Virtual Horizons: how heritage is communicated or forgotten

One of the most obvious, but frequently overlooked, facts of archaeological investigation is that it is often a destructive process, and one that consumes a non-renewable resource. The awareness of this is particularly acute within the field of buildings archaeology, for unlike subsurface archaeology where there remains the constant possibility of an archaeological feature being unearthed; it is clear there is a dwindling inventory of pre-1900 structures. The economic factors such as development that drives the heritage sector are legislated for and administered by Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga and private sector consultants, with the assessment of archaeological values largely determining how onerous the conditions for demolition and re-development will be. It is often tacitly understood that the commissioning of an archaeological report as a condition for an archaeological authority to demolish is sufficient mitigation for the irrevocable and destructive loss of New Zealand pre-1900 building stock. Whilst the rigor and detail of an archaeological report is essential, I would argue that the opportunity for providing the broader public with a more accessible and tangible way of engaging in New Zealand’s lost built environment has not yet been sufficiently met, with much of this information lost in the oblivion of ‘grey literature’. This situation is not helped by Heritage New Zealand’s practice of removing detailed information about listed buildings that have been demolished, further reducing the already scant amount of information about demolished heritage buildings available to the public.

In terms of visual representations one of the most common recording requirements is the production of two dimensional plans, sections, elevations, and other architectural details. Alongside photography this provides the primary visual record of a building. Advances in technology have reduced the time spent recording so that it is no longer necessary to record a building with a tape measure and graph paper as I was first taught, but the ways in which such information is shared and communicated still lag behind the building industry whose technical innovations are relied on so heavily by buildings archaeologists and heritage architects.

Example of Level 2 recorded elevation from a now demolished house in Christchurch. These kinds of images largely disappear after publication. Image: Michael Healey

Example of Level 2 recorded elevation from a now demolished house in Christchurch. These kinds of images largely disappear after publication. Image: Michael Healey

What I propose

 What I propose here is a publicly assessable 3D database of NZ heritage buildings. This would be a web-hosted platform where consultants would upload 3D data such as point clouds, photogrammetry, 2D elevations drawings – these could then be navigated zoomed and rotated, thus providing an accurate representation of our lost building stock for future generations.

What is photogrammetry and point cloud

 American Society for Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing states that photogrammetry is “the science and technology of  obtaining reliable information about physical objects and the environment through the process of recording, measuring and interpreting photographic images and patterns of electromagnetic radiant imagery and other phenomena” ( A basic picture of a photogrammetry workflow would involve somebody with a camera or drone taking pictures of a building, importing the photo data into a computer program which would then process an exportable 3D model of the building that could then be hosted on-line. Point cloud is similar to photogrammetry and is usually captured with a 3D scanner. It provides a similar result but is generally a much faster recording process if somewhat more expensive due to the required equipment.

This is usually a three-step process that involves:

  • The creation of a complex 3D model (very processor intensive) where the photos are extracted, and a texture rich model is generated.

Photogrammetry virtual model heritage building, J. Ashford & Sons building in Birmingham. Image:

  • The initially complex model is the reduced to simplified mesh that enables the efficient use within a 3D viewing environment.

Optimized mesh model J. Ashford & Sons building in Birmingham. Image:

  • The photos are then texture mapped onto a 3D mesh model.

Texture mapped 3D model, J. Ashford and Sons building in Birmingham. Image:

A video link of both photogrammetry and point cloud models is provided below and should provide some indication of the attractiveness and ease of use of such media for the end user

What is stopping this happening?

 Like most problems in professional life, they can be divided into two categories: technical and bureaucratic.

The technological problems are manifold, this first issue would be that of hosting. There are a variety subscription services (free to the end user) where 3D models can be hosted. But the optimal solution would be to have a New Zealand-based platform and preferably a government subsidised one. But stable long-term platforms such as with over 3,000,000 users worldwide, is a viable alternative in lieu of a New Zealand-based site. One argument for democratising this process on an open platform is that it would enable the public to 3D print models of demolished heritage building and bring them back to life in a tangible way.

3D printed model produced from photogrammetry capture. Image:

The second technical issue is data security and avoiding obsolete formats, at the present time uncompressed TIFF is considered the gold standard for archiving digital photos and is all that would is required to reconstruct a 3D model in the case of data loss or eventual platform obsolescence.

The third issue is having personnel trained to capture adequate quality photography. A buildings archaeologist will often piggyback off architects and engineering consultants who will initially record a large site with a 3D scanner, sometimes with variable results. The below image is an ‘ortho-photo’ – a scale photographic elevation produced from point cloud data which can then be traced over in native CAD application to produce metric drawings. In this case several digital artefacts are reproduced in the image and will need to be corrected for by having recourse to photography.

Image of a 3D Point cloud ortho-photo prior to the production of CAD drawings. Image: modified Michael Healey

The cost of implementing this is quite affordable and would only require a digital SLR and several hundred dollars for an appropriate software option. The use of affordable drone technology paired with HD cameras makes such a workflow flow a cost-effective option over standard building recording techniques due to the reduced recording time, and had the added benefit that scale 2D elevations (a normal requirement of most building reports) can easily be extracted at a later time.

Example of measured elevation extracted as part of a 3D point cloud workflow from orthographic photo. Image: Michael Healey.

In fact, it has been proven that by using appropriate methods of image capturing and by using robust software, the high expense of 3D laser scanning can be completely replaced.

3D virtual model capture with the use of a drone. Image: project Hayastan in Armenia.

On the bureaucratic side of the equation there are two major problems. Firstly, there is the question of who would take responsibility for administering a visual database. In the case of sites of international significance web-hosting is often site-specific, but on the other end of the spectrum there is a push for a more democratic and crowd sourced photogrammetry, especially for museums and curated collections. This makes obvious sense for cultural institutions that lack financial and human resources for digitisation work, and there is no reason why this could not be scaled up to include large objects such as built structures. Such a strategy has been used successfully in digitally reconstructing lost artefacts and monuments that have been destroyed during recent middle east conflict, and the idea is clearly relevant to potential natural disasters. I would go as far as to suggest that Category 1 heritage listed buildings should be pre-emptively 3D scanned, a process that could piggyback off engineering and condition reports that would use the same data sets. It would seem to me that this would be better implemented at a regional level through local body council regulations as a best practice for significant buildings scheduled on district plans. Christchurch is the prime example, where this loss of place is felt most acutely in an urban environment. Unfortunately too few buildings were scanned prior to demolition following the 2011 earthquake, even so many of these point clouds that could be easily converted to 3D models in the public domain remain largely neglected, and provide a valuable if unrecognized resource for digital heritage projects

Assyrian lion 3D reconstruction. Image:

But more broadly there needs to be a reassessment of how mitigation is understood for heritage management. The usual process when a developer attempts to demolish a heritage building is they have first proven that it is unfeasible to repair it for reuse or relocate it elsewhere, in which case assuming the assessment of values does not determine the building is of unique significance, it is then recorded prior to demolition. In the case of particularly significant buildings there is often additional monetary mitigation which might be, for example, directed to a local heritage fund. What I suggest is being lost in translation here is the understanding of mitigation relating to site specific intervention. The argument would go that if a structure is significant enough in terms archaeological values to warrant additional mitigation beyond the cost of commissioning a consultant’s report to the required standards, then these outputs should primarily be related to the production and preservation of site specific interpretations commensurate to the archaeological and historic heritage value of the building – 3D models are but one example of this. A non-virtual example of this often-missed opportunity is the too infrequent use of interpretative panelling, signage and other site-specific intervention that memorialize place. It should be noted that these two categories are not mutually exclusive, the overlapping of physical and virtual geographies is the next frontier in heritage management, with companies like producing apps that enable the viewer to walk through heritage sites and reconstruct a lost or degraded built environment based on an archaeologically accurate reconstruction. There is no reason why this technology could not be integrated with heritage signage and potentially broadened to incorporate other socially significant historical events where the connection between memory and the built environment has been disrupted. Overseas examples abound of the seamless integration of interpretive signage and multimedia that is incorporated into local body heritage planning policy, and should be understood as an aspect of forward looking and humane urban planning that takes some local responsibility for the inevitable consequences of development in New Zealand towns and cities.

Virtual image of a restored Mesquita de Cordoba taken from inside the building through the Virtimeplace.

What is being suggested here is really not that radical but requires a broadening of policy focus, one that takes further account of the stake the public has in its heritage. Such a shift would have the additional positive consequence of educating developers about the public interest in the management of heritage assets, one which is not merely a financial penalty, but a process of producing memory and cultural knowledge on a larger scale.

Michael Healey

It’s All Child’s Play

When I think of childhood in the 19th century, my mind goes back to visits to museums and heritage parks with rooms and displays set up to replicate key spaces in Victorian society: the household, the blacksmiths, the doctor’s office and the school. Visits to these places always instilled me with the opinion that the 19th century was not a good time to be a child.

This opinion had a multitude of influences. Tales of high child and infant mortality rates, with the impression of an accompanying belief that it was a waste of time to invest love and attention into children when they would most likely just die, coloured my perception of children’s home lives. If the child did survive, then they were most likely put to work as a chimney sweep or in a factory, where they would probably die because the industrial revolution was not known for its health and safety practices (at least not in the first part of the century). If they were lucky enough to go to school, then they probably got put in a corner with a dunce cap or were beaten with a cane. Various sayings like “spare the rod and spoil the child” and “children should be seen and not heard” enforced this opinion.

There is truth in this view. A quick search through the death notices in old newspapers, or a wander through an old cemetery, will very quickly show that many infants and children died at a young age. This is confirmed in infant mortality rate statistics, with the infant mortality rate fluctuating between 7.1% and 12.6% in the 19th century (in comparison the modern infant mortality rate is 0.4%). Tales of children working in factories will come up in almost any summary of the industrial revolution, as will stories of strict teachers in summaries on Victorian schools. But to say that life was completely awful for a Victorian child would be a mistake, and it is certainly not the impression given by the archaeological record here in Christchurch.

If I had to think of an artefact that encapsulated the worst aspects of Victorian childhood, then it would be this. This unassuming artefact is the stopper from an infant feeder bottle, later given the nickname “Murder Bottle”. This name comes from the design of the bottle, which was difficult to clean, resulting in a build-up of bacteria that was only made worse by household guru Mrs Beeton recommending they were only cleaned every two to three weeks. Funnily enough, the bottles stopped being popular near the end of the 19th century when the medical community condemned them. Image: C. Watson. 

Infant bottle feeders aside, most of the artefacts relating to children that we find in Christchurch can be divided into three categories: play, education, and foodways, with some overlapping between categories. But before we have a look at these, I first want to delve into what we specifically mean by childhood. On one hand, childhood is simply that fun period of your life with no responsibilities before you have to work, pay bills and worry about the inevitable collapse of society as a result of climate change – i.e. a developmental stage on the way to being an adult. On the other hand, childhood is a social construct, and different societies differentiate the differences between childhood and adulthood in different ways, and at different ages (this video here gives a quick summary of childhood as a social construct, but if you really love theory then check out this thesis here, which takes a very detailed look at the theory of childhood). Childhood itself is influenced by many factors, (the child’s biology, the environment they grow up in, the education they receive), with the overall view that these factors influence the type of adult they will become. In this way, the child can be seen as either a passive receptor (being influenced by the factors that contribute to their childhood), or an active agent, engaging in and influencing their childhood (Vlahos 2014).

One of the key aspects of childhood is play. Play is a culturally universal phenomenon, observed across all societies as a significant and distinctive activity (Vlahos 2014: 260). It’s also what we see most frequently in the archaeological record in Christchurch, when we’re looking at the archaeological evidence for the presence of children.

Dolls are probably the most common artefact relating to children that we find on archaeological sites here in Christchurch. This is probably related to the fact that most of the dolls we find in Christchurch are made from ceramic, which tends to preserve well. We generally find two types of dolls. The first are jointed dolls. These had a cloth body to which a porcelain head, arms and legs were attached, with the limbs and heads surviving. The second are Frozen Charlotte Dolls. These were small naked figurines, inspired by ballad Fair Charlotte which described the story of a young girl who froze to death in a sleigh on her way to a ball. Most of the dolls shown here are Frozen Charlottes or jointed doll parts, although there are two more decorative figurines. Also pictured down the bottom is my personal favourite, a jointed doll’s head with inlaid teeth. Image: C. Watson.

Also relatively common are marbles. We find a great variety of marbles, ranging from cheap clay “commies” to glazed bennington marbles to glass marbles with various swirls and patterns. Image: C. Watson.

The artefacts that inspired this blog post: miniatures. Most of these artefacts come from one assemblage, which was quite unique for both the quantity and variety of miniature vessels it contained. Prior to this I had never found a miniature ladle before! Image: C. Watson.

These artefacts tell us much more than just that there were children present at the sites – they tell us about childhood in the 19th century. All of these toys were likely made by adults, and probably chosen by adults for the respective children. As such, childhood is often heavily influenced by the adults surrounding a child.  Many of the toys were likely intended to be played with in a manner that would prepare the children for adulthood. Dolls and miniature tea and dinner sets would prepare girls for their future role as mothers and homemakers, and let them mimic activities that they saw their own mothers doing. Whilst there were a variety of different games to be played with marbles, most of them had the main objective of obtaining all the marbles. The intricacies of marble trading, with some worth more than others, prepared children for the capitalist society they were entering (Vlahos 2014).

The education factor of childhood is more explicit in other artefacts, often those also associated with food, such as plates and cans intended for use by children. And of course we also find artefacts specifically associated with education itself, such as writing slate and slate pencils.

Cans and plates intended for use by children were often printed with educational designs (along with other fun patterns). These could be an alphabet printed as part of the pattern, encouraging the child to learn to read. Or they could have a morality theme. The can on the bottom right depicts two men gardening, with a sailboat shown in the background. The pattern refers back to one of Dr Benjamin Franklin’s maxims, specifically his maxim “industry needs not wish, and he that lives upon hope will die fasting, there are no gains without pains, then help hands for I have no lands”. The illustration was taken from 24 scenes of town and country life illustrating Franklin’s “lessons for the young and the old, on industry, temperance, frugality &c” by Robert Drighton, published by Bowles and Carver, London in 1795 (Riley 1991: 270). These illustrations and maxims were probably familiar to children in the 19th century, and vessels decorated with them were intended to help with children’s moral education. Image: C. Watson.

And, of course, we find artefacts associated with education itself. The Victorian child’s schooling was slightly different to that of modern children- slate tablets rather than iPads! Also different was the inclusion of things beyond the three Rs, skills like needlework and woodwork were also taught to prepare children for adulthood. Image: C. Watson

How well the perception of childhood based on the archaeological record matches reality is something we can’t really tell from the archaeological record alone. If we view children simply as passive actors, then we can assume that if a girl was given a doll, then she played with it as if it was her own child, as was intended by the adult who gave it to her, and then she grew up to be a good mother. But if we view children as complex individuals and active agents, then the girl may have played with it as if it was her own child one day, but on another day sacrificed it in a witch’s spell make believe game, or given it to her brother to play with, or used it in any other type of play other than what was intended. Intended function versus actual function is a bugbear of archaeology – is the ceramic cup we found actually part of a tea set, or is it from the flour bin where it was used as a scoop? And, of course, while we’re talking about bugbears of archaeology, I can’t really assume that the toys we’ve found mean that there were children at the site (Mills 2010). They could represent mementos collected by adults to remind them of their own childhood. In the case of children, I think it’s safe to assume that whilst children may have played with toys as intended, they also likely used them imaginatively and played all sorts of games with them.

Unfortunately, I can’t go back and ask any of the children from my sites how they played with their toys. But what I can say is that play was likely an important part of childhood in 19th century Christchurch. A quick survey of the assemblages I’ve analysed over the past couple of years revealed that just over half of them contained artefacts relating to children, and that those which didn’t were generally small assemblages (2-20 artefacts) from sites that only had minimal excavation, indicating that artefacts relating to children are relatively common finds. Reading 19th century newspapers and manuals on the management of children (which didn’t make it into this blog after it somehow took a very theoretical turn) also frequently refer to play, and clearly indicate that it was an important part of childhood (Barrett 1883; Royal College of Physicians London 1889). And so my view that the 19th century was not a good time to be a child has changed. I have revised it to that the 19th century was an okay time to be a child, provided that you survived and weren’t employed as a chimney sweep.

I went into researching for this blog with the preconceived notion that I was going to be astounded by Victorian parenting advice. Instead, I found that most of what I read was relatively relatable. I thought this piece of advice on how to keep children occupied was a nice way to end the blog- I certainly remember whining to my mum as a child that I was bored and that there was nothing to do, but being all too happy to go off and play if I was made to bring the firewood in. Image: Daily Telegraph 04/04/1891: 2.   

Clara Watson


Barrett, H. 1883. The management of infancy and childhood, in health and disease. G. Routledge, London. Available:

Riley, N. 1991. Gifts for Good Children: the history of children’s china, 1790-1890. Richard Dennis, Somerset.

Royal College of Physicians of London. 1889. Suggestions to mothers on the management of their children. Churchill, London. Available:

Mills, R. 2010. Miniatures in historical archaeology: Toys, trifles and trinkets re-examined. Unpublished M.A. thesis, University of Leicester, School of Archaeology and Ancient History. Available:

Vlahos, M. 2014. Developing an Archaeology of Childhood Experiences in Australia 1788-1901. Unpublished Ph.D. thesis, University of Queensland, School of Social Science. Available: