Frequently asked questions #2

Continuing on from our last FAQ post, here are the answers to a few more of the questions we face regularly here in Christchurch.

1)      Are you doing this for a school project?

Yes, seriously. This gets asked more often than you might think. While it’s perhaps in part a result of the fact that a lot of the archaeologists currently working in Christchurch are under 30 and could, if you squinted (in bad light*), conceivably still be at school, it’s also symptomatic of the larger misconception that archaeology isn’t a proper job. Or, at least, that it’s not a viable method of making a living.

I discussed the job thing in the last FAQ post, so I won’t get into it again here, but thank you (we think?) for entertaining the possibility that we’re still under eighteen.

2)      Really? You don’t look much like an archaeologist.

This one always confuses me. What is an archaeologist supposed to look like? Is it the lack of tweed? Am I not weather-beaten enough? Not dirty enough? Not beardy enough? Were you expecting more khaki?

Contrary to popular opinion, we really do just look like people, I promise. Occasionally dirty, but entirely capable of using a shower. Sometimes incapable of growing a beard. Not always comfortable in tweed. Well acquainted with the protective properties of sunscreen, PPE and hats. Often mistaken for secretaries, architects, history enthusiasts, school teachers and “soil people”, apparently.

All manner of archaeologists

Archaeologists, as they appear in the wild. Not a speck of tweed to be seen. Image: Underground Overground Archaeology.

3)      Found any moa bones recently?

Other variations include “So, you’re looking for bones right?” and “what’s the coolest bone you’ve ever found?”

Someone asked me the last one at a party recently and I had no idea how to answer it (mummified cats?). Bones aren’t nearly as common in Christchurch sites as artefacts are and when we do find them, their greatest point of interest is as a collection of faunal remains that can tell us something about what people were eating or what kind of animals were on a site. We almost never, in Christchurch at least, find a single bone that’s interesting and cool out of context (I would take this back if I ever found a Haast’s eagle skull. Haast’s eagles are awesome). We certainly don’t find moa bone that often in Christchurch, mostly as a result of the primarily 19th century sites we’re dealing with in the post-earthquake work.


Bones! Image: K. Bone.

People also inevitably ask about human remains – how we identify them, what happens to them, if we’ve ever found bodies – and the answer is, again, that we usually don’t come across them in Christchurch. When we do, there are procedures and policies in place to make sure that they’re dealt with respectfully and carefully.

Artist's representation of Haast's Eagle (awesome) attacking moa (also awesome).

Artist’s representation of Haast’s eagle (terrifying but brilliant) attacking moa (also cool, although slightly less terrifying). Image: John Megahan via Wikimedia Commons.

4)      How do you know this is old?

We’ve addressed this question before here on the blog, to a degree, but it’s one that comes up in the field a lot. The answer varies depending on the object, but is almost always related to deciphering the manufacturing and stylistic clues left on the artefact.

5)   How much is that bottle/plate/pipe/adze/fish-hook worth?

I like to think of this as the Antiques Roadshow question. The thing is that, unlike Antiques Roadshow, a lot of the artefacts that we deal with have very little in the way of monetary value. They’re often broken and/or damaged from the century or more that they’ve spent in the ground, or such commonly found items that they’re not worth anything to collectors. Their value to us is in the information that they provide, through the archaeological context in which they were found, the assemblage that they were part of and the people to whom they belonged.

Even when we do find items that might have some kind of monetary worth, the information value of those artefacts is almost always higher. I can’t remember the last time I looked at an artefact and wondered how much money it would fetch: usually, I’m too busy thinking about who owned it, where it came from and how it can help me figure out what happened on a site. To me, that information is priceless (and so easily lost through fossicking and treasure hunting).

A selection of the various artefacts found in Christchurch over the last three years. Top row from left:

A selection of artefacts found in Christchurch over the last three years. The possible monetary value of these is nothing next to the information they offer about life and people in the past. Image: J. Garland.

6)      What happens to all these artefacts/information?

Well, it depends. All the material we recover from a site is recorded, catalogued and analysed by a trained archaeologist. That information is written up into a report that is then submitted to Heritage New Zealand and interested parties (i.e. the client). Those reports are publicly available from Heritage New Zealand, if anyone is interested. Sometimes, the artefacts are then sent to a museum or similar institution for display. Other times, they are returned to the owner or retained by archaeologists as reference collections. Sometimes, depending on the significance of the material recovered, assemblages may also be held by one of the universities for further research.

7)      How much study did you do to be an archaeologist?

Also phrased as the slightly less diplomatic, “So you went to university to learn how to stand around and watch diggers/learn to use a spade?”

The short answer is, usually, four years or more. Most commercially employed archaeologists will have an Honours degree (four years), many will also have a Masters degree (another 1-2 years) and some will have a PhD (generally another 3-4 years).

The longer answer is that, while digging (and monitoring mechanical excavation of sites) is part of what we do, it’s actually a pretty small part of the overall process and thus a small part of what we learn at university. Our degrees teach us a range of things, from research and analytical techniques to the ethics and principles behind preserving and interpreting the past.

At a more specific level, archaeologists use a range of technological aides, from total stations and GIS (geographic information system) to electronic databases, graphic design programs like Adobe Illustrator and, in some cases, techniques like laser scanning and 3D modelling. We (as a whole, not specifically in Christchurch) also use a wide variety of scientific techniques and methods, including XRF analysis (x-ray fluorescence), radiocarbon dating, chemical residue analysis, DNA sequencing and palynology (pollen analysis), to name a few.

On top of all this, we learn how to interpret the raw data that we’re gathering when we record a building or excavate a site. On one level, this consists of learning how to approach a collection of information and use it to figure out what happened on a site or in a building, from dating that material to determining deposition processes or sequences of activity. Statistical analysis often plays a part in this, as does analysis of spatial patterns and distribution, along with a range of other techniques and tools. On another level,  we also learn how to relate that information back to people, to examine the data and gain an idea of the human behaviour and activities that it represents, always looking for the why and the who and the how of the things we find.

8)      What have you found from the earthquake stuff?

The short answer to this is a lot of stuff. Like, a LOT.

We’ve talked about this a bit before on the blog, but the longer answer is that we’re uncovering the growth of a city, from a small settlement on a swamp to a thriving urban society. We’re finding and recording the physical remnants of Christchurch’s history for the first fifty years, in the individual lives of its inhabitants and the society and culture that they were part of. We’re learning about how people coped with new lives in a new environment; how they maintained connections to the places they came from; how they shaped the development of a city and how that city shaped them; how people built businesses and industry and homes and how those things changed; how Christchurch’s economy developed and functioned during the 19th century; how people lived their lives day to day and how these things are represented in the material culture they left behind, among so, so many other things.

Jessie Garland

* Not that I mean to imply that anyone I work with looks old…just, you know, not adolescent.

Frequently asked questions #1

Training and working as an archaeologist can be an interesting experience, not just because of the work we do, but thanks to the preconceptions and opinions of the people around us. Like so many other professions, archaeology is an extremely broad field of work and study, encompassing all manner of skills, time periods and subject matters. It’s also one that is misrepresented enough in the media that people often have a skewed notion of what it is that we actually do.

So, this week on the blog, we thought we’d have a go at answering some of the more frequently asked questions that have been posed to those of us working here in New Zealand. It will be the first of a couple of posts, since, as it turns out, there are quite a few questions we face on a regular basis.

We’ll start with the big ones:

1)      You’re an archaeologist? Like Indiana Jones*¹?

Actually, no. Not really like him at all. There have been many, many discussions of this in popular culture over the years (including this memorable letter). It’s generally agreed that Indiana Jones is a terrible archaeologist and most archaeologists would make a terrible, and very probably dead, Indiana Jones. The main differences are in comparative methods and objectives: archaeology is ultimately about understanding people in the past, collectively and individually, through ALL the physical traces they leave behind, while Indiana Jones is about the finding and collection of precious objects with little regard for their surrounding context.

Actual archaeology: less whips, pistols and mystical artefacts and more just a whole lot of digging. Image: H. Williams.

Actual archaeology: less whips, pistols and mystical artefacts and more just a whole lot of digging and recording. Image: H. Williams.

2)      That’s so cool! What’s your favourite dinosaur?*²

Similar questions to this include, “Were there many dinosaurs in New Zealand?”, “Oh, cool, like Ross from friends?” and “Found any dinosaur bones lately?”

As many of you will know, palaeontology and archaeology, while they do share some methods and a predilection for physical remnants of the past, are not the same thing. Put very simply, archaeologists focus on the human past, while palaeontologists work with fossils, including dinosaurs, from the more distant past.

Although, it should be noted that the difference between our professions doesn’t mean that archaeologists dislike dinosaurs. My favourite is Archaeopteryx, for the record, followed by actually-not-a-dinosaur Quetzalcoatlus.  A quick survey of the rest of the office tells me that archaeologists are fans of Triceratops, Velociraptor, Saurolophus, Stegosaurus, Tyrannosaurus rex, Deinonychus and also-not-a-dinosaur Megalodon.

T-Rex: not the purview of archaeologists, but still awesome. Image:

T-Rex: not the purview of archaeologists, but still awesome. Image: David Monniaux

3)      Archaeology? That’s like rocks and pyramids and stuff, right?

Er, sort of. There’s a bit more to it, really. As those of you who read this blog regularly will know, archaeology is far more varied and complex than just pyramids and rocks. Egyptology is just one small part of our profession and rocks (usually stone tools) are just one of the materials we deal with.

It’s one of my favourite things about archaeology, actually: that it covers all of human history, and thus anything and everything that people have done in the past, be it constructing massive monuments to gods and kings, making important advances in industrial technology, or figuring out how to make better toothbrushes. The infinite variety to be found in people, past and present, will never ever cease to amaze me.

Some of the artefacts found in Christchurch this year. Less pyramids and rocks and more remnants of everyday life. Image: J. Garland.

Some of the artefacts found in Christchurch this year. Less pyramids and rocks and more remnants of everyday life. Image: J. Garland.

4)      What’s the coolest thing you’ve ever found?

Variations on this include, “have you ever found treasure?”, “found any gold?” and “what’s the oldest thing you’ve ever found?”

I’d say that this is probably the question we hear the most. The problem with answering it is that in the course of their careers, most archaeologists will have found a LOT of things, many of which are cool and interesting. Picking just one can be a bit like asking someone to choose their favourite dinosaur (see what I did there?). It’s made even more difficult to answer by the fact that what is amazing to us is not always amazing to other people. The explanation of why an otherwise unremarkable object (like a brick, or a sherd of pottery) is so interesting is usually far longer and much, much, drier than the questioner wanted.

It may not help that, in my experience, this question is usually asked in bars or in the small-talk associated with first meeting someone. Very few people want to hear about the socio-cultural implications of changes in brickmaking in the 19th century in that situation. Or that most of the artefacts we deal with in Christchurch are less than 160 years old and we pretty much never find gold.

As a result, some of us may or may not have taken to answering this question with “a unicorn skull.” Another quick survey of the office suggests that other answers may include “a harmonium”, “a crystal skull”, “lots of stuff”,  “this [insert object] that someone else actually found but I am pretending that I found for the sake of this conversation” and the phrase “well, it depends…”

Moving on to more serious matters…

5)      There’s not that much archaeology in New Zealand though, is there?*

This is one of the more frequent questions asked here in New Zealand and it can be a little dispiriting to be reminded of how many people don’t realise what a rich, interesting and unique archaeological record we have in this country.

From the very first Polynesian settlers, arriving here c. 1300 AD (Jacomb et al. 2014), through to the most recent periods of immigration and settlement, New Zealand has a fascinating and globally significant archaeological record. It may be short, compared to other places in the world (such as our neighbour, Australia), but that lack of time depth is part of what makes it interesting. Archaeologists have used our relatively condensed archaeological record to look at the impact of human settlement on the environment, to better understand patterns of settlement, migration and  trade, motivations for warfare, the processes of social and cultural change, and how people adapt to new social and physical environments (among many, many other things).

Excavations at a 14th century archaeological site in the Catlins. Image: K. Webb.

Excavations at a 14th-16th century archaeological site in the Catlins. Image: K. Webb.

Archaeology in New Zealand is protected by the Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga Act 2014, which “defines an archaeological site as a place associated with pre-1900 human activity, where there may be evidence relating to the history of New Zealand” (Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga 2014). The modification or destruction of any such site, which includes standing structures, requires the permission of Heritage New Zealand, and usually involves one or more archaeologists recording and salvaging any archaeological features or material found during that process.

As those of you who follow our work here in Christchurch will have realised, this means that there is in fact a lot of archaeology in New Zealand. Even more than that, the wide scope of the work that is being carried out throughout the country has huge potential to add to our understanding of people in the past and their influence on the world around them.

6)      Who pays for all that?

Simplified, there are two main types of archaeological work undertaken in New Zealand: research archaeology, or those investigations carried out by the universities and/or independent researchers, and cultural resource management, carried out by consulting or contracted archaeologists in response to the modification or destruction of sites, as governed by the 2014 act. As a result, there are different methods of paying for that work.

Research archaeology is usually funded through the universities themselves or through research grants such as those provided by the Marsden Fund. Cultural resource management archaeology functions as a ‘polluter pays’ system, in which the authority holder covers the cost of recording and salvaging the archaeological information being lost through the modification or destruction of an archaeological site.

Cultural heritage management archaeology in Christchurch. Image: M. Carter.

Cultural heritage management archaeology in Christchurch. Image: M. Carter.

7)      Huh. Why? What’s the point?

To put it simply? Because our heritage is important. Because understanding where and who and what we’ve come from, as individuals, as a society, as a culture and as a country, is invaluable in understanding where we are now and where we may be in the future.  Because future generations deserve the opportunity to explore that heritage for themselves without wondering why we didn’t do more to save it for them. Because the actions and creations and lives of the people who’ve gone before us deserve to be remembered. Because there are things we learn from the archaeological record that would otherwise be lost to us. Because archaeology allows us to expand our horizons, to catch a glimpse of people and places that are so different to our own, yet linked to us through time and across cultures thanks to the things that they left behind.

Because, ultimately, people are important, and at its heart, archaeology is all about people.

 Jessie Garland

*¹ Less frequently, Indiana Jones may be switched out for Lara Croft.
Apparently, palaeontologists often get the same question in reverse and have responded with t-shirts.



Jacomb, C., Holdaway, R.N., Allentoft, M.E., Bunce, M., Oskam, C.L., Walter,
R., Brooks, E., 2014. High-precision dating and ancient DNA profiling of moa (Aves: Dinornithiformes) eggshell documents a complex feature at Wairau Bar and refines the chronology of New Zealand settlement by Polynesians. In Journal of Archaeological Science (2014), doi: 10.1016/j.jas.2014.05.023. [online] Available at