The story so far

As life-changing experiences go, the earthquake on 22 February 2011 was fairly significant. On the one hand, our house was red-zoned (but still liveable), friends lost their lives and the city lost many of the old buildings that, for me, made it somewhere I loved: High Street, Strange’s and the ANZ building opposite, the late 19th/early 20th century buildings that lined parts of Lichfield Street, the Fisher building and the handful of Art Nouveau/Deco buildings scattered through the city centre. On the other hand, I gained a beautiful new house, a considerably expanded business (from one employee to something like 25 – not all of whom are full-time, I hasten to add), a proper workplace, a couple of extra storage units, and data. Lots and lots of data.

Detail of Strange's building, taken during archaeological recording. Image: K. Watson.

Detail of Strange’s building, taken during archaeological recording. Image: K. Watson.

Along the way, there have been sleepless nights, a considerable amount of stress, a whole lot of learning and, let’s face it, a whole lot of fun. As someone who worked largely on my own for the 10 or so years prior to the earthquakes, I’d never realised that working with a whole team of people could be so much fun, or so stimulating. There have also been incredible opportunities – radio interviews, a television appearance, newspaper interviews, a conference in the States, and, in my inbox this morning, an invitation to be part of this. And then there’s this blog, which would almost certainly never have happened without the earthquakes. Not to mention an editorial in the Press about archaeology, and its importance in the city.

In the office this morning.  Sculptures: F. Bradley. Image: J. Garland.

In the office this morning. Sculptures: F. Bradley. Image: J. Garland.

I’ve lived in Christchurch since 2000, having grown up on the Canterbury plains. As a child, Christchurch wasn’t a city we went to often, but it was significant as the only city I knew, and thus had all of the associated glamour that a country girl with a vivid imagination will inevitably project on a city. Our visits tended to revolve around the A&P show (I grew up on a farm), riding the escalators in Ballantynes, ballet, Shakespeare and visits to the hospital, Arts Centre and botanical gardens. As a teenager, I began volunteering at the museum, and staying with an elderly aunt up here – who memorably introduced me to art house movies, taking me first to Delicatessen (at the Arts Centre), where the woman behind the counter was somewhat reluctant to sell my 80+ aunt and 15 year old self the tickets. Needless to say, we both loved it.

Having studied anthropology at Otago, I moved to Christchurch to work at the museum, before starting work as an archaeological consultant. I worked from home and did work in the city, as well as on the West Coast and in Canterbury’s high country. As it happens, I was working on a project for EQC when the earthquake struck on 22 February 2011.

In the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, of course, everything was turned upside down. We escaped to my parents’ place, an oasis of calm in the craziness that was unleashed. I can still remember my somewhat shell-shocked feeling in those early days, particularly one the immediate problems of the mess and the liquefaction had been dealt with. Of not knowing what to do with myself, of trying to get back to normal but feeling like normal had to be something completely different from what it had been, given the scale of events.

Salvation came in the form of taking photographs for Heritage New Zealand (then New Zealand Historic Places Trust), of listed buildings and/or pre-1900 buildings that were being demolished, or slated for demolition. ‘Salvation’ isn’t too strong a word, either. This work, which another archaeologist and I started about a week after the quake, gave me a focus and a sense of purpose. It also enabled me to document the buildings I had loved, and to discover new hidden gems, albeit a little too late. It also felt good to be useful, and to be contributing in some way to dealing with the earthquake.

No words needed. Image: K. Watson.

No words needed. Image: K. Watson.

This work continued till about the middle of the year (the exact dates are unclear now), when the demolition work began in earnest, complete with foundation removal, which hadn’t really been happening up until that point. It was at this point that Heritage New Zealand developed the emergency archaeological authority process, enabling a streamlined approach to processing and issuing archaeological authorities. I guess the current form of UnderOverArch dates to this period.

Initially there were four of us, squished into less than half a portacom, complete with a computer that we didn’t use – fortunately (or maybe not – see the following sentence), we spent more time out on site than in the office. I learnt to drink coffee again; we froze outside on sites as it snowed, and then snowed again; we explained the authority process and why archaeology was important over and over again. I think we felt like we were achieving something, by collecting important data about the city and educating people about archaeology.


Artefacts. So many artefacts. Image: J. Garland.

From this my increasing interest in public archaeology grew. For how could we get people to protect their archaeology and heritage if they didn’t see why it was so important? And so the Facebook page, the public talks, the exhibitions and this blog. But it’s not just about showing people that archaeology is important, it’s about showing people what archaeology really is, it’s about telling Christchurch stories and highlighting the people who made our city what it is. It’s about showing that, while we’ve lost some pretty amazing heritage, we’ve gained some pretty cool heritage too. And it’s about doing research and turning all that data into something meaningful, something real. Something for Christchurch.

There’s still a long way to go. Those site reports we wrote in the immediate aftermath of the quake were even less than once-over-lightly. We need to plug the gaps in those, we need to index our data so that others can access and use it, and we need to facilitate, produce and disseminate more research that focuses on Christchurch’s archaeology. We have this unique opportunity – so many sites in such a short period of time – to understand our city through its archaeology, from the time of its first Māori settlement to the modern day, and we need to make the most of it.

Image: K. Webb.

Excavation in progress. Image: K. Webb.

It gets me every year, the earthquake anniversary. Kind of sneaks up on me and takes me by surprise, when I’m faced with all that we’ve lost. It’s not been an easy journey, but it has been a pretty amazing one – this is not where I thought I’d find myself when I finished at university, or even immediately after the quakes. I’m proud of what my team at UnderOverArch has achieved, and particularly the public archaeology we’ve done. And I’m excited about what the future holds – the discoveries to be made, the research to be carried out and the challenge of convincing people that archaeology is amazing.

Katharine Watson

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.

I am an archaeologist

I am an archaeologist. I’m not interested in dinosaurs. Or rocks. I don’t look for gold. And I’m no more interested in the pyramids than most people.

But I’m fascinated by people, and our past, and the lives of those who went before us, especially here in Christchurch. I want to know how people have dealt with the area we know as Christchurch since Māori first arrived. I want to know what people ate, how they set their table, the medicines they took, the alcohol they drank, how they furnished their houses, what sort of houses they lived in. And more than that, I want to know how Christchurch’s 19th century settlers viewed their world. What did they make of this place they’d come to? How did they deal with the challenges it provided, and a life so far from all that was familiar and comfortable? How did Māori deal with these new settlers from so far away, who brought so much that was new and different with them? And how did these decisions build the city we live in today?


Black beer bottles. Although they may have originally contained beer it is likely that the bottles were reused for other liquids. Photo: K. Webb.

I’m an historical archaeologist. That means that as well as looking at the physical remains of an archaeological site – such as buildings, garden features, rubbish pits, artefacts and the vast array of other material that might be found on an archaeological site – I use documents to help me understand these sites. So I look at photographs, maps, plans, old newspapers, diaries, letters, account books, etc. But so often, these documents don’t tell me what people were eating for dinner or how they treated their cold. Or, they might lie, or embellish, or miss out details that seem ordinary or boring. For me, archaeology’s power is its ability to reveal those ordinary, everyday details, because by pulling together those details, we can learn so much more about our past, and about who we are today.


Transfer printed porcelain bowl made by the Staffordshire pottery firm W. T. Copeland in the 1850s. Photo: K. Webb.

To me, the artefacts we find provide us with a direct connection to the people who made Christchurch. I can hold the fragments of a china bowl in my hand that was someone’s treasured possession, brought with them all the way from England. And when I hold that bowl, it makes me stop and think about how brave they were to start a new life in a new settlement, knowing that they might never see the rest of their family again. And that whenever they used that bowl, they thought of their family back home, of all they had left behind, and all that they had gained since arriving in Christchurch.

I’ve worked in Christchurch as an archaeologist since 2000. Since the earthquakes of 2011, the volume of archaeological work in the city has increased dramatically. This blog is a long-held dream of mine, a way to share our discoveries and to show you the power and importance of archaeology. So, take a look around, sign up to get our news feeds, follow our Facebook page and join us as we discover more about this Christchurch of ours!

Katharine Watson


Archaeologist Katharine Watson with Paul Thomas discussing the remains of the power house in Reefton. Photo: K. Burnett.