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Christchurch Hospital on the banks of the Avon River (Te Papa)

Photograph of Antigua Street Bridge and Hospital (Archives New Zealand)

Bicycle part from Avon River

found near the Antigua Street bridge

This old bicycle crank was pulled out of the Otākaro/Avon River during archaeological investigations after the earthquakes.


Other colonial artefacts included:

  • Leather shoes and boots

  • Buttons

  • Clay tobacco pipes

  • Wallets (empty)

  • WWI-era German bullet (a souvenir?)

  • Parts of a tractor

  • Glassware and beer bottles

  • Aerated water bottles

  • Broken plates

  • Coffee mugs

  • A penny ink well

  • Building demolition material, including three dumps of bricks, a bathroom vanity, and fireplace tiles


Not surprisingly, the best places to find things were around bridges and old hotel sites!    

Christchurch hospital was built next to the river that it could flush its waste easily. This was one of the reasons why the public baths downstream eventually closed.


The central city was once a network of rivers, streams, and wetlands  

For Māori, the Avon River – Otākaro – was a significant transport route and a source of food and materials. The river and wetlands yielded fish, birds and plants such as kāuru (root of the tī kōuka/ cabbage tree), and aruhe (fernroot). Other swamp plants were used for building, clothing, medicines, rope, fishing nets and more. A network of trails, by land and water, enabled people to move between settlements at Kaiapoi and Banks Peninsula, and mahinga kai (food gathering areas) at Wairewa (Lake Forsyth), Te Waihora (Lake Ellesmere) and Te Riu a Te Aika kawa (Brooklands Lagoon).

There were two kāinga nohoanga (village settlements) on the river banks in what is now the inner city:

  • Tautahi: near the corner of Kilmore and Barbadoes Streets

  • Puāri: near the Provincial Chambers and the new Pita Te Hori Centre (between Cashel, Hereford and Montreal Streets, and Cambridge Terrace)

Why didn’t archaeologists find many Māori artefacts in central Christchurch?

There are two main reasons:

  • Almost as soon as Europeans settled in Christchurch, they started extensively modifying the landscape. Along the river, for instance, they dramatically changed the vegetation, levelled parts of the riverbank, built retaining walls, constructed a dam and water race for a flour mill, and excavated a trench for swimming. Pre-colonial landscapes were destroyed by these works, and sacred sites such as urupā (burial places) were discovered and destroyed during the construction of early European buildings.

  • Many everyday items used by Māori were made of natural materials that biodegrade over time and would not survive in the ground to the present day. This is called "preservation bias" when certain types of artefacts are not preserved in the archaeological record.


Riding and stealing bikes: both popular pastimes

In 1869, Christchurch had a velocipede race from Latimer Square to the railway station and back. Following velocipedes, bicycles as we know them arrived in Christchurch in the 1880s.


Cycle racing became popular, both track and road. In fact, the old Pioneer Stadium was named after the Pioneer Sports Club, which started in 1879 as a bicycle club. The first Timaru to Christchurch road race was held in 1899.

Christchurch also has the distinction of hosting New Zealand’s first women’s cycling club, the Atalanta Cycling Club (1892): Kate Sheppard was a member.

From 1895 to 1910, Christchurch had a bicycle band: members played instruments while riding in formation.

In the 1920s and 1930s, about 1,000 bicycles were reported stolen each year in Christchurch.


Find out more

The Avon River – What Lurks Below, Pecha Kucha Night Christchurch, Video presentation by Nick Cable, archaeologist, 27 April 2019

The Public Realm of Central Christchurch Narrative, written by Debbie Tikao, Landscape Architect and General Manager of the Matapopere Charitable Trust: Ngāi Tahu values, customs and traditions relevant to the Otākaro/Avon River Precinct.

Final Report for Archaeological Investigations on The Terraces, by Kathy Davidson, Clara Watson and Lydia Mearns, January 2019 (Archaeological Authority No.2017/130eq) and

Final Report for Archaeological Investigations between Antigua and Durham Streets, by Kathy Davidson, Lydia Mearns and Clara Watson, January 2019 (Archaeological Authority No.2017/130eq)

Both available for download through the Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga Digital Library


Contextual Historical Overview of Christchurch, for Christchurch City Council, 2013 [pdf]

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