Finding Fantastically Fancy Things in Urban Christchurch, New Zealand.

Here in Christchurch, we have the rare opportunity of being able to uncover a large proportion of the archaeology that lies beneath our city over a very short period of time. The devastating earthquakes that occurred in 2010 and 2011 caused structural damage to many properties in the Christchurch Central City and surrounds, and Underground Overground Archaeology has been on the front lines recording our city’s heritage since the occurrence of these tragic events. Christchurch has been inhabited by European settlers since 1850 and long before this time by Maori (the indigenous inhabitants of New Zealand), and we are constantly finding archaeological evidence pertaining to the daily lives of our Maori and European colonial ancestors during the repair and reconstruction of our buildings and infrastructure.


On previous Days Of Archaeology, we’ve offered a glimpse into our individual daily archaeological tasks and the best and brightest of our archaeological escapades can be found on our company blog and Facebook page. But for today’s celebrations, we thought we’d do something a little different and go for a more in-depth look at one of our central city construction sites, particularly the journey of how a single artefact is processed – from initial onsite discovery through to storage.


In the shadow of our city’s landmark (Christchurch Cathedral – which is currently looking worse for wear), the Christchurch Convention Centre construction project will soon erect a shiny new hub of activity in the central city. The site on which the center is being built was once the location of not one, but two consecutively occupied fancy goods stores, which carried luxury commodities imported from the European continent.


At the Convention Centre site, Angel (one of our archaeologists), monitors the excavation of a 19th century well, as it’s carefully uncovered by a mechanical excavator. Christchurch Cathedral is visible in the background. Photo: Hamish Williams.


Very carefully uncovered! Photo: Angel Trendafilov.


These things are often a two-man job! Photo: Hamish Williams.


The site of these luxury goods stores offers an exceptional chance to get a taste of how the upper-crust of Christchurch can been seen through their material culture. Disastrously for the proprietors (but opportunistic for us), the second store (Messrs. A. Dallas And Co. Auctioneers), suffered extensive stock loss during a fire in 1885. Much of their fire and water damaged stock was sold cheaply, the remainder was thrown out (probably on site), and the building was subsequently torn down. This kind of onsite refuse disposal was common in 19th century Christchurch, despite implementation of first council rubbish collection service in the 1860s! Go figure! An advertisement in a local newspaper describes some of the stock that was sold at auction, the most amusing, albeit confusing, of which is listed as “handsome walnut whatnots”. In any case, there seems to have been many a bargain to be had on auction day.

The auction listing from an 1885 issue of the Press newspaper. Image: Press 1885.


Fancy some fancy finds? Photo: Angel Trendafilov.


One particularly exciting find was this glass vase which you can see Angel uncovering in a rubbish pit.


Glass vase being carefully excavated in the foreground. Archaeologist sold separately. Photo: Hamish Williams.


Up close and personal: Photo: Angel Trendafilov.


Having carefully removed the many fragments of this vessel from the in situ rubbish deposit, Angel transported the material from the site in bags labelled with the location and stratigraphic layer details (provenance), describing where it was found on the site. On arrival to the Underground Overground Archaeology laboratory, dirt was carefully removed with a brush, as to not unwittingly eliminate any of the fine gilt decoration on the body of the vase.


Bringing back the lustre of the dirty artefact. Photo: Jessie Garland.


Now for the fun part of every artefact analyst’s day! This artefact came back from site in over a hundred fragments – so, to determine what shape and form it originally took, we had to piece it back together, a bit like a three-dimensional historical jigsaw puzzle. Check out how we did it… Note – reconstruction took a lot longer in real life. If only it were this easy!


Piece by glorious piece!


Having pieced this unusual beauty back together, our artefact expert determined that it was a decorative pedestal vase, like the one featured below. Figuring out exactly what it was took a combination of guesswork, random Google searches, flipping through all of the books of the shelf, a lucky break and a tiny bit of actual expertise… It’s not as easy as you might think to figure out the specific name for something when you only know what it looks like – on top of which, as it turns out, people didn’t use the same names for things in the 19th century as they do now (not that we’re complaining – that moment when you do actually find the thing you’re looking for is one of the best parts of the job!).


Our research determined that these lustre vases were primarily used as mantle and table decorations, and had hanging cut glass prisms which would have sparkled in the sunshine. Those with one row of prisms were more common, while the double hung prisms were rarer and usually costlier (meaning, that ours was fancy enough for a fancy goods store, but maybe not so fancy) As far as we know, no example of a vase like this has ever been found at an 19th century archaeological site in Christchurch, so this ‘handsome’ piece would definitely have fancied-up any Victorian reception room! The smoking gun in the identification of this vessel type was the tiny drilled holes in the glass and the associated copper hooks from which these prisms would have hung.


A fragment of the vase showing copper hooks. Photo: Chelsea Dickson


Lusters are believed to have first been produced in the British Isles and New England, and many varieties of colour and design existed in this artefact form. Red glass is thought to have been the most popular shade, making our clear glass example slightly rarer. The aesthetically pleasing nature and the variation in this artefact form makes them popular among collectors, and it has been said that it was considered the height of elegant living to own at least one pair of lusters during the Victorian era.


Left: our fragmented, but reconstructed vase. Right: a complete example of a similar style pedestal vase, otherwise known as a mantle lustre. Photo: Jessie Garland.


Having identified the artefact, one of our analysts, Jessie, catalogued and photographed the vessel, then stored it safely in acid-free tissue paper to protect the delicate gilt decoration. We often find gilt decorated ceramic vessels in our 19th century artefact assemblages, but it is less commonly seen on glassware, as the gilt doesn’t preserve as well on the smoother glass surfaces.


Jessie doing her artefact analysis thing! Note: our desks are messy because we are SO busy! Photo: Chelsea Dickson.


Lastly, storage! Our artefacts are boxed up, labelled and stored, until our associated archaeological reports are accepted by the governing heritage body in New Zealand (Heritage New Zealand). When we are given the go ahead, we can then find a new home for the artefacts, be that with the landowner, in a museum or research facility. Our clients also receive a copy of our archaeological reports so they can better understand the fantastic history of their sections of land, and these reports can also be made available to the public upon request to Heritage New Zealand.


Just some of the many, MANY, artefact boxes!


These boxes contain a couple more interesting Convention Centre artefacts that might tickle your fancy! Photo: Jessie Garland.


We hope you’ve enjoyed our fancy, fun-filled archaeology day as much as we have! Until next year!


One thought on “Finding Fantastically Fancy Things in Urban Christchurch, New Zealand.

  1. Noel Brettoner says:

    Hi Chelsea,

    In this article I noticed a comment regarding possibly returning specific artifacts back to the landowner.
    Some time ago a survey was made of a home in Madras St (used to be old #13 but now #441).
    The following applies:-
    = = = = = = = =
    Our great Grandfather William Harvey Bowen (Gran’s father) owned this home.
    This Madras street residence was earlier listed as 13 Madras St..
    This was where Ida Ellen Cox Bowen (“Gran”; my maternal grandmother) was born, & grew up in.
    The following link is an article on that home (since demolished), & W.H. Bowen:-
    = = = = = = = = =

    Chelsea I was wondering if you people have on record the above property owner’s contact details?. If the owner is a descendant or connected to the W.H. Bowen family, I would love to hear from them.
    I can be contacted through a ‘PM’ message on facebook, or by email.

    Yours sincerely,
    Noel Brettoner

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