The archaeology of uncertainty

Evening, love, how’s your day?

Part 1: the archaeology of uncertainty

As a discipline, archaeology carries with it a lot of uncertainty. A number of times, I’ve been faced with an artefact, feature, or stratigraphic sequence that is difficult to figure out, and that could be one or a combination of several things. Sometimes further investigation clears it up, and sometimes you just have to come to terms with the fact that you may never know for sure. We don’t have a time machine, or ghosts that we can ask to recount their life stories. Radiocarbon dates sometimes have error margins of several decades, which mean we may never know the exact day Māori set foot on Aotearoa. When we excavate a rubbish pit in Christchurch, we try to associate it with a particular occupant, but are often in a situation where the uncertainty of the artefact dates means that an assemblage could have belonged to one or more family groups over a long period of time. A large part of the discipline is interpretation, and there’s a joke among archaeologists that goes something like: “if you put one archaeologist in a room with a question, they’ll come out with two different answers”. People commonly conceive of the past as something that is solid and unchanging in a way that the future is not, but we are constantly re-evaluating our understanding of the past based on new evidence. Looking into the past is like looking into the horizon on a hot day, the farther you look, the hazier it gets. As an archaeologist, uncertainty is just something you just have to get used to.

chicken feeder

Sometimes we figure out brief mysteries pretty quick, like Clara’s identification of this chicken feeder recently featured on out Facebook page.

Features 41 and 56, at the CJESP site, a pair of  likely privy pits formed in the 1880s. These privy pits, and the artefacts within them, may have been associated with Richard Brown,  a bootmaker, or a Mrs. Rose, a dressmaker, or perhaps both. Both were active at the corner of Durham and Tuam Streets around the time the artefacts were deposited (Williams, et al. 2017).

upside down bottle feature

Still a mystery. A circular feature of carefully placed upside-down bottles at the Christchurch Convention Centre (Trendafilov et al. in prep). We’re still not sure exactly what the purpose of this was. Image: Hamish Williams.

Part 2: The archaeology of uncertainty

At the start of the February, I went on a three-week holiday to the exotic ‘northern hemisphere’. At the start, the recently reported coronavirus seemed restricted to China. Three weeks later, heading home from the UK, that country was reporting 8 or so cases. Our flight through Hong Kong got re-routed through the US. On 28 February, New Zealand reported its first case of covid. Less than a month later, NZ case numbers surpassed 100, and NZ went into Alert Level 4 on the 25th of March. Time was running wild.

As I’m writing this, the global total of the coronavirus pandemic has surpassed 30 million cases, and just passed 1,000,000 deaths. Not a good one at all. The west coast of the USA is being ravaged by wildfires, just as the east coast of Australia was at the start of the year. Apparently approximately half the world’s population is in some sort of lockdown restrictions. The ‘travel bubble’ between NZ and Aus that was discussed optimistically in the middle of the year now seems unlikely to occur before 2021. I googled ‘trans-tasman bubble’ and got internet reckons ranging from ‘weeks away’ to ‘mid-2021’ so who the blimmin’ heck knows. Don’t speak too soon, the wheel’s still in spin.

When I talk to people about this period, I often remark how we lived in a world without plans (though the return to Level 1 across the country has reproduced some kind of normality). The spectre of uncertainty has devoured the ideas of all those kiwis who planned to make an overseas trip, or start an OE or a business, or buy a house. An untold number of people don’t know when they’ll see loved ones again. Uncertainty isn’t a peculiarity of our current phase, but it seems more present to us because so much of our modern mode of living, things we took for granted, have been affected by the pandemic and the human response to it. In truth, we are constantly exposed to change, both in our natural environment, and in the behaviour of our fellow humans. The outlook for Thursday? Your guess is good as mine.

So what does archaeology tell us about uncertainty and how people responded to it? Much of the archaeological approach to uncertainty is related to the variability, both seasonal and year to year, of the environment and the resources we use and consume. The change of the seasons may be regular, but there can be great variability, and therefore, uncertainty in these seasons: really rotten weather, temperatures, winds, pests, and so forth, all affecting seasonal produce, and causing pressure from the hinter to the heartland. This variability is not solely environmental (if such a thing exists), but is also exacerbated by human activity like overharvesting, overstocking, habitat destruction etc. etc. etc. For a local example of seasonal variability, my bloody cauliflower hasn’t seen fit to sprout heads this year, so I’m going to have to look elsewhere for ingredients for my aloo gobi. Every time I thought I’d got it made, it seemed the taste was not so sweet.

cauliflower traitors


The environment – natural and cultural – offers us good years and bad years, or even less specifically, good times and bad times. Archaeologists generally lump cultural responses to food variability and scarcity into four categories: mobility (go somewhere else), diversification (eat a bunch of different stuff), storage (eat some stuff that you have now, later), and exchange (get some stuff to eat from somebody else; Halstead and O’Shea, 1989). Some of these approaches are better suited for dealing with different kinds of variability, and some strategies mesh better in combination: mobility and diversification work well together because food resources tend to be environmentally scattered, whereas mobility and storage are often considered non-complimentary because large surpluses have to be left behind if you’re moving elsewhere. Our modern global food system tends to be a combination of diversification, storage, and exchange, the latter two combining to mean that lots of seasonal produce is now available year-round. If you’ve ever done seasonal harvest work or fly-in fly-out work, mobility will be a familiar part of the economic system to you.

As a buffering strategy against uncertainty, storage effectively turns a seasonally available surplus of food into future food for less productive seasons and can see you through a bad harvest in the future. A cucumber might go off in a week or so, but you can move into a new flat and find a pickle jar from the 1980s still lurking in the back of the cupboard. I like to think of a refrigerator as a one-way, slow-moving time machine. Every time you put something in there, you’re sending it a short length of time into the future, though it does continue to age slightly slower on its journey. Storage of food is not a uniquely human behaviour, but we’ve certainly nailed the greatest diversity of techniques  – including drying, freezing, fermenting, etc. – and food stored or preserved in some way forms a major part of the human diet worldwide. The development of animal husbandry could also be seen as a way to store meat ‘on-the-hoof’. My homemade lockdown kimchi (yes, I’m a hipster) is part of the grand tradition that includes 2000 year old beef jerky and 9,200 year old fermented fish. Storage is often related to the conversion of a resource that occurs in substantial amounts over a relatively short period of time, so is associated with aggregate communities (often dispersed) coming together to harvest and prepare. In Aotearoa, Māori used and continue to use a range of techniques to store and preserve food, including smoking the huge numbers of tuna/eels that migrate out to sea each year, and the preservation of the annual tītī/mutton bird harvest in pōhā/bull kelp containers (Anderson 1997, 1998). A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, but a bird in vacuum-seal might be a bit more expensive this year seeing the season was cut short.

eel poha

Preparing pōhā in 1910. Image: Basil Keane, ‘Te Māori i te ohanga – Māori in the economy – The Māori economy’, Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 2 October 2020). Story by Basil Keane, published 11 Mar 2010


Drying eels at Waihora/Lake Forsyth, Canterbury, 1948.
Image: John Wilson, ‘Society – Food, drink and dress’, Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 2 October 2020). Story by John Wilson

bog butter

Bog butter, and its wooden container, from County Kildare, Ireland (National Museum of Ireland – Archaeology). This was butter was buried to preserve it almost 2,500 years ago, but evidently never retrieved. Image: Tristan Wadsworth.

Perhaps the most archaeologically visible form in storage in New Zealand archaeology is the kūmara storage pit. One of the most commonly recorded archaeological features from Horomaka/Banks Peninsula right up to the top of the country, these semi-subterranean pits are the remains of roofed storage facilities for kūmara and other crops. The cool, dry conditions allow the kūmara to keep for longer, both for food over winter, but also to ensure a supply of seed crops for the next year’s planting (Davidson et al. 2007).

Remains of kūmara  storage pits, Auckland. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

In 19th century Christchurch, preserved foods perhaps are over-represented in the archaeological record, as they tend to be associated with storage containers that survive through to the modern day, whereas fresh ingredients do not. So we often find vinegar bottles, branded and unbranded preserving and canning jars, and the classic stoneware ‘oyster jars’ for pickled oysters or fish and other food pastes.

‘Oyster jars’. Often used for storing pickled oysters. Image: Chelsea Dickson.

A typical wide-mouth pickle jar. Good for preserves of all sorts. Image: Clara Watson.

An Anchovy Paste jar found in Christchurch and accompanying recipe from 1904. Image: J. Garland, Otago Witness 17/08/1904: 67.

I also want to talk about one of the sites we’ve covered on the blog before: a bonded warehouse that is one of our largest and, to me, most interesting central city sites, and one of multiple bonded warehouses that existed in nineteenth century Christchurch. Jessie’s blog describes how the bonded warehouse was a building in which “goods could be stored and remain exempt from customs duties. They were usually used to store goods and bulk merchandise until they were distributed for retail, at which time those duties and taxes would have to be paid.” The rubbish pits from this site contained remarkably uniform deposits of numerous, identical, and still sealed alcohol bottles, interpreted as stock – full bottles – that had been destined for sale in Christchurch, but that never made it to market, and were instead discarded. Now I’m certainly no economist (Don’t want to be a richer man, and couldn’t tell you the difference between a $4b fiscal hole from an $11b one), but it seems to me that at least in part, the bonded warehouse represents an adaptation to the uncertainty of the international import market. Stock could remain in storage, exempt from customs tax, until such time as it was profitable to sell. However, the discarded stock we find at these sites shows us that trying to wait out the market uncertainty didn’t always result in a final positive outcome (Garland et al., 2014).

One of the rubbish pits found at a bonded warehous site, containing a large number of J & R Tennent sealed bottles. Image: J. Hughes.

A couple of the J & R Tennent sealed tops found in the rubbish pit shown above. The side of the seal reads: “Bottled by J & R Tennent” and (not pictured) “Betts & Co / Patent / Patent / Trade Mark / London.” Betts & Co were the original patentees and manufacturers of metal bottle capsules like these. They were founded in 1804, but weren’t established in London until 1840. The company continued to manufacture bottle capsules until the 1960s: these particular seals were probably made between 1860 and 1915 (Nayton 1991). Images:  J. Garland.

Straying a little further from physical archaeology, I wanted to touch briefly upon the notion of insurance as a modern approach to risk and uncertainty (though I’m not trying to sell you insurance). When we talk about exchange as a buffering strategy for resource variability, it’s not just the modern exchange of currency for goods, but more generally any way in which “present abundance is converted…via social transactions, into a future obligation in time of need.” (Halstead and O’Shea, 1989). This works a bit like storage, except the method of conversion is social rather than physical, and is based around the reciprocal nature of human relationships. Friends and families tend to take care of each other in turn during tough times, and there’s a sliding scale in terms of how formalised the nature of that reciprocity tends to be.

When conducting historical research for some of our sites, we regularly come across insurance claims, particularly reports of fire in local newspapers where the value the building and effects are explicitly listed (see The City Remains for the story of the destruction by fire of the Christchurch Librarian’s house in 1894 but also check out this blog post for a dodgy insurance claim and the mysterious Case of the Severed Hand in Taylor’s Mistake. Insurance companies can be seen as modern, communal but corporatised methods of ‘exchange’ – as buffering strategies against the uncertainty of events such as fires, unexpected death and injury, converting small surpluses in the present to future reciprocal aid. In 19th century Christchurch, those social supports were often associated with fraternal orders such as the Freemasons or Oddfellows, the latter of which’s support was largely aimed at the working class (but just men, because patriarchy).

I don’t know if all that helps with consideration of the uncertainty of the coronavirus pandemic world, but one of the takeaways for me is that buffering strategies are typically reliant on community action and existing relationships. Mass harvest and the preservation of resources requires community organisation, and exchange is based on the inherently reciprocal nature of human relationships, where we help out others in tough times, because we know they will do the same for us. In both cases, the products of communities are greater than the sum of their parts, and we’ll be together, yeah, together by design. Shoutout to my Ma and Pa for the venison, to my outlaws for the preserves, and to Kirsa and Lou and Hamish for the fruit and veg and homebrew that I consumed over lockdown. I’ll leave you with this. According to Dr. John Wikipedia the first company to offer life insurance was the ‘Amicable Society for a Perpetual Assurance Office, founded in 1706 in London. In the ‘current times’ I wish all of you out there all the Perpetual Assurance, and Amicable Society you need.



Also, don’t hoard toilet paper.


Anderson, A. ‘Historical and archaeological aspects of muttonbirding in New Zealand.’ New Zealand Journal of Archaeology 6 (1997): 35–55.

Anderson, A., 1998. The welcome of strangers : an ethnohistory of southern Maori A.D. 1650-1850. Dunedin: Otago University Press.

Davidson, J.M., Leach, F., Burtenshaw, M. and Harris, G., 2007. Subterranean Storage Pits for Kūmara (Sweet Potato, Ipomoea Batatas L. Lam.): Ethnographic, Archaeological and Experimental Research in New Zealand. New Zealand Journal of Archaeology, 28 (2006), pp.5–49.

Garland, J., Carter, M., and R. Geary Nichol. 2014. The Terrace, Christchurch: report on archaeological investigations. Unpublished report for Hereford Holdings. NZHPT Authorities 2013/757eq & 2014/134eq.

Halstead, P. and J. O’Shea. 1989. ‘Introduction: cultural responses to risk and uncertainty’ in Halstead, P. and J. O’Shea. 1989. Bad Year Economics: Cultural Responses to Risk and Uncertainty. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Trendafilov, A., Garland, J., Whybrew, C., Mearns, L., Lillo Bernabeu, M., Hennessey, M., and K. Webb. In prep. Christchurch Convention Centre Precinct. Final report on archaeological monitoring under HNZPT authority 2017/280eq.

Williams, H., Garland, J. and Geary Nichol, R., 2017. Christchurch Justice and Emergency Services Precinct Archaeological Report. Unpublished report for the Ministry of Justice.

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