Archaeologists Naomi Woods and Megan Lawrence are digging up the pasts of the people who once lived where our new Outpatient Building is being built – and uncovering mysteries, scandal, and dubious health tonics along the way.
“The site was at one time one of the most densely populated city blocks in Dunedin,” says Naomi. “A quarter acre section might have had 6 or 8 houses crammed onto it.”
The working-class suburb was home to a variety of colourful characters – including several landladies, a murderer, and a Castle Street father with a penchant for poison.
“We already know the names of numerous past occupants of the site,” says Naomi. “We were excited to find a shoe with the owner’s initials, SW, carved into the sole. And we found a resident named Samuel Webb – but he lived at the other end of the block.”
The search for the shoe’s owner continues, but Naomi thinks she’s identified the owner of a teacup with ‘Elizabeth’ written on it in gold lettering.
“The cup was found just over the fence from where the Strang family lived. The eldest Strang daughter, Elizabeth, lived there until her death, aged 37, in 1904, so it seems likely that the cup was hers. We are hopeful that she will be the first of many occupants we’ll get to know through the things they left behind."
The artefacts are being uncovered from the holes that are being dug for the Outpatient Building’s piles.
“We’ve done about 38, so we’re a fair way through,” Megan says. “We excavate the top 1.4 – 1.6m of each pile cap location, and then auger down to see if there are other obstructions. When we encounter or expose something, we get in there and excavate it by hand.”
Items uncovered so far include the sole of a hobnail shoe, the lid of a jar of cold cream, and several ginger beer and soda bottles.
“Cold cream was used as a cure-all to restore your vigour, and some of the soda waters were touted as health drinks,” Naomi says. “Victorian medicines could apparently cure a lot of things!”
You might expect to be able to see these artefacts at a museum one day – but because the soil is contaminated with asbestos, smaller objects are disposed of once they’ve been measured, photographed and catalogued. Larger artefacts will remain in situ.
“We found a brick floor that lines up with one of three old stables that used to be on the site,” Megan says. “The section of the floor where the piles are going in will be demolished, but the rest of it will remain intact beneath the building.”
Once the pile caps have been excavated, the team will excavate the small, narrow trenches for the ground beam foundations between the piles.
“Afterwards we’ll do other earthworks like service connections such as drains. Then we’ll write a report for Heritage New Zealand that will become a publicly available record,” Megan says.
It’s during the report-writing process that the history of the site will really come to life.
“We’ll line the artefacts up with the dates and look at old newspapers, genealogical records, and rates and property details – along with little details we’ve uncovered that haven’t been recorded,” Naomi says. “Together they’ll confirm existing narratives about the past, and tell new stories.”