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
All manner of archaeologists

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!
Bones!

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 (awesome) attacking moa (also awesome).

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 the various artefacts found in Christchurch over the last three years. Top row from left:

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.