Discover Canterbury: Digging into Archaeology Week

This week is New Zealand Archaeology Week (22 to 30 April 2023). When most people think of archaeology, Egypt or Europe initially come to mind and they are usually surprised to hear that Aotearoa New Zealand has a significant number of archaeological sites with one even dating back to 1280 AD (Wairau Bar in the Marlborough Region).

Archaeological dig at Kaiapohia Pa, 1990. © Christchurch Star. CCL-StarP-05250A.

Archaeology is the is the study of human activity through material culture. In Aotearoa New Zealand, archaeological sites are defined as places associated with pre-1900 human activity, where there is evidence relating to the history of Aotearoa New Zealand. We are fortunate enough to have a range of different types of archaeological sites such as gardens from pre-European occupation, middens (mostly shell middens) or rubbish dumps, domestic sites, commercial/industrial sites, pā sites and even shipwrecks. If a suspected archaeological site is discovered, an excavation is usually carried out by a team of archaeologists and if artefacts are found, they are recorded and bagged. Once the excavation is complete, the artefacts are then cleaned, analysed and photographed.

Whale bones and shell midden. © Christchurch Star. CCL-StarP-05268A.

Working in the past as an artefact specialist, one part of my job was to distinguish between the different types of artefacts from Māori sites (Pre-European), Contact sites and Post-European sites. Māori sites typically produce mostly stone tools (or stone fragments), fish hooks, shell middens or food waste whereas in Post-European sites, glass bottles, ceramics, clay smoking pipes, metal items, shoes etc are the most common artefacts found. Contact sites produce a mix of both. Artefacts vary greatly depending on the time period and the location.

On the Canterbury Stories website, we have a range of different photographs that show archaeological excavations and artefacts from all over the South Island

Do you have any of photographs of archaeological sites? You can contribute to our collection via the Discovery Wall website

Important terms

Archaeological authority: An archaeological authority is an authorisation document applied for when planning to undertake work such as forestry operations, mining, road construction and building construction. An authority from Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga is legally required in any instance where there is cause to suspect a recorded or unrecorded archaeological site that may be affected.

Feature: Anything such as a pit, ditch or stain in the ground, typically with an origin and purpose that is not immediately obvious. It is basically a non-portable artefact.

Stratigraphy: The study of layered materials (strata) that were deposited over time.

Layer: Deposit of material that seems to have settled at one particular time.

Structure: A former building or erection of any kind, usually indicated by post holes or wall foundations etc.

Excavation: Method of uncovering items usually by digging. It is both costly and destructive and therefore never to be undertaken lightly.

Assemblage: A group of different artefacts found in association with one another (i.e. the same site or context).

Context: Context is essential to the understanding of past human activity. The context of an artefact consists of its matrix (the material surrounding it such as the layer of soil), its provenience (horizontal and vertical position within the matrix) and its association with other artefacts found nearby.


Bahn, P & Renfrew, C. 2008. Archaeology: Theories, Methods and Practice, 5th edition. Thames & Hudson Ltd: London, United Kingdom.

Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga. 2023. Archaeology. [online]. Retrieved on 6 April 2023.

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Discover Canterbury is a fortnightly blog post promoting beautiful, interesting, weird, & wonderful digital content from our Canterbury Stories and Discovery Wall collections.
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