Why buildings archaeology?

Before answering that question, let’s start with what buildings archaeology is. Basically, it’s using archaeological techniques to document standing structures with a whole range of functions, from tramping huts, to houses, to churches, to flour mills, to shops, to libraries, to hotels and even radiation laboratories, along with any other building type you can think of. Like other forms of archaeology, buildings archaeology uses a variety of techniques, such as drawing, photographing, measuring, recording and sampling. More technological methods can be used too, such as dendrochronology, laser scanning and photogrammetry – although these last two are really just achieving the same end as drawing, measuring and photography. And, because of the period of our past that I deal with (mostly the 19th century), I’d like to throw in historical research as an archaeological technique too, because this provides some of the necessary context for interpreting the building – without this, I could not understand the buildings I’m investigating.

The former Christchurch Public Library, built 1875 to a design by William Armson. Arguably the most beautiful building I recorded post-earthquake. Image: K. Watson.

To me, buildings archaeology is essentially breaking down a building into its individual components, recording all the details of those – form, fabric, dimensions, how it was made or shaped, its location in the building – in order to understand how that building was constructed and how it has changed over time. The building components I’m referring to are things like the foundations, the bricks, the nails, the wallpapers, the skirting boards, the architraves, the window surrounds, the windows themselves, the doors, the roofing material, the floorboards, the nature of the joinery – you get the picture. As well as recording all these individual details, buildings archaeologists also record the form of the building as a whole, through floor plans, elevation drawings, cross-sections and foundation plans.

A house in Avonside Drive, built in c.1897 by T. N. Horsley, local businessman and politician. Image: L. Tremlett.

So why do archaeologists record buildings in this way? What can we learn from doing this? Lots, is the short answer. Buildings, obviously, were not constructed in a vacuum. The construction techniques and building materials used, the external appearance of the building and its internal layout, even its overall form and shape, reflect the economic, social and political context in which it was built – so while it’s essential to understand as much of that context as possible to understand a building, a building can in turn be used to better understand that context (Johnson 2010). Take for example, the recent trend for tiny houses, which, in New Zealand at least, are a response to the current housing crisis, which has seen houses become increasingly expensive. They also, perhaps, represent an increasing desire for a more minimalist way of life, to avoid clutter and owning so many ‘things’. And, for some, they represent a desire for a more environmentally friendly way of life. In some ways, they can be seen as somewhat anti-capitalist. This context, and these broader social movements, help us understand why tiny houses are being built here and now. A detailed analysis of the form and fabric of these houses would shed light on what particular individuals value through what they’ve chosen to build their tiny house from, what they’ve chosen to include in it and, just as importantly, what they’ve chosen to exclude.

There’s a lot that buildings archaeology can tell us about building materials and techniques, which can tell us about the surrounding environment, about trade patterns and about local industry. These things can also be really helpful when trying to work out when a building was built, or when specific changes were made. Examining building techniques and materials can also tell us if a building was built cheaply – or if no expense was spared. Building layout can tell us about social relations, about how space was gendered, about how access to space was restricted to and by different groups, or about how people moved through buildings, and how this relates to broader social patterns. Servants’ stairs are a classic example of the latter, and the hall arch that separated public and private spaces in Victorian era houses is a good example of how access to space was controlled. Like so much archaeology of the recent past, buildings archaeology can shed light on the lives of the marginalised. And it is likely, too, that it can answer questions about homelessness in the past, although it does not at first glance seem well positioned to do so.

A house in Waltham, Christchurch, built with double brick walls, but the internal skin of bricks has been laid stretcher to stretcher, rather than bed to bed, which would have used fewer bricks than building in the standard manner (Hennessey and Watson 2013). Image: Hawkins Construction.

But I am most interested – at the moment – in buildings as material culture, in the premise that houses in particular say something about the people who built, owned and lived in them (and, while my focus is on houses here, the same can be said of any building – basically, buildings say things about people). I regularly trot out the line that we judge the occupants of a house by its appearance in the same way we judge a person based on their appearance – it’s no less true for the frequency with which I say it. Our understanding of houses and our ability to appraise them in this way comes from having an innate sense of what the different features of a house ‘mean’ – or at least, how they’re interpreted by the society in which they were built (and remain standing) – so long as we understand that context. And that’s the kind of understanding that can come simply from living somewhere, from knowing a place well. It’s important to keep in mind that meanings change. They change with time and place. They change as political and social ideas change. And they might change with the people who own or occupy the house, or as the house itself changes. Again, context is everything.

In New Zealand, buildings are protected in much the same way as below ground archaeological sites, in that the Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga Act 2014 requires you to have an archaeological authority if you are demolishing a building built prior to 1900 (unlike below ground archaeological sites, buildings are not protected from damage or modification). That archaeological authority will typically require recording of the building prior to and during demolition. And that’s where the sample of houses I’m using for my PhD research comes from. Actually, it’s a bit more specific than that: the 101 buildings in my sample were all demolished between February 2011 and June 2015 under the provisions of what was then the Historic Places Act, as a result of earthquake damage. They were all in Christchurch, and all were built prior to 1900.

This context – yes, that word again – is important for a number of reasons, both for this blog and my research. The rapidly increasing word count of this post means I’m only going to deal with the former here (although there is some overlap) – the latter will no doubt come up in due course. In the first instance, the earthquake context means that there will be photographs of buildings that collapsed to some extent or were badly damaged in the earthquakes, in ways that meant that certain parts of some buildings could not be accessed, or in ways that meant perfect photographs of façades were not possible (those, to be honest, are made pretty difficult by a number of factors, hence the importance of elevation drawings). The other consequence that I’m acutely conscious of is that it means that most of the photographs were not taken by me, and none of the elevations or floor plan were drawn by me. Instead, these images were created by people who working for me at the time. Some of the photographs, too, were taken in the early days after the earthquakes, when I was contracted to Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga (HNZPT) to take photographs of listed and/or pre-1900 buildings that were being demolished. So that’s why you’ll see other people, or HNZPT, credited with a number of the images that appear. It’s also why you’ll see other people credited for the interpretation of the building, whether here or on our social media channels.

A partly collapsed house that I recorded following the earthquakes. Image: Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga.

There you have it! A very brief introduction to the whys and wherefores of buildings archaeology. Like any form of archaeology, it’s another way of learning more about the past, and people in the past, through tangible objects, through detailed recording and, a point somewhat belaboured in this post, through understanding context. Buildings are a different dimension through which to investigate the archaeological record, and enhance our understanding of the lives of those who created that record.


Hennessey, Matthew and Katharine Watson, 2013. 6 Short Street, Christchurch: report on archaeological monitoring. Unpublished report for Hawkins Construction.

Johnson, Matthew, 2010. English Houses 1300-1800: Vernacular Architecture, Social Life. London: Routledge Ltd.

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