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.

Terra Forma: viewing Christchurch’s changing landscape through painting


At the encouragement of one of our resident artists/art historians/cyber archaeologists, Annthalina, I took a visit to the newly-reopened Te Puna O Waiwhetu Christchurch Art Gallery over the weekend.[1] Annthalina knows I love landscapes, both the painty-brushy kind, and the bushy-brushy kind, and sent me out to take special note of the Te Rua O Te Moko exhibition, which displays a work of art for each of the 18 Papatipu Rūnanga of Ngāi Tahu. Seeing these works, and other Canterbury landscapes within the museum inspired me to write this post, about how we’ve changed the lay of the land, particularly in terms of its vegetation.

As I said, I love landscapes, and when I’m working I’ll look out across the landscape and my eyes will glaze over as I try and imagine what the land looked like to the ghosts of Ōtautahi/Christchurch past. My eyes also occasionally glaze over when my colleagues begin a tirade about traffic, or the inaccuracy of costumes in period dramas, or ‘architecture crimes’, or frozen yoghurt, or any of the many other foibles of modern life. But I promise, most of the time, I’m thinking about landscapes. Anyway, and luckily, dead dudes put paint to canvas when they were alive, helpfully making my leaps of imagination that much easier.

As we all know, Christchurch was built on a swamp, and many recall how that swamp came bubbling forth vengefully from the earth once again in 2011, like the almost-defeated underdog protagonist in the third act of a sports film, yelling “Adrian! Adrian!”. But it can seem hard to get a grasp on that over 160 year old scene while concrete and steel loom over you. The ‘Black Maps’  series of survey maps produced by chief surveyor Captain Joseph Thomas in the 1840s and 1850s are an invaluable source of information about the nature of the land and vegetation in Ōtautahi/Christchurch at that time.

Detail of Christchurch ‘Black maps’ of A) Cashmere; B) Linwood; and C) St Albans. “You get a swamp! And you get a swamp! And you get a swamp!” Image: Christchurch area: showing swamps & vegetation cover. Compiled from ‘Black Maps’ 1856. 1963. Christchurch City Libraries.

Detail of Christchurch ‘Black maps’ of A) Cashmere; B) Linwood; and C) St Albans. “You get a swamp! And you get a swamp! And you get a swamp!” Image: Christchurch area: showing swamps & vegetation cover. Compiled from ‘Black Maps’ 1856. 1963. Christchurch City Libraries.

The elevated platforms at the right of the image are pātaka, raised storage platforms to keep kiore/Polynesian rats out of your stuff, not UFOs on stilts. Or are they? No, they’re not. Image: Charles Haubroe. 1855. Scene on the Horotueka or Cam/Kaiapoi Pah/Canterbury, 1855. C. Haubroe Watercolour.  Canterbury Museum 1951.15.5.

This beauty of a watercolour was painted by Charles Haubroe in 1855 of a kāinga on the banks of the Horotueka/Cam River in the Kaiapoi area. If you’ll allow me to wax lyrical about it, I might suggest that this work shows the duality and tension between the natural and cultural worlds. The calmness of the river belies the tension between the kāinga on the far bank, with its tidy clearing for some handsome whare (houses) and pātaka (storage platforms), and the dense swampy bush of the near bank, where the raupō and tī kōuka (cabbage trees) give a leafy middle finger to humanity and its green organics recycling bins, content in its soggy supremacy. If you won’t allow me to wax lyrical, there’s literally nothing you can do about it, because from the security of my front room in the past, you cannot possibly wrest my keyboard away from me. So there.

The first Māori settlers started the 700ish year ongoing campaign of terraforming Aotearoa/New Zealand. They brought with them part of what archaeologists often refer to as the ‘Polynesian suite’ of cultigens, including kūmara, taro, uwhi/yam, hue/gourd, tī pore (an imported species of cabbage tree) and aute/paper mulberry (Furey 2006: 10). Once here, further changes to the landscape were made by transplanting some native plants well outside their natural range, due to their value. One such is karaka, native to the far north of the North Island, and brought to the South Island due its value as a food source. The stands of karaka you see around the Port Hills and Banks Peninsula are likely the remnants, or very near the original transplantations of these trees by Māori in centuries past, as they don’t naturalise very well (Stowe 2003).[2]

Figure 3. I think that I shall never see, a thing as lovely as a karaka tree. But do not eat the seed inside, unless it is detoxified. No, for real, though. Don’t eat it. My poems don’t fool around. Image: John Frederick Miller. 1774. The Endeavour botanical illustrations. Natural History Museum.

I think that I shall never see, a thing as lovely as a karaka tree. But do not eat the seed inside, unless it is detoxified. No, for real, though. Don’t eat it. My poems don’t fool around. Image: John Frederick Miller. 1774. The Endeavour botanical illustrations. Natural History Museum.

The character of the Canterbury plains before Pākehā settlement is somewhat poetically captured in an account from 1844 of Dr David Munro’s first view of them, having ascended the hills from Rapaki:

looking westward, we had a magnificent view – and immense plain, apparently a dead level, stretched away below our feet…backed by a far remote chain of grand snowy summits. The colour of the plain was a brownish yellow indicating it being covered with dried up grass, and several rivers, with tortuous folds, marked themselves upon its surface by the glitter of their waters. On this immense sea of plain, there appeared to be hardly any timber – one or two isolated groves of gloomy pines were all that we could see…

(Wigram 1916: 7).

The “isolated groves” are of course Riccarton Bush, which still stands today (though reduced in size), and a similar stand in Papanui. What Munro took as unseasonable “dried up grass” in April 1844, was likely just the natural colour of the endemic swamp grasses that covered the plains at the time. Within a few decades of Pākehā settlement, the Christchurch landscape was beginning to change significantly, as more and more species of plants were introduced, and the English countryside was writ small on the New Zealand landscape. Attempts were made (more or less successfully) to tame Christchurch’s waterways. The swamps were turned over for pasture, requiring digging up large amounts of dead swamp wood, and ploughing up the tenacious roots of the huruwhenua/ferns and tutu.

Figure 4. Digging up swamp wood in Christchurch, 1918. Sometimes there are going to be jokes in here, sometime there’s not. I’m not going to spoonfeed you. Image: Wilson, 1989: 12.

Digging up swamp wood in Christchurch, 1918. Sometimes there are going to be jokes in here, sometime there’s not. I’m not going to spoonfeed you. Image: Wilson, 1989: 12.

The process of terraforming involved both the clearance of native plants, and their replacement with introduced ones. John Barr Clark Hoyte’s view of Akaroa from the hills shows the first part of this process. Looking out over Akaroa harbour and Onawe peninsula, the view is almost that of tree feller paused in their work, the foreground of stumps the sign of their labour. The rolling slopes of dense yet-to-be-felled forest in the midground and distance though, would likely make most of today’s flannel-clad, hipster-bearded lumbersexuals quake in their boots.

Figure 6. Deforestation of Banks Peninsula. Image: Boffa Miskell 2007: 27.

Deforestation of Banks Peninsula. Image: Boffa Miskell 2007: 27.

John Gibb’s view of Bottle Lake shows how introduced species gradually changed the look of Canterbury. What looks like poplar trees stand on the far bank, and cattle do whatever cattle do on the near bank (low? I hear they are known to low sometimes).  For some reason that escapes me, someone has introduced white swans to the area, despite the fact that they are aggressive jerks (sorry, I’ve been biased against swans since high school, when one beat me out for second place in a high jump competition). But the largely idyllic English-ish-ish character of the scene is interrupted by an almost imperceptible tuna/eel bursting forth from the water. To me, this little endemic eel gives a bit of kiwi character to an image which is otherwise dominated by introduced species. Delicious, manuka-smoked, kiwi character.

Figure 8. Some of the plants for sale at Exeter Nurseries, Papanui Road, in 1875. A.K.A. all of the plants. Even in the 19th century, kiwis referred to things as ‘Choice!’. Image: Star 24/6/1875: 1.

Some of the plants for sale at Exeter Nurseries, Papanui Road, in 1875. A.K.A. all of the plants. Even in the 19th century, kiwis referred to things as ‘Choice!’. Image: Star 24/6/1875: 1.

Another of Gibb’s paintings shows Christchurch in all its 19th century pastoral glory. The land is divided up into nice rectangular paddocks, with cattle and sheep, stands of introduced trees, and a bunch of nice green grass. Today we tend to forget that the rolling monochrome green pastures of New Zealand are imported, and that ‘European grass’ was a major selling point in 19th century land transactions.

Figure 10. There was originally a third paddock laid down in Irish grass, but there were some ‘troubles’ and that lot belongs to itself and is no longer for sale. Image: Star 19/8/1869: 3.

There was originally a third paddock laid down in Irish grass, but there were some ‘troubles’ and that lot belongs to itself and is no longer for sale. Image: Star 19/8/1869: 3.

These paintings not only look nice, but they provide an invaluable insight into the changing patterns and nature of vegetation in the past in Christchurch. If anybody wants to go back in time, and paint more like them, it would make my job heaps easier. Chur.

Go check out the Christchurch Art Gallery for most of the above landscapes. The Te Rua O Te Moko exhibit only runs until 3 April 2016, but a lot of the other paintings are permanent exhibits.

Tristan Wadsworth


Boffa Miskell. 2007. Banks Peninsula Landscape Study: Final Report. Prepared for Christchurch City Council by Boffa Miskell Ltd.

Furey, L. 2006: Maori gardening: an archaeological perspective. Department of Conservation, Wellington.

Press [online]. Available at <>

Stowe, C. J., 2003. The Ecology and Ethnobotany of Karaka (Corynocarpus laevigatus). Unpublished M.Sc. thesis, University of Otago.

Wigram, H. F., 1916. The story of Christchurch New Zealand. Lyttelton Times Co. Ltd, Christchurch.

Wilson, J., 1989. Swamp to City – a short history of the Christchurch Drainage Board 1875-1989. Te Waihora Press, Christchurch.


[1] Note: this is not a sponsored post, but if the Christchurch Art Gallery would like to send me some priceless landscape paintings out of the goodness of their hearts, I wouldn’t say no.

[2] If you know of any stands of karaka, let me know, as it’s possible there are some that haven’t yet been recorded by archaeologists.