Earthquakes and archaeology: the case of Christchurch, New Zealand

Posted on: February 16, 2015 by

On 4 September 2010 an earthquake of 7.1 magnitude struck the Canterbury region of New Zealand. It was followed by thousands of aftershocks, including one of 6.3 magnitude that struck the city of Christchurch on 22 February 2011. It caused widespread destruction of buildings and 185 deaths. A national state of emergency was declared. Today, almost four years later, rebuilding and repair continues.

The Canterbury earthquakes have triggered challenging variations to the archaeological laws which Heritage New Zealand regulates. Rapid, widespread demolition and site development has ratcheted up the pressure to investigate archaeological sites before they are modified or destroyed. While built heritage is protected by local authorities or heritage covenants, Heritage New Zealand retains regulatory responsibilities for archaeological sites.

Under the recent Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga Act 2014 it is unlawful for any person to modify or destroy an archaeological site without the prior authority of Heritage New Zealand. Archaeological sites are defined in New Zealand law as buildings and structures erected prior to 1900 and sites of pre-1900 human occupation. Anyone wishing to do work on an archaeological site, whether for building works, earthworks, exploration, or scientific investigation needs to obtain an authority from Heritage New Zealand.

Prior to the earthquakes, legislation allowed up to three months for processing an archaeological authority and had an appeal period of up to 15 working days. But with so much urgent work required (buildings needed to be made safe and infrastructure repaired) this was no longer practical. Under an Order in Council of 23 September 2010, Heritage New Zealand had three working days to process an emergency archaeological authority application, or five days where the site was of interest to Maori. This has resulted in an enormous workload for Heritage New Zealand’s Christchurch office. Before the quakes, the office processed an average of 35-40 archaeological authorities annually; in the subsequent years that number has risen to 500-900.

Heritage New Zealand uses a range of tools to enforce compliance. Often breaches of the Act are dealt with by providing information, conducting site visits, and talking with parties. But when the breach is serious, premeditated, prevalent, repeated or related to sites significant to Maori, Heritage New Zealand may initiate a prosecution. In 2013 Heritage New Zealand jointly prosecuted two companies, Arrow International and Mike Greer Homes, for damaging or modifying an archaeological site in Redcliffs (a beach suburb of Christchurch). The two companies had mistakenly begun excavation work without an archaeological authority from Heritage New Zealand and in the process destroyed an early moa hunting site dating from the mid-13th to early-14th centuries. Their actions had dire consequences as archaeological deposits associated with the site such as middens, ovens, moa egg shell, and stone artefacts were irretrievably lost.

The two companies pleaded guilty and since 2013 have been working with Heritage New Zealand’s archaeologists to educate their staff on their responsibilities under the Heritage New Zealand Act. They have committed to sharing their learnings with the wider construction sector. Arrow International and Mike Greer Homes also jointly funded a $19,000 Otago University archaeology-based scholarship which will document and investigate what remains of the Redcliff moa site.

The Canterbury earthquakes have set in motion one of the largest archaeological projects ever undertaken in New Zealand. The multiple excavations are providing a wealth of information on life in early Canterbury. But ignorance about archaeological provisions is a significant challenge for Heritage New Zealand and the risk of site damage remains constant.

Rosemary Baird is the Canterbury Area Co-ordinator at Heritage New Zealand.