The story so far

As life-changing experiences go, the earthquake on 22 February 2011 was fairly significant. On the one hand, our house was red-zoned (but still liveable), friends lost their lives and the city lost many of the old buildings that, for me, made it somewhere I loved: High Street, Strange’s and the ANZ building opposite, the late 19th/early 20th century buildings that lined parts of Lichfield Street, the Fisher building and the handful of Art Nouveau/Deco buildings scattered through the city centre. On the other hand, I gained a beautiful new house, a considerably expanded business (from one employee to something like 25 – not all of whom are full-time, I hasten to add), a proper workplace, a couple of extra storage units, and data. Lots and lots of data.

Detail of Strange's building, taken during archaeological recording. Image: K. Watson.

Detail of Strange’s building, taken during archaeological recording. Image: K. Watson.

Along the way, there have been sleepless nights, a considerable amount of stress, a whole lot of learning and, let’s face it, a whole lot of fun. As someone who worked largely on my own for the 10 or so years prior to the earthquakes, I’d never realised that working with a whole team of people could be so much fun, or so stimulating. There have also been incredible opportunities – radio interviews, a television appearance, newspaper interviews, a conference in the States, and, in my inbox this morning, an invitation to be part of this. And then there’s this blog, which would almost certainly never have happened without the earthquakes. Not to mention an editorial in the Press about archaeology, and its importance in the city.

In the office this morning.  Sculptures: F. Bradley. Image: J. Garland.

In the office this morning. Sculptures: F. Bradley. Image: J. Garland.

I’ve lived in Christchurch since 2000, having grown up on the Canterbury plains. As a child, Christchurch wasn’t a city we went to often, but it was significant as the only city I knew, and thus had all of the associated glamour that a country girl with a vivid imagination will inevitably project on a city. Our visits tended to revolve around the A&P show (I grew up on a farm), riding the escalators in Ballantynes, ballet, Shakespeare and visits to the hospital, Arts Centre and botanical gardens. As a teenager, I began volunteering at the museum, and staying with an elderly aunt up here – who memorably introduced me to art house movies, taking me first to Delicatessen (at the Arts Centre), where the woman behind the counter was somewhat reluctant to sell my 80+ aunt and 15 year old self the tickets. Needless to say, we both loved it.

Having studied anthropology at Otago, I moved to Christchurch to work at the museum, before starting work as an archaeological consultant. I worked from home and did work in the city, as well as on the West Coast and in Canterbury’s high country. As it happens, I was working on a project for EQC when the earthquake struck on 22 February 2011.

In the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, of course, everything was turned upside down. We escaped to my parents’ place, an oasis of calm in the craziness that was unleashed. I can still remember my somewhat shell-shocked feeling in those early days, particularly one the immediate problems of the mess and the liquefaction had been dealt with. Of not knowing what to do with myself, of trying to get back to normal but feeling like normal had to be something completely different from what it had been, given the scale of events.

Salvation came in the form of taking photographs for Heritage New Zealand (then New Zealand Historic Places Trust), of listed buildings and/or pre-1900 buildings that were being demolished, or slated for demolition. ‘Salvation’ isn’t too strong a word, either. This work, which another archaeologist and I started about a week after the quake, gave me a focus and a sense of purpose. It also enabled me to document the buildings I had loved, and to discover new hidden gems, albeit a little too late. It also felt good to be useful, and to be contributing in some way to dealing with the earthquake.

No words needed. Image: K. Watson.

No words needed. Image: K. Watson.

This work continued till about the middle of the year (the exact dates are unclear now), when the demolition work began in earnest, complete with foundation removal, which hadn’t really been happening up until that point. It was at this point that Heritage New Zealand developed the emergency archaeological authority process, enabling a streamlined approach to processing and issuing archaeological authorities. I guess the current form of UnderOverArch dates to this period.

Initially there were four of us, squished into less than half a portacom, complete with a computer that we didn’t use – fortunately (or maybe not – see the following sentence), we spent more time out on site than in the office. I learnt to drink coffee again; we froze outside on sites as it snowed, and then snowed again; we explained the authority process and why archaeology was important over and over again. I think we felt like we were achieving something, by collecting important data about the city and educating people about archaeology.


Artefacts. So many artefacts. Image: J. Garland.

From this my increasing interest in public archaeology grew. For how could we get people to protect their archaeology and heritage if they didn’t see why it was so important? And so the Facebook page, the public talks, the exhibitions and this blog. But it’s not just about showing people that archaeology is important, it’s about showing people what archaeology really is, it’s about telling Christchurch stories and highlighting the people who made our city what it is. It’s about showing that, while we’ve lost some pretty amazing heritage, we’ve gained some pretty cool heritage too. And it’s about doing research and turning all that data into something meaningful, something real. Something for Christchurch.

There’s still a long way to go. Those site reports we wrote in the immediate aftermath of the quake were even less than once-over-lightly. We need to plug the gaps in those, we need to index our data so that others can access and use it, and we need to facilitate, produce and disseminate more research that focuses on Christchurch’s archaeology. We have this unique opportunity – so many sites in such a short period of time – to understand our city through its archaeology, from the time of its first Māori settlement to the modern day, and we need to make the most of it.

Image: K. Webb.

Excavation in progress. Image: K. Webb.

It gets me every year, the earthquake anniversary. Kind of sneaks up on me and takes me by surprise, when I’m faced with all that we’ve lost. It’s not been an easy journey, but it has been a pretty amazing one – this is not where I thought I’d find myself when I finished at university, or even immediately after the quakes. I’m proud of what my team at UnderOverArch has achieved, and particularly the public archaeology we’ve done. And I’m excited about what the future holds – the discoveries to be made, the research to be carried out and the challenge of convincing people that archaeology is amazing.

Katharine Watson

The Domino effect

When I found a domino underneath a house in Lyttelton recently, I thought it probably wasn’t the first time that a stray piece of a children’s game was discarded, overlooked or lost. Children’s toys aren’t known for their longevity, and one could speculate that this game piece was easily separated from its comrades through a sudden distraction, followed by a slip of a hand and a lack of regard by its young owner… Or so I thought before I started further researching this entertaining artefact. While dominoes were a recognised children’s game in the 19th century, just as they still are today (if kids actually still play anything that doesn’t require an electronic controller?), it was actually a popular pastime for Victorian and Edwardian adults as well.

The domino in question was typical of the Victorian type, rendered in a dark ebony wood backing with a front panel of bone, which was carefully incised with numerical dots. The two pieces were connected with two small brass nails, the copper element of which had left a greenish residue on the front. What a fun artefact to find, and presumably, the domino’s original owner also had their share of fun with it while it remained in their possession (however briefly)! So who could this owner (child or adult) have been, and what might they have been doing with it? Was it child’s toy, a game piece from an illegal, back ally gambling den, a leisure item from a workingman’s club or something more obscure; like a piece involved in an attempt to break a domino stacking record (Press 17/10/1938: 4)?

Figure 1. The domino in question

Figure 1. The domino in question.

Dominoes are said to have found their origins in a small lonely cell of a monastery, where two monks were serving a punishment for breaking their vowel of silence. The pair attempted to alleviate their boredom by playing with some nearby marked stones (Manawatu Herald 18/7/1890: 2). While this tale may or may not be completely factual, the game progressed from this crude diversion into the form that we know today.

Dominoes experienced a dynamic spark in popularity around the late 19th and early 20th centuries (Hastings Standard 29/1/1914: 3). The trend was so marked that London shop assistants were reported to have been embezzling from their employers to pay off their dominoes gambling debts (Mataura Ensign 17/11/1911: 7). Viennese wives were also reported to have ‘dobbed in’ their husbands to the police for partaking in (what was then) an illegal gambling enterprise, in order to prevent them from squandering family fortunes on domino gambles (Mataura Ensign 31/3/1911: 5). The popularity and the longevity of the game could possibly be explained by how varied it can be. A newspaper article from 1895 reported that if you made ten moves a day for 118 years, you could not exhaust all of the moves that are possible in a game of dominoes (honestly, was that really worth calculating? (Grey River Argus 15/10/1895: 4)).

Figure 1. Domino addictions. Image: Auckland Star 23/12/1922: 4.

Figure 2. Domino addictions. Image: Auckland Star 23/12/1922: 4.

What I found notable (and slightly amusing) was the juxtaposition of the negative and positive attitudes towards dominoes in the 19th and early 20th century newspapers. Dominoes are reported to have been associated with gambling dens, which were linked with crime (including violence and drugs; NZ Truth 17/11/1923: 6), not to mention, the debts that domino gambling produced. Dominoes were even the direct cause of several deaths! The most unusual of which included death duels that were decided by domino games (over girls!) and death by (non-accidental) swallowing of the pieces (Figure 3, Nelson Evening Mail 25/05/1882: 4).

Figure 3. A case of undiagnosed Pica disorder? Or a crude 19th century joke? Image: Evening Star 4/11/1904: 7.

Figure 3. A case of undiagnosed Pica disorder? Or a crude 19th century joke? Image: Evening Star 4/11/1904: 7.

These reports contrast with how commonly dominoes came up in my newspaper searches as a decent and respectable game that was allowed to be played by prisoners, supplied to tramps, was an acceptable game for children in child rearing handbooks, was played by children in convents and was donated to public libraries (Lake County Press 13/9/1877: 3 Lake Wakatip Mail 19/11/1893: 3 New Zealand Herald 7/6/1928: 9, Wanganui Herald 3/4/1868: 2; 27/8/1872: 2).

There also sometimes seems to have been an elitist attitude towards the game. I found a ‘humours’ article where a man of lower class was invited to a party, and made a social faux pas by mixing up the dominoes game with the style of fancy dress, of the same name (Otago Witness 6/7/1888: 38). I also found numerous references to alternative and intellectual ways to play the game (New Zealand Herald 21/05/1938: 8). If you’re feeling confident in your arithmetic and problem-solving skills today (or just feeling pretentious), you can perform the “mental exercise” in the article below… It made my head hurt.

Figure 4. Game Problems. Image: Evening Post 12/11/1927: 20.

Figure 4. Game Problems. Image: Evening Post 12/11/1927: 20.

A slightly more unexpected use for dominoes in the 19th and early 20th centuries was more mystic in nature. Prior to the invention of the daily horoscope text message or an app that delivers a regular personalised reading to your smart phone, some Victorian and Edwardian fortune seekers may have found solace or guidance in a medium who gave fortune readings from dominos. More conveniently, save yourself a trip to the travelling carnival and learn how to read your domino fortune yourself! (By the way, how does one drink liquor at a distance? (Figure 5)).

Figure 4. The meaning of dominoes. Image: New Zealand Herald 24/12/1912: 7.

Figure 5. The meaning of dominoes. Image: New Zealand Herald 24/12/1912: 7.

If this article intrigued you and you’d like more information on how to draw and interpret your mystical dominoes, or if you really just aiming to draw a five-two so you can go to a 19th century water party (whatever that is), please read on below. (But fair warning, the readings may heavily contradict what you read above. Gloriously confused? Me too).

Figure 6. Image. New Zealand Herald 10/6/1916: 6.

Figure 6. Image. New Zealand Herald 10/6/1916: 6.

The above hopefully illustrates some interesting possibilities for the life of our domino before it was lost or discarded underneath a house in Lyttelton. Whether it was clumsily lost by a child, a gambler, a fortune-teller or a well dressed man-about-town, it is evident that we should not immediately assume that all dominoes that are recovered from archaeological sites have been lost by children, and thus represent the presence of children at such sites. On that note, let me leave you with a topical joke…

“While I was playing a game last night, black spots came in front of my my eyes.”
“Oh dear, you must see a doctor!”
“I was playing dominoes.” (Auckland Star 7/6/1933: 16).

Funny, right?

Chelsea Dickson


Auckland Star. [online] Available at [Accessed February 2016].

Evening Post. [online] Available at [Accessed February 2016].

Hastings Standard. [online] Available at [Accessed February 2016].

Lake County Press. [online] Available at [Accessed February 2016].

Lake Wakatip Mail. [online] Available at [Accessed February 2016].

Manawatu Herald. [online] Available at [Accessed February 2016].

 Mataura Ensign. [online] Available at [Accessed February 2016].

Nelson Evening Mail. online] Available at [Accessed February 2016].

New Zealand Herald. [online] Available at [Accessed February 2016].

NZ Truth. [online] Available at [Accessed February 2016].

Otago Witness. [online] Available at [Accessed February 2016].

Press. [online] Available at [Accessed February 2016].

Wanganui Herald. [online] Available at [Accessed February 2016].

Ironing out the creases

Sometimes we come across such a spectacular artefact, that we are inspired to look a little deeper into the historical industry from which it was used. The discovery of a charcoal clothes iron got me thinking about the domestic lives of 19th century women, and the ironing industry in colonial New Zealand.

During my research for this blog post, I found countless newspaper advertisements for laundry soaps, starches, ironing stoves and laundress services, as well as reports brimming with derivatives of “while the lady of the house was in the other room ironing…” The amount of time and sweat that went into this industry is a far cry from the afterthought that we largely give ironing today. If you’re anything like me, you avoid wearing easily wrinkled linen, and unless it’s a special occasion, your t-shirt or blouse is lucky to a get a last minute iron over with the hair straightener you were just using on your hair (this is the most convenient addition to laundry technology in the 21st century, in my opinion).

A quick office survey confirmed that we here at Underground Overground Archaeology do not habitually iron our sheets or our ‘high vis’. Instead, we save this indulgence for important events, such as a legitimate special occasion, helping to dry damp clothes, ironing pant cuffs so they don’t fall down (for the vertically challenged among us), and many of us can recount the distant memory of pressing pleats into our school uniform kilts on Sunday nights. How did this industry lose such importance you ask? I’m not entirely sure, but I do know that when we take a look at the previous generation, my mother saved ironing for her hair in the 70s, and my father let his shirts blow dry in the wind. This being the case, perhaps the ‘un-domestication’ of Generation X isn’t to blame (in this instance) for the loss of an old tradition.

What struck me about the difference between our modern attitudes toward ironing and that of our predecessors was how commonplace it was for a 19th century woman to be spending her day performing this back-breaking labour. Ironing was such an important skill, that little girls would be given miniature flat irons as gifts and taught ironing “and other necessary skills” in convent school (New Zealand Tablet 23/12/1881: 11). The number of ironing stoves and mangles that I found advertised for sale in local newspapers during the 19th century illustrates their mainstream popularity. The task had to be completed weekly, and for 19th century housewives or servants, it was customary for the entirety of Monday to be taken up by washing and drying laundry, while the whole of Tuesday was reserved for ironing it (Poverty Bay Herald 3/4/1879: 2). The chore was so familiar that I found many articles toting advice about timesaving ironing techniques (e.g. Otago Witness 22/1/ 1876: 19). My favourite tip, and the most realistic, was to simply stop ironing things… The sensible woman who wrote this article suggests hanging the laundry out to dry in the wind and ignoring the bed linen, nightclothes, tablecloths and napkins. Alternatively, another recommended that ironing energy should be saved for children’s aprons and shirt cuffs (Bruce Herald 9/6/1876: 3).

By now, you might be forming the impression that ironing in the 19th century was quite labor-intensive. In fact, the task was so arduous that we see housewives complaining constantly of their heavy and time-consuming burden in local newspapers, and there is even a story of one woman obtaining a doctor’s certificate to prevent her from doing too much ironing (Wairarapa Standard 23/12/1875: 2). Victorian ironing was not only backbreaking; it also came with its share of health risks – there was the danger involved with using gas-fuelled irons, or the first electric irons (patented in 1882), which were not temperature controlled by thermostats until the 1920s (Gretton 2016). Having said this, the first electric irons were not commonly used. They were not only dangerous, but most Victorian households did not have electricity, and if they did, it was common to only use electricity in the evenings for lighting.

Figure 1. Flat iron stove. Image: Wikipedia.

Figure 1. Flat iron stove. Image: Wikipedia.

During the 19th century, the most common type of iron used was called a flat iron, otherwise known as a sad iron (commonly thought to be called sad, due to the negative attitudes that its use invoked, though ‘sad’ is actually an old English ‘solid’; Gretton 2016). Sad irons required an intricate system of heating and rotation. Several heavy flat irons were heated on a special iron stove, and sometimes heat tested by holding a hot iron near one’s cheek (you would not catch me doing this). It was used until it cooled down, then returned to the stove and replaced with one of its hotter counterparts (the phrase “to have many irons in the fire” derives from this practice). These irons were heavy and hot, and the system required special skill and experience. Several improvements were made during the second half of the 19th century in order to streamline the process. These included a sad iron that was pointed at both ends, so one could iron in either direction. There was also the addition was a detachable wooden handle, which helped prevent the burning of the user (Figure 1). These patents were granted to a housewife named Mary Florence Potts of Ottumwa, Iowa, in 1870 (Ladd 2014).

Figure 2. Advertisement for a sad iron with a removable handle. Image: Hawera & Normanby Star 19/9/1916: 6.

Figure 2. Advertisement for a sad iron with a removable handle. Image: Hawera & Normanby Star 17/9/1916: 6

The specific iron that started this enquiry was not the type that was heated on an iron stove. It was called a box iron or charcoal iron, which had a built in, hinged, chamber to store hot coals or other fuels so the iron would stay hotter for longer (Figure 2). A tool with such characteristics would not have to be replaced on the ironing stove, making the job a whole lot more efficient. However, this technology was not without its drawbacks, as the coal made the task of ironing a smoky one, which sometimes left residual ash or odour on freshly cleaned fabrics (heartbreaking). This type of iron required a chimney or spout-like opening, to insert a bellows into or to produce a sufficient draft to stoke the coals when swung back and forth (Gretton 2016). This particular model was manufactured by Jabez and John Whitehouse, Victoria, Tipton, as illustrated by the maker’s mark on its gilded copper heat shield (Figure 3). This English company owned the Phoenix Foundry on Castle Street, Tipton, and produced cast iron goods from the late 19th century until the 1920s (Powerhouse Museum 2016). It is unclear whether this specific iron was used commercially or domestically, but its operator would have had to eat their Wheat-bix, as it weighs a whopping 4 kilograms! If Garfield were a 19th century domestic housewife, I bet that he would have hated Tuesdays!

Figure 3. J & J. Whitehouse charcoal iron from Rangiora, showing chimney neck.

Figure 3. J & J. Whitehouse charcoal iron from Rangiora, showing chimney neck.

Figure 4. J & J. Whitehouse maker’s mark.

Figure 4. J & J. Whitehouse maker’s mark.

As mentioned, we can’t be certain whether this iron was used in a domestic house or a commercial laundry. If this was used as a commercial iron, let us have a look at what this industry was like locally during the 1900s. Comparatively, while we think nothing of dropping our badly stained or trickier to wash garments at a dry cleaner, or if we are especially lazy or busy, we drop all of our soiled goods or ‘bachelor bundles’ at a ‘fluff & fold’ (regrettably, I couldn’t find fun 19th century comparative terms for these). The demand for large scale laundries is alluded to in 1842, in a (presumably fictitious) newspaper report describing American girls attaching hot irons to their feet and skating over garments (New Zealand Colonist and Port Nicholson Advertiser 2/8/1842: 3).

Figure 5. Ice skate irons. Image: New Zealand Colonist and Port Nicholson Advertiser 2/8/1842: 3.

Figure 5. Ice skate irons. Image: New Zealand Colonist and Port Nicholson Advertiser 2/8/1842: 3.

Additionally, 19th century newspapers present countless advertisements for private laundresses, illustrating a viable business opportunity for women in Victorian society. In fact, the gift of a mangle to a widow at the wake of her deceased husband was a common occurrence (Ladd 2016). On a larger scale, full-size commercial laundries appear to have been common in New Zealand during the second half of the 19th century (Evening Post 24/11/1876: 2, Otago Daily Times 10/04/1876: 5, Star 24/08/1880: 2; 19/05/1881: 4).

Below is an advertisement and price list from 1880 for a new steam laundry in Christchurch (Figure 5). The article boasts about a new ironing machine that will polish collars and cuffs like new and promises that no article will be damaged by the process! As in the domestic sphere, it is likely that it was women who would have been operating these laundry machines. This same article advertises the skills of a French laundress. The small number of women who were in paid employment in New Zealand during the 19th century (a fifth of women over fifteen in 1874 and less than a quarter by 1891) were working in factories, domestic service, tailoring and shop work (Else 2012). No doubt some of these women were employed as laundresses.

Figure 6. Christchurch Steam Laundry advertisement. 1880 (Star 24/8/1880: 2).

Figure 6. Christchurch Steam Laundry advertisement. 1880 (Star 24/8/1880: 2).

Whether or not a fatigued housewife or servant, or an overworked and underpaid laundress used this iron, we can assume that it was used to successfully press its share of garments. While the finished product of freshly starched and wrinkle-free linen is not the social necessity it once was, it was a fun artefact to research and I hope the original iron’s 19th century owner thought that the finished result of their labour was worth their toil.

Chelsea Dickson


Bruce Herald [online] Available at [Accessed January 2016].

Else. A., 2012. Gender inequalities – Paid employment, Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, [online] Available at: [Accessed January 2016].

Gretton., L. 2016. ‘A History of ironing.’ Old & Interesting. [online] Available at: [Accessed January 2016.

Hawera & Normanby Star [online] Available at [Accessed January 2016].

Ladd, M. 2014. ‘Historical Treasure: Mrs. Potts’ sad iron.’ Tribune-Star. [online] Available at: [Accessed January 2016]. 

New Zealand Colonist and Port Nicholson Advertiser [online] Available at [Accessed January 2016].

New Zealand Tablet [online] Available at [Accessed January 2016].

Otago Witness [online] Available at [Accessed January 2016].

Poverty Bay Herald [online] Available at [Accessed January 2016].

Star [online] Available at [Accessed January 2016].

Powerhouse Museum, 2016. Collections [online] Available at: Accessed January 2016].

Wairarapa Standard [online] Available at [Accessed January 2016].