Lyttelton is a fun and exciting place to do archaeology. I’ve been lucky enough to get to do a bit of archaeology in Lyttelton in the last few months, mainly out in the road, because of the digging that’s been going on for the installation of new sewer pipelines. Once completed, these pipelines will make Te Whakaraupō / Lyttelton Harbour a much happier and healthier place: for the people, for the fishes, and for the mermaids. Although road formation archaeology (concerned with exploring how historic roads and their footpaths were formed and have changed over time) is not necessarily the most glamourous subject of archaeological enquiry, I’ve become rather fascinated by it lately, and so I thought that I’d share.
Built on the steep sides of an extinct volcano, Lyttelton’s topography presented all sorts of challenges for 19th century roadbuilders. It’s much easier building a road on the flat – Christchurch was lucky in this respect, (even if their roads had to be formed across swamp). Lyttelton had it tough – building roads on a sloping terrain is so much trickier. Civic authorities had to first work out the best levels and gradients for the roads to be formed at, so they could then work out which parts needed to be cut down, and which parts built up. Many of these cuttings needed to be supported by retaining walls so they wouldn’t collapse. Drainage was especially important, so the roads and retaining walls wouldn’t wash away in bad weather. The steep gullies that ran through the town were perhaps however the biggest of challenges that faced 19th century road builders. These gullies carried stormwater off the hills into the harbour – and in many places were impassably wide and deep. Stone culverts and brick sewers were laid along the length of them before they were all filled in by the late 1880s; often with clay and rock derived from road formation works that were happening elsewhere. And then of course there are those flat parts of Lyttelton that were reclaimed from the harbour – where precious flat land for roads and port infrastructure was created not by building up or cutting down the existing terrain, but by building outwards from the edge of it, into the water.
Road formation stratigraphy – the differential layers of gravel, stones, and rocks laid down in times past to surface the roads before they were sealed – is at the best of times pretty hard to interpret. Unless diagnostic artefacts are found in association with particular layers, when exactly these layers were laid down is notoriously hard to pin down, even when you have historic records to help you make sense of it. Every now and then however, strange and unusual things, (or things that are strangely familiar) surface that are a little easier to make sense of and date – like the Norwich Quay crossing.
The Norwich Quay crossing
By 1860 the two main thoroughfares in the port town, Norwich Quay and London Street, were formed, in places with rudimentary footpaths on either side, but most other roads were little more than rough tracks cut through the tussock-covered hills (Rice 2004: 26). £30,000 had already been spent by the Provincial Council in forming the Sumner Road by this time – the critical overland goods route between the Lyttelton and Christchurch – but locals were irate that they couldn’t just walk a little distance down the road to the shops without having to inconveniently wade through mud. “Norwich Quay is a filthy slough, Oxford Street worse than any newly ploughed field, and London Street an alternation of watery mud and muddy water” reported one local (Lyttelton Times 23/6/1860: 4). In 1874 the footpath along Norwich Quay was reported as being “in a totally disgraceful state, and totally unfit for ladies”, who shouldn’t have had to make their way through ankle deep mud to get to the railway station (Lyttelton Times 5/8/1874: 2, Globe 6/8/1874: 2).
In early June, I found some evidence of how different sections of the Norwich Quay roadway had been built up over time. Some of the most interesting road formation archaeology was uncovered at the intersection of Norwich Quay and Oxford Street, when the sewer pipeline trenching was passing through. Historically this has always been one of Lyttelton’s busiest intersections (and it still is today). Here was the location of the Post Office (built 1875), and on the opposite corner the offices of the Lyttelton Harbour Board (built 1880). You had to pass through this intersection to get to the wharves and jetties, and the railway station and gasworks was only just down the road a bit. Here evidence of historic road formation layers were well preserved beneath the modern asphalt road surface. Crossing at right angles to the trench and in perfect alignment with the footpath on the eastern side of Oxford Street, was exposed the remains of what turned out to be an old pedestrian crossing. Today pedestrians are spoilt for choice with three pedestrian crossings at the intersection to choose from, back in the 19th century they had just one.
The hydro excavation team found it first, at days end and at shallow depth when searching with water blasting wands and suction hoses for all the important pipes and cables that were not to be damaged by the digger. Only a small patch of the crossing’s stone cobbles (or setts – to be more accurate) was exposed – so I went to work to expose the rest of it. These were covered in a very hard, compacted gravel that was covered with a very sticky, stinky coal tar – not very easy stuff to dig through. Trading in my trowel for a 4-pound mallet and cold chisel, I managed to get only perhaps about half of it exposed before it got too dark to see what I was doing. Those short winter days, roll on Summer.
The next day, as the digger punched through the stone crossing, I was able to confirm that it was approximately 1.75 m wide, (the same width as the footpath) and had been made from dark grey basalt rocks of various sizes firmly bedded into the underlying natural loess clay. The top of the stone crossing was not flat – instead it had a bit of a curvature or camber to it, which would have helped it to shed water when it rained. The rocks that made up the centre-line of the crossing were taller and were bedded deeper into the clay than the rest. This certainly would have made the whole crossing a lot more durable. Historic records suggest that this stone crossing may have been buried around 1914, after the Lyttelton Borough Council decided to spend big money modernising its streets by tar sealing them (Lyttelton Times 14/10/1913: 8).
When was this Norwich Quay pedestrian crossing constructed? It is hard to say for certain, though it appears in a couple of post 1880 photographs– so our best guess is that it was built around about this time. According to an August 1880 newspaper report, the Council works committee had finally decided to upgrade all the footpaths around the intersection at this time, a works programme that may have included the construction of the crossing (Lyttelton Times 4/8/1880: 6).
The Norwich Quay crossing was a fun feature to investigate and record, it reminded me once again that history is all around us. The past isn’t buried deep, it’s there just below the surface. The streets we walk today are the same streets walked by the people of the past – all the streets a stage and all of us merely players.
Globe [online]. Available at: www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz
Lyttelton Times [online]. Available at: www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz
Rice, G. 2004. Lyttelton Port and Town: An Illustrated History. Christchurch N.Z: Canterbury University Press.
Star [online]. Available at: www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz