Home and contents: a bird’s eye view

“We shape our buildings; and afterwards our buildings shape us” – so said Winston Churchill. He was referring particularly to the House of Commons’ Chamber, but the statement is true of any building, and it’s a process that works in a myriad of ways. Buildings reflect the world around us, whether by affirming what society values or the norms of the days, or in opposition to that. Those that affirm the values of the day, such as James and Priscilla Chalmers’s house, also serve to reinforce those values and to encourage the behaviours that form part of that, rather than challenging the norm or seeking to change it. And so James and Priscilla’s house reflects the ideal that middle class Victorians aspired to, and is characterised by three things: gendered roles, public and private space and display. You could easily extend that argument to cover much of Victorian life, but let’s stick to houses for now.

The house that James and Priscilla built in 1889. Image: M. Hennessey.

Gender, space and display in Victorian houses were all interconnected, most obviously through the connection between public spaces and masculinity and private spaces and femininity. Display weaves its way through those spaces, characterising them as either feminine or masculine and underlying the performance of middle class identity. It might seem strange to us to characterise a space within a house as being feminine or masculine, beyond the obvious example of some children’s bedrooms, although that’s slightly different from the way middle class Victorians thought of space and gender. But interior decoration is frequently characterised as being masculine or feminine – the results of googling “[insert appropriate gender] interior design” are depressingly predictable. And this modern characterisation has at least some of its roots in the Victorian era.

Public versus private space in the home is probably something we’re much more familiar with, and many people are likely to have rooms in their house that they don’t take visitors into, although what rooms in particular probably vary from house to house, depending on the occupants’ preferences. We still use objects in the household along public and private lines, some placed to be seen (recent scrutiny of people’s bookcases on Zoom is an excellent case in point) and others hidden away, or used only to – privately – prepare spaces for public expectations (cleaning products!). There are differences, though – we’re less likely to show off our bedrooms, perhaps. Kitchens, though, are now much more public than they were in the Victorian era, thanks to the rise of open-plan living, changes in gender roles and changes in family life. Ironically, this has led to sculleries becoming a kitchen feature again, as people once again seek to hide the work that goes into preparing a meal, to maintain a sense of order and tidiness throughout. For others, though, the very act of preparing a meal has become an act of performance, particularly with the rise of a ‘foodie’ culture.

An example of recent global fascination with other people’s homes and backgrounds through the Zoom lens.

And we do still think carefully about how we furnish our rooms and what we display in them, although these features are less likely to be built-in (such as ceiling roses and ceiling cornices) than they might have been in the late 19th century. Recent trends in domestic architectural design, though, turn the fabric of the house into a feature that can be related to identity – the particular types of timber used, for example, can convey a message about what environmental values you hold dear. For many of us, though, living in houses we did not build, a great deal of the personal and social identity expressed within our households comes from the ways we use the spaces we have, and the less-fixed material culture we use to construct, augment and change the material world of the building we live in. In this we are not so dissimilar from James and Priscilla, who – although living in a house they built – would still have used objects and furnishings to reinforce notions of behaviour and space within their household.

The material culture of a Victorian household can be viewed from many perspectives, on its own or as part of an aggregate that sheds light on broader patterns in a society or culture. Considered alongside the house itself, it’s fascinating to see how it might have been intertwined with the expression of gender, space and display embedded in the physical structure. The designation of certain rooms – like the parlour or dining room – as feminine or masculine is both complemented and contradicted by the use of objects within the room. The more masculine dining room, for example, would have been filled with the material culture of dining, food production and consumption, objects often considered a reflection of women’s consumer choices and women’s labour. Yet, the material culture of the parlour likely complemented its characterisation as a woman’s space, reinforcing a Victorian ideal of women’s roles as hostesses, mothers and industrious members of the household. This may seem a rigid delineation of space to us now, but its legacy is still visible in the gendered spaces of many modern households (“man-caves”, ugh).  

The material culture of dining. Image: J. Garland.

Other objects reflect Victorian ideals of gender in a way that is divorced from the spaces they occupy within the house – items like perfume, hair care remedies and clothing connected to broader social concepts of feminine and masculine (as they, irritatingly, still do today), but were anchored to a performance of person rather than household space. In this – as with the use of objects to display wealth, status, class, social identity etc. within the household itself – that performance of identity is not just directed at the observer or, in the case of the household, the visitor, but also served to reflect the household back onto itself, reinforcing how James and Priscilla saw themselves within their world as well as how their world saw them. The things they owned connected them to the much wider world in which they lived – not just late 19th century Christchurch, but the broader expanses of British colonial culture and their own personal experiences, through time and across space. Perhaps not all of it would have been evident on first glance – or ever – to those who entered their home, but their participation in and identification with ideas and groups far beyond the walls of their house would nevertheless have been ever-present within their home, through the structure, through the material culture, and through their own social behaviour.

Jessie & Katharine


Beaudry, M., 2015. ‘Households beyond the House: On the Archaeology and Materiality of Historical Households’. In Fogle, K. R., Nyman, J. A. and Beaudry, M. C. (eds), Beyond the Walls: New Perspectives on the Archaeology of Historical Households. University of Florida Press, Florida, pp. 1-22.

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 hallway

The hall was, literally and figuratively, the centre of the middle class home: it typically ran down the middle of the house and it was the room that connected all other rooms. Except the service rooms at the rear of the house – there was a reason for this, which I’ll come to in a subsequent post. In general, in a middle class house, there wouldn’t be a direct connection between the parlour and the bedroom, for example. Instead, you’d go out of the parlour, into the hall and then into the bedroom. This was important, because it meant all spaces were separate, and private. The concept of the private world is critical to understanding both the Victorian villa and Victorian domestic life.

The floor plan of house that James and Priscilla built, showing the hallway running through the centre of it. Image: M. Hennessey & J. Garland.

In the Victorian world, the prevailing middle class ideology held that the home was a private place, separate from the ‘public’ world of commerce, politics and economy. There were very clear gender divisions associated with this ideal, the private world of the home being the realm of women (and children) and the public world the realm of men. A woman’s role, then, was to create a calm, peaceful and respectable home that offered respite for her husband (or brother or son or father) from the vicissitudes of the public world. I can’t stress enough that this was an ideal, not necessarily reality, and a middle class one at that (Tange 2010: 12). Some scholars have suggested the idea of intersecting and overlapping spheres is a more accurate reflection of reality (Archer 2005: 201), while others have outlined the tensions implicit in the attempts to keep the public and private separate, and the impossibility of keeping the public world out of the home (Tange 2010: 12-16).

Looking up the hall from the front door, showing the arch that separated the public and private spaces in James and Priscilla’s house. The entrance to the parlour was at left, and to the master bedroom at right. Image: M. Hennessey.

One of the ways the public world came into the home was through guests, who were by definition external to the family (I feel we’re getting awfully close to bubbles here…). While female guests are unlikely to have been seen as part of  the public world, given that it was considered to be masculine, their access to the house they were visiting was still controlled, and it was controlled by the hall. In a middle class house such as James and Priscilla Chalmers’s, the arch across the hall, with its decorative plaster work, demarcated public from private. Those spaces in front of the arch were the public ones. Because visitors did not go beyond that arch, these public spaces were often more decorative than those behind, in terms of both features that were part of the house and the objects that were displayed.

Hall arches normally had decorative plaster work, but these were typically stylised foliage, or scrolls of some sort. A person’s head is fairly unusual. Image: M. Hennessey.

The hall itself could be decorated, and the site of decorative objects, were it big enough. The Chalmers’s hall might just have been wide enough for a rather narrow table, but even that might have been a stretch. So there would have been little in the way of surfaces for objects to sit on, and there’s no evidence that were was a picture rail to hang pictures from. Nor was there a ceiling rose. So, while Priscilla and James had chosen to have a hall arch (and this was by no means the norm – people also used curtains or doors across the hall to separate public from private), they had elected not to have any other decorative features in the hall and to construct a hall that was too narrow for the extensive display of decorative objects. This is evidence of the complex interplay of factors that have always influenced the decisions of those building a house, whilst still remaining within – or at least close to – the budget.

Looking from the arch back towards the front door, showing how narrow the hallway was. Image: M. Hennessey.

For this reason, even if we had found artefacts from the Chalmers’s house, it’s unlikely we would have found any associated with the hallway. This is not to say that it wouldn’t have been a space in which portable material culture existed, but that most of those objects would have been temporary fixtures in the space, in keeping with the liminal function of the hall. There may have been an umbrella stand, or a coat rack, to hold the umbrellas, coats and hats of guests and residents alike. Unlike many of the objects in a house, these are ones that come and go with the people, rather than remaining with the house.

A few remnants of the things that might have been seen in the hallway, from time to time, and a wee sketch of what it might have looked like (plus wallpaper, just imagine the wallpaper, I did not have the patience to draw it). Top left: hand-carved umbrella or walking stick handle, made from antler. Bottom left: a felt hat, somewhat well-worn. Images: J. Garland.

There was probably a door mat and, if Priscilla and James did have a narrow hall table, it may have held ornamental objects, like a vase or decorative figurines. In truth, perhaps the most likely object to have been placed in the hallway is one that we tend to take for granted now: lighting. Lighting is so much a part of modern household interiors that we can forget to think of it as the household artefact that it is. Built in the late 1880s, Priscilla and James’s house may quite easily have had gas fitted lights, but documentary and archaeological evidence shows that portable oil lamps and candlesticks remained in use decades after the introduction of gas lighting. However, without a hall table on which to rest, those lights would also have been temporary additions to the space, carried in and out of the darkened hallway by James and Priscilla as they moved from room to room throughout the house.

The artefacts of lighting and ornamentation from the archaeological record and an imagining of what the hall might have looked like, if the Chalmers did have a hall table. Clockwise from top left: the glass chimney from a portable oil lamp OR fixed wall light; a porcelain vase; a chamberstick or hand-held candlestick, easily carried by the loop handle; a glass ‘finger lamp’, also meant to be portable. Images: J. Garland.

Katharine & Jessie


Archer, John. Architecture and Suburbia: From English Villa to American Dream House, 1690-2000. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005.

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

Why buildings archaeology?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Musings on a conference

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pettus House, Norwich. Image: Wikipedia.

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

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


Hello (again)

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.

Just one of the many asides and tangents we’ve already discovered. I love this so much. Image: Globe 23/03/1876: 1.

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.

Just a bit of stuff. Image: Wendy Gibbs.

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?

Some of my favourite things. These artefacts were all found on the site of the new Justice and Emergency Services Precinct. Image: J. Garland.

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.

Me, four weeks from now.


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