A breath of not-so-fresh air: archaeology and asbestos in Christchurch

When I first started studying to become an archaeologist, the dangers and difficulties of working with asbestos wasn’t really something that had ever crossed my mind. I knew what it was, in a vague sort of way, and that it was bad for you. That’s about it. After the earthquakes in Christchurch, however, as a result of our work on sites with asbestos contamination (especially the recording and monitoring of building demolition), we’ve all come to learn a lot more about it and how it can affect the process of an archaeological investigation or recording. Recently, we were called to investigate the archaeology of a Christchurch site with asbestos ground contamination. The site was located in the central city, an area active from the earliest phases of European settlement in Christchurch, and was situated near several other sites where we’d discovered archaeological material in the past. The crew were bulking out the site in order to prepare for the foundations of a new building.  This meant (a) the large scale disturbance of asbestos and other soil contaminants; and (b) a high probability that archaeological features would be discovered.

Excavating a pit feature on site in full protective gear. Image: K. Bone.
Excavating a pit feature on site in full protective gear. Image: K. Bone.

All of which culminated in the situation we found ourselves in a few weeks ago, kitted out head to toe in protective suits, gloves, gumboots and respirators, digging in the dirt under the relentless sun, trying to ignore the sweat condensing inside our masks and occasionally submerging our noses if we bent our heads the wrong way.

Such a glamourous job, this.

The consequences of a particularly muddy day on site. Image: K. Bone.
The consequences of a particularly muddy day on site. Image: K. Bone.

The site contained several archaeological features, from a large fill deposit and a circular brick-lined well to a deep pit filled with artefacts and timbers laid down at the base. Unfortunately for us, in this case, we found a LOT of artefact material in these features, presenting us with something of a problem. We lack the facilities here at Underground Overground to safely decontaminate material in our own lab (ideally, we would need a method of air control, as well as the ability to dispose of the material safely). The most obvious solution was to analyse the material on-site, a task that presented its own set of problems.

Some of the archaeological features excavated on site. Clockwise from top left: a circular brick well; archaeologists providing shade for the photographing of a pit feature with timbers at the base; large rectangular rubbish pit, half sectioned. Images: K. Bennett, J. Garland.
Some of the archaeological features excavated on site. Clockwise from top left: a circular brick well; archaeologists providing shade for the photographing of a pit feature with timbers at the base; large rectangular rubbish pit, half sectioned. Images: K. Bennett, J. Garland.

Ordinarily, our artefact analysis is carried out by one person who, after the material has been washed (when appropriate), sorts and identifies the individual artefacts to material, function, object form, manufacturing method and age, etc. That information is entered into a digital spreadsheet and most of the artefact assemblage is then photographed, using an SLR camera and light box set-up. It’s all very civilised.

Obviously, we couldn’t replicate this on site. Especially considering that everything we took onto the site – tools, cameras, containers, recording equipment – needed to be either washed down with high pressure hoses or thoroughly cleaned with wet wipes and/or water before we could take it away again. Everything. We were also under time pressure, to get all the archaeological investigation and artefact analysis completed while there was still room on the site for us to work.

We ended up with a team of two, an iPad, a camera and almost five thousand fragments of artefact material. Each feature assemblage was sorted, analysed and photographed, with one person doing the identification and photography and the other transcribing the information into a spreadsheet on the iPad. Anything that we thought was of archaeological significance and could be safely cleaned on site (washed and rinsed in clean water to remove every speck of dirt) was removed from the site and everything else disposed of then and there. This meant we were able to recover a large proportion of the ceramics, a fantastic collection of clay pipes and a small quantity of bottles. Leather shoes, textiles, metal artefacts, most of the bottles (which couldn’t be easily cleaned on site) and any things we felt it wasn’t safe to remove were left behind, after being carefully analysed.

Our artefact analysis station on site. Image: J. Garland.
Our artefact analysis station on site. Image: J. Garland.

We learned a few things about the process (and ourselves) along the way.

  • It’s really difficult to use a touch screen while wearing gloves, especially if the gloves are even the tiniest bit loose.
  • Respirators muffle the voice quite a bit, which may result in some interesting misunderstandings between the dictator and transcriber, not helped by loud machinery nearby. It’s really important to have two people familiar with the same artefact terminology to mitigate this as much as possible. We still ended up with some fairly hilarious mis-transcriptions.
  • Communication throughout the whole excavation was made more difficult by the respirators, actually, not just between the archaeologists on site but also between us and the machine operator and other crew working on the site.
  • Sunny days are the worst. Not only are they hellish to experience in suits and masks, the shadows cast by the light made artefact (and site) photography more difficult than it needed to be.
  • Tyvek protective suits probably weren’t made with archaeology in mind: however tough they are, they were still, on occasion, defeated by the sharp edges of artefacts as we were digging.
  • On a note specific to this one particular site: people have terrible taste in music and may, sadistically, play the same song ten times in a row if they feel like it. We happened to be working right next to the Dance-O-Mat (a usually awesome Christchurch landmark created by Gap Filler), which was not as conducive to our continued sanity as you might have thought.
  • Sneezing while wearing a respirator is a very bad idea. Seriously. Think about it.

We also found a lot of really cool things. From clay pipes shaped like soldiers, decorated with tragedy/comedy masks or functioning as temperance propaganda to elaborate ceramic teapots, beautifully patterned ceramics, unusual glass bottles and an 1835 half-crown, this was a site that contained a wide variety of material culture. We haven’t completed our research into the history of the site as yet, but many of the artefacts were manufactured between the 1840s and early 1870s, suggesting that they may have belonged to people living here in the earliest decades of the city’s European settlement.

Some of the clay pipes found on site, along with an 1835 half-crown, with the stamp of William IV, King of England. Note the super awesome tragedy/comedy pipe with the face that changed expression when looked at upside down. Image: J. Garland.
Some of the clay pipes found on site, along with an 1835 half-crown, with the stamp of William IV, King of England. Note the super awesome tragedy/comedy pipe with the face that changed expression when looked at upside down. Image: J. Garland.

The ceramics, particularly from the pit with timbers at the base, included several blue and white “romantic” landscape patterns and Asiatic motifs popular in the mid-late 19th century. Other artefacts, especially the bottles, were discovered to be products and brands that had been made since the early 19th century. We identified torpedo bottles from Schweppes, Pitt and Webb, all of whom were aerated water manufacturers established in the first few decades of the 1800s. Other artefacts included products made by ink manufacturers, druggists and perfumers all operating from a similar period of time onwards. Exactly when they were deposited remains unclear for the moment, but we’ll figure it out.

Selection of ceramic vessels and a Booth's gin bottle with a prunt or blob seal. Clockwise, left to right:
Selection of ceramic vessels and a Booth's gin bottle with a prunt or blob seal. Clockwise, left to right:

We do know that, later on in the site’s history, several health professionals lived on the site, including a doctor and a dentist. Dr William Deamer constructed a two-storey brick surgery on the site in 1865 (Canterbury Heritage), which stood until the early 20th century and some of the medicine related artefacts we found may have originally been used in his establishment. The well that we found, in particular, contained a small assemblage of artefacts that were almost exclusively pharmaceutical bottles, as well as an incised measuring jug that may have been used in the preparation of medicines.

Medical and pharmaceutical artefacts found in the well. Image: J. Garland.
Medical and pharmaceutical artefacts found in the well. Image: J. Garland.

All things considered, it’s a pretty fascinating site and assemblage. I will admit, it was a little bit sad to see so much of the physical material disposed of on site, but the most important thing is that we’ve preserved the information that material had to offer. This is what archaeology is about, after all, the insight and knowledge into the lives and behaviour of people that we gain from the material traces of those who came before us.

If it means suffering through sweaty protective suits and masks to do this, then we will, and gladly.

Jessie Garland

References

Canterbury Heritage, 2008. 1879 Christchurch Panorama. [online] Available at www.canterburyheritage.blogspot.co.nz.