Working as an archaeologist following a natural disaster really makes you consider priorities in life as well as heritage management. I came to work at the New Zealand Historic Places Trust (NZHPT) following the Canterbury earthquakes. I work as the Assistant Archaeologist and Researcher in a fixed term role established to support earthquake recovery work.
I hadn’t been living in Christchurch long when the earthquakes struck – a 7.1 quake on 4 September 2010 which caused widespread damage and two serious injuries and a 6.3 quake which hit at 12:51pm on 22 February 2011 causing severe damage and the loss of 185 lives – and there have been over 10 000 aftershocks since. From my personal experience I would have to argue that natural disasters really do seem to result in a flight or fight response. However, despite not being a Christchurch resident long, I now feel an even stronger connection with this place and really want to contribute to the rebuilding of the city and people’s lives.During the earthquakes widespread damage occurred to buildings and structures, with disruption to water, power and sewerage services. Many buildings are being demolished and earthworks are needed everywhere to remove building foundations, clear sites and repair infrastructure – over 300 kilometres of sewer pipes and 895 kilometres of road were damaged. The government is in the process of acquiring and clearing over 6000 residential properties in what is called the ‘Residential Red Zone’ in the worst hit areas so that residents have the option of moving on. Land in the Christchurch CBD, also one of the worst effected areas, is also being tagged for acquisition to redevelop the city centre. At the moment there are many empty parking spaces which will be rebuilt on in time.
As places of pre-1900 human activity some of these structures and properties, where damage occurred, are considered to be archaeological sites under New Zealand legislation. In New Zealand the Historic Places Act directs that an archaeological authority is required to destroy, damage or modify an archaeological site. As a Crown entity and as New Zealand’s leading historic heritage agency one of NZHPT’s jobs is to administer the archaeological authority process and carry out compliance to ensure that archaeological sites are protected or preserved via record. This has obviously proved challenging following a natural disaster where the priorities are rightly lives, safety and recovery. Funnily enough archaeology has not been the first thing on everyone’s minds. A streamlined authority process has been developed so that applicants can now expect decisions to destroy, damage or modify an archaeological site within 3 working days or 5 if the site is of Maori interest. Archaeological sites in Christchurch mostly relate to Maori (New Zealand’s indigenous population) occupation and the more recent European settlement of the area from the mid-nineteenth century. Shell middens, historic rubbish dumps, brick barrel drains and buildings, amongst other things, are all being recorded by archaeologists before they are destroyed.A large chunk of my job at the moment is to undertake desktop assessment and research of properties to ascertain whether an archaeological authority is required. Insurance companies, project managers, demolition companies and CERA (the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority who have been set up by the Government to coordinate the ongoing recovery effort following the earthquakes) all send me lists of properties to check everyday resulting in about 200 a week to check. While we have a national database of recorded archaeological sites and a good understanding of where pre-1900 occupation occurred many of these areas have not been subject to archaeological assessments or investigation before. So my research is designed to fill this gap and identify unrecorded sites. The opportunity to research properties and find out more about patterns of settlement in Christchurch is fascinating. However every now and again reality hits that for each property that comes across my desk a family has lost their home or a business has lost their premises following the earthquakes. I also assist the Regional Archaeologist (also the Canterbury Archaeological Officer following the earthquakes) in processing authorities, assessing archaeological management plans, assessing archaeological reports and following up on site damage and compliance with the conditions of archaeological authorities. The volume of work post-quake means I don’t get much time outside anymore and when I do it is mostly to ensure that the conditions of our authorities are being complied with.
The things that keep me sane through all of this administration and earthquakes are opportunities to tell our stories – both past and present. I am interested in telling the stories of life in Christchurch through time and the story of managing archaeology following a disaster. One of my jobs is to catalogue and submit archaeological reports to the University of Canterbury’s CEISMIC Digital Archive called Quake Studies. My colleagues and I have also facilitated sharing of archaeological information and artefacts in public programmes such as Canterbury Museum’s Quake City exhibition and the CBD Rebuild tour. Hopefully we can learn from the settlement of our swampy city and previous building techniques to ensure that a disaster of this type doesn’t happen again. The scale of archaeological work in Christchurch is greater than it has ever been and the scale of earthworks required for redevelopment means in many areas this will be the last opportunity we have to examine the material remains of our past. It is important to keep talking about our past and remembering what was.