A note on archaeology and racism

I know that this is primarily a blog for sharing the above and below ground archaeology of Christchurch’s colonial period, but it felt wrong to post something this week without acknowledging and engaging with what has been happening in the world, especially the need to re-examine and actively combat racism and white supremacy in modern society. This is a big topic and one I am skimming the surface of, specifically in relation to historical archaeology and my own personal responsibility to change. Please also go and read the words of black Americans in the United States right now, of Māori and Pasifika here in New Zealand, of indigenous and people of colour everywhere.

(TL;DR – racism is a thing in archaeology, archaeology can be part of the problem, we have a responsibility to make sure it’s not; highly recommend reading all the links at the end).

English-made mustard jar, depicting scene between Uncle Tom and Eva in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Image: J. Garland.

The image above is a Prattware jar found in Christchurch, made in the 1850s, depicting a scene from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s abolitionist, anti-slavery book Uncle Tom’s Cabin. It is an object that speaks to the history of racism and slavery and oppression in America, and the place of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in the abolitionist history of the nineteenth century. It is also, however, an object of British colonialism, one that embodies a tradition of European people co-opting the imagery of black lives, embracing simplistic racialised stereotypes of other cultures, from the concept of a subservient “Tom” or the derogatory performance of blackface to the whole offensive notion of the ‘noble savage’. It is part of a LONG culture-history of systemic racism that has minimalised and dehumanised people of colour, contributing to the unequal and deadly society of today.

The last time I posted a photograph of this artefact, I did so with a caption that acknowledged the relationship of the jar to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, but failed to look deeper into the appropriation and legacy of that imagery. Listening and watching and reading over the last week, since the murder of George Floyd, and over the last years, since March 15 2019, since Charlottesville, since Michael Brown and Tamir Rice and countless others (because this has been happening for too long), I’ve thought a lot – as I hope a lot of other Pākehā have – about what I can do, to be part of the solution and not the problem. Mostly, the answer is to support, to amplify and to speak out, to stand up in solidarity and to call out racism when I see it. But, thinking about this jar and my framing of its story, I’m also conscious of storytelling and the power of words, and archaeology, to shape histories and attitudes and unconscious biases, of how much the way we tell our histories maintains that systemic, structural racism.

As an archaeologist, especially an archaeologist whose specialty is the colonial period of New Zealand’s history, one of the things I can do, professionally, is actively decolonise the language I use, be anti-racist in the way I tell the story of the space and time I investigate. I can look deeper, beneath the surface of an object or an event, to always place the work I do on the material culture of European colonial society alongside the violence perpetrated by that society against Māori and against people of colour around the world. I can better acknowledge that archaeology is itself a discipline with roots in the exploitation of indigenous and non-European culture for the sake of European curiosity and profit, something we ignore too often. Historical archaeology in particular is sometimes, I think, so focused on the humanity and story of colonial settlers that we ignore, or downplay, the uglier side of their complicity in a deliberately racist system. We should not.

Archaeologists talk about how “absence of evidence is not necessarily evidence of absence”. It’s a nice catchy phrase that reminds us to think about how the archaeological record – the deposits, the impressions left on the land – was curated by the behaviour of people in the past (it is NOT an excuse for conspiracy theories about archaeological cover-ups, which replace an absence of evidence with speculation that has no grounding in historical reality). Sometimes, the reasons for an absence of archaeological evidence are as telling as the actual evidence might have been and I’ve been thinking about this in historical archaeology, in colonial archaeology, in Christchurch. Māori are essentially invisible in the archaeological record of Ōtautahi Christchurch during the 1850-1900 period. Every single archaeological site in my dataset was occupied by European settlers, every single artefact is European or Pākehā in origin. That invisibility is not benign, not just the way it is, but is instead the result of the deliberate and, in many parts of New Zealand, forcible alienation and removal of Māori from the land and its subsequent archaeological record (it is also a consequence of the European erasure of Māori archaeology from the footprint of Christchurch during the nineteenth century). The predominance of European material culture in post-1850 Christchurch is not something that just can be explained away as a characteristic of that time: it’s a characteristic of that time because it was imposed on the land, a tool of British colonialism in New Zealand. The invisibility of Māori in my dataset doesn’t relieve me of the responsibility to talk about negative effects of colonisation in Christchurch – if anything, it makes it more important that I acknowledge and discuss the systems and structures that led to that invisibility in the first place.  

I’m afraid of confrontation. I hate it, I’m terrible at it and it makes me deeply uncomfortable. Writing this post has been a huge source of anxiety and I’m worried about what I’ve said and whether it’s enough or whether it’s too much, but it would be worse to stay silent. People are dying, people are being beaten, people here in New Zealand are suffering as a result of a socio-cultural system that has benefited me, because of my birth and my skin, and allowed me to use my discomfort as a reason not to speak out about the injustice that they are facing, even though I know it’s wrong. It is not okay. The very least that I can do is shoulder that discomfort, knowing that it will never be even a fraction of what is experienced by people of colour all the time, and use what little voice I have to amplify theirs, to actively question and deconstruct the racist systems – the bias, the assumptions, the unconscious conditioning – that I see, in my own work and in the world around me.


NB// None of this is anything new, so here are some links, to writing that challenged me and to people who have written about this all better than I ever will:

On the futility of ‘goodness’ in a racist society – https://www.elle.com/culture/career-politics/a32712287/cnn-omar-jimenez-arrest-response/

Everything on e-tangata, but especially this https://e-tangata.co.nz/history/the-land-of-the-wrong-white-crowd-growing-up-and-living-in-the-shadow-of-racism/, this https://e-tangata.co.nz/comment-and-analysis/racism-and-white-defensiveness-in-aotearoa-a-pakeha-perspective/, and these, on police violence against Māori and Pasifika, https://e-tangata.co.nz/comment-and-analysis/we-dont-have-to-go-down-this-path/ and https://e-tangata.co.nz/comment-and-analysis/partnership-is-critical-during-a-crisis/

On institutional racism in New Zealand – https://e-tangata.co.nz/comment-and-analysis/the-racism-that-too-few-of-the-privileged-can-see/, and colonialism and racism – https://e-tangata.co.nz/comment-and-analysis/moana-jackson-understanding-racism-in-this-country/

This, on the recent destruction of Juukan Gorge in Australia https://theconversation.com/destruction-of-juukan-gorge-we-need-to-know-the-history-of-artefacts-but-it-is-more-important-to-keep-them-in-place-139650 and this, on Ihumātao https://www.nzgeo.com/stories/when-worlds-collide-2/

An amazing resource for Māori place names and history in Ōtautahi Christchurch and throughout the South Island – http://www.kahurumanu.co.nz/atlas

Anti-racism resources for white people https://docs.google.com/document/d/1BRlF2_zhNe86SGgHa6-VlBO-QgirITwCTugSfKie5Fs/preview?pru=AAABcoVnEEc*g_KKl6pycPL5FuYxjxWfWQ

On the character and construct of Uncle Tom:

A JSTOR syllabus of articles on institutionalized racism: https://daily.jstor.org/institutionalized-racism-a-syllabus/?fbclid=IwAR0XqLV-pRS9aFSazieLHP2nGmRpFryEszsiYsd58qQeErrL6jriPqOFugI

On race, racism, protest and activism in anthropology and archaeology – https://www.americananthro.org/StayInformed/OAArticleDetail.aspx?ItemNumber=13103

Toward an anti-racist archaeology – https://activisthistory.com/2019/09/27/toward-an-antiracist-archeology/

In New Zealand, more generally, anything by Leonie Hayden, Damon Salesa, Morgan Godfery, Alice Te Punga Somerville, Moana Maniopoto and Moana Jackson, among many others.

Internationally, there are so many books and articles and lists of resources out there on the internet. I’ve personally loved and been challenged by the works of people like Ta Nehisi Coates, Maya Angelou and Maxine Beneba Clarke.

Home and contents: the second bedroom

Having described and discussed James and Priscilla’s bedroom, we move on to Margaret’s bedroom, which was immediately behind her parents’ bedroom. Margaret would have been about 18 when the family moved into the house and, as with her mother, we know very little about her life, particularly prior to her marriage. In fact, the only pre-marriage information (as it were) that I’ve been able to find is that, at age 12, she won a prize at school for her sewing (Press 17/12/1883: 3). Which is lovely, but just seems to feed into all the stereotypes about women’s roles in the 19th century. We don’t know how much longer she continued at school for (education was compulsory for Pākehā children up to the age of 13 in New Zealand from 1877), or whether or not she might have worked after she finished school, as became increasingly common for young women at the end of the 19th century (Olssen 2003: 84).

Image: M. Hennessey and J. Garland.

Margaret’s bedroom was pretty similar to her parents, although it was slightly smaller. The two bedrooms had identical fireplaces and mantelpieces, and this is one of the pieces of evidence that makes us think that the master bedroom was a master bedroom. The biggest difference between the rooms was in fact the amount of natural light they would have got. Priscilla and James’s bedroom faced northeast and would not only have received sun for most of the day, it had a pair of sash windows that would have let in a reasonable amount of light (veranda notwithstanding). Margaret’s bedroom, on the other hand, had just one window and it faced southwest. This would have been a cold, dark room.

Looking into Margaret’s bedroom from the door. Note the window – while this was the original window, it was the position of the original window. Image: M. Hennessey.
The fireplace in Margaret’s room, which was identical to that in her parents’ bedroom. Image: M. Hennessey.

Margaret’s bedroom would have functioned in a similar way to her parents, although it would not been a place for visitors to leave their coats and nor would it have been a place where children were born. Materially, there’s not likely to have been much of a difference between the objects used in each room (except, one assumes, a lack of male grooming products in Margaret’s bedroom!). Perhaps fewer ornamental objects, and smaller furniture. Her washbasin and ewer set may have been of slightly lesser quality, given that the space was more private than her parents’ bedroom, but they may also just have been decorated in a style more suited to her personal tastes. Unfortunately, without any artefacts from the house, it’s impossible to know what this might have been.

A selection of artefacts that Margaret might have used in her bedroom. Left: (top) Gourard’s Oriental Cream and (bottom) bottle from Rimmel, London. Gourard’s cream was marketed as a “magical beautifier”, but actually contained a compound of mercury and could have some serious side effects. Rimmel was the brand of Eugene Rimmel, who started a perfumery company in the 1830s that went on to become the cosmetics giant it now is. Middle: (top) cold cream pot lid and (bottom) hairbrush handle. Cold cream was so-named because of the cool feeling it elicited on application (apparently) and was popular during the 19th century as a facial cream, emulsion for the skin and makeup remover (Williams et al. 2017, Vol. 3: 52). Right: more plainly decorated chamber pots, which may have been used in Margaret’s bedroom. Alternatively, she may have had a set that was decorated according to her own aesthetic. Images: J. Garland, C. Dickson.

While we pause here in the second bedroom, about which there’s not a great deal to say, there two elements of late 19th century housing in Aotearoa New Zealand that I’d like to turn to very briefly. First up, door locks. Every internal door had a lock. Whether this was to really emphasise the point about privacy, or was for added security, I’m not sure, but it intrigues me. More to the point, I’d like to know when it stopped being a thing. Secondly, skirting boards. As already noted, the hall arch separated the public from the private within the house, and the (public) rooms in front of the hall arch were typically more decorative than those in front. One of the ways this played out was through the height of skirting boards, which were often higher in the public rooms than they were in the private rooms. This wasn’t just about display, but also about budget – the greater the height of the skirtings, the more they cost. In the Chalmers’ house, however, this was not the case and the skirting boards were the same height (and, at 270 mm high, these skirtings were a fairly normal height). Why there would be no difference is not known. Certainly, it’s clear from the other small details in the house that the Chalmers recognised and understood the relationship between public and private rooms and display. Perhaps the builder offered them a discount for a job lot of skirtings of the same height?

This is actually the lock on the door into Priscilla and James’s room, but the one on Margaret’s bedroom door was identical, although the maker’s mark was not as clearly visible. Notice also the decorative corners on the lock housing. Image: M. Hennessey.
The skirting boards in Margaret’s bedroom. These were the same height as the skirtings in the parlour, the master bedroom and the dining room. Image: M. Hennessey.

Katharine & Jessie


Olssen, Erik. “Working Gender, Gendering Work: Occupational Change and Continuity in Southern Dunedin.” In Sites of Gender: Women, Men and Modernity in Southern Dunedin, 1890-1939, edited by Barbara Brookes, A. Cooper and R. Law. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2003.

Press. Available online at: https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/

Williams, H., Garland, J. and Geary Nichol, R., 2017. Christchurch Justice and Emergency Services Precinct Archaeological Report, Vol. 1-3. Unpublished report for the Ministry of Justice.

Home and contents: the master bedroom

Just across the hall from the parlour was the master bedroom, meaning that it was in the ‘public’ part of the house. This was a fairly standard position for the master bedroom in a single storey house (Salmond 1986: 155, Toomath 1996: 127), although a quick perusal of 19th century house plans from Christchurch indicates that this was by no means always the case (and if you love old house plans, there are far worse ways to spend your time than looking at the Collins and Harman plans online at the Macmillan Brown Library). The dining room was arguably a more public room than the master bedroom but, as the posts in this series continue, you’ll see why we think that the dining room in this house was behind the parlour, in the ‘private’ part of the house.

The floor plan of James and Priscilla’s house, showing the location of the master bedroom. Image. M. Hennessey & J. Garland.

This notion of the bedroom as a public room is one I can’t quite get my head around, because I tend to think of your bedroom as the ultimate private space within a house. It makes more sense, though, if you think about the fact that most houses had a fairly limited range of rooms: a parlour, bedrooms, and a kitchen and the associated service rooms. The Chalmers’s house was unusual because it had a dining room – and, to be honest, if they’d had more than one child, they might not have had one, as that room might have functioned as a bedroom, depending on the age, gender and number of children. It’s worth noting at this point that mid-late 19th century houses in Aotearoa New Zealand had, by and large, identical layouts, although actual room function might vary, as in this case.

The front bedroom, looking towards the hall. The cupboard would have been a later addition – Victorian villas had very little built-in furniture (Salmond 1986: 153). Image: M. Hennessey.

As you’d expect, the master bedroom was where the husband and wife slept, but it was also a place where visitors might leave their coats (Toomath 1996: 127), this being its ‘public’ role. As a public room, this would have been a decorative space, and another room where a woman might be expected to demonstrate her respectability. The two front rooms often had very similar forms of built-in decoration, although in this case the fireplace in the master bedroom had a slightly less decorative mantelpiece than that in the parlour (the differences, however, are so small that finding them is a bit like playing spot the difference).

The fireplace in the master bedroom, which was just very slightly different from that in the parlour. Image: M. Hennessey.

With the function of the room as a public space, there’s a good chance that decorative objects played a role here, as well as in the hallway and parlour. Lighting would also have been a concern, although good lighting was perhaps not quite as essential to this room as it would have been to the more productive space of the parlour. Portable lighting – like chambersticks, and finger lamps – would have been important, particularly if James or Priscilla had to get up in the night to find their way through a darkened house. In terms of the function of the room as a place for sleeping, the material culture of a bedroom in the 19th century is not so different from what we’d expect of a bedroom now: a bed, perhaps a vanity or set of drawers, a wardrobe. Maybe even a ceramic bedwarmer (the 19th century version of a hot-water bottle). The greatest difference is the role of personal hygiene – ablutions (I love that word) – in the function of the room. The Chalmers would likely have had a washbasin and ewer set, for washing in the morning or evening, and quite probably at least one chamber pot. The chamber pot would have been tucked away beneath the bed, but the washbasin and ewer may have been displayed on a washstand, some of which even had towel rails attached. Because this room was more public than the other bedroom in the house, the chamber pot, washbasin and ewer may have matched, were probably decorated and – if they had two sets – would have been of better quality than the set used in the more private bedroom in the house.

“Colonial bedroom”, an illustration in the Bruce Herald (26/10/1894: 1). Although drawing rather heavily on USA colonial themes (the furniture was modeled on pieces from Mt Vernon), a 19th century Christchurch bedroom may still have contained many of these elements (maybe not the four-poster!).
Left: a selection of chambersticks, plain and decorated. Chambersticks, sometimes just referred to as candlesticks, were portable candle holders, often used in the bed chamber. Centre: large vase, c. early 1900s. Right: brass candlestick, c. 1870s. Images: J. Garland, C. Dickson.
A selection of ewers, chamberpots and washbasins from the Christchurch assemblage. Most of these are too early to have been used in the Chalmers household, but it’s relatively rare to find complete ewers and washbasins, let alone matching sets like the four on the right of the image (chamber pot and matching washbasin at top, washbasin and matching sponged ewer at base). Their rarity in the archaeological record is not a sign that matching sets weren’t used in Christchurch, but rather that if one part of the set was broken, the other half continued to be used. The Chalmers might have owned something like the brown washbasin (second from top left), the plain bone china chamber pot (bottom left) or the Magnolia decorated washbasin (second from bottom left), which are closer in date to their household. Images: J. Garland, C. Dickson.

This room is perhaps where we might also find some of the most personal objects in a household – those related to personal grooming and dress. If the room contained a vanity, it could have held cosmetic pots, hairbrushes, razors, hairstyling pomades and oils, toothbrushes and powders, perfumes and colognes, lint brushes and jewellery. It may surprise some to realise, given modern gender and beauty assumptions, that many, if not most, of the personal grooming artefacts found in the Christchurch archaeological record are related to the beauty standards of men, rather than women. This may have a lot to do with packaging and what survives in the archaeological record, but it’s worth remembering that as many of the personal objects in the room could have belonged to James as to Priscilla.

A selection of personal grooming artefacts from the Christchurch assemblage, from haircare to dental hygiene to skincare. Left, top to bottom: comb, possibly made from vulcanised rubber, n.d.; Price’s pomatum, used for styling male (usually) hair, c. 1860s; Bay Rum, c. 1890s-1900s, used as a ‘tonic for the hair’ (as well as other things). Centre, top to bottom: three bone toothbrushes, n.d., all of which would have had boar’s bristles for the brush; Areca Nut toothpaste, n.d.; Rimmel’s Cherry Toothpaste, n.d. Right, top to bottom: shaving or lint brush, c. 1870s; two different lids for cold cream jars, used as skincare, c. 1870s; two cologne bottles – Mulhens 4711 cologne (left) and Farina Eau de Cologne (right). Images: J. Garland.

It’s difficult to be sure exactly where medicinal and pharmaceutical products were kept in different houses (in the absence of the modern bathroom), but there’s a good chance that some of these may also have been found in the bedroom, particularly as the other function it might have had was as both a sick room (not so different from today) and as a place for giving birth (Flanders 2003: 14-22). In general, European women in 19th century Aotearoa New Zealand gave birth at home, although there were some private maternity homes in cities (Pollock 2018; in fact, one of the houses I’m looking at for my PhD was used as such later in the 19th century – the women who gave birth here mostly seem to have lived in the country). Of course, James and Priscilla’s only child was born before they moved into this house, and James and his second wife, Annetta, did not have any children. So no children were born here in the 19th century. But Priscilla died at home, at the age of 44, and it is likely that she died in this room. If she were sick for a time before her death, it is possible that she spent time in this room, while she was being treated.

A selection of medicinal artefacts. Clockwise from top left: prescription vial with label from H. A. Papprill, Christchurch chemist, c. 1890s-1900s; Holloways ointment jar, for everything, c. 19th century; Fred W. Hale’s Herbal Oinment, for inflammation and other things, c. 1880s+; Weston’s Wizard Oil, for everything and nothing, c. 1870s-1880s; and Scott’s Emulsion, for general health and growth, n.d. ImagesL J. Garland.
Priscilla’s death notice, indicating that she died at home, and possibly in her bedroom. Image: Lyttelton Times 22/6/1892: 1.

Jessie & Katharine


Flanders, Judith. The Victorian House: Domestic Life from Childbirth to Deathbed. London: HarperCollins, 2003.

Pollock, Kerry. ‘Pregnancy, birth and baby care – Childbirth, 19th century to 1950s’, Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/pregnancy-birth-and-baby-care/page-3 [Accessed 27 April 2020].

Salmond, Jeremy. Old New Zealand Houses 1800-1940. Auckland: Reed, 1986.

Toomath, William. Built in New Zealand: The Houses We Live In. Auckland: HarperCollins, 1996.

Home and contents: the parlour

And so, from the hall, to the parlour, the ‘best’ room in the house and, in more wealthy circles, known as the drawing room. As an aside, these naming schemes fascinate me – at exactly what point (in the social/wealth scheme) did a parlour become a drawing room? And when and where and why do sitting rooms, living rooms and lounges come into the picture, particularly in Aotearoa New Zealand? And how do breakfast and morning rooms fit into the picture? More importantly, what do these name changes tell us about what’s going on in society and domestic life at a broader level?

The floor plan of James and Priscilla’s house, showing the location of the parlour. Image: M. Hennessey & J. Garland.

But back to James and Priscilla’s parlour. Or maybe that should be, Priscilla and James’s parlour. The drawing room in Victorian Britain, with its ‘upper’ (used here to refer to both the upper middle and upper classes) class associations, and consequently with a class that employed servants, is generally considered to have been a feminine room, and one where women spent much of their day, reading, sewing, entertaining guests and organising their household (Tange 2010: 62). To what extent this was true of the parlour in late 19th century Aotearoa New Zealand is not clear, particularly in the case of Priscilla and her daughter Margaret, who may not have employed a servant, meaning that they may not have had a great deal of time for relaxing in the parlour during the day.

Priscilla and James’s parlour, looking towards the bay window (and the street). Image: M. Hennessey.

The identification of the parlour/drawing room as a feminine space was a key part of the middle class ideology of separate spheres discussed in the previous post. This room was where the women of the house would entertain their friends, and it was thus the most important room in the house for displaying their respectability and taste. As part of this, the parlour/drawing room showed how a woman created a beautiful, tasteful and relaxing sanctuary from the torments of the public world for her poor hard-working husband… Which completely ignores all the hard work that would have gone into creating this space, keeping the house clean and tidy, looking after children, preparing the meals, and doing the shopping, all whilst appearing suitably respectable – and calm. Anyway. The parlour, though, was not just used for entertaining, it was also used by the family as a space to relax together.

The parlour, then, was the most decorative and decorated room in the house. It was also usually the most prominent and Priscilla’s parlour was a classic example of this, with its protruding bay and bay window – so it would have been clear to passersby that this was the parlour. The room had a fireplace, in order to provide cheer and – maybe – some warmth. The fireplace was also an important place for display, in the form of the mantelpiece itself (which also provided a place for displaying goods), the fire surround (some were tiled, although the Chalmers’s one was not) and the tiles on the hearth (which had been removed in this instance). There was little else in the way of built-in decoration in this parlour – no ceiling or cornice and no picture rail to hang pictures from (although such things could have been removed latterly). The walls, though, were no doubt originally covered in a decorative wallpaper.

The fireplace. While the mantelpiece was slightly more decorative than the most basic fireplaces seen in Christchurch’s 19th century houses, it was still relatively plain, and the absence of colourful tiles from the fire surround is unusual. There would once have been decorative tiles on the hearth. Image: M. Hennessey.

Decorative objects would have played a role in the construction of this space, things like ornaments, vases, decorative lamps, well-chosen and placed furniture, as well as hung pictures and fabric coverings. Sketches and photographs of contemporary parlours (themselves a performance that probably didn’t quite equal reality – I’m sure that the rooms shown in modern interior design never look quite that tidy in everyday use) even show decorative or ornamental plants placed about the room, not so dissimilar to today.

A ‘country’ parlour, from the turn of the century. Image: Christchurch City Libraries File Reference CCL Photo Collection 22, Img01387.
The fragments of objects that might have stood on mantlepieces, sideboards and tables, lending decoration to the parlous. Clockwise from top left: figurine of woman and dog, c. 1880s; gilt porcelain vase, c. ; ceramic figurine, n.d.; ceramic dog face, from small figurine, n.d.; head of porcelain figurine of a girl in a bonnet, n.d.; glass candlestick, c. 20th century; hand painted milk glass vase, c. 1870s; crimson glass vase or lamp base, c. 1880s. The milk glass vase here is slightly too early and, possibly too expensive, to have been in the Chalmer’s house, but it’s a great example of the sort of ornamental object that they may have owned. The ceramic figurines, while not hugely common in the archaeological record, were popular objects in the nineteenth and early twentieth century and could easily have been placed on the mantle of the Chalmers’ house. Image: J. Garland.

Within this space, James and – especially – Priscilla, would have entertained and hosted guests with the aid of their material culture, particularly through the rituals of tea-drinking and, perhaps, alcohol consumption. The taking of tea involved in the full performance of afternoon or morning tea was not, as I suspect most of us do it now, limited to a teabag, a cup and some boiling water, but instead tea in a teapot, with matching milk jug, sugar bowl, teacups, saucers and, perhaps, even side places for the accompanying snacks.

The scene in James and Priscilla’s parlour may not have looked quite like this… Image: Auckland Star 24/12/1921: 1.
Tea sets. Top: bone china gilt fleur-de-lis, or ‘tealeaf’ design and bone china blue sprigged design. Centre: blue floral tea set, made post-1891 by John Aynsley and Sons at the Portland Works, Stoke-on-Trent. Bottom: Spring patterned brown tea set made by W. H. Grindley between 1880 and 1891. Bone china tea services in these two patterns were popular throughout the nineteenth century, but are very common on sites from the latter decades of the century. They were plain in design, but fine in material, easily accessible to consumers and fitted well with the more minimalist aesthetic preferred in ceramic design towards the turn of the century. Other tea sets from the period were more elaborate in design, however: the blue set in the center was found on the site of a household occupied over a similar period to the Chalmers (1890s-1900s). The brown Spring patterned set is slightly earlier, but could easily have been held onto by the Chalmers and found in their household. Image: J. Garland.

At a different time of day, or in different company, the tea service may have been switched out for alcohol, and the Chalmers may have used glass sets of decanters and tumblers to serve their guests. Glass or ceramic dishes may have been used to set out sweets, delicacies or snacks. The parlour may have also been wreathed in smoke, from time to time, if James, Priscilla (unlikely) or their guests smoked a pipe, or – by the early 20th century – cigarettes. It’s just as likely, however, that smoking wasn’t an activity that took place in the parlour – it may instead have been restricted to the dining room, as a more ‘masculine’ space (see following posts).

Vessels that may have been used to serve alcohol to guests while entertaining. Left: a water bottle or decanter, which may have been used to hold a variety of beverages. Top: ribbed pitcher and decanter with cut decoration. Bottom: cut glass tumblers. Image: J. Garland and C. Dickson.

Games may have been played through the course of this entertaining. ‘Parlour games’ is still a phrase we know and one that was often used in the 19th and early 20th century to mean a more lewd, less socially appropriate activity. Nevertheless, games were absolutely a part of the function of a parlour, both in its role as a space for guests and within the privacy of the family sphere. Games like dominoes, for example, may have been played by children and adults alike. There’s no evidence to suggest that James and Priscilla had a piano, but musical performances and practice may also have fallen within the use of this particular room.

Dominoes and parlour quoits. The full instructions on how to make your very own set of parlour quoits can be found here. Image: J. Garland and Bay of Plenty Times 23/12/1930: 3.

It’s important to remember that the parlour was not a space that was only used when guests were present. It would also have functioned as a space of work and leisure for the family in private. James and Priscilla may have had a writing desk, for example, at which they wrote letters or carried out professional or personal projects. We know that James was a member of multiple associations, including those dedicated to improving the lot of the working class – perhaps this room is where he wrote and read towards those efforts. For Priscilla, the parlour is also the room in which she’s likely to have done needlework – engaging in that ‘genteel’ domestic industry. The bay window would have provided sufficient light during the day to carry out such work and, in the evenings, if the room was well lit (lamps again! – they’re going to be a feature of every room), the fireplace, lamps and candles would have made the room bright enough to continue. 

Top: ink bottles and ink wells, the accoutrements of writing. The second from the right even has little grooves along the sides of the bottle (seen from a top down view) to hold your pen. Centre: the material culture of sewing, from cotton reels (left), copper clothing pins (middle) and the trusty old thimble (right). Bottom: more lighting related artefacts, the decorative cuff from a lamp and a plain chamberstick. Image: J. Garland, C. Dickson, G. Jackson.

Katharine & Jessie


Tange, Andrea Kaston. Architectural Identities: Domesticity, Literature and the Victorian Middle Classes. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2010. doi:10.3138/j.ctt2ttkx9.

Home and contents: the archaeology of a Victorian villa

Kia ora koutou! And welcome to our online exhibition! As the title above indicates, it’s called ‘Home and contents: the archaeology of a Victorian villa’ and it’s part of the New Zealand Archaeological Association’s Archaeology Week 2020. You can find out more about that and all the other events taking place over here. The exhibition that we’ve curated is a room-by-room tour through a late 19th century villa in Ōtautahi Christchurch, looking at how each room was used and the kind of objects that would have been used in them. Through this, we hope to give you some insight into what domestic life in late 19th century Christchurch was like. And seeing as so many of us have become quite, quite familiar with our own homes over the last month, it seems quite appropriate.

Disclaimer: the artefacts featured were not recovered from the house that’s featured. Sometimes archaeology doesn’t give you what you want and, between us, we didn’t have a good house to feature that also had lots of artefacts.

And, particular thanks on this on to Matt Hennessey, for his excellent photographs of this particular house.

The house that James and Priscilla built

James and Priscilla Chalmers arrived in New Zealand in 1878, landing in Dunedin (Otago Daily Times 13/11/1878: 2). James was an engineer by trade, but more your 19th century type of engineer (i.e. working with his hands) than your 21st century type of engineer (more involved with design and supervision). Which is really just a complicated way of saying that James was very definitely working class. James was born in Liverpool in 1848 and started his working life as an apprentice in the Liverpool Dockyards. From there he moved into railways, a career choice that would end up taking him to Russia, of all places. He spent several years in Russia, only leaving at the outbreak of the Russo-Turkish war of 1878-1879 (Press 19/4/1905: 8).

The house that James and Priscilla built in Waller Terrace in c.1889. Image: M. Hennessey and K. Webb.

At some stage prior to this, James and Priscilla had married. Exactly when isn’t clear – 19th century women are frustratingly elusive. They typically only appear in the papers (the main source for so much research – thanks, Papers Past!) if they were socially prominent, in trouble with the law or advertising for servants. And of course, women signed the suffrage petition(s), another way they became historically visible (disappointingly, Priscilla did not). Sometimes a birth, marriage or death notice might make it into the papers, but in the case of the first your husband might get more of the credit. However, Priscilla and James had presumably married by the time their only child, Margaret, was born in c.1871 (BDM Online 1907/3963).

Poor Mrs Merson got barely a passing mention for her role in the birth of her son. Image: Lyttelton Times 15/5/1858: 5.

By c.1880, the Chalmers were resident in Scott Street, Christchurch, and James was working as a fitter at the railway workshops, as so many of those who lived in this part of the city did (New Zealand Electoral Roll (Heathcote) 1880-81: 6). Unfortunately, it’s not possible to work out exactly where on Scott Street the family were living, but the street was home to numerous small workers’ cottages, some of which remained standing until the earthquakes and it is possible that the Chalmers lived in a house that like these. Unsurprisingly, because we don’t know exactly where the Chalmers were living, it’s not possible to work out whether the family were renting a house or had bought or built one.

Two 19th century workers’ cottages on Scott Street. Images: K. Webb (top left) and P. Mitchell (bottom right).

By 1886, the family had moved (to somewhere on Lincoln Road) and James was now working for the Canterbury Tramway Company (New Zealand Electoral Roll (Sydenham) 1885-86: 7, Press 29/10/1886: 3). Just a couple of years later, James purchased the land – in Richmond Terrace (now Waller Street) – where he would build the house that’s the focus of this exhibition (yes, sorry, it took a while to get there). In June 1888, James took out a mortgage against the land with one Alexander Christian Fife (LINZ 1888). Mortgages in 19th century New Zealand were often personal loans, and James is likely to have known Fife through both work (Fife was involved with the railways) and the St Augustine Lodge, as both were also involved with this (Star 18/1/1895: 1, Press 21/12/1915: 6). It is likely that the mortgage was used to fund the construction of the house (mortgages taken out in such circumstances – against a bare piece of land – are often interpreted as being used to fund house construction, although the method is by no means foolproof).

The house seems to have been completed in 1889, by which time James was the general manager at the Canterbury Tramway Company (Press 7/11/1889: 1, Wises New Zealand Post Office Directory 1890-91: 122). There’s a nice symmetry here, whereby James is moving up the employment ladder (and thus, to a certain extent up the class ladder, a managerial position like this one generally being associated with middle class status) at the same time that his family’s housing status seems to be improving, as you’ll come to see. Because the house that James and Priscilla built was a step up from the workers’ cottages typical of Scott Street.

James Chalmers, now manager of the Canterbury Tramway Company. Image: Press 7/11/1889: 1.

The Chalmers built a bay villa, that typical late 19th century New Zealand house, albeit one that was much plainer than the classic examples (although my research suggests that bay villas were not, in fact, common in Christchurch in the 19th century). This villa was not particularly ornamental – there were pediments and panelling on the bay window, coloured and etched glass around the door and there may have been eaves brackets on the front of the house. There certainly were on the sides and rear but no evidence of them having been on the front remained. I think of this all as a fairly restrained form of decoration, and I am not the first person to suggest that houses in 19th century Christchurch were somewhat plainer than those built elsewhere in the country (Mulligan and Wright 2019: 70).

Details of the house that James and Priscilla built. Clockwise from top left: etched and coloured glass in the door surround (note also the vertical letter slot); panelling under the bay window; pediments associated with the bay window; the eaves brackets on the rear corner of the house. Images: M. Hennessey.

With seven rooms, the house was of a fairly average size, and would have allowed the Chalmers family to live there in some comfort. There was no room for a servant to sleep-in (and nor did Priscilla ever advertise for one – which is not evidence that she did not have one to help around the house), but there was a separate dining room, along with a scullery and pantry (as well the standard parlour, bedrooms and kitchen). The toilet would have been in a separate building in the back garden, possibly along with a copper for doing the laundry. This range of rooms was fairly standard for a family of the middling sort in this particular time and place.

The floor plan of the house, which is a fairly standard 19th century layout, for the middling type of home owner. Image: M. Hennessey and J. Garland.

Sadly, though, the family did not long enjoy the house. Priscilla died in 1892, aged 44, and a year later, Margaret married, leaving James alone in the house (Lyttelton Times 22/6/1892: 1, Star 8/1/1894: 2). There’s no evidence of James advertising for a servant either. While this isn’t evidence that he didn’t have one, this possibility is a tantalising one for the era. James remarried in 1897, to Annetta Kinsman, who was almost the woman next door – her brother had bought the section next to James’s in 1890 and was living there by 1898 (LINZ c.1860: 669, BDM Online 1897/2040, Wises New Zealand Post Office Directory 1898-99: 233). The couple did not have any children, and James died in 1905, after being ill for a time (Press 19/4/1905: 8). He left the house to Margaret, although he gave his wife permission to live there for three months after his death – this strikes me as curious, as he had, to all intents and purposes, left his wife homeless. He did leave her the rest of his estate, so she was not left penniless (Christchurch High Court 1905). The house, in fact, would stay in the Chalmers family until 1930 (LINZ 1888).

The house that James and Priscilla built, prior to its demolition in 2014. Image: M. Hennessey.

In all of this, I have not mentioned James’s political involvement. James was a member of the Working Men’s Political Association, which was established to advocate for the rights and working conditions of working men (Globe 4/3/1882: 3). Given this obvious interest, it is no surprise that he was also a member of the Amalgamated Society of Engineers and the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants. He held executive roles for each of these organisations (Press 19/4/1905: 8). He was also, for a time, a member of the Conciliation Board, a board that mediated in disputes between employees and employers (this short sentence significantly downplays the role of these boards in New Zealand’s labour history – you can learn a bit more here; Press 19/4/1905: 8). James was also a fairly active mason (Press 19/4/1905: 8). While I can’t speak to James’s involvement with the masons, his membership of the other organisations indicates a concern with the conditions and livelihood of his fellow members of the working class (or, if you prefer, a rabble-rousing troublemaker – but there is nothing in what I have learnt of James that suggests this).

So, that’s the story of James and Priscilla and the house they built. It’s a story of change and social mobility and the opportunities that New Zealand offered its European settlers (and hidden under that is the terrible cost of this to Māori).  It’s a story of loss and possibly one of ambition. It’s also a story of labour activism, and of the roles everyday people play in much bigger social change. And it’s the story not just of the position of women in the 19th century, but their visibility in the historical record. I hope you’ll join us over the course of the next week as we explore more of the stories of James and Priscilla and the house they built.



BDM Online 1907/3963. Margaret Ann Woodward death registration. Available online at: https://www.bdmhistoricalrecords.dia.govt.nz/ [Accessed 19 April 2020].

BDM Online 1897/2040. Annetta Kinsman/James Chalmers marriage registration. Available online at: https://www.bdmhistoricalrecords.dia.govt.nz/ [Accessed 18 April 2020].

Christchurch High Court, 1905. CHALMERS James – Christchurch – Engineer (R22389332). Archives New Zealand, Christchurch office. Available online at: https://www.familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:3QS7-L9GY-2G5W?i=15&cc=1865481&personaUrl=%2Fark%3A%2F61903%2F1%3A1%3AQK9V-GN7Q [Accessed 18 April 2020].

LINZ, c.1860. Canterbury Land District Deeds Index – Volume A/S – Christchurch town sections – Subdivisions of ‘A’ book (R22765341). Archives New Zealand, Christchurch office. Available online at: https://www.archway.archives.govt.nz/ViewFullItem.do?code=22765341

LINZ, 1888. Certificate of title 135/187. Landonline.

Lyttelton Times. Available on Papers Past: https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/

New Zealand Electoral Roll. Available online at Ancestry.com.

Mulligan, Amanda, and Gareth Wright. “‘Why Not Live There?’ Two 1908 Houses in Addington and Hataitai.”  In “The raging fury of Edwardian ornamentation” Meets “a virtual frenzy of stylism”: New Zealand Architecture in 1900s: A One Day Symposium, edited by Christine McCarthy, 65-70. Wellington:  Victoria University, 2019.

Otago Daily Times. Available on Papers Past: https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/

Press. Available on Papers Past: https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/

Star. Available on Papers Past: https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/

Wises New Zealand Post Office Directory. Available online at Ancestry.com.

Keys, materialism and things

Originally, I had intended to write this post about climate change and the construction of consumer behaviour and culture, as seen through archaeology, but I think we’ve all been forced to confront the constructed fragility of our society just a little too much in recent weeks. Instead, let’s talk about things! And stuff! And if I sneak a little theory in here, well, I’d say sorry, but I wouldn’t mean it.

We have all been this cat at some point over the last few weeks, I suspect.

Part of what had got me thinking about climate change and consumer behaviour in the first place was the relationship between what I study and my own life. Both in terms of relevance – the ability of archaeology to aid in understanding and making choices in the present day – and in terms of personal perspective. How much my research makes me question my own relationship with the material world, for example. How much my things say about me, but also how much my things mean to me. If I’m looking at artefacts from 150 years ago as objects with social meaning, items with value that go beyond the economic, what meaning do I find – and place – in my own things?

The things we own say something about us, whether we want them to or not. That is a central tenet of material culture studies, particularly within archaeology, where that meaning allows us to interpret broader socio-cultural behaviours and patterns from the rubbish past peoples have left behind (key point here: material culture studies is the study of material culture). But the things we own also say something to us, as conscious or unconscious tools in how we reinforce – or even construct – our own sense of self.  One of my favourite examples of this are my keys. A meaning they held that I wasn’t aware I had given them became apparent when I moved to Australia a couple of years ago. For the first week or so I was there, I had no keys. I didn’t have a house yet, I didn’t have a car and I didn’t have an office. No gates, no locks, no responsibilities. I felt untethered from what had, until that moment, been my adult life and I realised just how much my keys – the most mundane of objects, yet one that (along with my phone) I look for and use every single day – had come to embody being an adult. Not in the sense of my age, but in how they represented the behaviours that characterised the person I had become in my adult life – the independence of owning a car, living in a house I was at least partially responsible for, having access to a workplace that in itself represented a career I had chosen and a contribution I (hopefully!) was making. All of that, bound up in a few funny shaped pieces of metal on a ring.

My keys. From the behaviour represented by the keys themselves, to the stories behind the ornaments on the keyring, they are not just a representation of me to the world, they’re a representation of me to me. Image: J. Garland.

This may have been an association that I was surprised to realise I made, but it’s certainly not an unprecedented one. Keys have been a symbolic representation of adulthood for at least a century in New Zealand, gifted as part of the ritual coming of age encapsulated in a person’s twenty-first birthday. I did a little research into this, trying to find the origins of the symbolism, but it’s not particularly clear from the limited online research I’m able to do. Some accounts link it back to medieval knights and the age structure associated with the progression of a boy from page to squire to knight, but none of these are referenced at all, so I take it with a grain of salt (Marris 2018; The Great Race 2018). The presentation of an ornamental key at the age of twenty-one seems to be a peculiarly colonial tradition, associated with Australia and New Zealand in particular, although the sources for this are also a bit lacking (Williams 2017). It does appear that it’s largely a tradition of the twentieth century, perhaps tied into the social and economic significance of twenty-one as an age of ‘majority’ (Swarbrick 2013; Temuka Leader 20/01/1927: 3; Akaroa Mail and Banks Peninsula Advertiser 19/02/1935: 1). It’s not quite the same association I’ve inadvertently made with my keys, but it’s not far off.

Keys found on archaeological sites in Christchurch. Likely too early (and too functional) to be associated with the twenty-first birthday tradition, I nevertheless wonder if they held some meaning beyond the functional to those who owned them. Did they represent responsibility, ownership, security? Images: J. Garland, C. Dickson.

Like my keys, the Christchurch archaeological assemblage is full of countless examples of objects that held meaning beyond the functional: from clay tobacco pipes that were both tools of smoking and political propaganda; to christening cups that were commemorative items and also tea wares; ceramics that carried the stories of empire, trade and British colonialism in their designs; and foodstuffs that evoked familiarity as well as sustenance. Things that may have been bought and used for more reasons than just their economic or functional values. Things that were important to who people were, where they came from and what they wanted to be. This meaning might not be the easiest to interpret from the archaeological record (not impossible, though), but it’s an important factor in understanding the relationship between people and things in the past. It’s also an important reminder to consider, when interpreting an archaeological assemblage – whether from a household or a city – not just what that collection of objects might say about the people who used and discarded it, but also what it might have said to them, about where they came from and who they were. 

Artefacts from the Christchurch assemblage. Clockwise from top left: more than just a mustard jar, decorated with a battle scene from the Crimean War, depicting the fall of Sevastopol; a bottle of calves foot jelly, imported into New Zealand; a reform pipe, more than just a tool for smoking; anchovy paste made by Crosse and Blackwell, English food producers and exporters; a christening cup, often gifted at a child’s christening. Images: J. Garland.

For example, if being momentarily bereft of keys in a new country made me confront the unconscious representation of my adult life in some bits of metal, then the lockdown has reminded me, yet again, how important my accumulated material culture is to my sense of self. There is nothing quite like rapid change to make you re-evaluate your world and your place in it and, if you are a student of material culture studies, nothing quite like being separated from your stuff to force a bit of introspection. Like Joni Mitchell says, you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone (or you can’t access it. like flat whites. do not underestimate how much I miss flat whites right now.).

Until we meet again, my friend. Image: G. M. Farewell.

I’m on lockdown in Christchurch, while my things remain in Melbourne, minus the two suitcases I brought with me (one was mostly books and whisky, I’ll be honest). After the situation with the keys, I should have realised how unsettled I would feel now, to be living inside a house, for who knows how long, where very little of what surrounds me is mine. It’s not just the familiarity of a certain aesthetic that’s important here, or any kind of possessiveness: it goes deeper than that. The story of who I am – the history of my identity – is bound up in the things I own. Gifts from people I love, things I have bought at different points of my life, things I’ve held onto from childhood, things that remind me of a moment or an experience, a collection of stuff curated by what I’ve chosen to keep, that speaks to me of what’s important to who I am. Without it, trapped inside a house for an unknown period of time, I feel ill at ease, untethered again.

The effect that being separated from my stuff has had on my sense of self throws my mind back to the experience of the Christchurch colonists, specifically the significance of British material culture in their creation and reinforcement of self – as individuals and as a community. This land was not their home and the making of it was forced, through the construction of familiar social, political and cultural structures and through the construction of a material world that reinforced their sense of self, individually and collectively (and came at the expense of the world of tangata whenua, who had been there for centuries). The things they brought with them had a role to play in the transposition of British colonial culture onto New Zealand, through the behaviours and social rituals they reinforced, from teacups and afternoon tea to the clothes, needles and gender roles of the ‘cult of domesticity’ (i.e. Middleton 2007, 2013; Staniforth 2002). Others reinforced a sensory connection to Britain, through food, through the aesthetics of colour and form and texture in furnishings and ornamentation. Others still would have contributed to those colonist’s ideas of who they were in this new place, and what they had come here to do.  

Artefacts from Christchurch, c. 1850s-1870s. What did these say to those who used them? Image: J. Garland.

There is a danger in retroactively applying notions of the present day onto past societies, particularly subjective meaning like this. But there is also a danger in assuming that, if we cannot easily find the more ephemeral meaning of the past, it does not exist. That the functional and the economic were the only relationships that past people had with the things they owned. I do not know if the colonists of the 1850s recognised the materialistic nature of their world, or acknowledged the importance of their material culture with quite this level of self-awareness. All the same, I’m certain it was important, to their continuing and developing sense of self, and to the colonial venture in general.

Ours is a materialistic society, as theirs was. If there’s one thing this research has forced me to recognise in my own relationship with things, it’s that I’m really quite materialistic. I feel like I should say that a little bit like confessing to an addiction. Hello, my name is Jessie and I am materialistic. It’s a word that evokes conspicuous consumption, ‘new wealth’, “keeping up with the Jones’”, gaudiness, vulgarity, debt, the worst of consumerism and consumer culture. Despite the overwhelmingly consumerist capitalist society we live in (or did until now, who knows what next week will hold, what even is anything), somehow, ‘materialistic’ still carries something of a slur with it. It’s a meaning that owes a great deal to Veblen’s conspicuous consumption, but it’s had the unfortunate effect of obscuring many of the other ways in which material goods are valued by people in the modern world (i.e. Douglas and Isherwood 1979). Most of us are materialistic, in the significance we place on the things we own and the comfort they provide. More simply, our interaction with material goods is an essential and everyday part of our lives, and our selves. Tell me it isn’t, the next time you find yourself craving something you can’t access during this lockdown, or taking comfort in the things you do have.  

To put it more flippantly, when you come down to it, Madonna was right. We are all material girls, living in a material world. (Sorry.)



Douglas, M. and Isherwood, B., 1979. The World of Goods: Towards an Anthropology of Consumption. New York: Routledge.

Heath, B., Breen, E. B. and Lee, L. A. Material Worlds: Archaeology, Consumption and the Road to Modernity. New York: Routledge.

Middleton, A., 2007. ‘Silent Voices, Hidden Lives: Archaeology, Class and Gender in the CMS Missions, Bay of Islands, New Zealand 1814-1845. In International Journal of Historical Archaeology, Vol. 11, Issue 1, pp. 1-31.

Middleton, A., 2013. Missionization and the Cult of Domesticity, 1769-1850: Local Investigation of a Global Process. In Spencer-Wood, S. (Ed.), Historical and Archaeological Perspectives on Gender Transformations: From Private to Public. New York: Springer.

Miller, D., 1995. Acknowledging Consumption: A Review of New Studies. London and New York: Routledge.

Staniforth, M., 2002. Material Culture and Consumer Society: Dependent Colonies in Colonial Australia. New York: Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers.

Thinking about isolation

This isn’t the post I’d originally intended to write this week, but who of us right now is doing what we thought we’d be doing even at the start of this week, let alone a few weeks ago? As the week has progressed, it has become increasingly difficult to see the relevance of that original idea in the current time and place. So, inspired by the work of a colleague (whose excellent blog post you can see here), I started thinking more about isolation in 19th century Aotearoa New Zealand. What follows  is a very once-over-lightly and rambling consideration about the different types of isolation experienced by the 19th century settlers of Canterbury, thinking about the sites of isolation I have worked on or know about. I’ve not discussed the types of isolation that Māori experienced during the century (although some may well have been the same as the European settlers, but there would also have been many types of isolation caused by colonialism), as I am in no position to do justice to this (but see this).

Truly splendid isolation. The centre of W. T. L. Travers’s station, on Lake Guyon, in what is now the St James Conservation Area, and where W. L. Newcombe lived in the 1860s (NENZC 29/11/1866: 3). It looks isolated, but there was actually someone living about an hour and half’s walk away (NENZC 29/11/1866: 3). Image: Alexander Turnbull Library, PA1-q-247-02.

Isolation actually forms a fairly prominent theme in Aotearoa New Zealand’s historiography, thanks largely to the work of Miles Fairburn (1989). I’ll confess that I’ve not read all of Fairburn, but I think I’ve read enough, and enough about his work, to be able to summarise his arguments reasonably accurately (bearing in mind that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing). I should say, too, that I’m going to focus on what Fairburn had to say about isolation in 19th century Aotearoa New Zealand, not his overall thesis. Fairburn (1989: 173) calculated that, prior to 1991, some 36-47% of the population did not have any physically close neighbours (I would contend that the methods used to generate this figure were not quite as robust as might be desirable – to be fair, it is not easy data to generate). He argued that this physical isolation was compounded by being a significant distance from ‘home’ in a strange country, without family and friends. He went on to argue that this isolation, in conjunction with relatively high levels of land ownership and relatively high levels of what he called transience (basically that people didn’t live in any one place for particularly long), combined to create an atomised society. This society was characterised by weak social bonds and high levels of drunkenness and violence (Belich 1991: 673). Subsequent work has found a more nuanced picture, and his work has been critiqued for not recognising that important social bonds formed in the face of this physical isolation (Ballantyne 2011: 61-62, Belich 1991: 674).

But it remains true that many of Aotearoa New Zealand’s 19th century settlers had left their homes to move to the other end of the world, and many came knowing that they were unlikely to see their family and friends again – I still cannot imagine the leap of faith that requires. Of course, in some cases, family and friends came too: the family of Ernest Oppenheim, who built one of the houses I’m researching, arrived in Christchurch gradually over a ten year period, most of them as adults (DLS 1865, 1872. And while others arrived on their own, they might have been attached to a broader community through religion or country of origin (Fraser 1997). While it was a lengthy boat journey back home, it was by no means impossible: Jessie’s work has found evidence of business owners travelling back to England for business purposes and I have come across families that travelled back simply for a visit. To be fair, this was often a visit of several years and probably the preserve of the wealthy. While it’s not the same, letters appear to have flown back and forth across the oceans, between New Zealand and family members who had not emigrated (Porter and Macdonald 1996: 2). Similarly, this was the age of the telegram, and English newspapers in particular were readily available in New Zealand’s cities, albeit somewhat out of date. All of these would have provided valuable and important connections between those who emigrated and those who did not.

Newspaper from home, wherever that might have been, provided a critical link to the world that many of Aotearoa New Zealand’s 19th century settlers had left behind. New Zealand newspapers printed stories from English and other newspapers, mechanics’ institutes stocked various papers for overseas (Schrader 2016: 133) and subscriptions to these papers were available – our addiction to the news is nothing new! Image: Lyttelton Times 17/4/1858: 5.

For some settlers, there was also a very real isolation from others, even in this country. Take Mrs McRae, for example, who lived on Stronechrubie station*, way up in the headwaters of the Rangitata River, from about 1878-1892 and apparently went some 10 years without seeing another woman (Acland 1975: 301-302, 304; Brown 1940: 218). Pastoral stations in general lent themselves to isolated communities at least, if not always isolated individuals. The early boundary keepers of Canterbury (who were, as best my research has identified, fairly few and far between), however, would have been much more isolated, as would the occasional shepherds who lived out on the far reaches of the shepherd. These men would have lived on their own year-round, with just occasional visits from other station workers (I honestly don’t know whether wives might have lived with them).

The remains of an 1850s shepherd’s hut on what was then Omarama station (Watson 2010: 4).

While this isolation must have been pretty hard to deal with for some, there were others who actively sought it out. Take for example, Wyndham Barker, who I’ve written about before over here (and here), established an ice rink on the north bank of the Rangitata River in the 1930s, in the lee of Mt Harper. He and his wife, Brenda, lived here year-round – even today, it’s an hour (including a jet boat ride) from the nearest town (Geraldine). And that’s the quickest way to get there. While things would have been busy there in the winter, the Barkers would have lived in splendid isolation in the summer – and the spectacular scenery would have made it quite, quite splendid.

I can think of much worse places to be isolated. But I am a natural introvert and this is pretty much my tūrangawaewae. The ice rink is in the foreground, and Wyndham and Brenda’s house is in the poplars in the middle distance.

For those living in the cities, there was much less obvious isolation, although one of the criticisms levelled at city dwelling is the isolation that can be experienced in spite of being surrounded by so many people. It is difficult to explore this type of isolation archaeologically, however. Perhaps one of the more obvious ways that people would have experienced isolation in Christchurch is through physical and forcible isolation, in either gaol or the asylum. As with the other sites of isolation discussed here, these were sites of both physical and social isolation, but the social isolation in these cases was much more deliberate. The residents of these institutions were being isolated from the rest of society for what was believed to be the benefit of both society and the individual who was being isolated. Reality, of course, may have been very different for all concerned.

One of the buildings that made up the Sunnyside Lunatic Asylum. Image: Te Papa, C.011626.

What I kept thinking about, though, as I wrote this post was that while all these people were isolated, and some in very remote locations, they all remained connected to the world in different ways. At the Sunnyside Lunatic Asylum, in the early years at least, the public were encouraged to attend a range of events at the asylum, including dances, plays, church services and cricket matches (Seager 1987). Station diaries reveal a considerable amount of to-ing and fro-ing between different stations, whether for business or pleasure – there was the seasonal round of the shearing gangs, station employees would often go and carry out work on adjoining properties, and then there were social events, too, in the form of balls and other parties (Barker 1883: 90-91, 98). And I’ve already mentioned the various ways 19th century settlers remained connected to the world they’d left behind. From this I drew two conclusions. One: while life in 19th century New Zealand might seem isolated at first glance, once you start to look into it, it wasn’t. You might not have been able to video chat with your friends from all around the globe over lunch, but expectations were different then. And this connects to my second moral: our connections to people matter. This is stating the obvious, particularly in the current circumstances. But it’s worth remembering here and now that these connections have always mattered, and that our forebears coped with this isolation and that we will too. Humans are resilient and social beings and we will always find ways to connect with others in our isolation.

Sometimes it might take crazy video chats to get you through – and this was only Day 1…

Katharine Watson

*A station (also known as a run) was a large landholding, typically of tens of thousands of acres.

Many echoes, but few voices

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, they say.

Is it, though? Is it really?

I’ve always wondered about that phrase. The thought of someone imitating me, personally, is far creepier than it is flattering, the kind of behaviour that thrillers twist to disturbing ends. If not creepy, there’s an element of mockery that lingers, particularly in imitation of mannerisms or speech, no doubt a hang up from siblings and playground nemeses gleefully repeating every word you say, never intending to flatter, always to ridicule and annoy. Professionally, in a world of intellectual property and copyright law, imitation is a fraught and complicated issue. Emulation, of business model, professional comportment, employment environments, fine, yes? Imitation, of design, of ideas, of brand? Well, that’s usually called something else, and it’s not flattery.

Yet, imitation remains a part of our material world, particularly within the framework of expensive vs. cheap, or authentic vs. fake. From designer knock-offs sold on the street for a fraction of the price, to mass-produced clothing that adapts and ‘imitates’ the trends of the catwalk, to interior design fads. It’s something I’ve been thinking about quite a lot lately, because it’s not a new thing and there are more than a few examples in the Christchurch assemblage that illustrate how the imitation of design – particularly in ceramics – is rooted as much in the social and economic meaning of objects, as it is in the aesthetic.

I had originally intended to have a paragraph here giving a brief overview of intellectual property rights in the UK in the nineteenth century, but it turns out that “brief” and “intellectual property law” are not things that go together. So, here are some links to the British Library and National Archives pages on design, trademarks and patents if you’d like to muddle your own way through it. Basically, what you need to know is that prior to 1839, very few protections, if any, existed for design or trademark and, after 1839, those protections that did exist did not necessarily prevent people from ‘adapting’ any designs they wanted (Carter-Silk and Lewiston 2012: 28; Drakard and Holdway 2002: 45). British potters, in particular, were apparently notorious for copying and reproducing designs and I’m not super clear on how the legislation affected this practice in the long run. I’m also not really trying to unravel that, as I’m sure it’s an extremely tangled web of legislation and trade protections and my brain can only take so much. What I’ve been thinking about of late is more to do with the why of imitation in nineteenth century ceramics, from the perspective of both the manufacturer and the consumer.

While I was away, I found a little bit of time to go and visit Stoke-on-Trent, in order to geek out about ceramics. Apparently now a place that no-one in England would ever conceive of going to unless they absolutely had to, Stoke-on-Trent was nevertheless the heart of the Staffordshire pottery industry of the nineteenth century and, if you are a pottery nerd (or even if you are not), it remains the place to go to experience both the industrial manufacturing processes of Victorian pottery production and the end results of that industry. While at Spode/Copeland, we had a short tour from one of the people there of their “Blue Room”, in which we talked about perhaps one of the most famous, and most taken for granted, examples of imitation (perhaps appropriation would be a better word) in nineteenth century material culture: that is, the English imitation of Chinese ceramic designs, fabric and forms.

Stoke-on-Trent is apparently a place that no-one else ever visits. Ever. From the friend who said “I’ve never heard of anyone wanting to visit Stoke”, to the people in London who said “Why on earth are you going to Stoke?” to the hotel receptionist who assumed we were there for work, because why else would anyone go to Stoke-on-Trent, it became very clear that, to the English, it’s like saying you travelled across the world specifically to visit Ashburton (sorry Ashburton, it was you or Gore and I feel like I’ve made enough jokes about Gore that I feel bad about it). Images: J. Garland and T. Wadsworth.

Because of the demand for Chinese porcelain, British potters – such as Spode – would reproduce patterns in their entirety, as well as producing patterns that claimed ‘inspiration’ from Chinese designs. Several of these are held by the Spode/Copeland museum in Stoke-on-Trent, showing both the original Chinese porcelain plate (left) and the British reproduction (right). Image: J. Garland.

Much has been written about the influence of Chinese art and culture on the development of the British ceramic industry (and tea drinking culture; i.e. Drakard and Holdaway 2002: 45, Coysh and Henrywood 1982). Much of the imitation of Chinese designs and styles was rooted in the association of Chinese porcelain with tea drinking, both in terms of the functionality of porcelain (hard, non-porous, coped well with boiling water) and the status of the beautiful blue and white Chinese styles that were, until the late eighteenth century, some of the finest available in Britain and Europe (Coysh and Henrywood 1982). To manufacture ‘Chinoiserie’, as it came to be called, was to buy into the social meaning of Chinese porcelain as much as the economic; to transfer the prestige – technical and social – of imported Chinese porcelains to the local industry. To purchase it was to implicitly acknowledge the fashionability of Chinese ceramics, by choosing to own – and display – a (usually) cheaper version. The Willow pattern is arguably the best example of this, although its ubiquity stands in contrast to the porcelains it imitates.  

The Christchurch assemblage, as most nineteenth century British colonial assemblages do, has copious quantities of ‘Chinoiserie’, or Chinese ‘inspired’ designs, from the Willow pattern (still sold today!) to slightly more uncommon patterns, some of which reference trading posts or places of significance to the English in China. However, it also has a few other examples of ceramic imitations, several of which are layered and often serve to complicate the identification and dating of artefacts and assemblages.

Colourful jug from Christchurch variously identified as a Mason ‘Imari’ jug, imitation Mason jug and Gaudy Welsh jug. This was found in an 1850s-1860s context in Christchurch’s CBD, on a mixed commercial and domestic site. Image: J. Garland.

This beautiful (perhaps, depending on your tastes…) jug was found on a site on Colombo Street a few years ago. It references what are known as Mason ‘Imari’ jugs, which in turn imitate a style of Japanese export porcelain known as ‘Imari’ by Europeans (Godden 1992: 216-218; Kowalsky and Kowalsky 1999: 269, Hildyard 2005: 123). When I first came across this jug, I found the Mason (G. M. and C. J. Mason, c. 1813-1840) examples when I was researching, but the lack of “Mason” in the impressed stamp on the base of the Christchurch jug suggested that it may have been an imitation (Trendafilov et al. 2017: 222; Paull 2018). Since then, however, I’ve come across another style, amusingly named “Gaudy Welsh”, that was made between 1820 and 1860 in several Welsh potteries (Lewis 2011). Identical examples of the jug found in Christchurch have also been identified by collectors and others as Gaudy Welsh jugs. I’m still not clear on which one it is (if anyone knows, do get in touch!), but I think there’s a case to be made that either option still references the initial Mason jugs, and all of the British examples are themselves imitations of a Japanese style. The precise nature of that imitation – inspiration or copying – is less clear, but the links back to Japanese export porcelain remains. It’s certainly clear that this was a design and a style that was shared among different potters during the early-mid nineteenth century and one that consumers may have recognised as either Mason or Japanese inspired.

Batavian ware dish with engraved decoration. Interestingly, both this dish and the gaudy jug were found in the same assemblage, suggesting they were owned by the same person. Image: J. Garland.

Another unusual artefact was found in the same assemblage. This, a brown glazed porcelain dish through which a bird and foliage design had been engraved, resembles a style of pottery popular over a century before Christchurch was settled by Europeans. Known as Batavian ware, after the port through which the original porcelain was shipped (Batavia/Jakarta), this ware consisted of Chinese export porcelain that had been covered with a brown glaze, sometimes with windows to the original porcelain or further decorated by European engravers, with bird and foliage designs (Li 2012; Nilsson 1998-2019; MacPherson 2020; Kerr 2011). Given the dates of popularity for this ware – the 1720s to 1730s – it was a deeply confusing artefact to find in a post-1850s Christchurch context and possible explanations for its presence ranged from an heirloom brought over by a settler to a nineteenth century imitation. The latter was supported by the relatively crude nature of the engraving and what appeared to be a softer porcelain paste for the body of the dish, rather than the harder Chinese porcelain expected for an original.

Various sources suggest different forms of revival or imitation occurred in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century: one indicates a revival in the early 1800s in the Netherlands, made primarily for export to South East Asia (Nilsson 1998-2019), while others suggest that the Meissen and Leeds factories made wares in imitation of the earlier Chinese Batavian pottery during the late 1700s and early 1800s (Campbell 2006: 79). That said, it’s all still a bit vague and even the early nineteenth century date is a bit early for Christchurch (an imitation AND an heirloom, perhaps?), but it does lend some credence to the idea of it being an imitation. If that’s the case, the nature of the imitation is multi-faceted, as something that references both Chinese porcelain and European trade, as well as European decorative arts through the wheel engraving. The idea of imitation as ‘revival’ also adds an element of time depth to the reproduction or adaptation of designs that is less evident in the imitation of contemporary designs. It’s something we’re familiar with today, particularly in fashion, for better or worse: I hear the 90s are back at the moment, for example, which is very much something I consider to be for worse.

An imitation of the Blue Fluted Plain or Pattern No. 1, found in Christchurch. The motif refrences stylised Chrysanthemum and cinquefoil flowers and is another example of Chinese-inspired design. The decoration on the Christchurch vessels is cruder, particularly the definition of the cinquefoil flowers, and heavier in colour than many of the examples of Blue Fluted Plain that exist elsewhere, both modern and antique. An email conversation with someone at the Royal Copenhagen factory suggests that the Christchurch examples are not originals, but may be German or English imitations (pers. comm. Nottelmann, September 2019). Image: J. Garland.

Last, but not least, more recently, I discovered a design on several porcelain vessels in Christchurch – mostly chambersticks and tea wares – that had its own story of appropriation. These vessels, found on the site of a nineteenth century shop, as well as the backyard of an early Christchurch rabbi, Isaac Zachariah, and successful Christchurch solicitor Henry Wynn Williams, were decorated with a blue floral line design with more than a passing resemblance to the Blue Fluted Plain pattern (or Pattern No. 1) produced by the Royal Copenhagen Porcelain Factory from at least 1775 to the present day (Royal Copenhagen 2019). The pattern was extremely popular throughout the nineteenth century and was copied by a variety of other European potters, as well as their British counterparts. The latter included Furnival who produced it as the “Denmark” pattern and Allerton, who produced a version under the name “Stockholm”, which demonstrates that people could be as bad at geography in the nineteenth century as they are now. Naturally, the Blue Fluted Plain was itself inspired by Chinese designs, because of course it was. It was an exceptionally popular pattern and style and the factory was associated with the royal family and Danish nobility, for whom many of their products were made.

The naming of the English versions of the Blue No 1 pattern shows an awareness of its Danish origins, even of its origins as Royal Danish Porcelain (well, the Furnival one does – the Allerton one is, admittedly, a bit confused). The acknowledgement of the European origins of the pattern and the replication of the design is not just an acknowledgement of its popularity but – particularly for the consumer – is also an acknowledgement of the social status of the design, an attempt to gain that same meaning for a fraction of the price. We know this – many of us do this, when we buy cheaper versions of designer goods, when we respond to a complement with “oh, it’s just a fake”, when we equate authenticity and originality with realness and therefore, imitation with pretense. It’s not an association I can prove from only a couple of samples, but it is interesting to note that the examples found on domestic sites in Christchurch are associated with people of a moderate-high community status – a rabbi and a well-respected and successful solicitor.

Writing this post raised a few points for me, in terms of design and the different forms of imitation and the nature of art and material culture. One, I had a lot more to say about this than I thought I would (if you’ve made it this far through the post, well done!). Two, the stories that can be told by artefacts can have much greater depth and breadth to them than even I think possible sometimes. So many of the artefacts found in Christchurch to date are British-made, but their stories are in fact part of a much greater art and design tradition that spans centuries and continents and builds again and again on what came before it. Even though the city was settled by Europeans in 1850, to limit our perspective just to the latter half of the nineteenth century would be to ignore so many of the factors that contributed to its development: both the people who arrived to settle there after 1850, and those who had already been there for centuries have stories – and material culture – that extend back through time and across the world. And three, copyright and intellectual property law is a surprisingly interesting and unsurprisingly complicated thing that, for the most part, appears to have had little impact on the potters of the nineteenth century, no matter where they were in the world.


Carter-Silk, A. and Lewiston, M., 2012. The Development of Design Law Past and Future: From History to Policy. Intellectual Property Office, Newport.

Coysh, A. W. and Henrywood, R. K., 1982. The Dictionary of Blue and White Printed Pottery 1780‐1880, Volume I. Antique Collectors’ Club, Suffolk.

Drakard, D. and Holdway, P., 2002. Spode Transfer Printed Ware: 1784-1833. Antique Collector’s Club.

Godden, G., 1992. An Illustrated Encyclopaedia of British Pottery and Porcelain. Magna Books, Leicester.

Hildyard, R., 2005. English Pottery 1620-1840. V & A Publications, London.

Kowalsky, A. A. and Kowalsky, D. E., 1999. Encyclopedia of Marks on American, English and European Earthenware, Ironstone, and Stoneware 1780-1980. Makers, Marks and Patterns in Blue and White, Historic Blue, Flow Blue, Mulberry, Romantic Transferware, Tea Leaf, and White Ironstone. A Schiffer Book for Collectors, Atglen, U.S.A.

Li, B., 2012. ‘Batavian’ Style Chinese Export Porcelain: Origins, Recent Finds and Historic Significance. In Buslig, S. A., Chien, N. D. and Li, B. 2012. The Ca Mau Shipwreck Porcelain [1723-1735]. The Hungarian Southeast East Asian Research Institute.

Paull, J., 2018. Janice Paull Antiques and Design, International Specialist in Mason’s and other English Ironstone China, c. 1790-1848: Fakes. [online] Available at http://www.janicepaull.com/fakes/fakes.htm [Accessed 3/5/2018].

Trendafilov, A., Garland, J., Whybrew, C., Mearns, L., Lillo Bernabeu, M., Hennessey, M. and Webb, K., 2018. Christchurch Convention Centre, Vol. 1. Final report on archaeological monitoring under HNZPT authority 2017/280 eq. Unpublished report.

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.

An encounter with an unexpected nappy (and other things)

Lately, I’ve been thinking about languages. Languages and cultures. Specifically, the languages of archaeology, as a profession: how, around the world, they reflect our different cultural backgrounds and historical contexts and, more personally, how they code the perspective and background of the collector and analyst into the archaeological record. Basically, I’ve been reminded how much of ourselves we put into what we record and just how much that reflects our lives and where we come from.

I’ve been away, in the US, Canada and, now, England, where I’m writing this in a café in Whitechapel, London (across the road from a fish and chip shop amusingly named Jack the Chipper…). Maybe it’s because I’ve been looking through archaeological collections from these places with a view to finding similarities and differences, or maybe it’s just me, but hopping from country to country has been a bit of a study in duelling senses of familiarity and strangeness. Some of the differences were obvious: street after street after street of brown brick and stone row housing in Boston and liquor stores disguised as “wine emporiums”. The cobbled streets and age-weathered building facades of London. The politeness of Canadians. I thought it was a stereotype, if I’m honest, but I have never seen so many people have such polite and friendly exchanges with bus drivers: it puts the rest of us to shame.

The snow and -12 to -20 temperatures were also something of a reminder that I was not where I should be in January. Clockwise from top left: snow in London, Ontario; the row houses of Boston; snow in Toronto; Jack the Chipper in Whitechapel, London, where ‘Ripperology’ is still very much a thing.

At the same time, there’s a commonality of culture between all these places – not necessarily on a grand scale, but in the minutiae of daily life. There is much that is the same, or that can at least be easily, unconsciously translated, but the little points of difference remain, creating a weird sort of cognitive dissonance where I feel at home and then remember where I am. It’s something I’ve felt before, living in Australia, although it can sometimes be less obvious there, I think, for a kiwi. There have been times when I’ve genuinely forgotten that I live in Australia, even when I am actually in Australia (funny story, at Canadian passport control, the passport person said “So, you live in Australia?”, to which I replied very authoritatively, thinking I’d been mistaken for an Australian, “No, New Zealand”, until she said, “but you’ve written Australia on the form in front of me”. I forgot. Again. I do live in Australia.).

As those differences and similarities exist in culture, they also exist in language (unsurprisingly, given how one is entangled with the other). In all the places I’ve been over the last few months, we speak the same language, but, still, the words don’t always mean the same thing (there are too many examples of this to list, but my favourite is the word “tramping” and the many baffled faces it elicits from Australians when I say I’m going tramping for the weekend). People and places, even those with shared cultural histories and language bases, grow together in different ways and, sometimes, even the same language requires a little translation.

This is the classic example, isn’t it, when it comes to English-speaking words for the same object: jandals, flip-flops, thongs, slippers, “toe-post sandals”. Image: J. Garland.

And, as with life, so too with archaeology (you might be forgiven for thinking otherwise, but this is actually a blog about archaeology, I promise). Working with archaeological collections in different countries has been an exercise in translation, of systems and of terminology. Despite sharing a great deal of our disciplinary and methodological foundations, we have each developed archaeological languages, or dialects, of our own. Never has this been more apparent to me than in navigating my way around collections of the same types of material culture from different parts of the world. I already knew that artefact terminology can be inconsistent, having spent a lot of time standardising catalogues created by different people, but I hadn’t quite realised how much that inconsistency, when viewed from a global perspective, reflects the different geographical, cultural and archaeological contexts of place.

Some of it is as simple as frames of reference. The British archaeological context is very different to the New Zealand one and their language of analysis is built upon a very different archaeological tradition. Recent, nineteenth century archaeology is only a tiny part of what is excavated and ‘colonial archaeology’ doesn’t apply in quite the same way, so things are labelled and ordered according to other frames of reference: what I would call colonial, European, or British ceramics in New Zealand are post-Roman or post-Medieval pottery in England. The system of archaeological data recording is structured differently, written for a different archaeological record, a different chronology. Just talking about systems of recording material culture data probably deserves a whole other post, if I can figure out how to make it interesting to more than just the data nerds, as does the more general framework surrounding the repositories and collections of archaeological material around the world and, more specifically, in New Zealand.

Some of it is even more meta than just the archaeological context and references the actual disciplinary tradition of archaeology in different places and the influences (for example, the language of collectors) that have impacted that tradition. This became apparent at the SHA Conference in Boston (which Kat wrote about last time), where I went to a forum on the use of synonyms in artefact collections and the need for a glossary of terms, particularly for researchers from different states and countries. This is a very good idea, as anyone who has come across a term like “glass nappy” in a report and had to very gingerly, and with some trepidation, google it at work, will be well aware.

Not what you expected from “glass nappy”, is it? Another term that might require checking, depending on where you come from, is the delightfully named “twiffler“. More mundanely, even something as ubiquitous as a black beer bottle can have multiple names: I’ve seen it called an English wine bottle, black glass stout or black glass porter, even just ‘dark olive bottle’. Image from here.

It was illuminating to hear people from Australia, England and the US talking about just how varied our archaeological languages are (the discussion on white granite and ironstone alone was INTENSE; so too, surprisingly, was the discussion about coarse earthenware). Among the many interesting points covered was one on the unexpectedly diverse languages used for site recording, including, for example, ‘spit’ and ‘artificial or arbitrary level’. Spit, which is, as far as I’m aware, the term used in New Zealand, is a more British term and our use of it, instead of the American artificial level, shows the influence of British field recording on the development of the discipline in New Zealand. Yet, when it comes to colonial archaeology in New Zealand, we borrow more heavily from American artefact terminology than we do from the ‘post-medieval’ British traditions, because so much of what is considered colonial or historical archaeology developed in North America in the twentieth century.

Another mix of terminology that confused me slightly the first time I encountered it: ‘Lots’. This is part of a Certificate of Title from Christchurch, in which “Lot” references a historic property boundary. But in Canada, it’s used to label archaeological features and contexts: “Lot 22” might instead refer to a cesspit.

On a more personal note, thinking about all of this made me think again of the reflection of my own personal disciplinary history and socio-cultural background in the language I use as an archaeologist and an analyst. I don’t know that I have any specific examples, but I have absolutely no doubt they exist. All of the things I’ve just talked about have a very clear and visible influence on the development of archaeological languages, but so too – especially in artefact terminology and analysis – does the human in the equation, i.e. me. The importance of objectivity in cataloguing, especially in the design of typologies, is undeniable, but it’s also impossible to avoid subjectivity entirely, because, in the end, it’s all done by a person and we are nothing if not a product of the world around us.

All of which is very meta and post-modern and other people have written about it with far more clarity than I’ll ever be able to articulate, but I guess what I’m trying to say is that it’s not a bad idea to be reminded every now and then of the world – in all its diversity and similarity – that influences the way that we, in turn, conceptualise the past. And, as always, to remember that context is everything.