This post has been surprisingly difficult to write. The first words on a blank page are always so much harder than they have any right to be. It’s that overwhelming sensation of just not knowing how to begin, how to possibly find the right words to start funnelling all you want to say down on to paper. We could begin with who we are (hi, we’re Jessie and Katharine) and what we do (archaeology!), but we’ve been down this road before and it almost feels like we’re starting in the middle. How much backstory do we need for this new chapter?
How about this? Hi. We’re two archaeologists who used to work in post-quake Christchurch, and used to blog about that work. Now, we’re two archaeologists who study Christchurch through the data generated from work we used to do and, not entirely unsurprisingly, have decided to blog about it.
Or, to put it another way, it turns out we’re both suckers for punishment and as incapable of saying no to things – especially our own ideas – as we always have been. Over the last couple of years, we’ve both genuinely missed the act of blog writing – unexpectedly so – especially as our research has grown and we’ve found ourselves going off on tangents that were just crying out to be written up into posts. So, here we are.
We’re both now PhD candidates (I rest my case about being suckers for punishment – J), Katharine at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch and Jessie at La Trobe University in Melbourne. This blog is intended to be something of a way for us to talk about our research – into domestic architecture (Katharine) and material culture (Jessie) – in nineteenth century Christchurch, as well as an outlet for the million and one asides we keep finding along the way. Much of it will be related to Christchurch and the title of the blog is a shout-out to our continued connection to that city, as well as to the broader urban archaeological scope of our interests. We reserve the right, however, to veer slightly further afield from time to time.
To continue setting the scene, it seemed a good idea to devote this first post to a bit of an overview of our research (and, I suppose, of ourselves). Those of you reading this who know us personally may have already heard too much about this, so we forgive you if you just want to look at the pictures. We will be back in the new year (we picked such a great time to launch something new, don’t you agree?) with more posts on all sorts of things. We hope to see you there.
I thought long and hard (well, distractedly) about what I wanted to say in this first post and all I could think of was how much there was to write about (something of a theme with me, whoops). With that thought, however, came the realisation that this perspective – a constant awareness of just how much potential there is in the Christchurch archaeological dataset, just how vast the possibilities are – is in itself a fairly crucial part of the why and the what of my current research.
Since the 2010 and 2011 earthquakes, the archaeological dataset from Christchurch has grown exponentially, revealing a complex array of information, artefacts, buildings and sites that connects the Christchurch of today with the physical imprint of its history. I worked in Christchurch from 2012 to 2018, analysing the various European artefact assemblages that were excavated, and it became increasingly apparent that the dataset we were building, site by site and artefact by artefact, was one that should be seen as an integrated whole. The more assemblages we worked with, the more connections we noticed across the archaeology of the city – artefacts that I had seen on sites before, individuals I’d encountered in passing through previous research, patterns in the archaeology and the material culture that only came into focus as each new assemblage added another piece of the puzzle.
I wanted the chance to explore those connections through material culture, to see if I can grasp some of the ways in which the interaction of people and place could be seen in the things people used and the way they used them. And, not content to stop there, I also want to know how Christchurch fitted, in terms of its stuff, with the world around it. How did consumer culture in nineteenth century Christchurch compare to the rest of the British colonial world? Did we have the same stuff, or were there differences? Did those differences contribute, in any way, to the distinct identity that the city developed over time? How much do the things we buy and use have an influence on the communities that we create? Especially in an age of mass production and global trade, whether it’s 150 years ago or right now?
All of which is to say: the scale of the Christchurch archaeological dataset is awesome, I have a lot of questions and all the time I’m spending staring at spreadsheets and wrestling with databases and reading reports will be totally worth it if I can answer even some of them. At the moment, I’m focusing on what was available to the residents of nineteenth century Christchurch: what the artefacts can tell me about how people were getting their goods, where those goods were coming from and who was making those decisions. I’m also looking at patterns of use and discard across the city – what people were throwing away, why, and what it tells me about their relationship with those things. Next year, I’m heading to Canada and the UK (in January, a truly terrible idea, given the ice, snow and Brexit) to work with some very accommodating archaeologists and gather the data needed to explore the global context. It’ll be fun! Also, freezing! Expect some photos of snow.
Old buildings have long captivated me, particularly the exterior of them, and I can spend many hours happily wandering around, looking at them, taking photos (in fact, this is what I love to do on holidays – it may not make me the most interesting holiday companion…). So it’s perhaps no surprise that, as we began to record many, many 19th century buildings following the earthquakes in Christchurch (more on this process in a later post), I should want to know more about them: about their layout, about the spaces within them, how people used buildings, about gender and buildings, about what they looked and about what this all means. Basically, to understand buildings as fully as I can. I’ll confess, I’m a bit less interested in the timbers and the framing and the roof structure structural elements, but obviously they matter too – and can be used to answer all kinds of questions about trade and the economy and innovation. It’s just that I’m more interested in people, and how they used buildings. Which is what brings me to houses. They seem to me to be the ultimate nexus between people and buildings, stemming from that basic human need for shelter, something, sadly, not everyone is able to enjoy.
The more I thought about houses, the more I wanted to understand why they looked the way they did. It fascinates me that mid-late 19th century urban housing in New Zealand can be so much the same and, at the same time, so different, whether within one city or across the country. There seems to me to be a continuum of appearance. While this was in part driven by what was available to buy, and the influence of pattern books, it was also driven by personal choice. People who were building a house wanted it to look a certain way and I want to understand why people made the choices they did, and how those choices are connected to who they are and how they see their place in the world. In essence, I want to understand how people’s identity is connected to the appearance of their house.
But before I can investigate that, I need to know what Christchurch’s houses actually looked like in the 19th century, what the different types of houses were in the city and how this changed between 1850 and 1900. Which, for me, is fascinating data in and of itself, even if it’s involved rather more statistics than I might have liked – numbers have never been my friend… Once I’ve got that data, I can start to look at how this relates to the people who built the houses, to see what types of houses different people, and different groups of people, were building, and what this might tell me about how people were using houses to construct and display their identity in a colonial setting. I’m also quite, quite interested in the city’s identity (don’t get me started on Christchurch as an ‘English’ city and it’s probably not a good idea to mention the ‘first four ships’ either) and how domestic architecture might be related to that. Whether or not time will allow for that, though…
So, that’s us. We hope, dear reader, that you’ll follow along on our voyage of discovery. We’re excited to share our research and our love of archaeology and all the wonderful and mind-boggling things the past can reveal with you, and hope that you enjoy this as as much as we do!
Jessie and Kat