Gender matters. And it’s complicated, which is why writing this blog post has been particularly difficult. Why is it so complicated, from an archaeological standpoint? Well, let me try and explain.
Historical archaeology developed as a discipline in the mid-20th century and, at that time, its practitioners made all sorts of sweeping generalisations about the position of women – and other minorities – in the past (as many archaeologists at the time did, regardless of their period of expertise, and as I’m doing now). For the so-called historic period, these assumptions revolved around women as mother and domestic helpmeet, with no roles outside this, little value placed on this role, little recognition that maybe women wanted more than this and little room for any agency on the part of women.
Times have changed, and society now sees gender – and gender roles – quite differently. Historical archaeologists are no exception to this change. We now see considerable value in the role of women in the 19th century and are able to make far more nuanced interpretations about their lives and experiences.
For all this, women are still frustratingly elusive in the archaeological record. There are some artefacts that definitely indicate the presence of a woman at a site, such as a woman’s shoes, clothing or jewellery. It might be possible to use a perfume bottle to definitely link a woman to a site, or perhaps some specific medicines. The presence of girls might be able to be identified through dolls, but boys could just as easily have played with dolls. And anyway, these artefacts do little more than reinforce those gender stereotypes we’ve moved away from. They tell us that there was a woman at the site, and maybe she wore perfume. Or maybe someone gave her some perfume that she didn’t like. Who knows?
But if you’ve got a site that you know was almost exclusively occupied by women for over 40 years, that’s a whole different matter. Especially when that site was occupied by the same family for that period, which is pretty unusual in central Christchurch, regardless of the genders involved.
The site in question was that of Violet Cottage. Even the name sounds feminine, right? Well, that’s how it was known when Dr Thomas Moore – and his family – were living there. The Moore family had bought land in Canterbury in 1850, and emigrated the following year (Greenaway 2007, Lundy 2014). They settled at Charteris Bay initially, before moving to Violet Cottage. Unfortunately for Dr Moore, he only lived at the cottage for two or three years before his untimely death in 1860 (Lyttelton Times 15/2/1860: 4). Following his death, members of his family remained at the cottage until the 20th century (H Wise and Co 1911). This included Mrs Elizabeth Moore, and the children: Elizabeth, Alice, Thomas, Jane, Ellen, Annie and Emma (H Wise & Co 1878-1979, Lundy 2014). Elizabeth lived at Violet Cottage until her death in 1887 and two of her daughters – Annie and Emma – continued to live at the cottage until the 20th century. We’ve not been able to identify how the women supported themselves after Thomas senior’s death, but there is some evidence to suggest that they had income from property near Violet Cottage (Hughes et al. 2014: 4).
What we found at the site was perhaps surprising: there was nothing about the assemblage we recovered that suggested the artefacts were deposited by a predominantly female household. Or even that there were women living at the site: no women’s clothing, perfume bottles or shoes. Nothing specifically female at all. This is perhaps not surprising, given that we probably only recovered a fraction of the material culture discarded by the site’s occupants over the more than 40 years they lived there.
We found a fairly generic Victorian Christchurch domestic assemblage, with one exception. We only found three rubbish pits at the site, and one of these features contained almost nothing but alcohol bottles: 134 of the 146 artefacts we recovered from the feature probably contained alcohol (long-time followers of the blog will know that bottles were frequently re-used in 19th century New Zealand and may not have contained the contents suggested by their form). There was nothing about the rubbish pit that suggested the bottles had been deposited over a number of years, and the pit was probably filled over a relatively short period of time. So someone at the site may have been doing a lot of drinking – or it’s possible that the good doctor was using the alcohol for medical purposes.
Most of the remainder of the artefacts recovered from the site were either ceramics or animal bones (i.e. food waste from the Moores’ meals). The ceramics included a range of serving wares that suggested a well-to-do middle class establishment. There was a tureen, a platter, a milk jug and dinner plates, as well as more utilitarian items, such as chamber pots, a colander and a rather fabulous wash basin. There was only one tea cup, one saucer and no teapots – while that may not seem that interesting, archaeologists have often identified the presence and role of women on 19th century archaeological sites through the ritual of afternoon tea, and the material remains of that ritual. There was some evidence, however, to suggest a matching set of sprigged ware – and this may have been a tea set, as the items from this set were a milk jug, a saucer and a side plate.
The animal bones tell us that the Moores were eating mutton and beef, with a preference for mutton, and a range of both cheap and expensive cuts present – beef cheek anyone? The cuts of mutton were from both the forequarter (or shoulder) and the leg, with the latter suggesting the consumption of roast mutton. In amongst all this evidence for food and its consumption, it is perhaps surprising that no condiment containers were recovered from the site – no vinegars, salad oils or pickles.
The artefact from the site that I found most evocative was a porcelain platter, made by Spode, and decorated with a blue floral pattern. The interesting thing about this platter was that the maker’s mark indicated that it was made between c.1805 and 1830 (The Potteries 2008). That means that it was made before the Moores arrived in New Zealand, and that the Moores are very likely to have brought it with them from England, and kept it carefully and safely throughout their travels. For the family, this piece of china may have provided a direct and tangible link between the life they left behind in England and their new life here on the other side of the globe.
We can’t relate this artefact to gender (at least, not without making a whole lot of assumptions that don’t sit comfortably), but it does tell us about the sort of items that new colonists – of a certain class – brought with them for their new lives, and their expectations of those lives: I don’t imagine that the holds of migrant ships were packed with Spode platters or ashets… This platter suggests that the Moore family expected to dine well, and possibly even to entertain, and to maintain certain standards in their new home.
Our experience at this site confirms that gender – and gender roles – can be difficult to explore archaeologically. But the question is an important one and needs to be considered carefully at any archaeological site, rather than simply making assumptions about the role of women in 19th century Christchurch.
Katharine Watson, Chelsea Dickson & Julia Hughes
Andersen, J. C., 1949. Old Christchurch in Picture and Story. Simpson and Williams Ltd, Christchurch.
Greenaway, R. L. N., 2007. Barbadoes Street Cemetery Tour. [online] Available at: http://christchurchcitylibraries.com/heritage/cemeteries/barbadoes/barbadoesstreetcemetery.pdf [Accessed June 2014].
H. Wise & Co., 1878-1979. Wises New Zealand Post Office Directories. Dunedin: H. Wise & Co.
Hughes, J., Dickson, C. and Geary Nichol, R., 2014. 89 Chester Street East, Christchurch: report on archaeological monitoring. Unpublished report for Hawkins Ltd.
Jacobson, H. C., 1914. Tales of Banks Peninsula. Akaroa: Akaroa Mail Office.
Lundy, D., 2014. Dr. Thomas Richard Moore. [online] Available at: <http://www.thepeerage.com/p44788.htm> [Accessed June 2014].
Lyttelton Times. [online] Available at: <www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz>. Accessed April 2014.
The Potteries, 2008. A-Z of Stoke-on-Trent Potters. [online] Available at: www.thepotteries.org.