Remains of pony found at historic theatre site

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Matt Hennessey inspects the  horse skeleton found under the Isaac Theatre Royal. Photo: Underground Overground Archaeology
Matt Hennessey inspects the horse skeleton found under the Isaac Theatre Royal. Photo: Underground Overground Archaeology

It may have been a circus pony performing one last trick more than a century after its death, or it may have been a working horse that pulled a coach.

The answer may never be known, but the discovery of the buried skeleton of a pony under the site of a historic New Zealand theatre during work at the site a fortnight ago has certainly piqued interest.

Archaeologist Katharine Watson, of Underground Overground Archaeology, was called in after the discovery was unearthed during work to demolish and rebuild part of the Isaac Theatre Royal in Christchurch.

The ornate theatre was badly damaged in the February 22, 2011, earthquake centered near the city that killed 185 people.

The 6.3-magnitude quake caused billions of dollars in damage to the city’s buildings and infrastructure.

Watson told Horsetalk the pony discovery was a fascinating find.

Workers undertaking demolition work unearthed the remains behind the facade beside the marble stairs.

Watson said the area in Gloucester St where the pony was buried was pasture until 1906, when the theatre was built. The skeleton, she said, would have been buried some time from the mid-1800s until the theatre’s construction.

The skeleton was mostly complete and mostly articulated. It still had one shoe intact.

It was likely, she said, the others had been removed after death for re-use. The one remaining shoe may have been too difficult to remove, she suggested.

The animal had been given a proper burial in a grave about 1.5 metres deep.

It was unusual, she said, that the pony had not gone to the knackery.

The story of the animal is unlikely to ever be known, but a circus is known to have used the pasture for a time, and it was also used by a coaching depot. Could it have been one last trick from a circus animal that once entertained children in the early settlement?

Watson, who is assigned to investigate any interesting finds during work at the theatre site, said she had recovered as many of the bones as she could. They will ultimately be analysed to see what secrets they may yield, and then placed in long-term storage.

Some of the artifacts recovered during the excavation may ultimately go on display.

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