This week New Zealand entered its third week of the Covid-19 lockdown, and one of the phrases being thrown around a lot is creating a ‘new normal’. The idea of a ‘new normal’ gives a sense that life, whether for better or worse, is going to change permanently. The feelings of nervousness and slight dread of the unknown created by the phrase are possibly similar to what 19th century colonists felt on their journey to New Zealand when they thought about the new life awaiting them.
We tend to use the word ‘new’ a lot when describing change. How often have you read a paragraph talking about New Zealand (or literally any other colony) and it included the phrase ‘new life’. “In the 1870s, the government helped thousands of British people start a new life in New Zealand”. “Many British families packed their bags and boarded ships to start a new life in a land they had never seen on the other side of the world”. “They tackled the new life, however, with a kind of proud glee”. I used it as well in the first paragraph of this blog, it’s hard not to.
When we describe something as new, we’re making a comparison, even if that’s not specifically stated. By referring to settlers starting a ‘new life’ in New Zealand, we’re acknowledging that their life in New Zealand was different to their life in Britain (or wherever they came from). This seems obvious. England in the 19th century was a country that had been occupied for thousands of years. That length of occupation leads to a lot of stuff. I’m using the excellent word ‘stuff’ because I want to make something that’s complicated (and could turn into a long tangent) simple. By stuff I’m essentially referring to the buildings, people, animals, houses, cemeteries, roads, paddocks, etc, that make a place instantly familiar; the landscape (to use a better word), or culture (to use an even better, and probably correct term). But we’re going to run with stuff because it really embodies talking about complicated theoretical concepts in a very vague way.
By the 19th century, New Zealand had been occupied for just under a thousand years and had all the same stuff that England had. There were whare, nuinga, ika, urupā, huarahi, mahinga kai etc (translation done using Māori Dictionary). It’s just that the stuff in New Zealand was different to the stuff in England, and wasn’t instantly recognisable to the English settlers as being stuff, and is what leads to the idea that settlers were colonising an “empty landscape”, which wasn’t actually the case.
Settlers arriving into New Zealand in the 1840s and 1850s were faced with, what appeared to them to be, a blank slate. And in response to that, British settlers created a ‘new normal’. That is, they took their stuff from England and recreated it in New Zealand.
We can see that very clearly from a landscape perspective. Christchurch was a planned city, with a grid system revolving around a central square. Early public buildings emulated styles that were popular in England, that would have been familiar to settlers, and efforts were made to reference Britain in the design of public spaces. Just look at the street names in Christchurch. Most of the streets in the centre city were named after places in England- a clear example of settlers bringing their stuff with them.
We can see stuff in the physical landscape around us. But we can also see it through the things that the settlers brought with them. New Zealand had strong trade links with Australia, Britain and the rest of the world from the 1850s and whilst settlers from this period may have been entering a foreign country, they weren’t doing it with the same level of complete isolation that earlier visitors faced. If you were living in New Zealand in the first half of the 19th century, then you were probably relying on local Māori for survival. By the latter half of the 19th century, particularly in urban centres like Christchurch, that wasn’t the case.
I could keep posting photos of artefacts, because really the vast majority of things we find are British stuff. Even when we have artefacts that speak to local colonial activities, they’re often referencing British things. An easy example of this is aerated water bottles. We find aerated water bottles all the time that have local Christchurch manufacturers’ names on them. Yet the bottles were imported from England and the aerated water produced and bottled using machinery invented in England, so really, they suggest that settlers continued to produce British stuff that was familiar to them, it’s just not taking place in Britain.
This idea, that cultures have stuff and that they take that stuff with them when they move around, is nothing new. It’s basically the bread and butter of archaeology. Archaeologists around the globe, studying hundreds of different cultures and societies, attribute stuff to respective cultures and use the spread of it, and how it changes over time, to explore how respective cultures and societies lived and behaved. When we see British stuff appear in New Zealand, we see that a new culture has arrived. And when we see British stuff continue to arrive throughout the 19th century, we see that this new culture retains ties to their homeland.
To circle back to the idea of a ‘new normal’, this blog was inspired partially by a tweet that I can, of course, no longer find, but that talked about the idea of the archaeology of Covid-19. The tweet explained that archaeologists of the future will be able to see our response to the pandemic through things like an increase in PPE in rubbish dumps, indicating actions to fight the pandemic, toilet paper, showing the panic buying that occurred, and mass-graves, indicating the success or failure of our actions. This is all true and it’s something that archaeologists today study when looking back at pandemics like the Black Death.
But it got me thinking, that if somebody was to study my stuff at the moment, there wouldn’t be any difference between now and before Covid-19 arrived in New Zealand. My life is exactly the same as before, it’s just that I don’t leave the house anymore. This is, of course, a temporary ‘new normal’. We don’t know what the economic and social impacts of this lockdown are going to be, just that life isn’t going to be the same as before. And so, when I sit here, surrounded by my stuff, and knowing that that stuff is still going to be there in the future, it just might be a little bit different, I’m reminded most of 1890s settlers to New Zealand. Colonists arriving to Christchurch in this period were entering a world that would have been familiar to them. They didn’t have to climb over the Bridle Path, they could catch the train. The roads were metalled, the houses were built, there were willow trees along the banks of the Avon, and they could buy Worcestershire Sauce at the general store. And yet, I imagine, despite being in a country surrounded by familiar stuff, they still felt a nervousness and slight dread at the new life that awaited them. Similar to how I feel now.