Archive March 2011

‘Criminal Minds’ Brings Archaeology into Mainstream News Brigid Gallagher Mar 30


Great to see some archaeology on TVNZ news this last week article here and video here.  It did make me chuckle however.  Why is it that something interesting for its own sake, needs to be sensationalised with the word, murder….!? 

Is it the case that the legacy of Indiana Jones and the like are still leading the medias perception of what makes good archaeological news?  Is it that archaeologists themselves feel the need to up-play findings to make the news in the first place.  Or is it as Anna Sandiford wrote in “Talking the CSI Effect” last week, that the CSI phenomenon, or in my case, Criminal_Minds, has so influenced us, that to make this relevant to todays society, crime and forensics needs to be the focus of the reporting.

 The Scene:

The quick recap is that during the new motorway tunnel construction near Victoria Park in Auckland there was a chance find of a pistol.  It was found at the bottom of a Victorian Well…yes a Victorian pistol from Victoria Park…covered in sludge one would presume.  The pistol is loaded, however one shot as been dispensed…da da dahhhhhh….it must be Muuurrrrrrda (imagine Taggarts voice).

 The Facts:

The pistol itself is small, about 20cm in length, and the handle is missing.  The archaeologists with Clough and Associates presume it was wood, but microscopic analysis should later confirm or deny that.  It has a double barrel, which is short.  At this stage it is unknown whether the barrel is in its original form or has been modified at some point…ie it has been sawn off.  It has a double trigger arrangement, one of which is depressed due to firing.  There are no obvious clues or marks to date or identify the maker.  All in all it is a fairly sparse weapon, with little in the way of distinguishing features.  The name of the person who last fired the pistol is inconveniently missing from the scene.

 The Murder:

How does one solve a possible murder years after the fact, particularly when no one is sure that the murder actually happened?  Cold Case has informed me through the years that you need to re-examine the evidence. 

 The Investigation:

Where as on Cold Case the original suspects, family members, best friends and the like are re-interviewed…the archaeologist in the interviews, Sarah Phear, says that in this case they will be searching old newspaper articles for any clues. 

 This is the wonderful thing about New Zealand archaeology of this period.  There are written records! Sometimes this may even lead to new oral histories that can inform what happened the day the pistol ended up at the bottom of the well.   

 But what if the newspaper search reveals nothing about a muuurrrrrrda?

 Can the CSI approach using archaeological forensic techniques be used to help solve the possible Murder?  Can laboratory analysis, where the article states the pistol has gone for ‘preservation’, provide evidence to solve this mystery??

 The key in this instance, and many instances in archaeology where an artefact is lifted from the ground, is that the artefact is washed.  Aggghhhhh! Washing an artefact, prior to professional assessment, is akin to murder itself in the eyes of the archaeological conservator who is often responsible for the treatment of ‘special’ artefacts in these types of situations.

 The reasons for this?

  1. Washing has been proven time and time again to remove vital evidence from archaeological remains.  Evidence that just like in the real crime detective labs, cannot be pieced back together…well very rarely, when you may find the washed residues in your U bend.
  2. The washing of metal, of which the main body of pistols are usually composed, is also a big no no in the conservation of metal.  It tends to accelerate or activate corrosion during the subsequent drying process, further distorting the artefact and changing the potential for some analysis.

The Analysis:

So, what can be done ‘in the conservation lab’?

  1. The internal mechanism of the pistol can be revealed through x-ray analysis. The bullet should be visible within the magazine, and the mechanism inside for firing.
  2. Makers marks and any other evidence regarding manufacture, ownership and etched decorative elements should be revealed through x-ray analysis should corrosion mask these prior to analysis.
  3. Technological information should be gained through the use of microscopic investigation and x-ray analysis.  In this instance it should reveal whether the pistol barrel is sawn off, and whether the body of the gun as caste or forged. If it is unclear in the x-ray due to the presence of corrosion layers, SEM-EDX (scanning electron microscope — with energy-dispersive x-ray spectroscopy) could further be employed to confirm this.  Elemental analysis of the alloy used in the pistols manufacture can also be gained through XRF (X-ray Fluorescence).
  4. Remains of the handle may be revealed through microscopic analysis in the hard to reach places.  Depending its survival, and any sample available of this feature, its potential identification should be revealed from the materials morphology.  SEM-EDX or FTIR (Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy) could also aid this.

 If the pistol has not been washed post excavation, and the burial environment allows for it, you might conduct:

  1. Residue analysis of any remaining gunpowder in the barrel or magazine. 
  2. Fingerprint analysis may be possible due to the acidic nature of finger prints when left on metal.
  3. Blood residue analysis may be possible if the pistol was used on a human at close range, and the blood splattered back on to the pistol.
  4. Microscopy to see if there is any remains of the users hair, clothing…hey,
  5. DNA analysis if there are human remains on the pistol.

 Sounds exciting, doesn’t it!?

The Verdict:

 Who knows, one day archaeology may make the 6-0-clock news under its own steam, rather than the prospect of murder…and a sneaky peeky into the new tunnel.  But in the mean time, there is science out there being used in the study of these historical objects, and that can deliver valuable information to the questions being asked. 

 But, will they solve a murder??  I think I had better call Anna Sandiford to confirm that.

Time will Tell for the Timeball Brigid Gallagher Mar 23

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This week I have had the opportunity to go through photographs taken of the Lyttleton Timeball station in its current disabled state.  The photography was taken during the recording of the Station using high resolution digital photography, Total Station survey and 3D laser scanning, and reported here  As I looked at the photography taken by Raysan Al-Kubaisi, I was struck by the history and events that this once strong and proud building would have witnessed 1876-1899 Timeline and 1900-1950 Timeline , and now reduced to gaping holes, subsidence and fragility.

 I find this type of loss for heritage and a nation so sad.  The Timeball station is not the shell of a building that has experienced years of neglect and decay.  NZHPT has classified it as a Category 1 Historic Place, internationally significant to maritime history NZHPT registry entry.  The station has been admired, cared for and preserved.  It has played an important role in the story of navigation, to which New Zealand is integrally linked, from Polynesian settlement through to European settlement.

 Used to accurately set naval chronometers, establish longitude and enable accurate navigation; from 1876 to 1934 at 1pm each day the Time ‘Ball’ was dropped the 15 foot height of the tower. With an uninterrupted sight line between the ships in the harbour and the Station, sailors could reset their instruments each day.  With only 5 of these Stations still in working order in the world Wikipedia entry, it was a truly majestic site.

 I do not use the word majestic lightly. 

Situated on a steep slope that even prior to earthquake damage could be described as perilous, this mock Scottish castle sat above a sea of light weight timber frame buildings that usually predominate the New Zealand historic landscape. Its majesty is obvious from the now crooked weather vane to the still perfect Ball that sits astride its tower, to the distorted and crumbling crenulations that give the Station its castle appearance.  It appears solid in the landscape, quite certain of its duty.  To ensure that each person, should they want it, know the exact time of 1pm why? once a day It is something we take for granted, but once was only the domain of the wealthy and influential. 

 Solid in the landscape it is built of a double skinned stone construction with molten rubble infill, typical of masonry buildings, including castles.  It has a later brick addition.  The February 22 earthquake quite literally jolted the Timeball Station and its already precarious slope to a condition where it cannot be considered for restoration article here and here and here.

 The evidence includes cracks in the earth, unstable geography, the potential of falling debris, combined with a building that is splitting apart, walls that are bowing and rooms that are subsiding… the following photos say it all (copyrite: R. Al-Kubaisi). 




But I leave this entry with thoughts of what happens next to retain the legacy of this piece of history, and keep it relevant to future generations?

  1. does thorough digital recording of the Station mean that the Timeball remains in the domain of computers, animation and 3-D virtual visualisation, to be enjoyed in an exhibition space or visitor attraction?
  2. does the process of dismantling and retention of the building fabric mean that the Timeball should be reconstructed at some date in the future, for people to once again truly appreciate the form, façade and strength of the building. 
  3. does the process of walking into history, albeit in a restored version, do more for peoples appreciation of the important role it once played?
  4. does a likely change in the location of the Station change the visitors perspective?  Or could it be restored to its current position with the help of modern engineering?

 My intuition says there is a synthesis to be reached, but Time will Tell….

What Archaeologists are doing in Christchurch – additions welcome! Brigid Gallagher Mar 19


I thought it would be interesting to review some of the activities that archaeologists and conservators have been involved in within Christchurch this past week.  This information has been collated from a variety of sources, if there is any misrepresentation or inaccuracies please let me know.  If there anything to add to this, it would be great to hear it.

 Since the beginning of the recovery period of operations it has been noticeable that a more business like tone has been given to reporting.  So what is happening?

Statistics and Lists

CCC Media Release, March 14: a total of 837 protected heritage buildings in Christchurch have been assessed since the 22 February earthquake. Of those, 338 have received red placards, 24 of which have been approved for deconstruction. 

  • Like it or not, lists allow for accountability, and give people a sense of the current state of affairs.  The Rebuilding Christchurch website also seems to be a good source of information regarding the sceduling of heritage deconstruction.  It is inknown if it is being updated regularly.

 The Authority Process

Since the earthquake in September 2010 there has been emergency provisions in place to speed up the authority process (the permit required to modify, remove and investigate protected heritage and archaeology).  The emergency authorities allow the deconstruction of built heritage for the reasons of safety, but does not allow for any sub-surface investigations.  Once deconstruction or demolition is complete, a new authority is required to establish the presence and condition of sub-surface remains. 

  • Information to inform the authority process is being collated by heritage specialists, engineers, council members and archaeologists, such as those with NZHPT. This is likely to occur when decisions regarding rebuilding are made.  Current authorities being issued are to allow deconstruction/demolition.

 Deconstruction and Demolition

In the cordoned area within Christchurch city and outside the process of deconstruction is underway.  The deconstruction phase of works is to ensure that sections of buildings considered unsafe or unstable be removed. 

  • This is being monitored by archaeologists,
  • It is understood that the fabric and materials from the heritage buildings being deconstructed are being labelled, piled separately and retained for potential later use. 

Demolition suggests complete removal of a heritage building. 

  • Some buildings have been assigned to demolition, such as the Time Ball in Lyttleton.  See the Rebuilding Christchurch Website.


This is standard practise on any archaeological site or area of significant cultural or heritage value where a digging machine is used to remove overburden, non-archaeological layers or disturbed material such as building collapse.  Recording through photography is conducted, with survey to enable location of the feature/building being monitored.  If safety allows, sampling of the fabric, building materials or artefacts may occur.

  • 2 archaeologists have been employed by New Zealand Historic Places Trust to monitor the deconstruction of the heritage buildings. 

 south quad of arts cnetr

 Above: An image of the South Quad of the Arts Centre after the Observatory tower collapse.  This is a good example of the working conditions archaeologists are in, and some of the difficulties of monitoring and recording the heritage. Thanks to Bridget for the photo.

 Recording and Preservation

An essential part of the archaeological process…this is the information that creates the archive, and acts as a form of preservation, aka known as preservation by recording.  Whilst standard practise in any archaeological works it can be conducted on different levels. In this instance:

  • Basic recording includes photography, written descriptions, location or survey.
  • Recording associated with the preservation or conservation of heritage buildings.  This may include condition assessment, drawings, survey, scanning and sampling.  Sampling preserves the knowledge of the original materials, allowing for possible future elemental analysis and reconstruction with like materials.  Likewise, saving the original materials during deconstruction enables later reconstruction.   There is international precedence where intact buildings can be deconstructed and labelled to reconstruct in the same way in the future. This is occurring where the fabric of heritage building are being retained (see above).
  • Recording associated with the conservation of artefacts is also occurring.  The time capsules, 1 glass bottle and 1 copper alloy tube, are currently being curated by the Christchurch Museum.  A paper and an objects conservator will be responsible for the stabilisation and treatment of the capsules and their contents.  It is understood from the museum website that the copper alloy capsule remains unopened.

 Preservation and Computer Visualisation

  • When a site or building has been affected beyond repair, and cannot be saved, digital methods of recording can generate virtual reconstructions of buildings and sites .  Prior to building or site demolition/deconstruction, recording using lasers in 2-d and 3-d can lead to 3-d visualisation creation.  The building no longer exists, but virtual reconstruction enabling people to walk about the interior and exterior through computer use. At present, remote sensing Lidar and 3-d scanning equipment are heading to the Time Ball in Lyttleton to record this iconic building before its demolition next week.  Perhaps soon we can all walk around and inside the building with the use of virtual technology and visualisation.

 Other methods of recording and technology exist in archaeology but these have been identified as most relevant in this situation.  This is also not an exhaustive list of archaeological activities occurring at present.  Any additions or relevant comments are welcome!

Talking Christchurch Heritage Brigid Gallagher Mar 10


Hurrah for Mary O’Keeffe!  I have just watched the Breakfast interview with Mary about heritage buildings in Christchurch.

I have some how managed to miss it in amongst all of the other heritage hits available on the world wide web.  At last a member of the professional heritage community stepping forward to make comment and answer some of the accusations being flung at the feet of heritage.

I have been quietly watching and reading the articles and media releases reporting on the state of Christchurch heritage, and what will happen next.  I have also started blogging about this each evening for the past week, and then I read back what I wrote…

To put it mildly, I have read back like a frenzied enthusiast, with the heart of an activist, hell bent on preaching to the world the truth…that heritage is finite…once it is gone it is gone…what is decided now will set precedence for the future…the heritage buildings of Christchurch are the tourist draw card, they are the key …if they have gone, there is no going back….

And then I heard Mary O’Keeffe utter the very same words.  And it felt wonderful.  Here was a fellow archaeologist finally saying something out loud.  Fantastic.  My internal ranting subsided…and my professional head and still impassioned heart came back to a far more sensible place.  I have had no desire to wade in looking like a crazed fanatic, unable to act professionally in a time when heritage and its archaeology needs support in a meaningful way.

Constructing a strategy

What this situation needs is sensible voices; talking professionally and acting in a meaningful way, ready to contribute to long-term outcomes.  Voices that speak clearly and calmly, that outline the findings and the options in plain English, and most importantly, based on analysis of the evidence that the various specialists have been recording over the past 2 weeks.

Underlying this, but also integral, I am talking about;

  1. maintaining, in this extra-ordinary time, rigorous processes and scientific methodology,
  2. being led by international standards of best practise.

Yes, this is a terribly emotional and emotive time. Sensitivity is undoubtedly called for.  But the professionals working on the heritage need to be given the opportunity to be produce accurate data from which to enable discussion at the appropriate levels and the appropriate time, in which to come to conclusions which will enable strategies to be produced.  Listening to a friends displaced family member, who did not know I had any interest in heritage, it was made quite clear that the people should come first, but there was acknowledgment that the heritage had to be dealt with…but they wanted a  ‘plan’.  They just wanted somebody to make decision on how to deal with it, and then they could move on…they would know what they were dealing with and what to expect.

To adequately construct a strategy certain activities will have to occur including:

  1. going back to first principles; reveal, define, observe and assess, act
  2. consulting with national and international specialists
  3. assessing and extracting from relevant case studies where this type of event has previously occurred,
  4. considering individual heritage values, such as uniqueness or contribution to our cultural fabric

The list could go on and on…

Final thought

One of the most important requests Mary O’Keeffe made, in my opinion, was to ask for time to ‘pause and think’.

I don’t think anybody (NZHPT, Christchurch Council, architects, engineers, archaeologists etc etc) working on the nuts and bolt of the heritage issue at the moment will be under any illusion that ‘pause and think’ means a relaxed moment on the couch.  Having spoken with archaeologists (yep, the Historic Places Act 1993 defines an archaeological site as a place associated with pre-1900 human activity both above and beow ground…ergo, the heritage issue is in many instances an archaeological one) after the last quake in Sept 2010, they were kept very busy!

But Brownlee is absolutely right on when he says in the above article that he has a ‘’huge desire’ to see Christchurch open as soon as possible’….

But would you send a person into surgery without the relevant tests and consultations?

Have we got history, part II Brigid Gallagher Mar 06


Having enthusiastically started blogging with the title ‘Have we got history’ 2 weeks ago I was metaphorically knocked off my perch with the news of the Canterbury earthquake. I often wonder at the relative ‘luxurious’ nature of my profession as I scan the front section of the morning paper, and for the last 2 weeks, more than ever this is something that I have been reflecting, and now write.

In heritage and archaeology we are so often concerned with past populations and cultures, not the ones that live now. What has become more apparent to me, for the first time in my own cultural reality, that I have been watching the formation of our history.

Not only will this latest cataclysmic event trigger change on a social and cultural level above ground, its imprint or scar will also be indelibly etched into the ground below us. Be it change on a geological, geographical or archaeological scale, the evidence that the quake occurred, and changed lives and the environment will remain.

Archaeology is most often concerned with the outer most metres of the earth and often referred to as the anthropogenic zone. In describing soil or burial deposits you might see in my reports; ‘Anthropogenic activity was observed’. This is to indicate to others that the formation of the deposit, layer or soil being interpreted is the result of or been affected by human activity. It is a term that can also be used by geologists, ecologists, botanists to name a few.

At its simplest, an archaeologist can only observe and record what is left behind in the anthropogenic zone after the people have left, the buildings have gone out of use, the landscape has been modified or the environment changed. Quite literally our evidence of activity is recovered, sampled or tested after the dust has well and truly settled.

The more I have watched the tv coverage of Christchurch and its outlying areas; watched the faces of the people, the destruction of the homes and built heritage, the cracks in the ground and services, the fallen rock and debris; the more it strikes me that I am witnessing the creation of New Zealand’s history.

On a professional level it has struck me that I have excavated situations like this dating 100 years, 1000 years, 7000 years ago.

This is the evidence that has been dug, trowelled, brushed, sampled and lifted,
This is the evidence that has been discussed, analysed and interpreted,
This is the evidence that has been packaged, secured, conserved and displayed.

This is evidence that always deserves the uttermost respect of the archaeologist, scientist, curator, politician, teacher, student who’s path it crosses…now or generations from now.

This is evidence reflecting real people, landscape or environments, often facing change, transition, fear or sadness.

Not always negative, it can be the evidence of everyday life, people going to work, caring for their home, their loved ones, and festivities.

This is the evidence of people, populations and environments incorporating change into their lives, living life.

The layers and layers within the earth’s anthropogenic zone demonstrate time and time again the cycle of life continues.

That human nature is resilient.

So for me one of the greatest lessons I have reminded myself of is that of humanity, and also that archaeologists do have an important role to play in society.

As a scientist I may:
· Observe and record populations and their material culture.
· Assess and analyse landscapes and environments with the tools available to science and technology.
· Produce quantitative and qualitative data.
· Work within a research or project strategy with an aim and with conclusions.
· View the past through a microscope at a molecular level.
· Watch interested and at times detached, in the way buildings fall, how bodies lie, and the condition in which they survive.

But as a person,

I may be revealing, at times for the first time for a very long time, the last snap shot of a person’s life. I am exposing, some times preserving, what they had with them, what they ate, what they were doing, how they were feeling.

This happens in all cultures. This is how history and the layers of history are made. The events of people’s lives laid down at times gradually, and at times intense and sudden. These are preserved in the ground beneath us, and these, as the Cantabrian quakes are, part of the ongoing cycle New Zealand’s history.

As archaeologists we need to remember that we are handling the memories and treasures of real people who lived real lives.

As for the question, have we got history…we have been watching New Zealand’s history in the making.

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