Archaeology of Chews Lane

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"It is impossible to describe one's feelings in such a moment – the earth trembling beneath your feet – everything in the house tossed to and fro, books shelves and books falling, rafters and roof creaking, chimneys falling, wall rent and split all in a few seconds." ~ Frederick Trolove on the 1855 earthquake [1]


Chews Lane Redevelopment Project

“Chews Lane” refers to the street and the immediate surrounding area being redeveloped by Willis Street Holdings, Ltd, and was one of the areas affected by the cataclysmic earthquake of 1855. In 2006, before development commenced, an archaeological and relevant historical assessment were carried out. The NZ Historic Places Trust granted permission in September to modify the existing archaeological assessment beyond the monitoring of building demolition after “a brick foundation of unknown age was exposed on the Victoria Street end of the development site" [2]. The following is summarized from the site report by Rod Clough and Bruce McFadgen.

Birds eye plan.jpg Present-day Chews Lane Precinct;


1848, Marlborough Earthquake

1852, Sir George Grey's
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reclamation (Willis St. south of Chews Ln.)

1855, Wairarapa Fault ruptures, creating an earthquake of magnitude 8+
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and giving Charles Lyell "direct evidence of the relationship between earthquakes, fault rupturing, regional uplift and subsidence" [3]. For a seven minute documentary explaining the significance of the fault, click here.

1857-1863, “Carter’s Reclamation”, refering to the contractor (area north of Chews Lane, the majority of excavations came from this area)

1886, Reclamation by the Wellington City Council (E of Victoria St.); Lambton Harbour adjacent to the area is filled in

19th C. Occupation in Brief

Chews Lane runs perpendicular to Willis and Victoria Streets.[1] During and after the various reclamations, “the Willis Street side...came to be characterized by a variety of retail and commercial activities ranging from tobacconists, tailors, hairdressers, booksellers and grocers, etc," while "the Victoria Street side...was dominated by warehouses, importers and wholesalers”[4].

The Dig Itself

The dig itself consisted of two parts: the supervising of the demolition of buildings to the North of Chews Lane and the excavation of trenches and pile holes where new foundations were drilled. The modern buildings required digging new foundations deeper than the 19th century originals. Piles holes (and occasionally trenches) went as far as the underlying seabed, unearthing cultural strata, which gave “an unusual insight into one of the probable effects of the 1855 earthquake on local Wellington households and businesses.” [5] Excavation consisted of using trench diggers, sampling and sieving the fill from different strata. Height was recorded in relation to sea level, using the present mean sea level as the level datum [6].

A note on sea level change: Prior to the 1855 quake, the shoreline was located west of what is now Willis St., with low tide falling to 25m east of the present street; post-quake, the shoreline was raised, putting high tide at 13m past the street and low tide at 30m past, making the area of excavation an inter-tidal zone before drainage and reclamation by Carter [7].

Two Main Areas of Interest:

Corner of Willis St. and Chews Ln.[2]: This area was part of the inter-tidal zone before the 1855 reclamation. The strata reflect the changes to the landscape: one layer of gravel beach had mostly marine shells with some oysters (which would have been imported); the layer of gravel sand above it had loose layers with “cultural remains” dating to the reclamation of Sir George Grey and Carter.

The "cultural remains" in the sand layer included broken glass and china of different types, animal bones, bits of brick, etc., suggesting that the reclamation fill was made from the multitude of broken objects dumped by the town’s residents in an effort to clean up after the quake and probably included waste from the ruptured drains (ie animal bones) and polluted streams. Specifically, broken china had the highest concentration here than elsewhere in the site, with willow china patterns in particular occurring most frequently. Sixty percent of the pattern was blue [8]. Cargo advertisements and first hand accounts from the period testify to this pattern's popularity as domestic ware, strengthening the excavators' hypothesis of a massive cleaning of house.

JB.WilBlue.jpg Blue Willow pattern;

Northern Boundary: Two concrete blocks, one on top of the other, embedded in the pre-1855 seabed may be evidence of the earliest example of the use of concrete in Wellington, possibly as part of a jetty.

Clough Rod and Bruce McFadgen. 2009 Foreshock-Aftershock: The Archaeology of Chews Lane, Wellington. Auckland: Clough & Associates Ltd.


  1. Grapes, R 2000 Marlborough: Just Over One Hundred and Fifty Years of Earthquakes. Nelson Historical Society Journal 6(3)3.
  2. Clough and McFadgen 2009:3
  3. Downes, G. L. and R. Grapes 2010 Charles Lyell and the Great 1855 Earthquake in New Zealand: First recognition of active fault tectonics. Journal of the Geological Society of London, 167(1):35
  4. Clough and McFadgen 2009:15
  5. Clough and McFadgen 2009:24
  6. Clough and McFadgen 2009:26
  7. Clough and McFadgen 2009:30
  8. Clough and McFadgen 2009:39