When you think about the Avon River running through Christchurch, you might imagine punting boats and kayaks in Hagley Park. Such attractions in our garden city are far from new and, recently, a few of us here at Underground Overground Archaeology have had the opportunity to learn more about how a section of the Avon was utilised and modified in the early days of our city. As a result, we have managed to catch a glimpse of how the early settlers modified the wider landscape to suit their needs.
Prior to the arrival of the of the first European settlers, Māori had long been living in the Ōtautahi/Christchurch area, utilising the rivers as transport corridors as well as a source of fish and wetland birds. The river was originally known by Māori as Ōtākaro, and was renamed the Avon River by John Deans in the 1840s. Upon arriving in the new settlement in December 1850, Dr Alfred Charles Barker described the Avon as “everywhere bordered with a luxuriant growth of flax” (Lamb, 1981: 93). Barker’s photograph of the Avon River dating to 1860 shows the river banks still in that primitive condition.
The first known development to have occurred on the river bank along this section of Cambridge Terrace was the erection of the Montreal Street bridge in 1861. This single-lane cart bridge would have been a great boon to Christchurch’s citizens, who previously had to cross the river at the Victoria Street bridge when passing through the city (Ince, 1998: 38). It was not until the establishment of the Christchurch City Council in 1862, however, that the first official landscaping of the river bank was undertaken. In July, a newly established ‘planting committee’ declared that three lines of trees (consisting of Lombardy poplars, sycamore, blue gum, laburnum, pineaster firs and weeping willows) were to be planted along southern bank of the river, between Montreal and Hereford streets (Lyttelton Times 16/7/1862: 4). By January 1863, the council had appointed a government gardener to oversee further landscaping around the city (Lyttelton Times 3/1/1863: 4). But it was the hard labour gang that the council most frequently employed in maintaining the river bank, particularly in clearing the refuse that was often discarded in the hollows of the river bank reserve by nearby residents (Lyttelton Times 5/5/1868: 2, Press 16/6/1868: 2).
In 1870, the mayor made a proposal to level the northern bank of the river between the Montreal and Hereford street bridges, as part of his idea to form a promenade along the bank (Star 19/7/1870: 2). Although it is not clear if these works were undertaken at the time, this may have been the beginning of the footpaths that many pedestrians still meander along today.
By 1875, the landscape of the river bank was changing again. The council was forced to authorise the construction of a new bridge in Montreal Street in September 1875, when the timber piles of the original bridge were found to have rotted (Ince, 1998: 38-41). William Aitken also erected the Montreal Street boatsheds here in this year. Permission to do so was granted by the city council, on condition Aitken paid a ground rent of £5 per annum and was not to charge more than a shilling an hour for the use of his boats (Star 12/10/1875: 2). J. McLean took over as proprietor of the boatsheds in 1882, and continued to run them into the 20th century. Fire broke out in the boatsheds in 1919, and although they managed to survive the blaze, they were not so lucky in 1929 when they were completely destroyed by arson (Star 29/12/1919: 8; Lamb, 1981: 111). Photographs of the sheds in 1888 and the early 1920s shows the boatsheds changed little over the years – though the foliage on the banks surrounding them certainly grew denser.
The archaeology that was uncovered from the river banks of the Avon varied in condition. We found concentrations of scattered artefacts on the north bank, all of which were highly fragmented. These artefacts probably represent the random discarding of rubbish or items that were lost by the people who used the area as a recreational space. Alternatively, they may represent the efforts of the city council to fill in the natural depressions in the bank (not an economic recession pun), in an attempt to flatten the land. Such maintenance occurred in 1894 and 1908, to “render the banks of the river better looking” (Press 11/5/1894: 3; 3/8/1908: 9). However they were deposited, these artefacts were probably further fragmented by the trampling of foot traffic of the visitors to the area, and/or by the installation of pedestrian pathways to this side of the bank in 1941 (Canterbury Maps, 2017).
Another way these artefacts could have ended up on this river bank relates to the nearby (and very hygienic), Corporation Baths (ArchSite 2013). These were located downstream from this site, between Cambridge Terrace and Rhododendron Island, and their maintenance required the Avon River to be dredged in 1877. The extent of the dredging along the Avon River is not known, but evidence from a nearby archaeological site suggests that material dredged from the river may have ended up further along the river bank, at least as far north as the Cambridge Terrace/Durham Street intersection (ArchSite 2013). It’s possible that the artefacts found at our site may also represent some of this dredged material. Sadly, these baths were forced to close at the end of the bathing season of 1886 due to the increase in sewage and other discharged wastes from the hospital less than 400 metres upstream (Press 9/2/1886: 2)!
In stark contrast to the fragmentary artefacts found on the northern bank, many complete glass bottles and a clay pipe were found slightly downstream on the southern river bank. No ceramic artefacts were found on this side, and it’s very likely that these artefacts were discarded by people into, or near to, the river. These items would have floated downstream to the southern bank, where they were deposited by natural fluvial processes. The absence of ceramic in the southern assemblage supports this theory – as broken plates don’t make good flotation devices! It’s a very tidy way to look at artefact fluvial deposition… as tidy as rubbish floating down the river can look anyway.
This assemblage from the southern bank could also be more accurately dated because the artefacts were literally capped by modifications of the river bank in 1914. At this time, concrete edging (or sheet piling), was added to the bank, and a concrete fill layer was added above the layer of silty soil that contained the artefacts. This leaves us with (equally as tidy) pre-1914 deposition date for these artefacts.
So, we’ve covered the material and condition of the artefacts found, but what about what they were used for? The answer is a gosh darn lot of alcohol bottles and some tobacco pipes… because… Avon River boat party?! Hey, it’s possible! But perhaps more generally, this area was used primarily as recreational space since the 19th century, and the artefacts that we found probably reflect that. The assemblage notably lacked the tea and table ware ceramic vessels that typically characterise a domestic household assemblage, and other common household artefacts were also absent here.
Whether we are looking at punting parties or river refuse, this Cambridge Terrace site offered us a rare opportunity to consider the use of a primarily recreational public space in Christchurch. We were able to take a wider look at modification of the early cityscape – Christchurch was not always the flat landscape that we know today, we have shaped it to be that way over time, to suit our needs. During this project, we encountered an unexpected abundance of historical data regarding the 19th century use and modification of this section of the Avon River – we could combine this information with an example of a less common process of artefact deposition… and fluvial fun was had by all.
By Chelsea Dickson and Lydia Mearns.
ArchSite, 2013. M35/1063. New Zealand Archaeological Association.
ArchSite, 2014. M35/1783. New Zealand Archaeological Association.
Canterbury Maps, 2017. Canterbury. [online] Available at: <http://canterburymaps.govt.nz/> [Accessed 1 Jan. 2017].
Hickey, M., Dickson, C. and Mearns, L. 2017. 60 Cambridge Terrace, Christchurch: Report on archaeological monitoring. Unpublished report for Ōtākaro Limited.
Ince, J. A., 1998. A City of Bridges: a history of bridges over the Avon and Heathcote rivers in Christchurch. Christchurch, N.Z.: Christchurch City Council.
Lamb, R., 1981. From the Banks of the Avon: The Story of a River. Christchurch, N.Z.: A. H. & A. W. Reed Ltd.
Williams, H., and Dickson, C. 2017. Durham Street South/Cambridge Terrace, Christchurch: Report on archaeological monitoring. Unpublished report for the Fletcher Construction Company and the Christchurch City Council.