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Lives of early Dunedinites revealed after excavation

Wednesday 9 October 2019 8:38am

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Dr Karen Greig, Co-Director of Southern Pacific Archaeological Research, with a well-preserved boot from the site.

They ate oysters, they probably had pet cats and their feet were small.

Fragments of the lives of late 19th century Dunedin people who lived and worked on the site of the University’s Dental School have been revealed in a major archaeological excavation.

Carried out in 2016 as part of the Dental School redevelopment, the work by Southern Pacific Archaeological Research (SPAR) has now been collated for a Heritage New Zealand report and an academic paper.

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Excavation at the site of the University's new Clinical Services Building in 2016.

A selection of the artefacts discovered was on display as part of the University’s recent 1869 Conference and Heritage Festival.

“It’s showing you the side of Dunedin history that you don’t necessarily get from reading a book. It’s the tangible aspect of it,” says Dr Karen Greig, Co-Director of Southern Pacific Archaeological Research, a research and consulting unit within the Archaeology Programme, School of Social Sciences in the Humanities Division.

“If you’re interested in the infrastructure and utilities of the city we’ve got evidence of drains, pathways, cobblestones, foundations and lots of water control. It was obviously a bit of a bog. But we also have lots and lots of material that related to people’s everyday lives.”

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Alongside the pottery fragments, children’s toys, pipes, metal match boxes and bottles is a selection of livestock bones and seafood shells, including oysters and cockle shells, which give an insight into the 1870s' diet.

Also discovered were some cat bones, pointing to the probability of domestic moggies.

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The site, which is now home to the School of Dentistry’s gleaming new Clinical Services Building, contained shacks, workshops and houses as well as a set of buildings associated with the Victoria Foundry run by Barningham and Co in the late 19th century. The Barningham Building was demolished as part of the redevelopment.

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“There was a cobbler who worked in the area and we found lots of boots. These boots have all been worn right down through the soles and they were all quite small so I think people’s stature has changed quite a lot,” Dr Greig says.

Some of the boots were in surprisingly good condition, possibly because of the wet ground which can preserve organic material.

The team referred to historic maps and plans of the area to help build a wider picture of the development of north Dunedin.

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The site shows a shift from makeshift wooden structures with wood-lined drains and cobbled paths to more substantial brick and mortar buildings.

“This is the first large excavation we’ve done in Dunedin. So it’s actually been really great to be working in our own city.

“The University has an amazing history and we have these stunning historic buildings but we don’t just occupy the surface. Our history is above and below ground.

“What we found pre-dates the University’s use of the site but the development of North Dunedin is intimately tied to the development of the University. The University and the town grew together.”