Archaeology in the Red-Zone: post earthquake management in Christchurch, Canterbury, NZ

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.

Looking down Manchester Street, Christchurch CBD after the February 22 earthquake [Dave Margetts, NZHPT, 2 March 2011]

Looking down Manchester Street, Christchurch CBD after the February 22 earthquake [Dave Margetts, NZHPT, 2 March 2011]

Damage to Odean Theatre (NZHPT Register No. 3140). This theatre was constructed in 1883 and is an archaeological site as defined by the Historic Places Act. It is the oldest masonry theatre in New Zealand. [Dave Margetts, NZHPT, 26 September 2012]

Damage to Odean Theatre (NZHPT Register No. 3140). This theatre was constructed in 1883 and is an archaeological site as defined by the Historic Places Act. It is the oldest masonry theatre in New Zealand. [Dave Margetts, NZHPT, 26 September 2012]

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 site visit to New Brighton with the Stronger Christchurch Infrastructure Rebuild Team (SCIRT) to understand the extent of excavations required for repairing sewer systems. NZHPT Regional Archaeologist and myself in yellow high vis.  [Huia Pacey, NZHPT, 9 July 2013]

A site visit to New Brighton with the Stronger Christchurch Infrastructure Rebuild Team (SCIRT) to understand the extent of excavations required for repairing sewer systems. NZHPT Regional Archaeologist and myself in yellow high vis. [Huia Pacey, NZHPT, 9 July 2013]

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.

My workspace at the NZHPT Southern Regional Office. Our office was displaced from the CBD following the earthquakes and now operates from the outskirts of the city. [Frank van der Heijden, NZHPT, 29 July 2013]

My workspace at the NZHPT Southern Regional Office. Our office was displaced from the CBD following the earthquakes and now operates from the outskirts of the city. [Frank van der Heijden, NZHPT, 29 July 2013]

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.

Day of Archaeology – LAARC Lottery Part 4 (Metal Finds)

Now onto our Metal store – this entire store holds a host of treasures, and more coffin nails than you’d care to imagine!

Our first lucky object from shelf 496 comes from site ABO92 – Abbott’s Lane, excavated in 1992 by the then Museum of London Archaeology Service (MOLAS). Being a waterfront site this excavation produced a wealth of metal objects – all surviving due to the aerobic conditions of burial.

Our object is a medieval pilgrim badge that depicts the mitred head of Thomas Becket dating to c.1530 – 1570. An additional badge of better condition was also excavated from the site. The cult of Thomas Becket was one of the most popular in London during the medieval period – not surprising as he was also considered the city’s unofficial patron saint. These badges would have been collected at the site of pilgrimage – this one may have therefore travelled all the way from Canterbury in Kent, before being lost or perhaps purposefully discarded. The badge is a miniature imitation of the reliquary of a life-sized mitred bust of Becket that was held in Canterbury Cathedral.


Lead pilgrim badge

Lead pilgrim badge, depicting the mitred head of Thomas Becket dating to c.1530 – 1570, and from shelf 496 of our metal store


Publication photograph of a similar pilgrim badge to the one found on our shelf

Publication photograph of a similar pilgrim badge to the one found on our shelf (MOLAS Monograph 19)

Our second object, stored on shelf 593, is from the more recent excavation SAT00. Found in the upper stratigraphy this is a beautifully preserved pocket sundial.

Copper sundial

Copper pocket sundial, from shelf 593


A great source for comparison with these metal artefacts is the Portable Antiquities Scheme which holds the records of thousands of objects discovered, mainly through metal detecting, from across the country. Our sundial, excavated from the site of St. Paul’s Cathedral Crypt (SAT00), has a direct parallel with one found in Surrey.

Quoting from PAS object entry SUR-7790B4:

“These sundials are known as simple ring dials or poke dials (‘poke’ being an archaic word for pocket). The sliding collar would be set into position for the month of the year and, when the dial was suspended vertically, the sun would shine through the hole in the lozenge-shaped piece, through the slot, and onto the interior of the ring. The hour could then be read by looking at the closest gradation mark to the spot of light on the interior of the ring.”

Next it’s our Textile artefacts. Again, segregated and stored in a controlled environment, this store is humidified to preserve these important materials. Tweet using #dayofarch or #LAARC, or message us below, a number between 784 and 910 to discover, completely at random, what that shelf holds…


I am a conservation student at the Institute of archaeology, currently writing.. I mean.. finishing .. yeah it’s totally nearly finished.. ..err.. my ..err.. dissertation on the reburial of England’s remains from a conservation perspective.So my day began like all good student days do: being awoken just before six, drinking three cups of coffee and setting about making a stop motion video entry for ‘day of archaeology’. Pretty early on it transpired that having never done this before and never having given it any thought didn’t pay off in the ‘wow you’re a natural’ way or even in the ‘it’s ..umm.. charming’ that I had hoped for.

Nevertheless, it distracted me from all the books for at least an hour.

The rest of my day was very similar to all my other 2011 summer days: reading, cereal, writing, reading,writing, tea, reading, reading, banana, writing, writing, writing, library, reading… etc.. however the day did end with an amazing onigiri I bought in Waterloo station and just moments before that the Mortimer Debate.

So it was a salmon onigiri and presuming it had sat in a transport hub all day it was pretty – pretty – pretty good, and the debate, yeah that was really good too and completely not overshadowed by the ensuing food. Mortimer is the new ‘campaigning mouthpiece’ for archaeology, it is aimed at anyone and everyone who cares about our past and wants to have a voice or listen to discussions or just to create a furore (I’m inferring this part). With the philosophy “Our Past, Our Future, Our Choice”, and having no political ties, the potential for debate is compelling.

The inaugural debate saw Cllr Alan Melton (recently reached the mass media by expressing a wish to disregard PPS5 whilst simultaneously referring to archaeologists as developer hindering ‘bunny huggers’), Tony Robinson (of time team fame and YAC), Andrew Richardson (Finds Manager for Canterbury and helped develop the Portable Antiquities Scheme) and Andrew Selkirk (editor in chief of Current Archaeology and a supporter of amateur archaeology). The debate was great, but then I am a fan of debate, who isn’t? It’s so nice in a really frustrating way to see people with differences hash them out in a public forum in search (under the guise?) of finding a solution. People did really seem to be trying to find ways of understanding each others opinion and appeasing each others sensibilities, which was nice.

I am so used to putting debate on to paper for the purposes of my dissertation that I may have forgotten where my opinions lie. My dissertation is a discussion on the two year reburial edict the government introduced in 2008 applying to all exhumations within England and Wales and how this will form consequences in conservation decision making. The first part of the dissertation has rightly or wrongly found itself in the throes of an abstruse philosophical debate regarding the rights of the dead, the rights afforded to the dead and the rights of the living. I have largely managed to avoid entering the mineshaft of ‘existence’ as I am ironically see-through and quite clearly couldn’t face it. So the rest harps on about the potential for conservation to involve itself in reburial. While I do not think reburial is wrong, like many I feel that it is currently being handled badly; appeasing no one and arguably causing more ethical issues than it is solving. That said I do think we should instigate a new fashion for tombs, ones powered by solar panels that maintain perfect environment control for the newly deceased, or maybe spray people like the mary rose, or freezing people..

So this is the room I spend most of my time in. I call it ‘lounge’. About eight months ago I took over the dining/only table as my desk and have been quite happy here although I do tend to get sunburnt on one side of my face – just like a real archaeologist *sigh*.

Dis Manibus Sacrum…

Lloyd Bosworth: Archaeology Technician, Classical and Archaeological Studies, University of Kent, Canterbury, UK.

My day started like any other day for me. Wake up at 7:30am (ish), make a coffee, put the Today programme on the radio and shamble about the house until the caffeine kicks in. The morning is also when I catch up with the US archaeology blogs that I follow.

Arrival at Work

First order of business is to turn on my workstation and, while that wakes up, make another cup of coffee.

I check my emails.

I’m waiting for a reply from English Heritage to my request for a license to carry out a geophysical survey at Bigbury Camp Iron Age hillfort, near Canterbury. It seems like I’ve been waiting ages for a reply, but it’s really only been two weeks.

This being Friday, my whole day is set aside for working on Professor Ray Laurence and Dr. Francesco Trifilò’s Leverhulme Trust funded research project on age across the Roman Empire.

A Little Background for the Uninitiated

Because Roman law forbade burial within settlements, the roads leading to and from Roman cities were lined with tombs and cemeteries. What may strike us as unusual, or at least unusual to our understanding of modern burial practices, is that the deceased’s age at death was not always recorded on their memorial. This is not to say that this practice was rare, just far from standard across the Empire.

What Ray and Francesco are doing is looking at the ages recorded on memorials and picking up patterns in the overall distribution of the range of chronological age at specific archaeological sites.

My Part In This

This research has produced a unique database containing around 24,000 entries. That’s 24,000 individual burials from across the Roman Empire; each entry recording many different pieces of information about the deceased, including their name, age, memorial inscription, and, in many cases, their social status, too. But this is not the only information recorded, as there is often the same detailed information about the person who erected the memorial.

My part in this is to prepare the database for analysis within GIS (Geographic Information System) software, which can be used to plot density and distribution patterns in the data and display this visually over a map of the Roman Empire.

The database as it stands isn’t suitable for using within GIS, because each entry represents an individual. To be able to plot density based on ages, I’ve been combining entries that share the same age and sex. For example, if there are ten entries from Carthage for females aged 9, it will become one entry for females aged 9 from Carthage, with a total count of ten.

Once the database has been prepared, it’ll be time to start querying the data and plotting density maps to see what the data says about chronological age across the Roman Empire.

While I’ve been working on the database, I’ve also created a website that will host the GIS and tabular data. The GIS server will be able to draw maps based on a user’s query, so that anyone can view the patterns in the data for themselves.

What Does the Data Show

Well, there’s not much I can say about the findings of the study, because, one, it isn’t finished yet, and two, I can’t just spill the beans about it. What I can say, however, is that age data from memorials is not a credible demographic tool. The declaration of age on the memorials appears to conform to the set of key ages which were considered of crucial importance to Roman society. A contemporary example could be the age of retirement as an indicator of the beginning of old age, or the age of 21 as a common indicator of a person’s entry into the world of adulthood.

Children are also poorly represented in the data. But, within this under-representation, there are greater and smaller numbers which may mean something. Roman Law explicitly stated that a child under three years was not permitted a proper funeral, (although simply having a tombstone didn’t necessarily mean that you had had a proper funeral, either). This may sound harsh to us, but, as infant mortality was much higher than it is today, they would have been more used to child death, and so there would be a certain desensitisation over an event that today would be horrific to experience. However, before we condemn Roman parents as monsters, there is a peak in the data for the age of three, which could be showing instances in which the parents lied about the child’s age in order to provide a proper funeral

Final Thoughts

So, working my way through data on 24,000 burials may be quite repetitive and a little morbid, but this kind of information is the bread and butter of archaeology. The repetition does allow time for an inevitable reflection upon life and death, though. I doubt there is an archaeologist who isn’t moved to these same reflections when dealing with data derived from burials. When data like this are analysed, what gets thrown out the other end are impersonal numbers; the reduction of 24,000 lives to a single statistic can’t really get much more impersonal!

But I think it’s impossible to forget that these were real people, as I think this one, randomly selected inscription shows:

[quote style=”boxed”]To the spirits of the dead. Lucius Annius Festus [set this up] for the most saintly Cominia Tyche, his most chaste and loving wife, who lived 27 years, 11 months, and 28 days, and also for himself and for his descendants.[/quote]

Is this really any different to what you’d find on a gravestone today? Lucius was obviously devoted to his wife, and he must have grieved at her passing. You or I would feel no different.

There’s still much work to be done, so I’ll finish this here. Thanks for reading!

A note on the title of this entry:

The phrase ‘Dis Manibus Sacrum’, (often shortened to D.M.S.), is found on many Roman graves. The Manes, to which it refers, were the spirits of the dead, so it can be translated as “Sacred to the Spirit-Gods” or, more loosely, “To The Memory Of…”.