Rebuild a boom time for archeologists

20:15, Jun 21 2013
HISTORY SEARCH: Luke Tremlett on the site of the demolished Nyfda House.

Teams of archaeologists are working on the Christchurch rebuild. Why and what treasures from the past are they digging up? PHILIP MATTHEWS reports.

There are layers of history beneath the city, under houses and public buildings, near beaches and riverbanks. What exactly is down there?

"A lot of bottles, a lot of china and lots of bits and pieces of metal," says Christchurch archaeologist Katharine Watson.

No surprise that this is a boom time for archaeology. Watson has been working as an archaeologist in Christchurch since 2000, but before the earthquakes she ran Underground Overground Archaeology from home with one part-timer. Now there are seven working out of a small business unit in Waltham.

On a day of heavy rain, this back street in Waltham looks like an archaeological site itself. There are empty and abandoned buildings and half- flooded footpaths. A communal carpark is muddy and fenced off, looking freshly dug. Looming above all of this, the grey outline of the old AMI Stadium like a preserved colosseum at Pompeii.

Upstairs in the business unit, young archaeologists huddle around computers. Downstairs, there are cardboard boxes full of artefacts. Some artefacts are waiting to be washed. Others are washed and waiting to be identified. A third group is ready to be shipped out.


From here, the boxes go to shipping containers in Wigram. One shipping container is already full and the Historic Places Trust has recently opened up a second.

What happens then? Does the Canterbury Museum want hundreds of old bottles? That might be a rhetorical question.

A box of dusty champagne bottles recovered from the Occidental Hotel looks like any old crate of empties, but some bottles are quite beautiful. Watson opens one of the 18 boxes filled from the Isaac Theatre Royal dig.

Look at this case gin bottle, made of dark green glass and four-sided for easy packing. Or this Goldfields oil bottle, with its distinctive ridges, elegant enough for the Victorian dining table.

Other, more mysterious things were found in Gloucester St. There were stoneware telegraph insulators and a crucible used in metal smelting. The only other time Watson saw a crucible was on a goldrush-era site in Hokitika.

It made sense there but why was it under the Theatre Royal? "That's a very good question. It's intriguing and elusive and frustrating."

The land on Gloucester St was empty until the Theatre Royal was built in 1907. Before that, it was used by a circus and there was perhaps a staging post for a coach company.

Does it mean that someone buried those things there? "Possibly," Watson says. "I've come across that before, pre- earthquake, when an empty section has been used for burying rubbish."


One generation's rubbish is another generation's treasure.

No, "treasure" is not the right word. One thing you learn is that this is not Antiques Roadshow. No-one will be getting rich.

Take the ceramics. The three commonly found plate patterns, known as Rhine, Asiatic Pheasants and Blue Willow, were just that: common. Realistically, these plates were the 19th century equivalent of what you might buy today at the Warehouse.

In one of the Theatre Royal boxes, there is a partially damaged white porcelain bowl with a grey floral pattern, made by a Staffordshire pottery firm in the 1850s. No, it's not valuable, either. As well as the missing chunk in the side, there are obvious pattern joins.

"So, it's not top quality," Watson says. "There are theories that English pottery manufacturers were sending their seconds to the colonies. But I'm not sure how true that is."

The quality of ceramics can tell us about the lives of the people who settled here. This is where you get into a philosophy of archaeology, as Watson outlines on the Underground Overground blog.

"I want to know what people ate," she writes, "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 had come to?"

Archaeology is about revealing the ordinary every-day details. Besides the objects pulled from the ground, documents help. The old newspapers and maps, the photographs and letters. For archaeologists like Watson, the National Library's searchable Papers Past website has become invaluable.

So, bottles, ceramics and bits and pieces of metal have been found, but "surprisingly, not a lot of animal bone".

When Watson did her Masters in Anthropology at Otago University, she looked at faunal remains from European sites. That translates as "what people have been eating". They are not finding much of it in Christchurch.

Why? Maybe people didn't want animal remains in their backyards. Or maybe bones were sold for other uses, such as fertiliser.

Rather than getting a sense of what people valued, the archaeologists are getting a sense of what people did not value. If things were valued, they were usually kept and repaired.

This is why a pocket watch was so unusual. Gilt-edged but seriously corroded, it was found at the Chester St address of a wealthy German immigrant.

"We don't find jewellery generally because people keep it, to pass on to children, or because it's worth something," Watson says. "It was much less of a throwaway culture."

Another big find: a toothbrush handle. Really. Why did this matter? Largely because of the rarity value.

These days, we would throw out many more toothbrushes than we would plates. What could the rarity of this item, made of bone and found under the old Oxford Hotel, tell us about life in the 19th century? "I don't think people were cleaning their teeth much," Watson says. "Or they looked after their toothbrushes very carefully."

Arguably, the most celebrated find of all in the post-quake era has been a doll's head that made the National Geographic website exactly two years after the February 22 earthquake. Watson developed a story around it, speculating that the doll belonged to a child staying at the Zetland Arms Hotel on Cashel St, perhaps the daughter of the proprietor.

Sometime in the late 1800s, the girl dropped the china doll and the pieces were buried with hotel rubbish near the stables. The hotel was damaged by fire in 1901 and rebuilt in brick. It stood for more than a century until the earthquakes, with the Zetland Arms name still visible. There is a good chance you never looked up and noticed.


Yes, a boom time for archaeology. More than 500 sites have been recorded in Christchurch in the last two years alone on the archaeological recording scheme website. Half the city is being dug up and the law requires that there must be an archaeologist present at pre-1900 sites.

It doesn't always happen, though. In the reports, there are several examples of the rules not being followed by demolition teams. To take one example, from Victoria St in August 2011: "The foundations were removed by Dormer Construction Ltd without an archaeologist on site," the report says.

It goes on: "Discussions with the digger driver after the foundations had been removed suggest that no highly visible archaeological material was encountered during his earthworks at the site. Unfortunately, it is not known if more ephemeral archaeological material was encountered or not."

Under the Historic Places Act, there are provisions for prosecution but Watson says, "There haven't been any to date in Christchurch."

More than two years after demolitions started, the archaeologists are still at the stage of gathering data rather than interpreting it.

The librarian's house, a two-storey brick building that stood on Cambridge Tce next to the old Canterbury Public Library, is one site that Watson wants to look at in more detail. Some 695 artefacts came out of the ground there in August and September last year.

Before the brick building, a wooden house stood. It burnt down in 1894, taking the life of the librarian's 9-year-old son. All the recovered artefacts were deposited before the fire.

Are they finding much pre-European material? Not a great deal. That tends to be found at Redcliffs and South Shore.

"We have been working closely with SCIRT because they are working along a lot of the waterways where more occupation was, but we have found very little so far."

Wasn't the old Public Library site important to Maori? Yes, but they found nothing. "We were really surprised because it's one we were watching very closely. Similarly, 12 Hereford St, behind the YMCA, was another site of Maori discoveries in the past but there was nothing. "It's frustrating and disappointing, but it has to be there. It's just a matter of time."

In other words, they get to do the archaeology again the next time the site is disturbed, before it is built on.

Usually they work around the demolition crews. Watson can recall only a couple of times when they have had to stop demolition entirely and send crews away. One was under the old Smiths City building, where six brick furnaces were found. Another was the site of the John Robert Godley house in Lyttelton, when they figured out almost the entire footprint of the original building.

A Worcester St site next to the old Press building was the location of a 19th century pharmacist, Henry Francis Stevens. An Otago student did an honours dissertation on the medicine bottles that came out of the ground. Those relics, including a bottle that once contained Udolpho Wolfe's Aromatic Schnapps, shows how Victorian Christchurch connected to the global economic system.

There have been time capsules too. In most cases, the contents have been disappointing - often just an old scrap of newspaper. But there was a fascinating one beneath a Masonic lodge in Sydenham, where they found "a little mason's symbol, and a mason's newspaper or prayer book", presumably buried when the lodge was built.


Underground Overground Archaeology have put together about 300 boxes of artefacts since the earthquakes. And they are not the only archaeologists working here - Opus Construction employs two, and there are a couple of others in and around the city.

You could open all these boxes and go through the contents, but you could probably learn as much by reading. Underground Overground's blog, at, is a useful resource and the reports, compiled online at the University of Canterbury's Quake Studies website, are also valuable.

You learn that newspaper clippings and handwritten notes were found in time capsules buried under a building on Ferry Rd that housed the Nugget Polish Company factory from 1923 to 1966.

In 1923, The Press called the factory "one of the finest of its kind in New Zealand". It was well-lit and well-heated, with a dining room and tennis court for employees. The former factory surrendered more than 1000 artefacts.

Ceramics, glass, bone and a nail were found under 736 Colombo St, near the intersection with Gloucester St. Shops stood there from 1858 until 2011. Wigram bricks stamped with a W were found at Shelley St, Sydenham, along with bottles, a child's cup and an egg cup.

There were 24 fragments of soda water bottles at Wakefield Ave, Sumner. A fragment of a plate decorated with a bishop's mitre was found at Park Tce, where the Anglican Bishop of Christchurch once had a home.

Once you have the bare facts, then you can apply imagination. Consider again that damaged porcelain bowl.

On her blog, Watson writes about the direct connection it provides. Here was someone's treasured possession, brought with them from England.

"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," she writes. "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."

Maybe this is the paradox. The demolitions might seem to sever a connection with the city's history, but the archaeology that follows helps to restore it.

The Press