The old and the new

I worked on construction sites for the past few weeks and spent a lot of my time in Christchurch neighbourhoods worst affected by the Canterbury Earthquakes. Everywhere around me, buildings were shattered, windows were patched up, fences shut of sites, and foundations were ripped out of the ground. I spent my days in an office only built a few years ago, saw new buildings rise out of the rubble, reflecting the newest trends in architecture. Everything seemed temporary, nothing settled. And then one day I drove into some Christchurch suburbs that had not been severely affected by the earthquakes and were any repairs had been quickly completed. I saw old buildings, old trees, established neighbourhoods. A sense of permancence and order pervaded the place. I felt a sense of peace and also fascination. Here was the steady rythm of daily life, not the flash edges of new buildings nor the forlorn traces of desolation.
But, of course, it wasn’t always like this. This was a new area once, too. Once upon a time this church was a construction site. For the first few years it stood somewhat stark in its surroundings. I don’t have a picture of Papanui, but this photo of a Napier church will give an impression of what a town would have liked in the 19th century, when settlements still became established in New Zealand (photo from the National Library of New Zealand Archives).
In other words, it needs time for a place to establish a sense of permanence. And that sense can be destroyed – by earthquakes, war, neglect, and other destructive events.

I think that this sense of permanence is something that should be taken into account in our archaeological investigations. We should not only try to assess occupation duration, but also have to take into account what it means for the people concerned. Now, not everyone reacts the same to an established past. Some people always want the flashy new that breaks with the past. But many people value a sense of permanence and appreciate a building that blends with its environment. When doing archaeology, we also should ask whether the remains of building we excavate shows signs of such permanence. One of those signs would be long occupation of a place. Another would be small additions and improvements to a house. The general layout of settlements and its integration with the surrounding fields would be another aspect to take into account. And maybe we are lucky enough to find evidence of trees and other plants that would have grown while a site was occupied. From that we can appreciate what a place would have looked like in the past. I’m not sure to what extent this is already done, but it certainly is a logical extension of the landscape archaeology, especially the viewscape aspect, done in Europe and South America.

I don’t think it is an overly subjective field of investigation. Rather, it is an angle we need to consider if we want to learn something about life in the past.

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