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.

Musings on a conference

A conference like the recent Society for Historical Archaeology (SHA) one in Boston can be pretty overwhelming – it’s attended by 1200 people and there are multiple concurrent sessions. Even perusing the lists of papers and all the abstracts can take some serious time, not to mention actually deciding which papers to go to, and working out whether it’s better to attend one whole session (my preference) or to duck from session to session to catch particular individual papers (which I find a bit exhausting!). And there’s almost constant FOMO, not to mention the complete inability to think straight that comes after a full day of listening to papers. But it’s a fantastic opportunity to be able to hear archaeologists from all around the world talk about an incredible diversity of topics, to meet new people, to hear about different approaches and new theories and learn about different places. Such as Iceland. I learnt a lot about Icelandic archaeology this year – not directly relevant to my own work, but still entirely fascinating. Such as the story of a feud between two villages that lasted something like a thousand years (no, that’s not a typo) and the way this played out in the different ceramics they used, with one village using significantly more ‘modern’ ceramics than the other, in spite of the two being pretty geographically close.

One of great things about SHA is the chance to hear a whole lot of ideas that I wouldn’t otherwise be exposed to. So this year I attended a session on archaeology as social activism, another about the politics and memorials, one about queering archaeology (including possible evidence of cross-dressing from early 20th century Washington D.C.), another (Jessie’s session!) about the archaeology of retail and a rather lovely session all about unusual ceramics found on American archaeological sites that was perfect first thing on a Saturday morning. This included a fascinating paper about Mary Washington (George’s mother…) and how she used ceramics to keep up appearances following the death of her husband, which left her with five children and in somewhat reduced circumstances at Ferry Farm, Virginia. Archaeologists working there have found evidence of homemade glues being used to repair ceramic dishes – once repaired, these dishes would not have been watertight, but could still have been used as display pieces. Rather fantastically, the presenters described Mary as having “a strong tea game”, in an era when hosting guests for tea was an important social ritual.

The replica of Mary Washington’s house built at Ferry Farm. Image: Wikipedia.

Buildings archaeology doesn’t loom large at the SHA conference and there were just a handful of papers that really focused on buildings as archaeological sites, although quite a few others that mentioned buildings along the way, including one about what the presenter called “ghosts in the walls”, another phrase I loved. This was about deposits deliberately hidden around the doors and windows – the “liminal spaces” – of Bacon’s Castle, a c.1665 building in Virginia, perhaps by slaves. These objects included a shoe that had deliberately been cut in half, along with more mundane bottles and fragments of glass.

Bacon’s Castle, the oldest surviving brick building in North America, built by Arthur Allen. Image: Wikipedia.

Two papers were much more explicitly about buildings archaeology (there was a third, but it was on at the same time as one of the other two). Sarah Breiter looked at the building materials used in houses in Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk in the 14th and 15th centuries while Chris King looked at the similarities and differences between merchants’ houses in Norwich and New England in the 17th century. Sarah Breiter’s paper considered the “entanglements” of the building materials used, and how these building materials reflected what else was going on in that particular time and place – such as the dissolution of the monasteries, or how oak forests were being managed, or how certain people might have controlled access to a particular resource. The basic premise of this paper was that you cannot understand a building properly unless you understand what it was built from and, more importantly, why, because the availability of building materials was governed by the social, environmental, political and economic context in which the building was built.

Chris King’s paper examined the use of merchant’s houses in 16th and 17th century Norwich as civic spaces, explaining how merchants used and decorated them to help in their quest for local political power, not just for themselves but for their families as a whole. What perhaps intrigued me most about this paper was his comparison of these houses with the merchants’ houses of New England, and how these houses in fact have parallels with Protestant meeting houses in Europe. These parallels can be linked to their shared Protestant beliefs. The other fascinating element was that, when the Puritans arrived in New England, they built houses with what was, for the time, a relatively new, modern layout, but with an exterior that was somewhat out of date, with prominent gables and jettied first floors. My own work means that I’m particularly curious about what people build in a colonial setting and how that relates to where they’ve come from – and what it says about how these people saw their place in the world. New Zealand’s British settlers, for example, largely retained a typically British layout, but what they did with the exterior of their houses depended a lot on when they arrived, and varied from person to person.

Pettus House, Norwich. Image: Wikipedia.

What I love about going to SHA is not just the diversity of papers and topics covered (I’ve barely scratched the surface here), but the political nature of so many of these papers. So many papers deal with power imbalances in society, whether that’s in relation to gender, ethnicity, class or status, etc, and they discuss this in quite explicit ways. Some of these power imbalances are in the past, but others are in the way archaeology is carried out today – for example, the powerful keynote presentation from Whitney Battle-Baptiste, exhorting us all to read more work by black female archaeologists, which led me to think about my own reading. It’s not something we do a lot of in Aotearoa, in part because there’s currently no historical or modern world archaeology academic position here and in part because so much modern world archaeology gets carried out in a commercial setting (where there is little time or money for carrying out detailed research, and where you don’t get to choose the sites you’re working on, so you can’t select a site to try and answer a particular research question). Historical archaeology, as has been acknowledged almost since the discipline’s development, has a particular power to reveal the stories of the marginalised, but it’s also important to be conscious of our own privilege in carrying out this work.

With thanks to the UC Doctoral Overseas Travel Scholarship, which enabled me to attend this conference.