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

1 thought on “The story so far

  1. Dear Katharine,
    Reading through your current blog posting, your enthusiasm and earnest concern is contagious. Thankyou so much for sharing of yourself; from the heart, these event’s impact upon your own lifechanging experiences and thoughts.
    For some time now I have enjoyed UnderOverArch’s articles digs findings and especially explanative presentations.
    All quite poignant to me, even ‘though after 20 years in Tauranga North Island I now have returned ‘home’ to Oz (I live in Coffs Harbour NSW). Why poignant?, well, my mum was born & grew up in Christchurch, and we have in our genealogy two (to my mind) important Chirstchurchians; W. H. Bowen (you surveyed their family home at 441 Madras St (was #13); where my mum’s mum grew up. W H Bowen was a prominent builder, involved in several inner city buildings. Mum’s father being the other prominent person; Robert James JAY (from Dunedin). He was the manager of the courier company in the first Christchurch ‘skyscraper’ (7-stories no less!!); built by W H Bowen. Interestingly R J JAY married Ida Ellen Cox BOWEN; W H Bowen’s daughter. 🙂

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