The Shape of Things

On Wednesday I celebrated my six year anniversary working at Underground Overground Archaeology. I did plan on marking this milestone by staying up all Tuesday night to bake a special six-tiered chocolate cake to bring in to work and share with the team, but because of an out-of-town work assignment, this didn’t happen. Oh well, might get to bake a seven tiered cake next year.

I really wanted to celebrate my six year stint at UOA by writing this week’s blog about my absolute favourite, or at least the most memorable, Christchurch site that I have had the privilege to dig over my six year tour of duty, but I struggled to nail down just one site, because there have been so many, and each of these sites memorable in their own unique ways. So instead, I thought I’d share some of the most memorable archaeological shapes that I have met along the way. When put in context, each shape is like a puzzle piece that holds a little bit of the picture, (or at least the promise of a little bit of the picture), of what life was really like for the people of the past who made  that shape, who left behind their mark in the landscape. Please enjoy.

A small shape from one of the most memorable, and largest of our Lichfield Street sites. Small shapes, round or square, we usually interpret as postholes – those marks left in the ground where the posts of long demolished fences, buildings, or other such structures once stood. The magic of these small shapes often only materialises later on when we are out of the field, when with available historic plans at hand, (and usually a bit of creative guesswork) we can connect the posthole dots on our site plans, and work out where fences and buildings were located. Gotta love the humble posthole. Image: Hamish Williams.

Helen, I really do miss investigating archaeological shapes with you. Image: Hamish Williams.

Larger shapes, whether they be square, rectangular, circular, or like this one, irregular/amorphous, more often than not turn out to be rubbish pits. These are by far the most common type of feature that we find on historic period Christchurch sites – because digging a hole in the back yard and burying your trash was so much easier and cheaper than paying a man to come and take it away. I especially liked the shape of this one, after so many rubbish pit circles and rectangles this one was simply a breath of fresh air. Image: Hamish Williams.

This rubbish pit had a nice rectangular shape, and contained some interesting 19th century rubbish, but it was memorable for me mostly because at the time of finding this one I had a really gouty foot and I did a lot of limping around site from shape to shape. Two weeks of blue powerade and steak and cheese pie morning smokos is less than ideal, I now know, but boy, they were really good pies. Everything in moderation folks. Image: Hamish Williams.

A nice, little, sort-of square rubbish pit. Gouty foot at right of image. Image: Hamish Williams.

Thought at first that this big rectangle was a rubbish pit…..

But then we half sectioned it and found (most of) a timber triangle. The rimu timbers in this large posthole were well preserved and well braced – they clearly supported a big structure. There were in total three such rectangular shaped pits from this site that contained timber triangles – all of these found in a nice neat line. Both images: Hamish Williams.

The two square shapes in the foreground turned out to be long drop pits, and both were memorable because they were some of the first such long drop pits in the city that we got a chance to investigate – they went pretty deep. When they filled up one shape they dug another right next to it (or so we reckon) and then they filled that one up. Some shapes are dirty. Bonus points if you can tell us which of the earthquake damaged buildings in the background was demolished with explosives. Image: Hamish Williams.

These two shapes I liked because they were found so close together, but the shape on the right (a sewer pipeline trench) was made about 30 years after the other one. So close, but oh so far, they almost met, but didn’t – ships passing in the night. Image: Hamish Williams.

These two square shapes I found some time back on a small residential site in Phillipstown, within the footprint of where an 1890s villa once stood. Both shapes were memorable because of their nice clean, straight sides (pits that were dug with a spade not a shovel, me thinks) and that upon investigation both shapes ended up being related to the construction of this 1890s villa – used for mixing up the lime mortar used to build the villa’s brick chimney. I investigated both of shapes in terrible rainy conditions, on an evil wet autumn day. Well worth it though. Image: Hamish Williams.

This square-ish shape with bulged-in brick lined sides Angel found. He asked me to site for a second opinion on how to best go about excavating it (you can investigate archaeological shapes in any number of different ways depending on what kind of information you are after). Turned out to be a brick lined cesspit filled with all sorts of goodies – which we decided would be best going at it not from the top down, but instead we attacked it from the side (classic textbook outflanking manoeuvre). Learn more about the investigation of this curious shape here . Image: Hamish Williams.

Is psychedelic a shape? Better go ask Alice, when she’s 10 feet tall. Image: Hamish Williams.

Rectangular rubbish pit and brick lined well – possibly my two favourite shapes of 2017. Another one from Angel’s site: both shapes ended up teaching us a lot about water supply in 19th century Christchurch. Learn more about that curious subject here .

The shape of a shape is sometimes, but not always, made the way it is because of its intended function. This 1881 brick sewer located deep below Moorhouse Avenue that I got a chance to look at with SCIRT some years ago had an oviform – or egg-shaped cross-sectional shape. Oviform sewers go way back to Roman times: this shape means that irrespective of whether the sewer is carrying a small or large amount of sewage, that sewage will always be travelling at more of a ‘self-cleansing’ velocity. Absolutely the stinkiest archaeological shape I ever had the privilege to know, this was one of the most interesting. Find out more about the repair of this earthquake damaged section of 19th century sewer in one of my earliest blog posts here.

A cross-section through the Ferry Road brick barrel stormwater sewer – built in 1875. The biggest circle – and almost a perfect one. Image: Hamish Williams.

 

What shape is your favourite? We’d love to know.

Hamish Williams.

 

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