Adam. 

You definitely get to brush down artefacts with small brushes sometimes, but you are very rarely working in a cave. There’s also a lot of sand, honestly there is so much bloody sand. You introduce yourself to contractors as ‘your archaeologist for the day’ in order to ‘keep it fresh’ because you are ‘fun’ and ‘cool.’ You spend most of your time watching diggers and then feeling important when you try to make them stop (and then you feel like a school teacher when they don’t see you waving your hand and you have to tap the bucket with your scale stick). A truly shocking amount of time is spent waiting on construction sites thinking about your life choices. You arrived on site when they said they would be digging. Every 20 minutes they say they will definitely dig very soon. You have been waiting for four hours now. Your field method includes confusing diagrams in your notebook with extremely disproportionate and not-to-scale maps of the area of works and where your archaeological feature was encountered.

Gandalf learns first-hand the perils of a poorly labelled site map. The greater the time between recording features and writing the report, the greater your confusion when revisiting notes and photos. Good luck Gandalf, I don’t know which way is north either. Image: Reddit. 

Exercise is inconsistent – most of the time you simply stand and watch the digger, occasionally crouching to take a photo or investigate something. When you do have to excavate a feature, it is likely the most digging you’ve done for months. Because of this excavating makes your arms, legs, and butt sore for days. Cursed Fridays; never respond to a callout after 2 pm on a Friday unless you are fully prepared to be on site until at least 6 pm.

The phone rings. It’s 2pm on a Friday. They say they’re just digging a small section. They say it’s only going to take an hour. They’re lying. Image: TrollArchaeology

At the end of the day I think it is fair to say that we are all glad not to be cursed or to be fighting mummies in Egypt, and that it’s probably for the best that we don’t have to carry around guns and fight people (most of the time). I think we’d all rather be carefully brushing artefacts down or watching diggers carefully scraping away clean soil rather than running from suspiciously circular boulders, and most of the time we get to go home at the end of the day, which is definitely preferable to being trapped in a tomb or underground cavern.

It might not be as glamourous or dangerous as the movies and games make it out to be, or as finely tuned as we were taught at university, but recording and preserving the history of New Zealand (or whichever country you are working in, like Canada?? Hi Canada!) is an important and rewarding job. To bring this blog full circle, I am happy to be contributing to the great storyboard of New Zealand history, providing puzzle pieces and filling in blanks where we can. To this day I am still learning things I never knew I never knew, and no matter how long or dirty the day, that’s what makes it worth it.

Rebecca Adam

The Colleen Bawn

The girl I love is beautiful, she’s fairer than the Dawn; She lives in Garryowen, and she’s called the Colleen Bawn

The above quote is taken from Dion Boucicault’s 1860 play, The Colleen Bawn. The play is based on an 1829 novel, The Collegians, written by Gerald Griffin, which itself is based on the 1819 murder of Ellen Hanley. You might be wondering what stories of a murder that took place over 200 years ago have to do with Christchurch archaeology. Well, dear reader, I was wondering the same.

We recently excavated a clay pipe with the name “COLLEEN BAWN” stamped on the stem. The mark was one I had never seen before, and the pipe was incomplete meaning I did not know if there were any other markings on the bowl. I began my research on the pipe by sharing it in the Society for Clay Pipe Research group, which was my first introduction to the story of Colleen Bawn. As an avid true crime podcast listener, I was rather excited (if that is not too morbid to admit) that the pipe we found could have a connection to a 200-year-old true crime case.

The pipe stem in question. The COLLEEN BAWN marks, located on either side of the stem, are shown below the pipe. Image: C. Watson.

Let us travel back to Autumn 1819, to Kilrush, Ireland, where the remains of Ellen Hanley had just washed ashore. Only 15 years old, Ellen Hanley was well known for being both beautiful and kind, and was given the moniker Colleen Bawn. The name comes from the Irish cailín bán, meaning white girl or pure/innocent girl. Ellen was raised by her uncle, a farmer in County Limerick, after her mother died when she was young.

In the months prior to her murder, Ellen became acquainted with John Scanlan. John, in his early 20s, was a member of the local minor aristocracy, a former Royal Marine, and a heavy gambler. John began to visit Ellen in secret, eventually persuading her to marry him. The two eloped in early July 1819, marrying in secret as John feared his family would not approve of the marriage. The marriage was short and unhappy. A young protestant clergyman met Ellen on a passenger boat, and she confided in him that she regretted leaving her uncle’s farm and that her new husband had spent her dowry on alcohol and gambling. John Scanlan also regretted the marriage, quickly tiring of his new bride and the secrecy of the marriage. He enlisted the help of his servant, Stephen Sullivan, and together they planned her murder.

On July 14th Scanlan and Sullivan took Ellen for a trip in Scanlan’s boat. In the middle of the river Sullivan shot Ellen with a musket. He then stripped her of her clothes, weighed down her body by tying it to rocks, and threw her into the river. Ellen’s disappearance was noticed several weeks later when Maura Sullivan, Stephen Sullivan’s sister, was seen wearing Ellen’s clothes. Six weeks after the murder Ellen’s body washed up at Moneypoint. While the body was too decomposed to identify, the rope tying the body to the rocks was identified as having been lent to John Scanlan. Scanlan and Sullivan quickly disappeared, and police soon determined that the body was the missing Ellen, and that Scanlan and Sullivan were the murderers. Scanlan was found hiding at his parent’s property and was put to trial in March 1820. Despite being defended by the famous lawyer, Daniel O’Connell, he was found guilty and sentenced to death. Scanlan hung on March 16th 1820, with Sullivan caught, tried and hung shortly after.

A memorial to Ellen Hanley is located at the graveyard in Killimer. Image: Irish Waterways History.

Despite being a true story, the fate of Ellen Hanley has all the makings of an excellent narrative: a secret romance, an innocent girl who had a tragic fate, and an evil villain who was punished for his crime. That may be what made the play, The Colleen Bawn, which was based on the murder, so popular in New Zealand and around the world. Newspaper advertisements show that the play was performed regularly in Christchurch from 1864 into the early 20th century.

An 1864 advertisement for the Colleen Bawn play being performed in Christchurch. Image: Press 27/04/1864: 1.

So, what is a name referencing a murdered Irish girl doing on a clay pipe in 1890s Lyttelton? To understand this, it is first important to understand that clay pipes had uses other than just as a vessel for smoking. The clay pipe has its origins in the 16th century, following the introduction of tobacco from the Americas. As tobacco decreased in price, its popularity increased and along with it the number of pipe manufacturers. Pipes were mass manufactured using moulds, meaning the bowls could be easily decorated in elaborate styles and the stems could be stamped with marks (I highly recommend watching this video to see a demonstration of how pipes were made). As a result, decoration and marks on pipes could be used as advertisements, symbols of political events/movements, groups, or current events, as well as just decoration for its own sake.

One of the most common examples of a clay pipe with multiple uses that we find in Christchurch are Heywood pipes. Joseph Heywood ran a business as a commission agent, among other things, from 1851 in Lyttelton. Heywood commissioned clay pipes bearing his name from English pipe manufacturer Charles Crop and we’ve found them on multiple sites in Christchurch dating from the 1860s to the 1880s. Heywood appears to have used the pipes to advertise his business (the 19th century equivalent of businesses buying pens that have their name on them) and was not the only company in Christchurch to do so. We’ve also found pipes from the businesses Trent Brothers and Twentyman and Cousin (see this blog specifically on advertising pipes for more detail). Image: C. Watson.

Keeping with the Irish theme, this pipe is an Inniskilling pipe. It depicts Derry castle with a border of clover leaves and a crown above it. Below the castle is a banner with THE INNISKILLING stamped on it and beneath this a sphynx with a second banner reading EGYPT. The Inniskilling refers to an Irish regiment of the British army that began as a local militia raised in 1689 to fight against James II. The regiment became part of the British army and was sent to several battles both in Britain and overseas. Inniskilling pipes were made by several pipe manufacturers between approximately 1880 and 1920. In the case of this one, the pipe is commemorating the Inniskilling’s time in Egypt, and can be seen as an example of contemporary political events being used as pipe decoration. Image: C. Watson.

Our Colleen Bawn pipe may function as both an advertisement and a kind of pop culture reference for the time. When I began researching the pipe, I wanted to know what the phrase ‘Colleen Bawn’ would mean to a person living in 19th century New Zealand. Would they instantly recognise it as a reference to the murdered Ellen? Or could it be a reference to something else. The easiest way to find this out was by using Papers Past, an online database containing thousands of New Zealand newspapers. Searching the name ‘Colleen Bawn’ resulted in 9,912 hits, indicating that even if I had never heard the phrase Colleen Bawn, people in the 19th century were familiar with it. The earliest reference was to a ‘Colleen Bawn’ clothing item, which was a type of cloak worn by Irish farm girls. From the limited information I’ve been able to find so far, I think the cloak was probably red, similar to a Little Red Riding Hood cloak, and that the name is a reference to the Colleen Bawn play, although I haven’t been able to find anything that specifically proved that. Colleen Bawn cloaks only appeared in 1860s-1870s advertisements, indicating either they dropped out of fashion or the style was no longer referred to as a Colleen Bawn.

The earliest newspaper reference I could find to ‘Colleen Bawn’. Image: Press 9/11/1861: 7.

Other newspaper advertisements referred to a ship called the Colleen Bawn that was operating in New Zealand in the 1860s and 1870s. But aside from that, the vast majority of newspaper references were to the Colleen Bawn play.

Dion Boucicault, author of the play, even visited New Zealand in the 1880s doing a tour of the play in which he played one of the main characters. Image: Lyttelton Times 10/11/1885: 1.

Given our pipe was found in an 1890s context (by which time almost all newspaper references were in relation to the play), and that clay pipes generally only had a short use-life, it seems very likely that our pipe is referencing the Colleen Bawn play. It’s not clear if the pipes were ordered to advertise the play (similar to the Heywood pipes), or if they were a current event reference (like the Inniskilling pipe, but with more of a pop culture angle). It could be that they were the 19th century equivalent of going to a Taylor Swift concert and coming home with a Taylor Swift t-shirt – an object to advertise that you went to the play and remember the experience. Regardless of why the pipe was made, it tells an amazing story and it is interesting to view the clay pipe as both an artefact of late-19th century pop culture in New Zealand, and a reference to a young girl’s tragic fate.

Clara Watson

Further Reading and Information

There are many stories online about the murder of Ellen Hanley. These accounts are all broadly similar, with a few variations to the story. I’ve based mine on accounts from Irish Waterways HistoryIrishCentral, The Irish Times and Clare County Library.

-If you’re interested in reading Gerald Griffin’s book, The Collegians, that was based on the murder, then it is available online on Google Books.

-If you’re interested in reading the play, then the script is available on Project Gutenberg.

-There was also a 1911 silent film based on the play. This is available online on YouTube.

At the time of writing this blog, I haven’t been able to find another example of a Colleen Bawn clay pipe. If there is anyone out there who has one or has seen one then please get in touch, I’d love to hear from you.


Canals through the swamp

If you walk along the Avon River by Cashel Street you might catch a glimpse of the small gondolas taking their fares for a leisurely punt through the city and botanical gardens. Today this attraction is aimed largely at tourists, but during the 19th century Christchurch’s rivers were frequented by many bathers, rowers, and small crafts conveying goods and people. While these activities were mainly confined to the natural channels of the Heathcote and Avon Rivers and their estuary, this blog aims to discuss an early proposal, fashioned during the very foundation of the city, which would have seen Christchurch transformed into a Venice-like city with a thriving water-based system of transportation and communication: the Christchurch canal scheme.

Photograph of the Canterbury rowing club on the Avon River in c.909

In the later 1840s Captain Joseph Thomas was appointed by the Canterbury Association to prepare a 1,000,000 acre master map of the proposed Canterbury Block. In addition, Captain Thomas was also given a budget of £20,000 to undertake important infrastructure works such as the forming of arterial roads and port facilities, and to construct necessary public buildings such as immigration barracks, warehouses and offices in preparation for the arrival of the Canterbury settlers. Together with his survey team, Captain Thomas travelled to New Zealand on board the new 548-ton barque, Bernicia, between July and October 1848. Following their arrival in Canterbury, the surveyors got to work creating triangulation and topographical maps of the land (Amodeo, 2003).

Initially the site of Canterbury’s capital city was to be located at Te Rapu [Teddington] at the head of the bay. It was thought that this site’s proximity to the harbour would allow port facilities to be located within the capital township. However, the Canterbury Association’s elitist scheme of settlement was based on a rural work force supporting a gentry and small aristocracy, which meant the chief town also needed to be in close proximity to suitable farmland. Teddington may have been close to the harbour, but the clay hillside was found to be a poor foundation for largescale construction and there was insufficient pastural land nearby to support a large rural population.

Aerial image showing the location of Teddington at the head of the bay.

With the reluctant permission of both Governor Grey and Bishop Selwyn, Captain Thomas was allowed to personally select an alternate site for Canterbury’s capital city. Despite having his choice of any site on the broad open plains, Captain Thomas ultimately selected a site in the swamplands at the base of the Port Hills, at the place formerly designated as “Stratford” adjoining the Avon River. One of the main influences on Captain Thomas’ decision appears to have been the proximity to the Deans family farm at Pūtarikamotu (Riccarton) which they had been farming since December 1842. The Deans’ orchard, vegetable garden, sheep and cattle pastures, and fields of oats, barley, and potatoes had not only provided the survey parties with much of their initial supplies, but also proved to Captain Thomas the viability of agricultural pursuits in the area.

Detail from Captain Thomas’ 1849 Sketch Map of the Country intended for the settlement of Canterbury, showing the proposed location of the city of Christchurch at what is now Teddington.

Captain Thomas’ selected site has been a source of contentious debate ever since. Siting Christchurch in the middle of a swamp bisected by meandering rivers and creeks was to have a complicating effect on the drainage and sanitation of the city, and would result in decades of debate, planning, and feats of engineering to overcome. But a more urgent issue plaguing Captain Thomas was the difficult task of establishing ready communication between the port town at Lyttelton and the capital township on the plains.

Captain Thomas considered the proximity of the Ōtākaro/Avon River to the city as not only a natural outfall for drainage, but he purposefully sited Christchurch on it’s banks with the view of utilising the river’s channel as a natural highway for the conveying of goods to the city. It is no coincidence that the site known as “The Bricks” was included within the city’s boundaries. The Bricks was a site on the banks of the Avon (near the intersection of Barbadoes Street and Oxford Terrace) which is believed to have been the highest point upstream for boats to navigate. The name was established in 1843 when the Deans unloaded their cargo of chimney bricks at the site (Kete Christchurch, 2017). Captain Thomas appears to have envisioned The Bricks as the capital’s river port to which goods and people could be conveyed from the estuary to the city.

Lithograph of J. Durey’s 1851 painting of the bricks landing site on the Avon River showing the first settlement within Christchurch city.

While the Avon was initially favoured for river transportation, the deeper tidal waters of the Heathcote River eventually attracted more trade (Lyttelton Times, 13/3/1852: 5). Captain Thomas had initially seemed to dismiss the Heathcote River in his original plan as being too swampy, winding, and narrow (in its upper reaches at least), and so its navigability had not been properly established. This was likely on the advice of assistant surveyor Samuel Hewlings, who had been tasked in late September 1849 to conduct a topographical survey of the Heathcote River and had found the experience miserable (Amodeo, 2003). However, it was not long after the arrival of the Canterbury settlers that small European craft began to make their way up the Heathcote’s waters. By December 1851, C. Bishop and G. Gould had formed the Christchurch Conveyance Company and constructed the Heathcote’s first wharf upstream of the Estuary, known as Christchurch Quay, just north of where the Radley Bridge now stands and where the Heathcote runs close to Ferry Road (Penney, 1982: 14). 19th century photographs show a number of small craft making their way through the Heathcote’s waters.

Photograph taken by the Burton Brother’s Studio in c.1880 showing a ship sailing through the waters of the Heathcote River.

The natural rivers do not appear to have been the only waterways intended to be utilised for communication and conveying merchandise. 19th century plans of the city show three long straight pathways surveyed between the natural waterways and labelled as “Canal Reserves”. Today these three canal reserves are known as Linwood Avenue, Marshlands Road, and Sparks Road. Had these canal reserves been developed into waterways they would have formed an uninterrupted conduit connecting the Halswell River, Heathcote River, Avon-Heathcote Estuary, Avon River, Styx River, and even as far north as the Waimakariri River.

Map of the Christchurch and Sumner Survey Districts in 1892, showing the natural waterways (indicated in dark blue) connected by the three proposed canals (indicated in light blue).

Despite Captain Thomas’ apparent vision for a Capital city bisected by water-highways, during the early years of the settlement there does not appear to have been any serious contemplation of forming the canal reserves into waterways. One major hinderance to developing largescale shipping enterprises within the city was the shoaling, shifting river bar at the Sumner entrance, which was extremely hazardous for coastal vessels attempting to enter or leave the Avon-Heathcote estuary. Within the first two decades of the settlement, over thirty vessels foundered or were completely wrecked on the Sumner Bar (Penney, 1982: 25). When reporting on the state of the Sumner Bar in 1855, Canterbury provincial engineer Edward Dobson concluded that:

The Sumner Bar is not safe for vessels of upwards of fifty tons under canvass alone. With a steam tug vessels drawing nine feet water may be taken with perfect safety to a little above the Shag Rock at Sumner, but no further. The Avon is only fit for a barge navigation. The Heathcote, being a tidal navigation, may be so improved as to allow any vessel that can cross the bar to come up to Christchurch Quay (Lyttelton Times, 7/11/1855: 3-5).

Although Dobson’s report concluded that the Heathcote River had potential for improved river shipping enterprises, the opening of the Christchurch-Lyttelton railway tunnel in 1867 solved much of the port and city’s communication problems, and so the necessity of undertaking largescale estuary works to expand river communication was not deemed essential.

Whilst the works to form the Christchurch canals were not undertaken, the idea persisted through the 19th and 20th centuries. One of the major proponents of the scheme in the 1870s was John Sigismund Jacobsen, a Marine and Civil Engineer, who suggested a plan “to make a canal from the estuary to the Town belt east, 60ft wide at top, 40ft wide at bottom, with a depth of 15ft 6in at the belt, with proper wharves for vessels, silting pits so adjusted that they could receive the whole drainage of the city and suburbs” (Lyttelton Times, 15/10/1872: 3). It was at the turn of the century, however, that the Lyttelton Harbour Board more seriously contemplated the formation of a Christchurch canal from Sumner to Woolston or Linwood (Lyttelton Times, 31/5/1904: 4; 12/8/1904: 2). The engineer to the board, Cyrus J. R. Williams, reported on costs, feasibility and advisability of constructing the two canal options in December 1905 (Lyttelton Times, 14/12/1905: 2). Although there was significant support for the scheme at the time, ultimately it was decided to expend the funds on improvements to the Lyttelton Harbour instead, and the idea never seemed to gain serious consideration again (Lyttelton Times, 22/12/1905: 3). In retrospect this decision was probably for the best, as such a development would have had irrevocable ecological and environmental consequences for the Heathcote-Avon estuary, but it is very interesting to contemplate what Christchurch would be like today if the Canal Reserves been formed into waterways during the 19th century.

Lydia Mearns


Amodeo, C., 2003. Forgotten Forty-niners: Being an account of the Men & Women who paved the way in 1849 for the Canterbury Pilgrims in 1850. Christchurch: The Caxton Press.

Penney, S.W., 1982. The Estuary of Christchurch: A History of the Avon-Heathcote Estuary, its communities, clubs, controversies and contributions. Penney Ash Publications.


Ceiling Roses I Have Seen

One of my favourite features of a pre-1900 building is the beautiful ceiling rose. Ceiling roses are often found in ‘public’ rooms in Victorian homes – usually in the parlour and dining room. But sometimes, if the original owners were that way inclined, they can also be found in the private master bedroom. The material used to create ceiling roses were either plaster, timber or pressed metal and they can be found in a range of different sizes. The primary function of the ceiling rose, other than providing another decorative element to a room, was ventilation. Perforated ceiling roses are commonly found in rooms that had fireplaces to help with ventilation. That’s not to say that the Victorians didn’t also have unperforated ceiling roses for no useful function other than the elegance it displays to guests, because they sure did! Nowadays, when exploring a pre-1900 dwelling, you will likely see the ceiling rose repurposed for modern times – with a light fixture hanging from the centre of the ceiling rose.

The following images include some of the best examples we have come across while recording the built heritage of Christchurch.

This is the first ceiling rose of three found in a building built in 1892. This small ceiling rose was in the front entrance of the dwelling. It is a perforated ceiling rose with moderate decoration. Simple, but catches the eye when you enter. Image: Jamie-Lee Hearfield.

Next up in the same 1892 dwelling was this beautiful large ceiling rose in what would have been the parlour. The perforated ceiling rose is highly decorative with leaves and flowers. It was one of the largest ceiling roses I have come across, at 1.5 m wide! Image: Jamie-Lee Hearfield.

Last, and certainly not least, for the 1892 dwelling is this small plain ceiling rose found in a small back room. It still functioned as ‘ventilation’, being perforated, but does not have the grand look of the previous ceiling roses. The owners clearly were not expecting guests to visit this back room. Image: Jamie-Lee Hearfield.

This medium sized perforated ceiling rose was the only one found in an 1880s house with a school room attached. While ceiling roses are often removed over time due to modification or updating ceilings, no evidence could be found to suggest there were any other ceiling roses in the building. The interesting thing about this ceiling rose was that it was installed in the school room attached to the main building. So not the typical show-off your fancy plaster features to your guests that you expect from the Victorians. Image: Jamie-Lee Hearfield.

This has to be one of my favourite ceiling roses that I have come across. This perforated ceiling rose was found in a building built in 1898. It has a beautiful leaf and flower motif with small stars in the middle with a larger star surrounding the inner circle. The 20th century occupants of the site also must have thought it was beautiful, as they haven’t modified it into a lighting feature, leaving it in its spectacular original form. Image: Jamie-Lee Hearfield

Now for something a little more abstract. This ceiling rose also came from a dwelling built in 1898 (but not the same building as the previous!) This ceiling rose is very different compared to the previous ones I have shown you. It is not perforated in the middle, instead the ventilation comes from between the decoration at the edge of the ceiling rose. It might be hard to see it in the photo, but there are four vases in the centre of the ceiling rose that have bouquets of flowers. Leaves and flowers, as you can see in this blog post, are very common motifs for ceiling roses. Image: Jamie-Lee Hearfield.

This ceiling rose, and the following two ceiling roses, come from a building built in 1880 that sadly was demolished before my time at the company. However, the photos of them live on! The above ceiling rose has a beautiful leaf design and sneakily hides the ventilation underneath the raised leaves. Image: Annthalina Gibson, Kirsa Webb.

This next ceiling rose is a lot smaller than the previous one but is still highly decorative with a leaf design. The ventilation is also a lot more obvious in this ceiling rose. I appreciate that the owner at the time decided to put the new light fixture next to the ceiling rose instead of through it. Image: Annthalina Gibson, Kirsa Webb.

Another smaller ceiling rose from the same 1880 dwelling. This design is a lot simpler than the last two. It has a flower in the middle and what would have been six leaves surrounding the flower. Now only three of the leaves remain, which could be due to the plaster not lasting the test of time or the leaves being damaged while the light fixture was added. The middle of the ceiling rose is perforated underneath the small leaf design. Image: Annthalina Gibson, Kirsa Webb.

Jamie-Lee Hearfield



70 years of quarantine: the archaeology of Ōtamahua/Quail Island

Today Aotearoa continues to take tentative steps back into level 2 of the Covid-19 response, so you might think it strange that I would be voluntarily stepping back into quarantine. But we’re the stepping back into the history – all  figurative-like – of Ōtamahua/Quail Island in Lyttelton Harbour, which acted as a quarantine station throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. For an archaeology nerd, Ōtamahua has such an interesting range of history and archaeology. It’s been a mahinga kai and/or nohoanga, quarry site, a quarantine station for immigrants and animals, a leper’s colony, farmland, ship’s graveyard, and is now managed by the Department of Conservation. There’s a lot of history to Ōtamahua, so strap in, this is going to be a big(ish) one.

Whakaraupō/Lyttelton Harbour with Ōtamahua/Quail Island in the centre. Image: Jessie Garland.

Ōtamahua has a long history, its name meaning “the place where children collected seabird eggs”. Another name, Te Kawakawa, refers to the pepper tree which grew there (Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu, 2020). There are several recorded archaeological sites on the island that attest to Ngāi Tahu, and earlier Māori groups’ long history in the area. A beautiful pou named Te Hamo o Tū Te Rakiwhānoa, made by the Whakaraupō Carving Centre was recently erected on the island by Ngāti Wheke.

Te Hamo o Tū Te Rakiwhānoa. Image: Tristan Wadsworth.

Ōtamahua, and the smaller Aua/King Billy Island off to the southwest have both been quarried for basalt by Māori and Pākehā, the latter for stone building blocks, and the former for the manufacture of adzes and other tools. The island also boasts one of my favourite kinds of Māori archaeological features: a fish trap! Though it may look like a boring old circle of stones in the tide, these sites are pretty rare. The engineering principles are simple and effective: fish come in at high tide and get stuck inside the circle when it recedes. In the words of our endemic poets: “tide rolls in, tide rolls out, let the [numbers of fish] inside begin to grow”.

I love a good fish trap. Image from Trotter and McCulloch, 2000.

The use of Quail Island for quarantine of either animals or people starts as early as 1855, when it was set apart as a quarantine ground for diseased sheep (Lyttelton Times, 19/9/2855: 6). The idea of quarantine is pretty familiar to New Zealanders (especially in this day and ), not just for folks coming from overseas who might be sick, but also for animals. During the late 19th century, European colonisers were doing a whole-scale transformation of Aotearoa to European-style agriculture, and then as now, New Zealanders took steps to protect lives, industry and livelihoods from harm from viruses and infectious disease. The use of Quail Island as a place for quarantine would sit alongside its farming history for the next century, including its use as a place to quarantine animals for several Antarctic expeditions between 1901 and 1929 (Mclean, 2013).

If you asked me to come up with a satirical 19th century bureaucratic job, I would come up with “Inspector of Sheep”. Source: Lyttelton Times, 19/9/2855: 6

A reconstructed kennel (the foundations are original) in which dogs were quarantined as part of Antarctic expeditions. Source: Mclean, 2013.

Group including Robert Falcon Scott, with Mongolian ponies, on Quail Island. Ref: 1/2-031141-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/23184103

Same here, Antarctic pony, same here.

Initially, shipboard isolation was the only method of preventing transmission of disease on the long journey to New Zealand, but due to increasing numbers of immigrants, and insufficient facilities, this came to be considered ineffective, and the need for large quarantine stations was recognised (Kelly, 2018). Although there were also several mainland quarantine stations, islands were considered perfect spots for quarantine; water on all sides helps maintain the level of isolation one requires to prevent transmission of illnesses, and only truly unhinged individuals would dare swim or even paddle board across the harbour, in defiance of a perfectly natural and not at all phobic distrust of large bodies of water.

Ed. Removed for space, the story of the leprosy patient who escaped Quail Island across the water, reappearing in Charteris Bay in disguise as an Invercargill clergyman. Source: New Zealand Herald, 12/1/1925: 6.

In 1874, the Canterbury Provincial Council bought the land on Quail Island, and a quarantine station was set up, to replace the existing station at Ripapa Island and Camp Bay, which was considered overcrowded (Star, 8/8/1874: 2; Lyttelton Times, 9/10/1874: 2; Globe, 9/10/1874: 3). All the major cities had a wee island they could put freshly-minted residents on for a bit to counteract the transmission-friendly tight and unhygienic quarters of a long ship journey. Wellington had Matiu/Somes Island, Auckland had Motuihe Island, Dunedin had the creatively named “Quarantine Island” (Kamaautaurua), and Christchurch had Quail Island, all of which were in use by the 1870s (Kelly, 2018). Lots of remains from the quarantine station remain on the island: piles and other foundations from many of the former quarantine buildings, stone retaining walls (built by prisoners from Lyttelton jail) and terrace relating to the initial reshaping of the hillsides for construction, and the Skiers Beach barracks building, built in 1875, and one of only two 19th century quarantine buildings remaining in New Zealand.

The quarantine station men’s barracks, built in 1874. Image: Annthalina Gibson.

A stone retaining wall, likely built by prisoners of the Lyttelton Gaol (Trotter and McCulloch, 2000). See here for more on these prisoners who built Lyttelton. Image: Annthalina Gibson.

Detail from 1907 survey plan (SO 4813) on Quail Island showing the buildings within the South Bay area. The layout of the quarantine station reflects partially the requirements of the station, but also the social mores of the time, with separate quarters for men and women. Image: LINZ 1907.

Skiers Beach, looking northeast, showing some of the quarantine station buildings in 1906, including, from left to right, the caretakers cottage, barracks, cookhouse, barracks and the single men’s cookhouse at the extreme right at Whakamaru Beach. Image: Weekly Press from Jackson, 2006, p. 30.

In November 2019, three of our team (Angel, Jo, and I) visited Quail Island to undertake some excavation on the terrace bearing the quarantine station’s cookhouse. It was a real privilege to be part of the project, and we stayed in the newly done up DOC hut, which is a nice, early-20th century cottage that housed the caretaker for the Department of Agriculture’s animal quarantine station.

Angel gives Jo a makeshift tarot reading during our stay.

During the works, Angel found a penny dating to 1873, a year before the station was built. It’s very unlikely the coin was lost and deposited the same year it was minted, but it’s a nice coincidence. Artefact photo: Clara Watson.

On the cookhouse terrace, we found archaeological remains of the cookhouse terrace building itself, including stone piles, fragments of metal sheeting, the remains of some metal containers that might have been associated with the kitchen. There was also evidence for a shell paving layer that went right around the building.

Artefacts from the quarantine station, including a lead fishing weight (top right), keg tap (centre), and domestic pigeon bones (bottom right). Image: Clara Watson, Jessie Garland.

Among the finds were the bones of the introduced domestic pigeon, which are very rare finds in New Zealand archaeology. We couldn’t find any specific historical evidence for pigeons being kept or quarantined on the island, so it’s not quite clear what this particular bird’s story was, or if it was just a rogue pigeon that ended up in the pot.

In 1906, the quarantine station was repurposed for a different form of isolation. Will Vallance was diagnosed with leprosy at Christchurch Hospital, and was put in quarantine on the island. The station had seen less use for quarantining immigrants over the recent years, as most infectious cases were being treated in mainland hospitals, and now saw its second life of quarantine as a leper colony. Author and historian Benjamin Kingsbury says that although leprosy was only mildly contagious, it was probably more stigmatised than any other disease. If you are interested in the lives of the inhabitants, and their treatment, I strongly recommend these two stories on the Spinoff by Benjamin Kingsbury, who has written a book on the subject. After a year on the island, a small hut was built to house Vallance, who had previously been living alone in the much larger barracks. Having spent a few university summers nigh-alone in a large, typically-thriving hall of residence, I could see how that could be a lonely (and spooky) experience. A few more huts would be built between 1907 and 1924 to house further leprosy patients, totalling nine (Kingsbury, 2019, 2020). In 1924, the Mt Herbert County Council proposed the removal of the leper station, the given reason primarily the ongoing shared use of the island to quarantine stock, and that “importers of valuable stock do so with “a feeling that should not exist” (Press, 15/4/1924: 9). The eight remaining leprosy patients were transferred the next year to Fiji, far from the homes and contacts they knew (Trotter and McCulloch, 2004). It seems callous that a feeling of discomfort (largely unwarranted and self-inflicted) held by those looking over their economic investments should be put above the lives of human beings, those suffering from a chronic disease, but that was the world of the 1920s.

In 2002, archaeologist Michael Trotter, together with DOC and the Catholic Cathedral College of Christchurch undertook an excavation of one of the hut sites associated with the leper station, in order to construct the replica present on the hillside today. The excavation revealed the bricks of a fallen chimney (classic Christchurch), but little evidence of burning, suggesting that at least this hut was largely taken off site rather than burnt, as mentioned in the local newspapers at the time. The underfloor deposit hinted at the creature comforts enjoyed by the isolated patients: glass marbles from aerated drink bottles, thin glass likely originating from pictures, and a tin for holding  and mixing watercolour paints (Trotter and McCulloch, 2004). It’s not a bad view out over the harbour from the huts that housed the leprosy patients, after all.

Plan of the leprosy station hut excavated in 2002. Source: Trotter and McCulloch, 2004.

The east side of the island is also home to a nationally significant ship graveyard, where the hulks of 13 ships were intentionally scuttled between 1902 and 1951. If you’ve not been, it’s definitely worth a visit. Low tide reveals the skeletons of steamships, barques, and so on, as they seem to slowly rise from the still waters of Whakaraupō/Lyttelton Harbour. In the words of our endemic poets “tide rolls in, tide rolls out, let the [shipwrecks] inside begin to [emerge from the harbour]”.

The ‘dissenters’ ship’s graveyard had to be placed somewhere else. Can’t have ships intermingling after death. Image: Tristan Wadsworth.

One of the great things about Ōtamahua/Quail Island is that so much of its heritage is visible from just the short walk around the island. I’m looking forward to getting back, next chance I get. Stay safe out there peeps, and take care of each other.




Further reading

The ghosts of Quail Island

He is unclean; he shall dwell alone: A sad and startling story of leprosy in NZ

The cruelty – and small kindnesses – of quarantine 100 years ago

Bittersweet existence for the dogs of Antarctica



Globe [online]. Available:

Jackson, P.J., 2006. Ōtamahua/Quail Island – A Link With The Past. 2nd ed. (r ed. Christchurch: Ōtamahua Quail Island Restoration Trust.

Kelly, A., 2018. Third Time’s the Charm: An Investigation into the Quarantine Landscape of Lyttelton Harbour. Archaeology in New Zealand, 61(2), pp.41–50.

Kingsbury, B., 2019. He is unclean; he shall dwell alone: A sad and startling story of leprosy in NZ. [online] The Spinoff. Available at: <> [Accessed 15 May 2020].

Kingsbury, B., 2020. The cruelty – and small kindnesses – of quarantine 100 years ago. [online] The Spinoff. Available at: <> [Accessed 12 May 2020].

LINZ, 1907. SO 4813, Canterbury. Landonline.

Lyttelton Times [online]. Available:

Mclean, G., 2013. Quail Island, Lyttelton Harbour (1875). [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 12 May 2020].

National Libraries [online]. Group including Robert Falcon Scott, with Mongolian ponies, on Quail Island. Ref: 1/2-031141-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. [Accessed 12 May 2020].

New Zealand Herald [online]. Available:

Press [online]. Available:

Star [online]. Available:

Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu, 2020. Ngāi Tahu Atlas. Kā Huru Manu. Available online: <> [Accessed 12 May 2020]

Trotter, M. and McCulloch, B., 2000. Archaeological and historical sites of Quail Island and King Billy Island, Lyttelton Harbour, Canterbury. Report for the Canterbury Conservancy, Department of Conservation.

Trotter, M. and McCulloch, B., 2004. Archaeological Excavation of a Quarantine Station Hut Site on Quail Island, Lyttelton Harbour. Unpublished report for Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga.