Disclaimer: This blog post will mainly focus on fossicking on historic sites, as that’s what we have the greatest experience with in Christchurch. We wouldn’t be able to do justice to discussing fossicking on Māori sites, but it has occurred (largely outside urban areas and the standard authority process) since Europeans first came to New Zealand. To make matters worse, fossicking of Māori sites often includes the disturbance of burials, and the collection and treatment of Māori human remains as yet another object. Tangata whenua have made great strides recently in the return of their tupuna, led by Te Papa museum, which you can read more about here.
Second disclaimer: We also need to acknowledge that much of the “archaeology” conducted in New Zealand in the late 18th and early 19th centuries was essentially treasure hunting. New Zealand archaeology evolved from the activities of historians, museum anthropologists, students of Maori lore, and private fossickers and collectors. Back in the early days of “archaeology” – “archaeologists” disturbed archaeological sites to collect artefacts for museum collections, with little regards to context and stratigraphy. These actions have been thoroughly condemned by modern archaeologists and the damage that was done is widely noted.
Typically, when we think of archaeological sites being fossicked, images of Egyptian tombs and Mayan temples flash before our eyes. We picture people stealing gold and precious gems (possibly Indiana Jones style) and selling the artefacts to collectors for thousands of dollars. But what if I told you this activity happens all over little old New Zealand?
It might look like just an ordinary construction site, but really it’s a crime scene. This is just one of our archaeological sites that have been fossicked in the past year. Image: J. Hearfield.
We hear about archaeological sites being fossicked every so often, usually when weather or erosion has exposed a site on public land, or Heritage New Zealand is reminding the public of the law. In 2015 Northland Age published an article based on the notice Heritage New Zealand put out about what to do when you come across artefacts (don’t take them, cover it up and report it). In 2017 the Otago Daily Times reported that a known archaeological site near Oamaru was fossicked after a storm had exposed artefacts, and that a person or persons had used a garden fork to remove the finds. There are many other articles written over the years about the issue.
A quick refresher for those that are unsure of what defines an archaeological site in New Zealand: “The Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga Act 2014 defines an archaeological site as a place associated with pre-1900 human activity, where there may be evidence relating to the history of New Zealand.” – Heritage New Zealand This includes sites and features below ground as well as buildings, structures, and shipwrecks.
Fossicking is illegal in New Zealand, with archaeological sites and the artefacts they contain protected under several pieces of legislation. The Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga Act 2014 protects all New Zealand archaeological sites, whether they are previously known or newly discovered. Under this legislation modifying or destroying an archaeological site is an offence, unless an archaeological authority has been granted by Heritage New Zealand. Certain land is protected further: the Conservation Act and Reserves Act protect areas of New Zealand and taking items from places protected under this legislation is illegal. Depending on where you are, fossicking could involve trespassing under the Trespass Act 1980, and, depending on what you find, the artefacts could also be subject to the Protected Objects Act 1975.
Heritage New Zealand Archaeologist for Canterbury/West Coast Gwen Jackson says:
If you do discover an archaeological site, the best thing to do is to leave it in place and contact your local Heritage New Zealand office. If the site or object is at risk of being damaged or taken while exposed, you can cover it up and mark the site to find later. It’s important to remember that this applies regardless of how the find is made: whether you are walking along a beach, digging on your own private property, or working on a construction site any archaeological find is protected.
Fossicking not only destroys archaeological sites, it also denies the public their right to learn about the history of their communities.
While blanket protection for archaeological sites is capped at the year 1900 under the law, we also have a way to protect significant sites that are more recent. Sites can be ‘declared’ by gazettal, giving them the same protection under the law and making it an offence to disturb or fossick the site without an authority.
In the past 12 months, there have been at least four sites under archaeological investigation by Underground Overground Archaeology that have been fossicked overnight. The main target of these activities has been historic rubbish pits. These actions take away part of the puzzle piece, not only for the history of that site, but also the history and archaeology of Christchurch as a whole. The removal of artefacts, without proper recording, means we lose the ability to connect objects to people from the past, in essence meaning their stories are lost.
A perfect example of a historic rubbish put that was fossicked. When we left site the rubbish pit was exposed in the baulk (side) of the excavation. The next morning it was gone. It is likely the fossickers just shovelled out the contents, leaving a very unstable baulk for the construction team to deal with. Image: J. Hearfield.
On this particular site, not only did we find rubbish pits that had been dug over, but we also found the bottles they were after. Alongside the bottles were a pair of waders. As you can see from the picture above this one, the excavated area had filled up with water due to heavy rainfall. The fact there were waders on site means the fossickers had scoped out the site beforehand and come prepared. We’re assuming that because the waders and bottles were left on site, the fossickers got spooked and bailed, leaving a few things behind… Whilst they left behind the artefacts, we had no idea which feature they had come from as the fossickers managed to destroy five features in total. Image: J. Hearfield.
Another site that was hit. The broken ceramic and bottles were thrown around the edges of the pit, as these were not what these fossickers were looking for. You might be able to spy a couple of bottles left behind. This suggests these fossickers were also spooked while digging. Image: A. Trendafilov.
A third site that was hit. The rubbish pits were completely dug out, meaning no information could be recorded about them. Image: J. Hearfield.
So why is fossicking bad?
When people fossick archaeological sites, they are typically looking for items to keep as part of their personal collection. Whilst the artefact is preserved in these personal collections, the contextual information surrounding where the artefact was found is lost. An artefact by itself might hold information about its own history (such as where and how it was made) but will not tell us much about the people who used it in isolation. The ability for archaeologist to recover all artefacts, broken and whole, from a context we can identify and record (such as a rubbish pit or infilling of hollow ground) means we can connect the use of the artefact and the activity which created the context with the history of the site to reveal the story of the people from our past. Whether that story is one of a quick hole dug in the backyard to get rid of the week’s rubbish or the infilling of a large gully in the centre of Christchurch to reclaim more land for local businesses, archaeologists are able to analyse these artefacts, and share those stories with the public (which is what we do with this blog). When people fossick archaeological sites, they are, in essence, stealing New Zealand’s history from the public and preserving it only for themselves. Ultimately, it is destroying our history.
What type of fossicking happens in New Zealand?
All types! Fossicking ranges from
- picking up artefacts from beaches and reserves that have been exposed by erosion and weather
- metal detecting
- digging up historic deposits on public and private land
What are the differences between archaeologists and fossickers?
Besides the training and working under the legislation, the main difference between the two practices is controlled excavation techniques. These techniques allow us to gain as much information as possible about the activity which created the archaeological deposit before it is destroyed or in some cases is left partly in situ for future generations.
Controlled excavation techniques include:
- The recording of the exact location of the material that is then produced into a site plan
- Careful excavation of the material
- Including observing the type of deposit or feature it was found within (for example, a rubbish pit or infilled well)
- Staying within the boundary of the feature to record shape and extent
- Excavating to expose a cross section of the feature can be used to understand the layers of artefacts and other materials
- A great example of this is a historic rubbish pit. When cross sectioned, it becomes clear if the pit was dug and used for a single deposit or if it was used to discard rubbish over a period of time, creating different layers of material. The artefacts can be used to date these different layers so we can work out how long the pit as used for.
- Photographic record of the material in situ before being removed for further analysis
- Analysis of the artefacts
- used to date when the deposit was likely created as well as understand what activities people were using the land for.
- Includes dating of maker’s marks, stylistic patterns and samples taken for radiocarbon dating
- Identifying species from bones and shellfish to learn what people were eating in the past
- The types of artefacts found can tell us so much about the activity and people who deposited the artefacts such as:
- what activity was happening on site – whether commercial, residential, industrial
- What kind of goods people liked/were able to purchase
- Whether children were part of the family and what kind of toys were played with
Once the controlled excavation is completed, the archaeologist writes a report on all of the findings and submits it to Heritage New Zealand. The report serves as a complete picture of the information recorded on site and how it all fits together to add to our understanding of the past. Once the report is accepted by Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga, it can be accessed by the public through Heritage New Zealand’s Digital Library, meaning that New Zealand’s history is accessible to all.
Jamie-Lee Hearfield, Gwen Jackson, Clara Watson, Tristan Wadsworth.