What is the assemblage?

The assemblage consists of artefacts recovered by Underground Overground Archaeology as a result of earthquake authorities issues by Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga since the earthquakes of 2010 and 2011.

Quantifying the assemblage

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  • 706 boxes of artefacts that have been identified

  • 391 boxes of artefacts waiting to be identified

  • 64 boxes of artefacts waiting to be washed

What materials does the assemblage contain?

  • Māori – shells, bones, charcoal, stone flakes and fire-cracked rock, along with pollen samples, from middens, hāngī/ovens and cultural layers

  • Pākehā - ceramics, faunal material, glass, leather, bricks, clay tobacco pipes, building samples (particularly timbers and wallpapers), paper and metal

Where does the assemblage come from?

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  • Christchurch, Lyttelton, Kaiapoi, Rangiora and Akaroa, as well as a scattering of rural sites

  • domestic, commercial, religious, education, industrial, administrative, entertainment and infrastructure sites

  • cultural layers, middens, hāngī/ovens, rubbish pits, fills, underfloor accumulations and redeposited material


The condition of the assemblage varies, although the majority of the artefacts are incomplete. This does not decrease the value of the assemblage from an archaeological point of in view.

In fact, the fragmentary nature of the artefacts can tell us something about why the artefacts were thrown out and/or rubbish disposal practices at a particular site.

The assemblage does contain several examples of well-preserved artefacts, such as leather hats and metal bottle capsules, that are rarely found on archaeological sites. In addition, it includes several artefact deposits found in the walls or under the floors of buildings, a depositional context that often results in the unusually good preservation of paper, leather and fabric items.

A number of the leather, metal and paper artefacts have been temporarily conserved and stored appropriately, but there has been no conservation treatment of the assemblage as a whole.

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The Māori assemblage contains material from sites stretching from Kaiapoi to Akaroa to the Port Hills, though most of it originates from the Redcliffs/Sumner area.

These sites are part of a larger landscape of Māori occupation, linked by threads – in the form of kinship ties, economics and trade – connecting far-flung sites and groups throughout the South Island, and reflective of seasonal patterns of mobility taking advantage of distant resource bases.

Familial connections linked hapū from these various sites, and the individuals who gathered shellfish and caught red cod and ling at Sumner in the summer months may have also been those who spent their winters on Kaitorete Spit capturing eels, or on the Hanmer Plains catching weka.

The assemblage represents over 700 years of Māori occupation, during which time Māori experienced diminishing resources, climatic change and periods of increased conflict, and the assemblage captures changing aspects of Māori culture during this time.


The context of the Pākehā assemblage is the 19th century city of Christchurch. The city was a product of colonialism and capitalism, brought together in the form of the Canterbury Association (although the ideals of the association were soon departed from).

This context also encompasses the development and growth of a new settlement, replacing the flax, ferns and cabbage trees of the swamp with something recognisably a city.

In a very short time the city rapidly grew to include the outlying suburbs, and as it grew, its relationships with Lyttelton, the peripheral settlements of Kaiapoi and Rangiora and the pastoral hinterland changed.

From an international perspective, the assemblage was formed during a period of increasing globalisation and modernisation, within a British colonial landscape that was at its apotheosis.

The material culture of the city during this period also reflects the capitalist, entrepreneurial and industrial development of the Canterbury region. That same material culture played a role in the construction and negotiation of Christchurch’s developing identity, its changing class structures and new socio-political movements, and represents the pervasiveness of colonialism throughout the period and beyond.


The rarity of the assemblage is high, for several reasons: its size, its relative completeness, the period of time that it covers and the context within which it was created. That is, the assemblage was recovered by a single organisation over a relatively short period, meaning that little has been discarded and thus that the assemblage as a whole is relatively intact.

The Pākehā assemblage, in particular, provides a more comprehensive material representation of a city than is usually available in urban archaeology. This combination of factors make the assemblage rare not just in New Zealand, but globally.

The timespan covered by the assemblage extends from c.1300 AD to the early decades of the 20th century, covering centuries of Māori activity in Ōtautahi and the founding decades of Christchurch.

The context of the assemblage on its own is not so rare, as many other cities around the world were formed during the 19th century as a product of the same/similar context. It is the combination of this context with the other factors outlined here that makes this assemblage rare at an international level.



The Māori material ranges in nature from midden and soil samples to taonga tūturu, and sheds light on domestic activity, diet, mobility and tool manufacture and use.

The roughly 700 years of human history represented by the assemblage has the potential to provide information regarding the process of Māori colonisation, coming from the small islands of the tropical central Pacific to the grand, temperate archipelago that is Aotearoa.

The raw materials reflect long-distance exchange networks operating throughout the country, as well as the development of organised systems of seasonal resource use and social organisation complexes that governed their access and use.

The assemblage demonstrates Māori acts of terraforming, as they adapted a previously uninhabited landscape to their own ends, even as their own technology and cultural systems changed in response to and alongside diminishing resources and a dynamic landscape.


The historical context of the Pākehā assemblage is well documented but little explored from either an archaeological or historical perspective. And yet these forces continue to shape the city (and the lives of its residents) today and are forces that have had a significant effect on the lives of many people around the world.

This archaeological assemblage is uniquely positioned to shed more light on how these forces shaped and developed Christchurch and its residents, by revealing information about the individuals who built and lived in the city. From these many small or individual stories, much bigger questions about Ōtautahi, Christchurch, capitalism, colonialism, industrialisation and a whole range of other themes and forces that continue to shape the world can be investigated.

The relatively small size of the city concerned allows us to see processes, patterns and developments that might be overlooked or difficult to see in larger cities (with larger assemblages and greater time depth).

The assemblage also has the potential to shape and inform methods of archaeological analysis. Overall, its information potential is high.


The size, context and information potential of the assemblage mean that it has special cultural associations for many people and organisations, including Ngāi Tūāhuriri, Ngāti Wheke and the range of other ethnic/cultural groups who helped build Christchurch, along with families descended from those whose past we’ve uncovered.

Perhaps just as important as this, however, are the cultural associations for current and former Christchurch residents. These artefacts are a tangible reminder of the heritage many Christchurch residents feel they have lost since the earthquakes, and the value placed on them as a result is hard to overestimate.

These artefacts are a community asset and, notwithstanding the legalities of the situation, should be understood to belong to the community as a whole.


This, too, is hard to overestimate. These artefacts are a tangible connection to the past. They’re objects that can be picked up and handled, that can be talked about and researched.

They can spark a discussion about the changing size of shellfish in the estuary, about the strange uses to which castor oil was put or about the position of women in mid-late 19th century Christchurch.

For every research question that can be asked of this assemblage, there is potential public engagement, as already demonstrated by the numerous talks and exhibitions that have featured items from this assemblage, as well as the blog and Facebook page based around them.

This assemblage has the power to give Christchurch residents a rich and unique window into their past, a chance to be proud of that past and to make that past part of the future.


In addition to the obvious and significant historical value of the assemblage, intricately tied as it is to the history of Christchurch, and to New Zealand as a whole, the assemblage also demonstrates numerous other values:

  • architectural values, in the samples that tell of changing architectural styles and what went into the making of the first New Zealand homes
  • technological values in the developing tools that both Māori and Pākehā used to craft their homes and personal items, and the ‘number-8 wire’  ingenuity that would place New Zealand at the forefront of invention
  • aesthetic values in the attractiveness and nostalgia of both ornamental and utilitarian items in the assemblage
  • scientific values, in its ability to inform us and test assumptions we have about the past
  • and social values, being a representation of Christchurch as a community, and a social history that is shared by all the city’s inhabitants.