Monitoring and Recording Archaeology in Canterbury…Again

By Brigid Gallagher 22/06/2011

Christchurch heritage has once more been in the headlines over the last week or so.   The collapse and slide of the Lyttleton Timeball Station, more damage in the central area, and huge areas of liquefaction in the past week are all big news for archaeology and heritage.  Whilst I want the best for the residents of Christchurch and the surrounding area, I have been on the look out for progress in the way archaeology is handled since the February quake.

As always, when I see the damage to heritage in the news, are two nagging questions: 

          1: What is the effect of liquefaction on buried archaeological remains in the quake zones?

          2: Are the buildings being monitored and recorded appropriately?

Luckily for me archaeologist Katharine Watson presented a paper at this years NZAA conference, and provided many of the answers to the second question. She has also managed to update me of changes since last weeks large aftershocks.

Katharine is one of the consultant archaeologists employed by the Historic Places Trust to monitor and record pre 1900 buildings in the cordoned area, the red zone, of central Christchurch.  Even in a state of emergency, the archaeological provisions of the Historic Places Act apply.  This means that in all instances where human activity has occurred or suspected to have occurred prior to 1900, an archaeologist must be employed to monitor and record the evidence (NZHPT ‘In the Red Zone’ from the Cantebury West Coast Heritage Matters magazine).

What came through strongly in Katharine’s presentation, was that media have been reporting the work of such groups as Cera, NZHPT, the Recovery Council, Engineering Firms and Architects from the beginning;  but archaeologists like Katharine, and her colleague Dan Witter, have also been in the rubble, confusion and demolition works doing the nuts and bolts tasks archaeologists have to do in these types of situations.

Her story was honest.  She was congratulatory of the NZHPT for gaining access and publicity for archaeological work to occur prior to deconstruction or demolition of buildings.  But, she was equally clear about the disorganisation of the city and misinformation that occurred in the weeks following February 22 2011. 

From the archaeological point of view it seems that the governing bodies did not know the role of archaeologists, and perhaps more importantly, how they fitted into processes implemented following the February aftershocks.

The Beginning of the Archaeological Story

The focus was on pre-1900 buildings.

NZHPT negotiated access to the red zone 2 weeks after February 22, for archaeologists to record buildings prior to the deconstruction.  It is understood that many of the pre-1900 building demolitions that occurred in the CBD in the first weeks under USAR management occurred before archaeologists were permitted to enter the red zone, when issues of life and safety were paramount.

What she said was, ‘It’s hard to convey the atmosphere in the EOC in those early days, when there was little coordination between different teams, roles were constantly changing and few people seemed to really know what was going on’. This was not an easy working environment for anybody. 

This was further compounded by what she calls a non-systematic approach to communicating what buildings needed to be recorded. 

On a number of occasions the archaeologists arrived at a property to find it had already been demolished, was an incorrect property, or not in immediate danger of demolition.  The result Katharine stresses is not necessarily a bad one, just that some historic buildings have been recorded that post-date 1900. 

Solutions and Outcomes

The solution was to install a Google based spread sheet which could be updated and accessed by the archaeologists and the NZHPT managers so that Katharine and Dan could be ‘kept ahead of the game’.  So they could get to buildings before diggers and came in to deconstruct or demolish. 

It is worthy to note that deconstruction, Katharine defines as, being what happens when only part of the building is being removed, rather than the whole building being demolished

Prior to last Monday’s shake Katharine says that the flow of information to archaeologists had improved, under RCP management, and that demolition had also substantially slowed.  

  • NZHPT are notified prior to any new demolitions occurring to allow archaeological monitoring and recording to occur. 
  • The spreadsheet is updated
  • A short report for each building recorded is written

Another positive change to the demolition process has been the inclusion of a clause that prohibits any sub surface works to occur, such as the removal of building foundations, without a standard archaeological authority.  This is important because this will allow for extra time to excavate and record any surviving buried archaeology at a future time, such as when new development or rebuilding works begin.  Sub-surface archaeology by its nature is not generally considered a safety hazard.

Methods of recording the buildings have involved a lot of photos being taken, survey, GPS, laser scanning and written documentation. The preparation to deconstruct the Timeball Station stone by stone is a good example of how heritage buildings can be recorded.  Laser scanning, followed by condition analysis and monitoring, digitally generated elevations, stone by stone labelling and storage.  Unfortunately, this could not be completed.

At the time of her presentation, Katharine said, ‘The current total list of pre-1900 buildings that are being demolished is around 200, three-quarters of which are still standing. The number of listed or registered buildings that will be demolished is not known‘.

Changes since the Aftershocks last week

Knowing my interest in this subject, Katharine contacted me last week to say that:

  • Black passes to enter the CBD have been introduced and,
  • Demolition that had slowed has once more gone up a gear due to the damage caused by last Mondays quake.  This has meant changes in priorities and the recording of buildings that were not previously ear marked.

Safety had once again taken the lead (as it has to be), determining how and what buildings are treated with regard demolition, deconstruction and archaeological monitoring.

The big coup for archaeology has been that NZHPT has been involved from the beginning.  This means that archaeologists like Katharine are in the loop of communication, and heritage buildings marked for demolition are being monitored and recorded by the appropriate professionals. 

The importance of this should not be downplayed.  It seems that:

  1. Archaeologists are being included as recognised professionals that have a valid role in the demolitions and deconstruction phase of Christchurch,
  2. Archaeologists are taking a pragmatic approach, ‘Get in, get it recorded, get out’.  .
  3. Templates and procedures are being developed to deal with heritage and archaeology, whilst simultaneously dealing with fundamental priorities such as safety and public health should another quake occur (this is not unique to archaeology, templates generated by the Canterbury Disaster Salvage Team that was founded in 1987 can be found at here.  This a team of professionals from the cultural and heritage sectors in Canterbury, who have been active since 1987, to provide training and advice in the care and maintainance of heritage collections in disaster situations).
  4. Monitoring and recording of archaeological sites are occurring!  If we cannot have the building, we can collect all the information we can from them for future generations.

Whilst the role of archaeology is being validated, Katharine’s presentation showed that whilst there have been hard times regarding heritage, but methods and attitudes are changing.  Hopefully archaeologists are also proving that they are not time wasters and a drain on an already stressful environment.  This can only be better for archaeologists and heritage in the future. 

And it can only be better for New Zealand should this type of tragic natural disaster occur else where.  As saying goes…’Be Prepared’… otherwise we will loose what precious history we have. 

I may have said this before, but I will say it again…our human history is finite, once it is destroyed, there is no getting it back.


Apologies, due to the length of this post the next one will be my musings on the issue of liquefaction and its effect on archaeology…

Big thanks to Katharine Watson for her presentation and access to her notes!  And also the support of Frank at NZHPT.

0 Responses to “Monitoring and Recording Archaeology in Canterbury…Again”

  • Never apologise for length when writing on-line! 🙂 Long-form is good.

    Besides, Bora will be on your case if you do… As well as me, it seems 🙂

    Nice work.

  • Brilliant!

    Thanks very much for mentioning the Canterbury Disaster Salvage Team’s very important work. As you’ll know, the NZCCM (New Zealand Conservators of Cultural Materials – struggle with similar advocacy issues.

    • Thanks Sasha! I would love to know more about the work NZCCM are doing about this to add to the record.

  • To liquefy sediments need to be granular, loose and saturated. Not many archaeological deposits would qualify. The effect is more going to be on any layers stratified above layers that do liquefy. If they are cohesive typically they crack into blocks – the blocks may separate horizontally and vertically at the cracks and may be rafted laterally floating on the liquefied deposits underneath them, or may sink into the liquefied material. Some of the liquefied material is expressed out of the cracks and may form a new surface layer. All these effects might be seen in archaeological deposits over a liquefied layer.
    The effect on building foundations that have archaeological form will depend on what sort they were. It will be different for piles extending into the liquefied zone than it will be for footing type foundations above it.

    • Hi Gary, I take it you got bored waiting for the next installment! 🙂 Please find me some more hours in the day!
      Absolutely re the areas of liquefactation being generally lower than archaeological deposits; however it is the effect of the rising silts and underlying ground movement on arch deposits and features that I am most interested in. You suggest they crack into blocks if the arch layers are cohesive…surely given the relatively short time period and deposits typical of urbanisation relatively ‘weak’ and thin layers are common in CC, and therefore would break along zones of weakness rather than blocks? Just thinking aloud really. It is good to hear potentials that could be tested in the field!