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:

The archaeology of natural disasters

When people first settled in Aotearoa, they had no idea that they were sitting upon a slice of one of two supercontinents; Gondwanaland. Around eighty-three million years ago this slice we now live on, known to us as Zealandia, broke away. We wouldn’t recognise Zealandia as it was then; most of it is now underwater. The bits which still protrude above sea level is New Zealand. The earth’s crust is still on the move though, which we can see on the surface through earthquakes, volcanoes and smaller geothermal vents (McLauchlan 2014: 7-8). All of these things are familiar to any New Zealander. While I don’t believe earthquakes and volcanic eruptions are events we’ll ever become used to, we now understand why they happen and are better equipped to deal with the aftermath.

Long before I had even stepped foot on the South Island, on 22nd February 2011 at 12.51pm an earthquake, with its epicentre in Lyttelton and a magnitude of 6.3, struck Canterbury (GeoNet 2018). Although we are now able to understand (thanks to modern scholarship) why earthquakes happen, it does not make the loss of life any easier. Unlike the previous earthquake that had struck Canterbury in 2010, this one took the lives of 185 people and had a devastating effect on the city’s infrastructure and landscape. While the Garden City had felt the effect of earthquakes in past, none had quite the same effect as these ones.

An example of damage to the Cathedral by an earlier quake to hit Christchurch in 1888. Photo: Christchurch City Library CCL PhotoCD 3, IMG0059.

Damage to buildings in the CBD, Christchurch following the February 2011 earthquake. Photo: GeoNet.

Large rock falls in Sumner, Christchurch triggered by the February 2011 earthquake. Photo: GeoNet.

Since nothing with this much of a devastating impact has happened within New Zealand since the Hawke’s Bay earthquake in 1931, how are we supposed to know how to deal with the situation? Well, we don’t really. There is not really a right or wrong answer to this. We, as archaeologists, sit on a cusp of responsibility; to record the archaeology (that is anything pre-1900) for future generations and research whilst the demolition and regeneration of the city takes place, but also to do so quickly and not hinder these vital works whilst providing the best advice we can. I wasn’t here when the earthquakes took place but almost seven years on from the last severe earthquake of 2011, I find myself working on earthquake projects. The city is reinventing itself and will be for the foreseeable future. We’ve spoken on the blog previously about the challenges we face working in archaeology during natural disasters, but I want to take a more theoretical approach to disaster archaeology today. Theory plays a huge role in our interpretations within archaeology, but we tend to leave that for the reports and scholarly papers. I wanted to share with you today the theory I’ve applied whilst studying the impact of earthquakes and (especially) their aftermath.

First on the scene: archaeologists and tanks in the CBD following the February 2011 quake. Photo: Matt Hennessey.

So, here’s the technical bit: as archaeologists here in New Zealand we work under the Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga Act. This however was superseded by the Canterbury Earthquake (Historic Place Act) Order 2011 following the earthquakes. This order meant that the process of application for an archaeological authority was much quicker, and we were able to fulfil that moral obligation of not slowing down works.

Much of the CBD resembled this post quakes. Photo: Matt Hennessey.

The historical facades, that have for so long been associated with Christchurch by many, suffered extensive damage during the 2011 quake and had to be demolished. Photo: Matt Hennessey.

Often when we think of the archaeology of natural disasters our minds jump to the destruction of Pompeii or Pleistocene extinction. But what many forget, including archaeologists, is we all live through natural disasters and the archaeology that they create . In fact, here in Christchurch we have lived through/are still living through such a unique archaeological experience it can be difficult to know what to do with all the information. As it is a requirement by law to have an archaeological authority before altering or removing an archaeological site, you can imagine how much of Christchurch this would have affected. The entire CBD is considered a high risk zone for pre-1900 activity. A positive (for lack of a better word) is the huge wealth of information we’ve been able to retrieve about Christchurch and its formative years during post-earthquake works. Following the initial demolition of unsafe buildings much of this debris has been removed, exposing the 19th and 20th century layers in the archaeological record, which we have recorded as works have happened to avoid this information being lost forever. American archaeologist Shannon Lee Dawdy, who worked as an advisor post-Hurricane Katrina,  rightly argued that the moving of debris, the burying of past living surfaces and the rearranging of the landscape post disaster exposes the relationship between people and their landscape (2006: 720). Here in Christchurch, archaeologists were on the ground and in the red zone immediately. I’m able to talk to my colleagues here and find out how the major and minor decisions regarding the removal of debris and dirt changed the landscape of the city. For the past seven years archaeologists have been working constantly to keep up with the speed of the city’s demolition and rebuild, and now we’re making the transition from earthquake based work back to the ‘normal’ way of doing things.

“The Latin root for resilience is salire, to jump or spring.” – Hayward 2013: 37

When disasters strike a community, the challenges that come with this test more than just our physical resilience, but our economy, democracy, and our emotions (Hayward 2013: 36). A topic that we don’t talk about too often on this blog is the emotional aspect of archaeology. Most people become archaeologists because they want to understand the history of the everyday men and women, not just those in the history books (or at least this was a big factor for me). Through the study of phenomenology (the study of consciousness and direct experiences) and taphonomy (the study of the formative and disturbance processes effecting the archaeological record) I have been piecing together the changes in Christchurch and the impact that has had on the people, specifically their emotional experience and how, through the changing landscape, we’re able to express the way we feel. Emotions can, however, be hard to interpret as (in most cases) we are unable to leave an imprint of our emotions within the archaeological record that will one day excavated or recorded by  future archaeologists. One way we can do this however, is to memorialise the event that took place and the life that was lost. Most scholars agree that the critical ingredient of a disaster is the victims (Torrence & Grattan 2002: 5). To remember these victims’ reaction to disaster is one way we do this; for example we see monuments across the world to commemorate those who lost their lives in war. As material reminders of the past, these monuments form part of the archaeological record, as much as any of the buildings and artefacts left behind. Within Christchurch we can see the poignant 185 white chairs, including one baby seat. This is a temporary art installation by artist Pete Majendie, but there has been an outcry to keep the chairs as they have become symbolic in remembering the victims and the quake. One idea is to permanently install the chairs, each different and individual, at the site of the CTV building where so many lost their lives in an almost ‘ground zero’ nature (185 Empty Chairs, 2016). A more permeant feature to recently be added is the Canterbury Earthquake Memorial Wall, which has the names of those who lost their lives etched into the stone. This is an enduring way to remember those that lost their lives and enters their names into the archaeological record, making our emotions clear for years to come through these commemorations. In fact, the memorial is a fantastic example of how the landscape was deliberately altered to create this monument as they significantly excavated the river bank for the wall.

The temporary art installation 185 Empty Chairs, which is beginning to take a more permanent place in the ‘new’ Christchurch. Photo: Instagram.

Before: the riverbank where the Earthquake Memorial now stands. Photo: Megan Hickey

During: the redesign of the riverbank. Photo: Megan Hickey.

After: The Christchurch Earthquake Memorial, part of the Otakaro Avon River Precinct project opened 2011, where the names of those who lost their lives are to be permanently remembered. Photo: Kathy Davidson.

The landscape of Christchurch changed so quickly that people became lost in their own city, quite literally not able to find their way around, as the landmarks they had once used as guideposts no longer stood. I, for example, never saw the ‘old’ Christchurch that locals speak so fondly of. It’s a strange thought that two people in the same city can have such different relationships with the same place. I have experienced a modern city blossom from destruction, however many people remember the ‘old’ city and its subsequent demolition. Even a year and a half ago when I moved to the city, there were still huge areas of debris and buildings still being pulled down. Within recent months it feels like the rebuild has really picked up momentum, and it’s quite honestly an exciting city to be in. To have played (a small) role in that process has been an amazing experience. We’re living in a city that faced crisis, but rebuilt itself unlike so many ancient civilisations where natural disaster often resulted in the dramatic end of a culture (Dawdy 2006: 720). Is that due to the times we live in and the technology we have at our disposal? Or is it due to the socio-political structure we live in, where the rest of New Zealand came to the aid of Christchurch? Or is it due to a more resilient people? My guess would be a mixture of all three.

Kathy Davidson


185 Empty Chairs [online] Available at: [Accessed July 2018]

Christchurch City Libraries [online] Available at: [Accessed July 2018]

Dawdy, S.L. (2006) The Taphonomy of Disaster and the (Re)Formation of New Orleans. American Anthropologist. Vol. 108(No. 4): 719-730.

GeoNet [online] Available at: [Accessed July 2018]

Hayward, B.M. (2013) Rethinking resiliences: reflections on the earthquakes in Christchurch, New Zealand, 2010 and 2011. Ecology and Society. Vol. 18(No. 4): 36-42.

McGuire, W.J., Griffiths, P.L, Hancock, P.L. and Stewart, I.S. (2000) The Archaeology of Geological Catastrophes, The Geological Society: London.

McLauchlan, G. (2014) A Short History of New Zealand. David Bateman Ltd: Auckland.

Torrence, R. and Grattan, J. (2002) Natural Disasters and Cultural Change. Routledge: London.

All things great and small

Here at Underground Overground Archaeology we try not to sweat the small stuff – particularly because the small stuff we find is often super cool and makes us say “aww, that’s cute!”, similar to the way many people react when they see baby humans next to regular sized, adult humans.

For example: one product, in two very different sized pots (it’s John Gosnell’s Cherry Toothpaste – first produced in the 1850s). The image on the left shows the size we commonly find in 19th century Christchurch assemblages. The one on the right was a unique find for us. It’s super cute, but it wouldn’t have held a whole lot of toothpaste. Images: left and right: C. Dickson.

Big things coming in small packages are quite literally the bread and butter of an archaeologist. We have often mentioned the theory of how the smallest or most ordinary of objects can illustrate the histories of people and places in ways we might not expect. This was an idea first brought forward in the 1970s, by – American archaeologist, James Deetz, in his bookIn Small Things Forgotten.’

While many of the artefacts we find are small fragments, or what Deetz would consider small things anyway, there are also those that we would classify as “mini sized.” These tiny versions of some of our commonly found Victorian artefacts don’t appear to be particularly rare among online collectors, but information regarding their functions is rather scarce. When faced with identical artefacts with such extreme size differences, our best guess is that these may represent samples of a product – much like a tester you would find in a pharmacy today. Although humorous to imagine, it seems a little farfetched that a mini-sized champagne bottle would have been found in a 19th century boarding house minibar, or that a mini toothpaste pot was fashioned as travel size to fit in your carry-on baggage. Moreover, the subject of vessel reuse is one that constantly plagues our ability to accurately attribute vessel function to our finds, and intrinsically assigning the normal contents of a ‘regular’ sized vessel to a ‘sample size’ vessel, seems even more problematic than usual. For instance, the volume of the mini ring-seal bottle pictured below suggests that it probably wouldn’t hold more than one serving… So champagne for one anyone?

Less is more? Here are some smaller versions of some larger alcohol bottles. On the right is a tiny version of one of the most common 19th century artefact finds – the black beer bottle. The left image shows the size comparison of a champagne shaped ring seal bottle – these were made in several different volumes, but the mini size is rare. Maybe sometimes people just weren’t overly thirsty. Images: J. Garland and C. Dickson.

Maria and I with two very different sized flagons, wearing two very similar tops…. Coincidence? …Actually yes. These vessels may have once held a number of beverage types, including cider, beer, wine or water. The large vessel was made by Stephen Green’s Imperial Pottery in Lambeth, between 1820 and 1858. The small vessel was manufactured by George Skey and Co., Tamworth – a known maker of ginger beer between 1860 and 1936 (Lorenzor 2011). Images: J. Garland and C. Dickson.

It is a small world after all, and maybe sometimes people only needed small amounts of certain products? The tiny bottles that we occasionally find may have been deliberately sized as such because their original contents were perishable and consumers didn’t use much at once. Cosmetics come to mind in this case.

Our in-house hand model, Jessie, is sporting two very small vessels which come in several different colours to suit every skin tone. We aren’t entirely sure what these tiny bottles originally contained, but the one on the left has black residue on the interior.

If we take a break from beverages and bottles, we can consider the small artefacts that are known as ‘miniatures’ (the type of bric-a-brac one finds on a mantelpiece). These items have been relatively overlooked by archaeological interpreters and theorists in the past, primarily because their origins and meanings are less understood than those of items that were used as part of daily domestic or commercial tasks. Indeed, the way we even sometimes refer to miniatures carries connotations of reduced importance, calling them “trinkets,” “trifles,” or “dainty” (Mullins 2001: 159). Perhaps I’m also guilty of this, having called the toothpaste pot “cute” earlier. It’s been thought that lesser archaeological value has been historically attributed to these ‘knickknacks’ because they are recovered from archaeological sites in comparatively smaller numbers, and have less meaning attached to them than other artefacts (Mills 2015: 250). Even modern-day enthusiasts and collectors of miniatures are often more concerned with the rarity, and thus greater monetary value of their antiques, so the original functions and meanings of these items are further ignored (Mills 2015: 250).

As a result of this gap in the discourse, we don’t know all that much about miniatures. While it’s true that they’re not found as commonly on historical archaeological sites as items that are ‘’utilised’ for everyday functions, we do still come across them. So it begs some questions – how did people acquire them? How did the manufacturers of miniatures decide what to make? And how were they promoted to potential consumers? (Mills 2015: 256). Nineteenth century advertisements for miniatures are scarce, despite the phenomenal increase in marketing that occurred during this century (Mills 2015: 256). But we can guess that many of these ‘luxury?’ items must have been inexpensive and versions of them were probably readily available to most people because miniature forms are found on archaeological sites widely spanning many different socio-economic groups.

Beverage break! Some of the Underground Overground Archaeology staff (including a very fresh-faced Luke), enjoying a cup of afternoon tea. Personally, I require more tea than this during my breaks, but that’s just me…

Despite the small issue of the gap in our knowledge, the idea has been put forward by scholars that “A reduction in dimensions does not produce a corresponding reduction in significance” (Stewart 1993: 43). As miniatures could often be considered more ‘luxury’ items (in this case, luxury refers to something that is not used as a part of everyday living), they offer us a rare opportunity to speculate about values and thoughts, rather than about everyday activities. The latter of these can be seen through household artefacts, and the theory behind their use can get a little mundane when they only show us home maintenance, cooking, cleaning, eating, grooming, child care etc. It’s been theorised that “while many artefacts can reflect the thinking of their owners indirectly (fashionable tea wares, for example), miniatures can depict attitudes and meanings since they were not acquired to be used, but for what they symbolized” (Mills 2015: 254).

But theorising/speculating about the meaning of miniatures is not without risk. Attributing meaning to any object is problematic because an individual’s ownership of an artefact can’t always be assumed, and connecting ‘backstories’ to possessions can reflect the biases modern interpreters (Mills 2015: 255). One of the main ways this happens with miniatures is by assuming that “small” equals “toy” and “toy” equals “child”. This is something we often do when finding miniature items like ceramic dolls, marbles and miniature tea sets on Christchurch archaeological sites – and as with other places in the world, documented evidence of children’s presence on these sites is not always found to back up this presumed ownership. Of course, children are not always recorded in historical sources, but this is beside the point. Meanings behind the creation, initial appropriation and continued possession of artefacts can be acquired, changed, and abandoned over time— for example, what starts as an item of childhood entertainment may be nostalgically kept by an adult, or even sometimes may be first acquired by an adult (Mills 2015: 255). This could explain the presence of things like miniature tea sets in our assemblages when we know that only a bachelor lived on-site historically. To confuse the issue further, the concept of childhood as a distinct from adulthood was not also widely recognised by all parts of Victorian society until the mid-19th century (Mills 2015: 255). Child labour was the norm among the Victorian lower classes at this time, but sentiments of youthful innocents requiring protection and education grew, and as a result, so did childhood leisure time. Prior to this, some children still had opportunities to play, but not in the ways children do today, and we can’t assume that all children played with ‘toys’ in the way that we think of them now.

A tiny dog and some tiny bricks. The bricks represent an artefact that we would typically classify as a ‘toy’ or ‘children’s artefact’. The bricks are called ‘kiddibricks’ – first made in Christchurch 1893, by Percival Adams (who was the son of a brick-maker). He made a miniature model of a brick-making press (which made miniature bricks; Truttman 2011). The name “kiddibricks” probably says it all, but these are essentially a precursor to Lego, and I know a few adults who love a good Lego set.

Regardless of their original contents or meanings, mini-sized artefacts and “miniatures” are always a welcome find on our historic sites. We may not be able to come to many conclusions about their place in the historic world, but it pays to remember, it’s the little things that count.

Chelsea Dickson


Lorenzor, M., 2011. Tamworth Time Hikes: George Skey´s Wilnecote Works [online] available at:

Mills, R. 2015. ‘Material Culture in Miniature: The Historical Archaeology of Nineteenth-Century Miniature Objects.’ The Importance of British Material Culture to Historical Archaeologies of the Nineteenth Century. Alisdair Brooks (eds): 243-273. University of Nebraska Press.

Mullins, P., 2001 Racializing the Parlour: Race and Victorian Bric- a- Brac Consumption. In Race and the Archaeology of Identity. Charles E. Orser, editor, pp. 158– 176. University of Utah Press, Provo

Stewart, S., 1993. On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection. Duke University Press, Durham nc.

Truttman, L., 2011. ‘A Little Brick Story.’ Timespanner [Online] Available at:

Finding out more, under the floor

Recently, Peter Mitchell, one of our building archaeology specialists, recorded a 19th century residential dwelling just on the edge of Christchurch’s Central City. This dwelling was similar in form and function to others we have seen in Canterbury – it was a square plan salt box cottage, made of weatherboard timber with a corrugated iron roof. During demolition, it became apparent there were at least four phases of construction in this building, with the first phase represented by a cottage with a two-room gable section at the front and a smaller single room gable kitchen/scullery at the rear (Mitchell 2017).

The salt box cottage, as it stood before prior to demolition. Image P. Mitchell.

Scale drawing of the south elevation of the salt box cottage with the hypothesised Phase 1 building marked by the dotted lines. Image: P. Mitchell.

After the house was recorded, it was demolished due to earthquake damage, and when 19th century houses are taken apart like this, we have a great opportunity to see what lies beneath them. Fortunately, for those of us who are into a bit of material culture, this often means artefacts!

With these types of ‘underfloor’ deposits, individual artefacts can often be spatially associated with the individual rooms under which they are found. This can be pretty interesting when the functions of the artefacts are related to the functions of these rooms – for instance, when one finds food remains and condiment bottles under the kitchen. We’ve posted about nice examples of this before on the blog, but things don’t always work out quite so conveniently. Original contexts aren’t always so clear when building alterations are made, when walls are moved and when room functions change. And, unfortunately, sometimes artefacts that are scattered on the ground surface also get accidentally moved around during demolition (by those pesky mechanical excavators, or by falling building materials). As a result, the artefacts can lose their original provenance information. Alas, this is what happened to the artefacts that were found under our salt box cottage. But all is not lost – we still recovered some cool artefacts from under this house which can add to our knowledge of Victorian domestic goods and tell us about the lives of the people who resided in this house back in the 19th century.

Artefacts found under the house following demolition.

As a general trend, underfloor contexts frequently provide a superior preservation situation to scatters of artefacts that are found under the ground. In many cases, the conditions underneath structures are relatively dry, and rubbish that is thrown, placed or lost under a building is largely safe from the taphonomic processes that affect artefacts in the ground. These processes vary depending on the context of those sub-surface deposits, but many of the factors – such as moisture, disturbance from foot or vehicle traffic, the chemical and biological composition of the soil – that weather and adversely affect artefacts underground are not so applicable to underfloor contexts. As a result, fragile artefacts like paper, textiles or leather, are often found underneath the floors of houses in relatively good condition (that is, if they haven’t been subject to flooding, mould and gnawing by cats and rodents). Artefact life is hard, no?

But despite these dangers, the cottage assemblage provided us with several interesting household vessels – by which I mean non-food related artefacts associated with the day to day activities of the cottage household. For example, we recovered the ‘chimney’ section of a glass oil or kerosene lamp (visible below). This vessel had a (very well preserved) Brendel and Loewig maker’s mark stamped in on the outside, which is exciting because this is a unique find in our Christchurch assemblages to date. The company initials were featured within a round starburst motif with the words “BALDUR BRENNER 20””added to the mark (Brenner translates to burner in German, and this section of the mark probably describes that size and lamp model). Further research on this company indicated that Brendel and Loewig were founded in 1861 in Berlin, by Otto Brendel and Carl Loewig, as a metal and paint shop. In addition to the bird cages (very niche?), washing bowls and kitchen utensils they made, they also made chandeliers, stall lanterns and oil lamps (which amounts to a very eclectic mix of specialties). They had several ownership changes but largely kept the company in the family until Otto’s son Erich became the sole owner from 1906 onwards. This company was so successful that it remains in operation under different ownership in Germany today (Designretter 2017).

Brendel and Loewig lamp.

An example of a similar German 20” “brenner” from Stoll, 1889 – a rival German lighting company. Image. This is what our lamp would have looked like when it was whole.

Not to be left out, we also recovered a bottle of Spooner’s Royal Navy Boot Dressing – this product was essentially boot polish, the remnants of which can still be seen in the bottom of the vessel if you look closely. Spooner’s were a Melbourne based company that made polish and dressings for leather products such as footwear and horse saddles etc. Similar bottles to this one have been found in several other New Zealand archaeological sites, in contexts dating between the 1890s until the 1910s.

Front and reverse of Spooner’s boot dressing bottle embossed with their maker’s mark. The tell-tale Spooner’s boot can be seen on the front of this vessel.

As you can see, Spooner and Co., had some interesting and inappropriate names for their boot polish colours… “Cobra” “Satin Blacking” and “Maori Gloss” are featured in this advertisement… Something tells us this wouldn’t be an item that would be stocked in today’s local supermarkets. Marlborough Express 20/2/1903: 3

This is also the site where we found the Ezra Kelley watch oil bottle from Massachusetts that we showed you a couple of weeks ago. At first glance, it seems like the previous owner of this product likely took some pride in their possessions – polishing their boots and lubricating their pocket watches.

Can’t get enough of that Ezra Kelley pocket watch oil.

So, who was this pocket watch sporting, shiny booted person who lived our salt box cottage? Unfortunately, historical records don’t provide us with a clear indication of a specific culprit – in fact, these artefacts were actually likely to have been deposited by more than one occupant of the cottage over an unknown period of time. One of the drawbacks of underfloor deposits is that they lack the closed, ‘discrete’ context of deposits like rubbish pits, the nature of which allows us to narrow down when assemblages were discarded and whether that deposition happened in one event (or, if there are layers in a pit, in several different events that can be dated). Instead, artefacts that are found underneath structures could have been discarded separately over an unknown period, anytime between the date of initial building construction and the date that they were found. This is often seen under historical buildings that have gaps between the wooden floorboards through which small artefacts could fall. Or alternatively, as in this case, it happens in structures that have gaps between the floor and foundations, where rubbish could have been deliberately thrown under the building or dragged under by animals. The reality is that not enough research has been carried out on underfloor assemblages to be sure how these types of assemblages are deposited and accumulated. But that doesn’t mean we are left completely in the dark – for the purposes of dating the assemblages that we find in these contexts, we can make calculated guesses, taking into account the manufacturing date ranges for the individual artefacts that we find. We can also further compare these dates with the construction phases of the associated buildings, suggesting when items are most likely to have been first deposited or subsequently moved around.

Our salt box cottage section has a long history of occupation starting from the early 1860s. Even before it was built, the site was home to an earlier residence and a retail store. The occupants of these buildings may have discarded their own rubbish or possessions on the land, and any such artefacts may still remain elsewhere on this site. However, due to the location that our artefact assemblage was found (directly underneath the floorboards of the cottage), it is likely that they would have been accidentally lost, or deliberately discarded by the occupants of this building, rather than the earlier ones. So when did this happen?

The cottage was built around 1875 by William Ellis Voller and it was inhabited by several individuals after him. Many of the artefacts have long ranging manufacturing dates which span the occupation period of multiple known residents of the cottage and this makes it is difficult to determine exactly who they might be associated with. Potential suspects included Voller himself, between at least 1875 and c. 1878, followed immediately by John Goodman. Goodman sold the property in 1890, at which time the house was in its second phase of construction, which we know because it was advertised in local newspapers as having four rooms (which was one more than the original three). Samuel Thomas Longley resided in the dwelling between 1890 and 1893, after which time he sold it to a widow, Mrs Eliza Ann Friedman. Friedman remained a resident until 1903, so it is likely to have been Eliza who deposited the Spooner’s boot polish. The same can’t be said for the rest of the assemblage though, which could have been associated with any of the previous occupants of the cottage.

An 1877 Map of Christchurch, showing a building present on William Voller’s section (outlined in red). Image: Strouts, 1877.

It’s in confusing times like these that it can be helpful to find a personal artefact that can be directly associated with different individuals, genders or ages – certainly, the presence of a child’s shoe and a possible wooden spinning top toy suggests that these artefacts would likely have been discarded by one of the occupants who had a young family – but no records of children at this property have been found to date.

Possessions of a nameless child.

Another mystery, another site, another day in the life of Underground Overground Archaeology. Until next time.

 Chelsea Dickson


Designretter 2017. Lighting Manufacturer from Germany: Brendel and Loewig [English Translation Online] Available at: