Unveiling Central Auckland's stories through archaeology 

By Emma Ash, EE Vaile Associate Curator, Archaeology 

Beneath the bustling streets and modern skyline of Tāmaki Makaurau lie hidden stories and forgotten chapters relating to the people and places that shaped the city we know today.  

Through archaeology, we can study the past by looking at the material remains left behind, such as artefacts, buildings, and modifications to the surrounding environment. While numerous avenues exist to unlock the past, such as written records, oral histories, illustrations, and photographs, archaeology can be incorporated alongside these other sources to provide insights into the daily lives of people and communities and richer narratives of the past.  

Several significant excavations have been conducted in the central city, primarily to record information from sites under threat by the development of new infrastructure. The material recovered during archaeological investigations is usually described as 'rubbish' – items discarded as waste from food production, tool making, or from breakage and abandonment.  

Using items recovered from these excavations, stories relating to the people and places of central Auckland are now housed at Auckland Museum. These stories provide a snapshot of the city's past. 


Queen St. looking north, circa 1870. Image by John Tensfeld

PH-CNEG-M868(34-36) More information ›
Victoria Hotel

Victoria Hotel

One of the earliest hotels in Auckland, Victoria Hotel, opened in 1840 as a temporary structure made of raupō between Shortland Street and Fort Street. The hotel was replaced in 1842 with a timber building, and later extended in 1845. For the first two decades, Victoria Hotel was popular and fashionable; however, by the 1860s, the hotel was experiencing financial difficulties. In February 1865, a fire broke out under suspicious circumstances, consuming the hotel and several other nearby properties.  

A commercial building was constructed on the vacant site in the 1880s, which remained until 1989 when the Auckland Star newspaper building was demolished for redevelopment. During excavations, archaeologists uncovered the Victoria Hotel's cellar, which had been infilled and sealed by the hotel's contents during the fire, creating a time capsule representing Victorian Auckland.  

A large amount of material relating to hotel operations was recovered, including glass bottles, ceramic ware, chimney bricks, hotel fittings, coins, faunal material, and an extensive collection of clay tobacco pipes. More than 2000 pipe fragments were recovered, representing over 20 manufacturers, including varieties rare to Aotearoa. Some clay pipes are stamped with the manufacturer's mark, and through research, archaeologists can determine the location and period of manufacture, providing a date range for the site and information on export networks.  

Pipes manufactured by McDougall & co. of Glasgow are common in colonial sites and appear to have been a prominent nineteenth-century exporter of pipes to Aotearoa. Most of the pipes are made from white clay, but there are also terracotta pipe fragments, including some from a unique pink terracotta. A number are also glazed or coated.  

An interesting feature of the clay pipe assemblage is the number of unused pipes. This suggests that pipes were probably for sale in the hotel when it burnt down. Further, the fact that many of the used and unused pipes represent forms rarely found in Aotearoa suggests the hotel had a unique range for sale. It also reflects the nature of the hotel as a place with many different patrons passing through.  

Only a small range of designs are represented in the ceramic assemblage, with multiple identically patterned chamber pots, water filters, dinnerware and other items that would have been present in large numbers in a hotel.  

Pictures: items found during excavations on the site of the Victoria Hotel 

Brown's Mill

Brown's Mill

Excavations undertaken during the demolition of the Brown's Mill building, 15-17 Durham Lane, in 1988 revealed the remains of residential dwellings with evidence of occupation since the 1840s. A stone warehouse was later constructed on the site in 1876 and converted into a flour mill sometime before 1882. The mill continued to operate until the 1960s, when the machinery was removed from the building. The site was then used for the Brown's Mill craft market, which operated from 1968 until the building was demolished. 

A well, constructed at the same time as the house foundations, had been filled with domestic rubbish, relating to the day-to-day activities of the households. Much like the clay pipes, ceramic ware, glass bottles and other domestic items display makers marks, which date the material to being in use while the dwellings were occupied. 

The material recovered provides some clue as to the socio-economic status of the occupants, suggesting they did not prioritise spending on consumer items. A Fox and Grapes patterned bowl found in the well is a manufacturing 'second' with a prominent drip and several runs in the pattern's ink. Two additional printed vessels also show flaws in the pattern application.  

Footwear belonging to men, women and children was also recovered from the well. The shoes were very badly worn, suggesting they got all the wear out of them before they were discarded. At least two pairs show evidence of sole repairs. Leather offcuts found in the well could relate to repairs being made by the occupants.  

The animal bones, including pig and cow, also indicate that the occupants used inexpensive cuts of meat. Butchery marks on the bones are consistent with their use as roasts. The fact that whole animals were not found suggests they were obtained as individual cuts.

While the archaeological evidence cannot tell us exactly who was living at the site, several pieces of sawn and nailed timber offcuts were in the well, suggesting one of the tenants carried out carpentry or may have been employed as a carpenter. Interestingly, jury lists show that a carpenter lived on Durham Lane from 1850-1851.

Brown’s Mill, Durham Lane. Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira. PH-CNEG-B4587.

Queen Street Gaol

The redevelopment of the corner of Queen Street and Victoria Street allowed archaeologists to look for remnants of the old gaol complex. The gaol operated from 1841 until the last prisoners were transferred to Mount Eden in 1865. A market was established on the site until new buildings were constructed in 1875. During excavations, the gaol well, foundations of the debtors' block, floor of the gaol kitchen and part of the hard labour yard were uncovered. Many artefacts relating to the gaol and other activities on the site were also recovered, including glass and ceramic items, clay tobacco pipes, buttons, metal food tins and butchered animal bones.  

Te Waihorotiu, the stream that once ran down Queen Street into the Waitematā Harbour before being covered during urbanisation, was recovered during excavations. The remains of ten dogs, two with collars still around their necks, were found at the base of the stream bed, providing grisly evidence for the presence of a pound on the site. The dogs belonged to breeds such as Settlers, Spaniels, Collies and Greyhounds. Two display features thought to be characteristic of the pre-European Māori dog, or kurī, that accompanied Polynesians to Aotearoa. With few fences in early colonial Auckland, roaming dogs and animals were frequently reported as a problem. If animals were unclaimed, they were sold by auction or killed. One report states that goats were exiled to Rangitoto.  

According to historical records, providing prisoners working in the hard labour yard with adequate footwear was always a problem, with reports of prisoners refusing to work. Examples of footwear found at the base of the creek are heavily nailed and have heel and toe plates, an unusual feature for normal working shoes seen at this time. These shoes may represent an attempt to make prisoners' footwear sturdier. 

An interesting find during the excavation of the stream's banks were wooden gardening implements, shell midden and weaving fragments. Radiocarbon dates from the midden material relate these items to an earlier fifteenth-century Māori settlement. The anaerobic, muddy matrix provided ideal conditions for the preservation of organic items. The organic, leafy material underneath the midden was also sampled during excavation for pollen analysis. Before Queen Street became a concrete cityscape, the area was once forested with species such as miro and kauri. Bracken fern was also represented and often grows after land clearance, such as for gardening. Earlier evidence of Māori occupation in the area was also visible through hinau berries, gnawed on by the introduced kiore and radiocarbon dated to the thirteenth century.  

Artefacts from Queen Street Gaol 

Albert Barracks

Albert Barracks

The Albert Barracks was a major British military installation that once encompassed the current sites of the University of Auckland and Albert Park within a 3-metre high stone wall. Construction of the barracks started in 1845 and continued until 1851-52 to reassure the people of Auckland after the First New Zealand War (1845-1946) in the Bay of Islands. While the barracks never saw conflict, it played a central role in public life, hosting balls, sporting, and other events. Albert Barracks was abandoned in 1870, and the buildings were demolished or relocated. A remnant of the wall can still be visited on the University of Auckland campus beside the library.  

Archaeological investigations uncovered numerous items relating to the military aspects of the barracks, including buttons and badges that identified the regiments residing at the barracks, flintlock, percussion munitions and a stoneware ink jar with a government-issued broad arrow mark. Narratives relating to Albert Barracks often focus on the military presence in colonial Auckland and the impact on urban development.  

However, the artefacts assemblage also provides interesting aspects of daily life in the barracks, from alcohol and pharmaceutical bottles, game pieces, ceramic ware, condiment bottles, and other food refuse. Personal items such as patterned chamber pots, washbowls, teapots, porcelain jars, and an octagon jar with a face moulded onto it are also present in the collections.  

A more interesting aspect of the assemblage is the presence of items relating to the soldier's families who also resided in the barracks. There are several instances of ceramic figurines, which were popular household decorations for working and middle-class nineteenth-century families. Brass eyelets and lashing hooks from women's boots, ceramic dolls, children's tea sets, and glass marbles also speak to the presence of women and children in the barracks.  

Examination of the more everyday occurrences allows for a richer interpretation of the social aspects of life at the Albert Barracks, and the role women and children played, contributing to the story of families living in the barracks.  

Artefacts from the Albert Barracks site

References and Further Readng 

Brassey. R. 1991. Clay Tabacco Pipes from the Site of the Victoria Hotel Auckland, New Zealand. Australian Historical Archaeology 9: 27-30 

Brassey, R. and S. Macready. 1994. The History and Archaeology of the Victoria Hotel, Fort Street, Auckland (site R11/1530). Department of Conservation, Auckland Conservancy Historic Resource Series No. 10 

Brassey, R. 1990. The History and Archaeology of the Brown's Mill Site, 15-17 Durham Lane, Auckland. Department of Conservation, Science and Research Internal Report No. 77 

https://www.aucklandmuseum.com/discover/stories/blog/2018/archaeology-beneath-our-feet 

Best, S. 1992. Queen Street Gaol. Auckland's First Courthouse, Common gaol and House of Correction (site R11/1559). Department of Conservation, Auckland Conservancy Historic Resource Series No. 2.  

Clough, R., Bader, H. D., Mace, T., Fraser, J., Rudd, D., Hawkins, S., Low, J., Sutherland, C., Macready, S., & Wallace, R. (2003). Excavation of the Albert Barracks (R11/833): University of Auckland student amenities project (Unpublished Client Report). Auckland, New Zealand: http://www.clough.co.nz/monographs/ clough_albert_barracks.pdf