The Archaeology of The Arts Centre

Last week on the blog we gave a brief history of the Arts Centre. Following on from that, today we’re going to be having a look at the archaeology of the site. This blog is related to our exhibition Art of Archaeology on now at the Arts Centre as part of the Christchurch Heritage Festival. If you haven’t already been, then head down to the Boys High building and see some of the artefacts found during the archaeological monitoring of earthquake repair works at the Arts Centre! The exhibition is on until the 8th of November.

As a historic area that was occupied in the nineteenth century (see last week’s blog for more info on that), The Arts Centre meets Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga’s definition of an archaeological site- a place associated with pre-1900 human activity, where there may be evidence relating to the history of New Zealand. The 2014 Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga Act protects all New Zealand archaeological sites and states that an archaeological authority is needed if a site is to be modified or destroyed. Because of this, archaeologists from Underground Overground Archaeology have worked alongside contractors to monitor the repair works, recording any archaeology and recovering any artefacts found during the works.

Most of the earthworks we’ve monitored have been minor. They include things like digging new footings for repairing building foundations or trenching for installing new services. The nature of these types of earthworks means that if you love photographs of deep excavation units with beautifully excavated features and nice clean stratigraphic profiles then you’re going to be out of luck!

Having said that, there’s something pretty cool about a digger inside a building- it just looks so out of place! Image: Megan Hickey.

Repairing foundations in the engineering building. This was too tight a spot to get the digger in, so the contractors are excavating by hand. Image: Julia Hughes.

Love a trench! This one is outside the biology and physics buildings. Image: Julia Hughes.

We found a variety of things from the different earthworks that we monitored. In the dry cavities between the walls and floors of the buildings we found many well-preserved paper artefacts including some relating to the university and a rather extensive collection of cigarette boxes!

Paper artefacts found within the buildings from the Arts Centre. Top left is The Elements. The Elements is attributed to the ancient Greek mathematician Euclid and is thought to have been originally published in ca. 300 BC. The textbook is arguably the most famous mathematics book ever to be written and was considered a fundamental text for students in the nineteenth century. This copy was well-loved, with calculations written in pencil on the back page of the book. Top right is an invitation to the 1955 Arts Ball. Middle and bottom rows are just some of the many cigarette and match boxes that we found- Capstan seems to have been a favourite though: Images: Emma Warwick, Clara Watson.

Throughout the site we found lots of nineteenth century artefact scatter. These were small fragments of artefacts located within the layers of the site’s stratigraphy, with no association to specific deposits or features. It is highly likely that this scatter represents the everyday objects that were used by the residents of the site before the Canterbury College was built on the site (see last week’s blog for more info). These artefacts were probably originally deposited in rubbish pits, like we normally find on domestic sites, but the construction of the university likely disturbed and re-deposited the material, creating the layer of artefact scatter that we then found during our archaeological monitoring.

A small glimpse of the nineteenth century artefact scatter that we found in the various trenches we monitored across the site. As you can see, most of the artefacts are heavily fragmented with only a small portion of the original vessel remaining intact. Image: Emma Warwick

The most exciting thing that we found, at least in my opinion, is Feature 1. It might just look like a humble rubbish pit, but this feature was filled with scientific glass ware and was located near the location of the Old Tin Shed.

Feature 1 after it was first exposed by the digger. Image: Peter Mitchell.

Feature 1 during excavation. Some of the test tubes found in the feature can be seen in the centre of the pit. Image: Peter Mitchell.

While the gothic stone buildings may be the legacy of Canterbury College, the first university building was constructed from corrugated iron and known colloquially as the Old Tin Shed. Professors had arrived in Christchurch in the mid-1870s, prior to the construction of the first buildings, and were teaching out of temporary accommodations. The arrival of the new professor of chemistry, Alexander William Bickerton, created a need for a laboratory, and the Old Tin Shed provided the solution. Built in 1876/77, the Old Tin Shed was reminiscent of a rustic farm building.

The Old Tin Shed, a very different style of building to the gothic ones surrounding it. The foundations we found matched up with the footprint of the building. Image: University of Canterbury.

Despite being intended as a temporary solution, the Old Tin Shed remained standing for 40 years until 1916, when it was demolished, and the present-day North Quad was created. It was thought that the building was completely demolished, but during our excavations in the North Quad we found regularly spaced brick features that we think might have been piles from the building’s foundations.

Brick piles from the Old Tin Shed building, uncovered during excavations in the North Quad. Image: J. Hughes.

Ernest Rutherford, famous for splitting the atom and winner of the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1908, would have undertaken experiments in the Old Tin Shed during his years of study at Canterbury College. And it’s possible that the scientific glass ware that we found may have been used by Rutherford in his experiments!

A small selection of the many fragments of science glass found in the feature. All up we recovered 167 fragments of scientific glass ware from the feature, representing over 100 test tubes, beakers and ampoules. We’ve chosen not to clean the scientific glass ware so that residue analysis remains a possibility for future research on the assemblage. Image: Clara Watson.

.Thanks to The Arts Centre for collaborating with us to produce this exhibition, and to Christchurch City Council for providing funding. As archaeologists we spend most of our time uncovering stories from the past, so it’s great to have opportunities like Heritage Festival to share them with the general public.

Clara Watson

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