Methods

Archaeological challenges in the Hundred Acre Wood

Hello everyone! Belated happy new year and welcome back. We’ve decided to begin the year by talking about problems (just to start on a positive note). Well, sort of. We’re participating in an international round-up of blog posts this month on the subject of grand challenges in archaeology (you can see the whole thing here). Obviously, we’re approaching this from the perspective of Christchurch (and, to a degree, New Zealand) and the challenges we face here - both in the sense of difficulties encountered and challenges to be met.

To this end, three of us - with different areas of interest and experience in archaeology - got together and had a bit of a discussion about the challenges that stand out to us the most, the salient points of which are presented here. However, partly because it amuses me and partly because I want to see if any of you can guess who said what, I have replaced our real names with the names of Winnie-the-Pooh characters for the purposes of this post.

Imagine, if you will then, that Christopher Robin, Tigger and Owl, playing at being archaeologists for a day, are sitting around a fire in a clearing of the Hundred Acre Wood. Their conversation turns, as it always does when archaeologists congregate, to their (current) profession, and some of the challenges they’ve encountered while uncovering the mysteries of the past. For the purposes of this tortured metaphor, The Hundred Acre Wood is not always a place in England but sometimes a city in New Zealand (just go with it, okay?).

(In reality, we sat at our computers and carried out an online conversation over a couple of days when we should have been doing other work. The truth is always so much less fun than fiction.)

It was a situation not dissimilar to this. Image:

This conversation ranges from the specific and often practical difficulties they have faced in their daily work to some of the broader questions facing archaeology as a profession and field of research. Two major themes start to emerge: one revolves around the engagement of archaeology with the world today, the other encompasses the research potential of archaeological work, especially when it comes to answering big, broad questions.

The challenges of research - from the practical difficulties of realising it, to the scale at which it can be approached and the questions to be asked and answered - is perhaps the most obvious to the three participants, given the scale of work and amount of archaeological data being gathered in the city after the earthquakes. The last five years have resulted in over 2000 new recorded archaeological sites in Christchurch, approximately 1000 (or more) boxes of artefacts and the systematic excavation of the first 50 years of a whole city (not to mention several earlier Maori archaeological sites as well). It can be a little overwhelming.

“Indeed,” says Owl, hootingly. “Just from a practical perspective, there are the challenges presented by the time and money required to undertake research, by issues like databases and data management and accessibility and so on. A lot of which is made more challenging by the fact that all of the archaeological work in the city is done by archaeological consultants, who have neither the time nor funds to actually do the research.”

“Yeah,” says Tigger, bouncing up and down (please feel free to imagine this said in a Tigger voice, it’s kind of hilarious). “It’s the perennial problem of realising the research potential of archaeological consultancy, where most of the work happens but not much of the research. Unlike universities and research institutes, where most of the research happens, but less of the work. I mean, less of the initial data collection and excavation. I would never suggest that academics do less work.”  

In which Tigger bounces and

“Maybe,” says Christopher Robin (who has been uncharacteristically silent until now), “we’re excavating too many sites. There does seem to be too much data and not enough people to work with it. But it’s also important that we don’t lose the information offered by those sites.”

Owl nods. Wisely. Because owls are wise. “It’s not just the amount of information we have from sites being excavated and investigated right now. It’s also all of the accumulated information we have from old sites, which is constantly being re-analysed and integrated into new databases and new methods and new research questions.”

Christopher Robin gently suggests that Owl try not to be such an Eeyore, and think instead about the potential of this information. “The fact that so much data has been accumulated makes possible some really interesting challenges as far as research questions go. We can look at bigger, broader questions of life in the past that we couldn’t before. Ideas like the birth of the modern city, the development of regional architectural styles, the development of identity at different scales and at different groups.”

“Capitalism! Consumerism! Colonialism!” hoots Owl, in a momentary loss of dignity.

Tigger, in the typically positive manner of tiggers everywhere, reminds the other two that this potential is one of the most exciting things about working in Christchurch. The other two agree, nodding solemnly in the firelight. Christchurch has immense potential when it comes to broad research questions in archaeology, uniquely placed as it is to explore the past through the lives of individuals and communities and the global processes that changed the world. We’re excavating on a site by site basis, but accumulating a city wide dataset that fits within a much wider context. The scale of the archaeology (in every sense of the word) has so much to offer.

Owl, the ruffled feathers and dignity from the previous outburst settling back into place, adds “There are some challenges inherent in that as well, though. There’s a need for comparative data from other places and time periods in the world, especially if we want to address these questions on a global scale over time. Accessibility and data compatibility - and comparability - is a real challenge, as other archaeologists have already talked about elsewhere.”

“It doesn’t mean that incompatible or incomparable datasets can’t contribute to a bigger global conversation, though,” says Christopher Robin, reasonably.

“True” Owl continues, on a roll. “It’s not just the practicalities of it, though. It’s not always easy to reconcile different scales of research potential. When you’re looking at big picture questions, it can be hard to hold on to the nuances and details of individuals and things and easy to over generalise or simplify complicated situations and concepts. But, at the same time, these are the questions we need to be asking, the ideas and changes that are most relevant to the world we live in today - and some of the most exciting to pursue.”

Owl holds court on

It is at this point that a second big theme begins to emerge from the conversation: the challenge of engaging archaeology with the world today. Again, it is one that is particularly obvious to those of us working in Christchurch, where the value and relevance of heritage in the present day is a complex and often controversial topic. So much of the city’s visible heritage has been lost and the significance and future of those elements that have survived (the cathedral is a case in point) is very publicly and contentiously negotiated. The challenge goes beyond this, however, beyond the very obvious examples of symbolic heritage buildings to the ways in which archaeology (and heritage in general) is engaging with the world and lives of people today.

“Exactly,” says Owl, slightly long winded-ly. “There’s so much potential, especially with the situation here, to make use of all this information we have about the history of the city in the context of the world around us now. Like the parallels and contrasts you can see between the social, political, and urban processes that are occurring in Christchurch now, after the earthquakes, and those that occurred during the first decades of European settlement in the 19th century. Our past is relevant to our present (and our future) and we need to be better at communicating this.”

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Christopher Robin adds, thoughtfully (everything Christopher Robin does is thoughtful), “There’s definitely a lot to be said for the value that relevance adds to archaeology, as well, especially from the perspective of non-archaeologists. That’s one of the biggest challenges for me, you know - the public perception of archaeology and the apparent lack of value that people place on heritage in Christchurch (and New Zealand), outside of a few select examples.”

“That’s something that archaeology faces all over the world, I think,” says Tigger.

“Yes,” says Christopher Robin. “It’s that issue of archaeology, and heritage in general, being seen as something that halts or holds up development and is therefore a nuisance, rather than something useful to society.”

Owl hoots in agreement. Or something.

ChristopherRobin

“For New Zealand in general, though” Christopher Robin continues, “it does seem like we place a lot of value on our natural heritage, which is such a huge part of our national identity, but not as much on our cultural heritage. Maybe, as a profession, one of the challenges to be met here is how we present what we do to the general public. Maybe we should be focusing more on what the public wants out of archaeology, rather than what we think they should know about.”

“Maybe,” says Owl. “It’s true that I am often surprised by the kinds of stories and discoveries that people - archaeologists and non-archaeologists, alike - think are interesting and cool. It turns out that the things that owls find interesting are not always interesting to other people.”

“Who knew,” says Christopher Robin, only a little sarcastically.

“It’s not just what we’re communicating,” says Tigger, still bouncing. “It’s how we’re communicating it. We need to be better at making archaeology accessible to non-archaeologists. Tiggers watch a lot of YouTube videos, you know, and a lot of the archaeology channels are dry. They should be active, experimental or - if we’re talking about that natural heritage focus - taking place in relation to the landscape. Time Team was a good example of that.”

“I miss Time Team,” says Owl, mournfully.

“And if we’re talking about individual artefacts or sites or even archaeologists,” adds Tigger, "they need to be personalised in some way.That’s it! We need to personalise the past, make it engaging and accessible.”

“What, like writing an entire blog post as fictional characters from our childhoods?” asks Christopher Robin.

“Sure,” says Owl. “That sounds like a good idea. Could be fun.”

Fun,” agrees Tigger. “Fun, fun, fun, fun fun.”

It is here that we shall leave our three intrepid archaeologists, although their conversation continues long into the night, as the flames of their campfire flicker through the trees of the Hundred Acre Wood. There are other challenges to be solved, other adventures to be had and discoveries to be made, but these are tales for another day.

(Or, the online conversation occurring in reality deteriorates into a series of typos and comments on coffee and shoes and the subject is tabled for another day.)

Owl, Christopher Robin and Tigger.

Acknowledgements:

The fantastic, fabulous work of A. A. Milne, of course.

From bottle to basement: uncovering a repository of information

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Late in 2014 we were contacted by contractors working on a rebuild project in Christchurch's city centre. It was reported that a number of bottles had been uncovered during routine earthworks and the area cordoned off until our arrival. The bottles themselves were in pristine condition but what was of particular interest was the area in which they were found. Behind us was a mound of dark dirt, strewn with displaced wooden planks and broken bottles. I'll be the first to admit, it wasn't one of the prettiest features I've ever seen and, oh yeah, it was 2 metres below the surface of the city. So, today I'm going to take you on a little ride, a pictorial one as such, down through that ugly mound of dirt, the archaeology involved and the story it told. And so our tale begins...

It began with a phone call one Friday afternoon (when I was already thinking about a cold brew at the closest drinking hole), but it was answered and soon I was joined by fellow archaeologists, decked out in hi-vis vests and mud-caked boots, with WHS trowels in the back pocket ready to work.

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PB110003

Due to the unknown extent of the feature we established a simple quadrant system to allow us to record any material collected as we removed the debris from the area. This involved removing all the planks of wood that were no longer in situ, along with any large amounts of soil.

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2014-11-21 Beam Placement & Cellar Dig 011
2014-11-21 Beam Placement & Cellar Dig 011

Once the area was cleared of all debris, we set out to define the full extent of the feature, which was beginning to look a lot like a floor. Three trenches were dug, along the western, southern and eastern sides of the feature (the northern side had already been dug out during the earthworks). Following the completion of these three trenches, we established a grid system for the collection of artefacts.

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Once the top layer of dirt and debris was removed and all structural wood was exposed the feature was mapped using a Trimble M3 total station.

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SC161 Site plan 2

At the same time, the stratigraphy of the northern baulk was drawn (this was the only stratigraphic profile that could be recorded, due to the sheet piling around the section).

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IMGP0474

This....

                       Was recorded as this...

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161 strat (2)
CS161 strat Kim amended
CS161 strat Kim amended

                which became this....

Then the wooden floorboards were removed and excavation of the subfloor space began, revealling a treasure trove of artefacts and structural information.

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Once the field work was completed preparation of the report began, with the historical research. Maps and newspapers revealed that this section of land was the site of Barnard's repository and later Tattersall's horse bazaar.

Next up: the artefact analysis, which was conducted by one of our in-house artefact specialists. The artefacts are analysed according to their material classes and recorded by a number of attributes, with research including place of manufacture, product type, company name and date of production. This research contributes to our final interpretation of the site.

Pipes 3
Pipes 3
PLYMOUTH
PLYMOUTH
capsules
capsules
COINS
COINS

Following the artefact analysis a series of spatial distribution maps were produced to determine whether or not there were any patterns in the distribution of the artefacts.

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20150521_114912 (1)

So what does it all mean? The location of the floor 2 metres below the ground surface indicated that it was a cellar floor. The artefacts found indicated that the cellar was primarily used to store alcohol bottles and leather goods. Conveniently, the historical research indicated that there had been both a hotel and a saddlery on site.

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And that's how the discovery of a few bottles led to us uncovering a unqiue piece of Christchurch's history. From the field work to the research, the artefact analysis to the final write up, the process is important in allowing us to tell the story of Christchurch.

Kim Bone

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.

Peeling back the onion of time

Recording standing structures not only involves architectural drawings and photography, but can also be quite destructive. In an attempt to modernise an old house owners will often cover “old fashioned” features with new materials, plasterboard being the chief culprit. So, during building recording part of our job often involves removing these modern linings (by any means necessary) to reveal the fabrics beneath, going back in time to see what the building was like originally. And, as you can imagine, taking to a wall with a hammer and crowbar is also good for stress relief. Through extensive use of the notorious hardboard previous owners of this house had gone to great lengths to cover nearly every inch of original decoration inside the house in order to cut down on the weekly chore of dusting.

Through extensive use of the notorious hardboard previous owners of this house had gone to great lengths to cover nearly every inch of original decoration in the house. Every moulded shirting board, architrave and door panel was covered.
Through extensive use of the notorious hardboard previous owners of this house had gone to great lengths to cover nearly every inch of original decoration in the house. Every moulded shirting board, architrave and door panel was covered.
Hardboard was used on the exterior of the house too. To cover up weatherboards and this decorative cast iron frieze along the top of the veranda.
Hardboard was used on the exterior of the house too. To cover up weatherboards and this decorative cast iron frieze along the top of the veranda.
Extensive investigation of the kitchen uncovered this finely moulded paper mache dado. This is the only example found so far of this product in Christchurch.
Extensive investigation of the kitchen uncovered this finely moulded paper mache dado. This is the only example found so far of this product in Christchurch.

Plasterboard and other modern wall linings sometimes have their merits though. They often have the unintended function of doing a really good job of preserving what is beneath it, particularly wallpaper.

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This hand written note was found adhered to the tongue and groove match lining of a cottage in Lyttelton.
This hand written note was found adhered to the tongue and groove match lining of a cottage in Lyttelton.

Digging deeper into the fabric of a building one may come across some interesting and sometimes, perhaps, elusive objects inside the walls and under the floors.

This book published by the Scottish Temperance movement in 1877 was found behind the tongue and groove lining in a house in Ashburton.
This book published by the Scottish Temperance movement in 1877 was found behind the tongue and groove lining in a house in Ashburton.
Quite often shoes are found concealed beneath the floors of houses.
Quite often shoes are found concealed beneath the floors of houses.

We quite often find other items under the floors of houses, such as animal bones, bottles and other domestic rubbish, as well as the odd mummified cat. These items were most likely not deposited under the house for superstitious reasons, we hope. The cats are later given a proper burial.

This cane riding crop was found beneath the floor of the house of John Cracroft Wilson.
This cane riding crop was found beneath the floor of the house of John Cracroft Wilson.

Beyond the superficial appearance of a structure there is a lot we can learn by quite literally peeling back the layers of a building, or excavating it, if you will. Buildings like these can be more than just houses once lived in. There's history written in the walls, from the changing tastes in interior decoration to things intentionally hidden, covered up or accidentally lost. Whatever the reasons for these hidden bits and pieces, be they mundane, superstitious or inexplicable, they show us that it's always worth looking beyond the surface of a building to find the treasures within.

Kirsa Webb

The archaeology of an archaeologist's desk

This week's post is a bit different. It's not directly about Christchurch archaeology, but it is about an archaeologist working in Christchurch. We've taken a bunch of photographs of one of the desks in our office and we want you to take a look at them and tell us what you think the material culture on that archaeologist's desk tells you. Which is pretty much what archaeologists do every day, albeit with things we find in the ground, or in old buildings - that is, we look at objects (artefacts) and try and interpret people's behaviour, thoughts, beliefs, etc, from them. And it's what everybody everywhere does all the time. We make all sorts of assumptions about a person based on the clothes they wear, the car they drive and the house they live in, amongst many other things. It's just that archaeologists put quite detailed research into understanding the artefacts they recover, and the context from which they are found - because, after all, the past is a foreign country. Post your thoughts in the comments (yes, I know the equation thing is a pain, but you should see the spam we were getting), and we'll get back to you early next week with all the details about that desk...

You can think about some basic things, like what they've been working on, or go a bit deeper, and consider how they work.

NB: The scale in the photographs is, quite literally, to give a sense of scale. It's not part of the story!

The desk.
The desk.
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The pile of papers above, 'excavated'.
The pile of papers above, 'excavated'.
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The desk.
The desk.

A message in a bottle

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Following advice from our consultant conservator, Jessie spent half an hour carefully easing out the  cork (all the while worrying the cork would snap off!). Photo: K. Bone.
Following advice from our consultant conservator, Jessie spent half an hour carefully easing out the cork (all the while worrying the cork would snap off!). Photo: K. Bone.

Look! Kirsa found a message in a bottle under a house. Here's how we got the message out.

Easy does it: slowly pulling out the cork. Photo: K. Bone.
Easy does it: slowly pulling out the cork. Photo: K. Bone.
Next step: getting the message out. Kirsa is carefully holding the bottle while Jessie uses the tweezers. Photo: K. Bone.
Next step: getting the message out. Kirsa is carefully holding the bottle while Jessie uses the tweezers. Photo: K. Bone.
Tantalisingly close! Photo: K. Bone.
Tantalisingly close! Photo: K. Bone.
Special equipment: Jessie & Kirsa couldn't get the message out, so Sasha (our conservator) made some special tweezers. Here's how Sasha described her tweezers: "They're made of coat hanger wire with tips doubled over and beaten flat, covered in shrink tubing for smooth grippy surface.  The photo Jessie sent me of the message half tweezed out of the bottle was the first attempt using shorter, gentler tweezers, producing a cone shape which would have wedged in the neck.  To pull it out safely maintaining the diameter at less than the bottle neck, I needed to grab the paper at the lower inner corner and coil inwards.  It was tricky spreading the grippy tweezers either side of the paper while lowering into the bottle, which was why I gave the shorter tweezers a try first before committing and steeling myself for the job at hand." Photo: S. Stollman.
Special equipment: Jessie & Kirsa couldn't get the message out, so Sasha (our conservator) made some special tweezers. Here's how Sasha described her tweezers: "They're made of coat hanger wire with tips doubled over and beaten flat, covered in shrink tubing for smooth grippy surface. The photo Jessie sent me of the message half tweezed out of the bottle was the first attempt using shorter, gentler tweezers, producing a cone shape which would have wedged in the neck. To pull it out safely maintaining the diameter at less than the bottle neck, I needed to grab the paper at the lower inner corner and coil inwards. It was tricky spreading the grippy tweezers either side of the paper while lowering into the bottle, which was why I gave the shorter tweezers a try first before committing and steeling myself for the job at hand." Photo: S. Stollman.
Sasha makes a start on extracting the message. Photo: J. Garland.
Sasha makes a start on extracting the message. Photo: J. Garland.
Nearly there! Photo: J. Garland.
Nearly there! Photo: J. Garland.
Carefully cleaning the message. Photo: K. Bone.
Carefully cleaning the message. Photo: K. Bone.
What do you think it says? Photo: J. Garland.
What do you think it says? Photo: J. Garland.

Katharine Watson

The difficulties of dating #3: the bigger picture

The stone synagogue built in Christchurch in 1881. Prior to this a wooden synagogue had been built in the same location in the 1860s. Image: New Zealand Electronic Text Collection.
The stone synagogue built in Christchurch in 1881. Prior to this a wooden synagogue had been built in the same location in the 1860s. Image: New Zealand Electronic Text Collection.

Over the past couple of weeks, we’ve looked at some of the methods we use to date archaeological objects found in Christchurch. This week, we’re going to look at how artefacts, documentary evidence and archaeological context can be used to date a site. To do this, we’re going to use the example of a site on Gloucester Street that came to be associated with the first synagogue  in Christchurch.

In the case of this site, we initially focused our efforts on old maps and deeds, followed by more extensive research in local newspapers of the time. In Charles Edward Fooks’ 1862 map of Christchurch, we found that there was at least one building on the site at this time (originally known as Town Section 398). That same building is also visible in Frederick Strouts’ 1877 map of the area. From the old deeds index, we were then able to find that Town Section 398 (and the adjacent 397) was bought by Ann Elizabeth Leslie, spinster (not an occupation you’d find listed today!), in 1851 and remained in her ownership until 1885, when the section (and building) was sold to someone by the name of Zachariah.

Unfortunately – and this is how documentary research can be as frustrating as artefact dating – we couldn’t find much information about Ann Leslie in the newspapers or any other resources. However, thanks to Papers Past, we were able to find out that Zachariah was a rabbi by the name of Isaac Zachariah, who moved with his family from their Hereford Street home to the Gloucester Street site in 1885, staying there until his death in 1906 (Clements n.d., Press 4/11/1881:3). During this time, he was the rabbi for the nearby synagogue, constructed in 1881 (replacing the initial wooden synagogue built in the 1860s). We know from newspaper accounts and obituaries that Zachariah arrived in New Zealand from his home in Palestine in the 1860s and worked as a rabbi during the gold rush on the West Coast before moving to Christchurch in the 1870s (West Coast Times 4/4/1868: 2). He had three sons with his wife, Eve, who would have been 3, 14 and 18 years old when the family moved to Gloucester Street (Star 13/12/1882: 2).

An obituary for the Reverend Isaac Zachariah, who died in 1906. Image: The Star 27/01/1906.
An obituary for the Reverend Isaac Zachariah, who died in 1906. Image: The Star 27/01/1906.

The excavation of the site revealed a number of rubbish pits, well outside the footprint of the 1862 and 1877 buildings. If the pits had been in the same part of the section as the buildings, we could have dated them to before the construction of those structures or after their demolition. Since they weren’t, we turned to the artefacts to help narrow down the dates.

A photograph of the site showing the approximate location of the various rubbish pits and features uncovered during excavation. Image: L. Tremlett.
A photograph of the site showing the approximate location of the various rubbish pits and features uncovered during excavation. Image: L. Tremlett.
The base of a Thomas Raines torpedo shaped soda water bottle found at this site.  This bottle can be dated to between 1859 and 1871 by matching the embossed mark to corresponding changes in the name and location of Raine's soda water business in Christchurch.
The base of a Thomas Raines torpedo shaped soda water bottle found at this site. This bottle can be dated to between 1859 and 1871 by matching the embossed mark to corresponding changes in the name and location of Raine's soda water business in Christchurch.

Going by their manufacturing marks, the objects from the four pits were all made during the same period, between the early 1850s and mid 1880s. The earliest possible date of manufacture is from a Copeland/Late Spode chamberpot, with a manufacturing range of 1847-1867, while the latest is from a Bridgwood & Co bowl made after 1885 (Godden 1991: 102). Those artefacts that didn’t have specific maker’s marks, especially the bottles, all had manufacturing evidence that could easily fit within the 1850s-1880s date range (which is quite broad, really).

Photograph of the Copeland/Late Spode bowl found at this site, manufactured between  1847 and 1867. We know this thanks to the manufacturing mark on the back, which was only in use during this period of time. Image: K. Bone.
Photograph of the Copeland/Late Spode bowl found at this site, manufactured between 1847 and 1867. We know this thanks to the manufacturing mark on the back, which was only in use during this period of time. Image: K. Bone.

Without taking into consideration the issues of time lag or bottle reuse, and knowing that these assemblages hadn’t been disturbed since they were first deposited (this is something we can tell from the state of the ground around and within the deposit), these dates give us a terminus post quem or TPQ of 1885.  TPQ (which means ‘limit after which’) refers to the earliest date at which an archaeological deposit could have been put in the ground. It’s usually taken from the date of the youngest artefact in an assemblage – in this case, the 1885+ Bridgwood bowl – since, if that assemblage was all thrown out at the same time, it can’t have been discarded before the bowl was made. We know that it was probably thrown out at the same time or over a very short period of time because of the lack of stratigraphy, or changes in the soil layers, in the deposit itself.

TPQ goes hand in hand with another acronym, TAQ, or terminus ante quem (limit before which), the latest point in time at which an assemblage could have been chucked out. At the Gloucester Street site, we know that a large brick building was built there, directly above the archaeology we found, in 1928. Obviously, this means that those deposits have to have been there before that building was constructed, making 1928 our TAQ. Consequently, the material has to have been buried between 1885 and 1928.

Part of a 1928 plan of the Gloucester street site, showing that a brick building had been constructed on the section by this year. Image: LandOnline.
Part of a 1928 plan of the Gloucester street site, showing that a brick building had been constructed on the section by this year. Image: LandOnline.

If we then take into account the questions of bottle reuse, ceramic uselife and time lag that we’ve discussed in the last two blog posts, there’s a good chance that our actual date of discard is a bit later than 1885. Our dates of use are almost definitely later than the 1847-1867, 1851-1862  and 1862-1882 dates of manufacture of the ceramic artefacts. The problem, though, is figuring out how much later. If we go with the American estimate of a 15-25 year time lag for ceramic artefacts (Adams 2003), we’re looking at a discard date of 1900-1910 for the Bridgwood bowl and a period of use for most of the objects spanning the 1880s and 1890s.

Fragments of a Pinder Bourne & Hope plate found at the site. Even though this plate must have been manufactured between 1847 and 1862, it was probably discarded much later than that. In the case of this site
Fragments of a Pinder Bourne & Hope plate found at the site. Even though this plate must have been manufactured between 1847 and 1862, it was probably discarded much later than that. In the case of this site
A pudding doll, or 'frozen charlotte' found at the site, suggesting the presence of children. Image: K. Bone.
A pudding doll, or 'frozen charlotte' found at the site, suggesting the presence of children. Image: K. Bone.

These dates fit in pretty clearly with the dates for the Zachariah family’s occupation of the site. Even if the 15-25 year time lag estimate isn’t quite right for a New Zealand site and we’re looking at a shorter period of time between manufacture and discard, these artefacts still can’t have been thrown out before the mid-late 1880s, after Isaac Zachariah and his family moved in. To add to this, we found a bunch of children’s artefacts in the assemblages – including a  ‘pudding doll’ and multiple children’s shoes – that suggest the artefacts belonged to a family, and we know that Zachariah had children from the ages of 3 to 18 when he moved in.

It seems clear, then, that the artefacts we found at 72 Gloucester Street are related to Isaac Zachariah and his family. Using their archaeological context and historical records, we’re able to take these objects and put a face and a name to the people who used them through the likely dates of their manufacture, use and discard. By themselves, those dates don’t necessarily tell us much about Isaac Zachariah and his family, but they do let us build a bridge between the historical record of their lives and the material remains of their time in this location. Without that bridge, this assemblage would be just another discarded collection of objects, rather than a window into the experiences of people in the past.

Jessie Garland

References

Adams, W. H., 2003. Dating Historical Artefacts: The Importance of Understanding Time Lag in the Acquisition, Curation, Use, and Disposal of Artefacts. Historical Archaeology 37(2): 38-64.

Clements, M., n.d. [Online] Available at: http://www.nzjewisharchives.org/history.htm

Donaldson, B., Hume, G. and Costello, S., 1990. Antique Bottle and Containers of Christchurch and District. Christchurch Antique Bottles and Collectibles Club, Christchurch.

Fooks, C. E., 1862. Christchurch, Canterbury, New Zealand, 1862. Cartographic material. Christchurch [N.Z.]: C.E. Fooks. File Reference: CCLMaps 212667.

Godden, G.A., 1991. Encyclopaedia of British Pottery and Porcelain Marks. Barrie and Jenkins Ltd, London.

LINZ, 1928. DP 9042, Canterbury. Landonline.

Star. [Online] Available at: www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz.

Strouts, F.S., 1877. Christchurch, Canterbury, 1877. Compiled from data supplied to City Council and District Drainage Board by Frederick. Strouts. Cartographic material. Christchurch, NZ: Ward and Reeves. File Reference: ATLMAPS ATL-Acc-3158

The Potteries, n.d.. A History of Stoke-on-Trent. [online] Available at http://www.thepotteries.org.

West Coast Times. [Online] Available at: www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz.

Wises New Zealand Post Office Directory. 1872-1979. Dunedin: H. Wise & Co.

The difficulties of dating #2: good things take time

Following on from last week’s blog, today’s post takes a look at how we date ceramic artefacts, specifically the plates, cups, bowls and saucers we find so often in Christchurch. Many of the issues I mentioned last week with regard to glass bottle dating also apply to ceramics (and all artefacts, really), but there are some that we encounter more frequently depending on the type of material we’re looking at. With 19th century pottery, one of the more common obstacles is the difficulty of dating artefacts from the style of their decoration, along with the ever-present problem of ‘time lag’ (more on this later). Ceramics are an interesting challenge when it comes to artefact dating, since it’s quite difficult to use details of manufacture to figure out when they were made. Some vessels have maker’s marks or ‘backmarks’ stamped or printed on the back with the name of the pottery manufacturer (and these are subject to all the same problems as with bottle marks), but often we may not actually find that piece of the plate or teacup. Other times, frustratingly, we find artefacts without any mark at all.

Examples of maker's marks found in Christchurch.
Examples of maker's marks found in Christchurch.

In these cases, dating the fragments of pottery that we have is tricky, since many 19th century ceramics don’t have very much visible evidence for dateable changes in manufacturing technology. This is thanks to the actual methods of manufacture as well as the fact that most of the notable developments in ceramic manufacturing occurred in the late 1700s and early 1800s, leaving production techniques largely unchanged for most of the 19th century. Unfortunately for the archaeologist working with material from the 1850s onwards (as in Christchurch), a date range of 80 to a 100 years for a site is pretty much the same as no date at all.

khoi
khoi
Floral patterns like this Bouquet plate, found in Christchurch, with decoration in the center of the plate as well as on the rim (or marly, as it's known)
Floral patterns like this Bouquet plate, found in Christchurch, with decoration in the center of the plate as well as on the rim (or marly, as it's known)

Alternatively, we can try to use changes in decoration and style to date artefacts to specific decades. Of course (because an archaeologist’s job is never easy!) there are problems with this as well. Although there are documented changes in the popularity of different types of decoration and different styles of pattern over time, many of these fashion trends also occurred in the first half of the 19th century (Samford 1997). For those of us working in Christchurch, that’s not really that helpful. Much of the information about ceramic fashions is also specific to Britain or America and those fashions weren't necessarily popular at the same times or even at all in New Zealand (although there are some exceptions; Woods 2011). This is especially relevant when we take into account the time it would take for new patterns and styles to not only make it to New Zealand, but become popular here, particularly when we consider the distances they had to travel.

Left to right: a plate decorated with the Asiatic Pheasant pattern, fragment of a plate decorated with the Rhine pattern, and pieces of Cable and Willow pattern bowls.
Left to right: a plate decorated with the Asiatic Pheasant pattern, fragment of a plate decorated with the Rhine pattern, and pieces of Cable and Willow pattern bowls.

As with glass bottles, almost all the ceramic artefacts found on 19th century archaeological sites in Christchurch (and New Zealand) were made in England and Scotland and imported into New Zealand (mostly from Staffordshire in England). As I mentioned last week, this means that when we’re figuring out a date for these artefacts, we have to take into account the time it would have taken for these objects to reach New Zealand in the first place. This ‘import delay’ (the time involved in the storage and transportation of goods from overseas manufacturers to Victorian Christchurch) is just one of the components of a broader issue in archaeological dating known as ‘time lag’, which I touched on briefly last week with the discussion of bottle reuse and an artefact’s ‘uselife’.

Sketch of Josiah Wedgwood's first pottery factory in
Sketch of Josiah Wedgwood's first pottery factory in

Time lag is a phrase used by archaeologists to encompass every stage in an artefact's life, from its manufacture to its eventual disposal (and entry into the archaeological record).  One archaeological model for time lag includes the amount of time an item might spend sitting on a shelf at a wholesaler and/or retailer and transportation between these places, along with the actual uselife of the object and the potential for the curation (i.e. heirlooms) and recycling (Adams 2003: 41).

As well as coming from overseas, with all of the delays involved in that, many ceramic vessels are intended to be used over and over again for an indefinite period of time. To add to this, many people in the past may have kept ceramic vessels as heirlooms or display pieces for a very long time. I know that my family still owns plates and teacups that originally belonged to my granny – if we were to throw them out now, in 2013, their original date of manufacture would have absolutely nothing to do with the date at which they were discarded, or the period for which they were in use.

A discarded ceramic plate, discovered in situ at a site in Christchurch. Image: K Webb.
A discarded ceramic plate, discovered in situ at a site in Christchurch. Image: K Webb.

It’s not all hopeless though. As with the bottles, manufacturer’s marks are a good place to start and some archaeologists have come up with estimates for the amount of time we should be accounting for when we date the table wares and tea wares we find on 19th century sites. The discussion and method behind those estimates is way, way too detailed to go into here, but, in an American context, the average duration of time between an object’s manufacture and discard has been calculated to be anything from 15-25 years (Adams 2003). Potentially more or less, depending on the characteristics of the site in question and a wealth of different variables. Unfortunately, this is an American estimate, so we have to be careful applying it to New Zealand sites, but it certainly makes apparent the caution that’s necessary when using the date of artefact manufacture to determine the age of an archaeological site or assemblage.

Although I’ve focused on ceramics in the post, the issues I’ve mentioned are ones that apply to all material culture recovered from archaeological sites – shoes, clay pipes, stoneware jars, nails, bolts, matchboxes, etc. It’s never just as simple as looking at an object and knowing where it came from and when it was made. As I mentioned last week (and will mention again, because it’s important), the when and the where are only truly useful and interesting when they’re joined by the how and the why and the who.

Jessie Garland

References

Adams, W. H., 2003. Dating Historical Artefacts: The Importance of Understanding Time Lag in the Acquisition, Curation, Use, and Disposal of Artefacts. Historical Archaeology 37(2): 38-64.

Samford, P., 1997. Response to a Market: Dating English Underglaze Transfer-Printed Wares. Historical Archaeology 31(2): 1-30.

Woods, Naomi. 2011. Pakeha Ceramics as Dating Tools. Archaeology in New Zealand 55(2).

The Potteries, n.d.. A History of Stoke-on-Trent. [online] Available at http://www.thepotteries.org.

A lot of old rubbish!

…this yard being kept in a disreputable state, there are no cinder pits in proper places to throw the refuse of cooking and things in general, as at home, so old bones, vegetable remains, scrapings of plates, cinders, tea leaves, every conceivable thing is flung anywhere over these yards…

From Taken In by “Hopeful”, 1887.

Imagine that you live in 1860s Christchurch. Although it’s officially a city, there’s not much here that’s like the cities of Europe. The roads aren’t paved – in fact, most of them have hardly been formed. Your house is wooden, rather than being stone or brick. There’s no running water, and nothing to speak of in the way of drains between your house and the street. There are rubbish collection services, but only within the four avenues and you have to pay for them yourself. Fortunately, though, there’s a lot more space than back home. So, instead of paying the night-soil man or the town scavenger(s), you can just bury your rubbish in your backyard, throw it under your house (or even out the back door, if you don’t care too much about the smells and ‘nuisances’) or toss it into the Avon River.

This post is a bit different from others we’ve written to date. It’s the first in an occasional series that looks at the process of archaeology, and the factors that we consider before we interpret a site, or a particular artefact. In this case, it’s rubbish, because that’s largely what we find. When we find rubbish, we have to think about what was deposited, where and how was it deposited and why. When it was deposited is pretty important too, but we’ll look at that in another post. This post only provides the briefest of overviews over rubbish disposal practices, but it’ll give you an idea of how we think about these things.

The motion passed by the Christchurch City Council, outlining how the council would charge for rubbish collection (Press 25/11/1863: ).
The motion passed by the Christchurch City Council, outlining how the council would charge for rubbish collection (Press 25/11/1863: ).

From 1863, the disposal of waste within the area bounded by Bealey Avenue, Fitzgerald Avenue, Hagley Park and Moorhouse Avenue  was regulated by the Christchurch City Council (the council was formed in 1862). The council set aside a rubbish dump very early on in the piece (Press 5/4/1862: 3), but it was not until January 1864 that the council contracted the Hadfield brothers to collect “refuse, slops, etc”, and instructed the Inspector of Nuisances “to cause the dry rubbish and ashes in every house or yard to be placed in bins provided for that purpose, the same to be conveniently accessible to the contractor at stated periods for removal, and to see that this authority be exercised within the cess-pan district...” (Lyttelton Times 28/1/1864: 5). It had been decided late the previous year that the council would recover the cost of this service directly from ratepayers, although subsequent council reports suggest that this was sometimes difficult (Press 25/11/1863: 3).

An official report on rubbish collection (Press 12/1/1865: 4).
An official report on rubbish collection (Press 12/1/1865: 4).

While an official report in early 1865 suggested that this system was working well (Press 12/1/1865: 4), there were also reports of rubbish not being collected or people failing to pay for the service and people sweeping rubbish into gutters (Press 22/3/1865: 2, Lyttelton Times 28/3/1865: 3). A year later it was noted that “The Committee thought it desirable to make inquiries as to the removal of ashes and other dry rubbish, but they do not find that any systematic plan has been adopted in the manner or time of removal, nor as to the description of removal.” (Press 21/3/1866: 2). Whether or not any changes followed this report is not known but it is clear that there was a system of removal of rubbish in place in 1867 (Press 24/12/1867: 2). After 1870, there’s not much information about rubbish collection in the council reports in the newspapers, although in 1871 it became illegal to throw rubbish into “any public sewer or drain”, suggesting that this was a problem (Press 1/4/1871: 4).

Problems with rubbish collection (Press 22/3/1865: 2).
Problems with rubbish collection (Press 22/3/1865: 2).
Rubbish collection, 1867 (Press 24/12/1867: 2).
Rubbish collection, 1867 (Press 24/12/1867: 2).

Charging for rubbish collection continued until at least the late 1870s (Press 11/4/1878: 2). By 1886 the fee for this service seems to have been taken from rates (it wasn’t possible to work out exactly when this change took place; Star 9/3/1886: 4).

Even though rubbish in Christchurch could be collected from your property by at least 1864 (and it appears to have been a legal requirement that rubbish was removed from your property), archaeology tells us that families and businesses continued to dispose of their rubbish themselves throughout the 19th century (as a number of the posts on this blog illustrate).

A purpose-dug rubbish pit. Photo: L. Tremlett.
A purpose-dug rubbish pit. Photo: L. Tremlett.

So how did people do this? Mostly, they buried their rubbish it in purpose-dug pits, which were sometimes lined with tins – this may have been to prevent noxious material leaching into the city’s water. Because there are no soil or sand layers in these pits, we know that people weren’t throwing dirt or sand into the pit (which would have helped stop those noxious odours). The pits may have been covered is some way, which would also have reduced the odours – and the rodents – and  stopped loose sand or soil blowing into the pit. No physical evidence of such a cover has been found to date. Elsewhere in New Zealand, people threw their rubbish into abandoned privies or wells, but we’ve not found any examples of this in Christchurch so far.

An under-floor accumulation. Photo: K. Webb.
An under-floor accumulation. Photo: K. Webb.

Some people were evidently too lazy to dig a pit and simply threw  the rubbish under their house (archaeologists call this an ‘under-floor accumulation’ (Butcher and Smith 2010)), while others took advantage of neighbouring sections that weren’t occupied and buried their rubbish there – nasty! The rubbish we’ve found at the Theatre Royal may be the result of this sort of activity. And apparently sometimes people just threw their rubbish out their back door or in a pile in the backyard (a surface accumulation or surface layer). That's what the quote at the start of this post is referring - it's from a book written by a young woman who was rather disillusioned by 1880s Christchurch (Hopeful 1974).

1890-11-20_8 Press
1890-11-20_8 Press

Like us today, the residents of Victorian Christchurch threw out items that were beyond repair or had fallen out of fashion. But fashions changed a lot less quickly then than they do today and there was a whole lot less packaging than there is now. And people rarely threw out objects of monetary value, such as jewellery or watches. There was also reuse, particularly of bottles, and bones leftover from meals were often collected and turned into ‘bonedust’ (a form of fertiliser). People tended not to throw out complete or unbroken objects – it’s rare that we find something that’s not broken, and in many cases we only find one fragment from a given plate or bottle. When we do find complete or nearly complete artefacts, we start to think a bit harder about why someone might have thrown something like that out, and that’s when the out-of-fashion argument can come into play.

A nearly complete plate that someone threw out. Photo: J. Garland.
A nearly complete plate that someone threw out. Photo: J. Garland.

These are just some of the things we have to take into account before we interpret an artefact or assemblage, and before we can get to the heart of what archaeology's about: people.

Katharine Watson

References

Butcher, M. and Smith, I., 2010. Talking trash: classifying rubbish-bearing deposits from colonial New Zealand sites. Journal of Pacific Archaeology 1(1): 53-61.

Hopeful (pseudonym), 1974 [1887]. Taken In: Being a sketch of New Zealand life. Capper Press, Christchurch.

Lyttelton Times. [online] Available at: <http://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz>.

Press. [online] Available at: <http://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz>.

Star. [online] Available at: <http://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz>.