French Farm: an archaeologist’s observations*

After a couple of weeks off from the blog, we thought it’d be a good idea to give you a run-down of what we learnt at French Farm. These are preliminary observations only, and could well change as we do more research! In no particular order, here you are.

The ground floor, French Farm house. Image: K. Webb.
The ground floor, French Farm house. Image: K. Webb.
Circular saw marks on timbers on the south wall of the first floor. Photo: K. Watson.
Circular saw marks on timbers on the south wall of the first floor. Photo: K. Watson.
Beaded match-lining like this lined a number of the rooms but the circular saw marks indicated that much of it was a later addition to the house. Photo: K. Watson.
Beaded match-lining like this lined a number of the rooms but the circular saw marks indicated that much of it was a later addition to the house. Photo: K. Watson.
The wall between Rooms 1 and 2, looking south from Room 1. Circular saw marks on the wall lining indicated that at least part of this wall was a later addition. Image: K. Watson.
The wall between Rooms 1 and 2, looking south from Room 1. Circular saw marks on the wall lining indicated that at least part of this wall was a later addition. Image: K. Watson.
Part of the floor upstairs. The hole at right was probably the original means of accessing the first floor. And the hole would originally have been bigger, as the floorboards at left are circular sawn, unlike the pit sawn floorboards used for the remainder of the first floor (and the ground floor).
Part of the floor upstairs. The hole at right was probably the original means of accessing the first floor. And the hole would originally have been bigger, as the floorboards at left are circular sawn, unlike the pit sawn floorboards used for the remainder of the first floor (and the ground floor).
Top: 1860 newspaper. Bottom: 1861 newspaper. These are on the wall between Rooms 1 and 2, next to the fireplace. Image: K. Watson & K. Webb.
Top: 1860 newspaper. Bottom: 1861 newspaper. These are on the wall between Rooms 1 and 2, next to the fireplace. Image: K. Watson & K. Webb.
Left: window into Room 1, east elevation. Right: door into Room 7, east elevation. Cut marks in the weatherboards indicated that this door and window had effectively switched plans: the window in Room 1 was originally a door and the door into Room 7 was a window.
Left: window into Room 1, east elevation. Right: door into Room 7, east elevation. Cut marks in the weatherboards indicated that this door and window had effectively switched plans: the window in Room 1 was originally a door and the door into Room 7 was a window.
The stones used as a footing underneath what was originally an external door into Room 1. Photo: K. Watson.
The stones used as a footing underneath what was originally an external door into Room 1. Photo: K. Watson.
The first floor, looking south. The circular saw marks on the dividing wall indicate that it was a later addition. Photo: K. Watson.
The first floor, looking south. The circular saw marks on the dividing wall indicate that it was a later addition. Photo: K. Watson.
This is a detail of a window frame upstairs, showing that the original window had been replaced. And either at the same time or later, this room had been lined with scrim (that's what all the small nails were for).
This is a detail of a window frame upstairs, showing that the original window had been replaced. And either at the same time or later, this room had been lined with scrim (that's what all the small nails were for).
Bottles under the floorboards in Room 2. The floorboards on the ground floor are butted, rather than tongue and groove, so I was expecting that we’d find some things under the floor. But small things, like fragments of glass and china, buttons, pins, that sort of thing. We did find that sort of thing, but we also found large bottles, and pieces of cutlery, which are not the sort of thing that’d just fall between the cracks in the floorboards. So, how did they get there? There are a couple of possible explanations: they could have been deliberately buried there before the floor was laid, or the floorboards may have been replaced at some stage. Image: K. Watson.
Bottles under the floorboards in Room 2. The floorboards on the ground floor are butted, rather than tongue and groove, so I was expecting that we’d find some things under the floor. But small things, like fragments of glass and china, buttons, pins, that sort of thing. We did find that sort of thing, but we also found large bottles, and pieces of cutlery, which are not the sort of thing that’d just fall between the cracks in the floorboards. So, how did they get there? There are a couple of possible explanations: they could have been deliberately buried there before the floor was laid, or the floorboards may have been replaced at some stage. Image: K. Watson.

None of the artefacts we found could be readily identified as French. This doesn’t mean that they weren’t used by the early French occupants of the house, but it does make it difficult to prove. Further, at first glance, none of the artefacts found seemed to date from the 1840s and/or 1850s. Again, this doesn’t mean they weren’t used during the period – many common 19th century artefacts were made for long periods of time.

Even though we didn’t find anything particularly ‘French’ in the way of artefacts, the house itself is clearly not English in origin. It’s the layout that’s the real give away. It’s just so different from the standard central hall with rooms opening off it that we usually see in Christchurch. French Farm house is at least 30 years older than most of the houses we’ve looked at in the city, but even those 1850s houses we’ve recorded still have a central hall – which, when you think about it, is a bit of a waste of space really (and something we’ve moved away from in more recent times). And once you take out the central hall, everything else changes, including the house footprint - French Farm is significantly longer than it is wide. It also changes the flow of people through rooms, meaning you have to pass through one room to get to another – not the case in a house with a central hall. Maybe the logical extension of this is less privacy?

Excavating in Room 1. Image: K. Watson.
Excavating in Room 1. Image: K. Watson.

The last thing that I learnt is that archaeology is fun! Maybe this seems a silly thing to say. But most of our work takes place on construction sites, surrounded by large diggers and other construction chaos, and – more often than not – we don’t find anything of note. For me personally, I spend most of my time sitting behind a desk, not doing any field archaeology. In either of these circumstances, it’s easy to forget how fascinating and enjoyable the process of simply digging or recording is. It's also easy to lose sight of the fact that archaeology is all about learning more about the past, rather than simply recovering information for the sake of it.

Katharine Watson

* With thanks to Stephen Cashmore and David Brailsford for insightful conversations on site.