Under the ground, over the ground and under the floor

Underfloor deposits are as exasperating as they are exciting. Exasperating because the context is not particularly secure: objects usually accumulate under a house over time (thrown or swept from the outside, lost or dropped between the floorboards, dragged in by wind, animals or as result of construction activities). However, every cloud has a silver lining and underfloor deposits are also exciting. The dry conditions under the houses help preserve different types of artefacts to those found in the ground. As a result, underfloor deposits give us the chance to deal with well-preserved and unusual goods, which increases our knowledge about Victorian domestic culture. Always a good thing.

It can also be difficult to associate the objects from underfloor deposits with the people who used to live in the house (the artefacts usually represent a wide range of material culture, from the mid-19th century to the 20th century), unless we happen across a site where the archaeological and historical record are miraculously in alignment. In the case I’m going to talk about today, that alignment happened thanks to personal items that the occupants had lost beneath the floors of their house.

Site prior to the removal of foundations, looking east. Heaps of artefacts were found under the floor of a house in Sydenham during the works related to the demolition, foundation removal and site clearance. Image: J. Hughes.

A huge number of artefacts were scattered across the ground under the back four rooms of the house. We don’t know exactly when the house was built – all the available evidence suggests that it was during the late 19th century, but we do know that it was subsequently renovated. This means that this material may have accumulated over time under the original building and the subsequent renovations during this period. We also know that one particular family – the Rantin family – are known to have lived in this part of Southampton Street from 1883 until the mid-20th century (Press, 20/10/1896; Press 11/02/1933: 22).

James and Caroline Rantin celebrated their silver wedding in their house at Southampton Street in 1896. About 50 people were invited and derived from the description, it looks like a big social event! (Press 20/10/1896).

Overall, the assemblage was typical of a domestic context, including bottles, tea and table wares, animal bones and other stuff related to household activities, personal grooming and garments. As well as illustrating affairs of daily life, all genders and ages are present in this assemblage: men, women, children! Fantastic!

A common ‘twirly’ salad oil bottle, but unusual because of the label. WARDELL BROS & Co TEA, COFFEE AND SPICES MERCHANTS CHRISTCHURCH, DUNEDIN & WELLINGTON were three brothers: John, William, Thomas and Henry Wardell, grocers and provision merchants. Their business was established in 1887 in Christchurch, while the Wellington branch was opened in 1893. They also had a Dunedin branch, although the dates for this are unclear (The Cyclopedia of New Zealand 1897). Image: M. Lillo Bernabeu.

This castor oil bottle has a paper label that probably represented  C. and E. Morton (sons of the well-known J. T Morton company). This was originally a Scottish firm, founded in Aberdeen in 1849. By the 1860s Morton was a general provider and stocked a wide range of foodstuffs such as cheese, confectionery, corn, preserved provisions, sauces, vinegar and salt, but also apparel, books, soap and candles. Charles and Edward Morton took over their father’s company after his death in 1898 (Petchey and Innanchai 2012: 9; Graces Guide 2017). Image: M. Lillo Bernabeu.

Bay Rum was a refreshing and invigorating tonic for the hair – this particular example was manufactured and sold by Henry Arthur Papprill. His remedies were widely advertised on New Zealand newspaper during the second decade of the 20th century (Star 10/11/1913: 2; Press 6/8/1925: 6). Although primarily marketed as a hair product, Bay Rum was also used for other personal grooming issues, from skin beautification to the relief of tired feet (Bruce Herald 29/11/1898). A bit of concern about personal care and beauty, I’m guessing… Image: M. Lillo Bernabeu.

We’ve showed you this splendid example of recycling before on the blog. This ‘Greys’ cigarette box has been cut and reused as a shopping list, a better purpose than its original function by the way! A range of items can be read: butter, sugar, eggs, biscuits, soda, cornflour, cookies, jellies, fruit… Image: M. Lillo Bernabeu.

Not just an affordable and simple pipe, but also one with a story to it. This smoking pipe commemorates 60 years of Victoria’s reign in 1897, while the mark refers to John McPhee, a Dunedin pipe maker from a family of Scottish pipe manufacturers. John McPhee started to make clay tobacco pipes in Dunedin around 1890 until 1908 (White 2016: 27). The McPhees appear to have been the first New Zealand clay pipe makers (White 2016: 27-28). Image: M. Lillo Bernabeu.

Anchor button. It was two-piece dome with an embossed fouled (as in, the rope twisted around it) anchor and a separate shank. It is likely to have been a cuff button, possibly associated with a navy uniform. Rather than being stitched onto the coat or jacket, these buttons were attached by a split pin, facilitating removal for cleaning, or a change of season (Lindbergh 1999: 52). Image: M. Lillo Bernabeu.

Yarn, a bobbin, an unidentified piece of fabric and one shell button were also found under the house. Spinning, sewing, mending and remaking garments, as well as marking sheets, towels, and other linens was a regular component of household work done or overseen by women (Beaudry 2006: 5). Image: M. Lillo Bernabeu.

A perfect complement. This handbag made of leather with a metal closure and decorative stitching. Trendy in the late 19th and early 20th centuries or perhaps, just a choice according to the personal taste. Image: M. Lillo Bernabeu.

MATHER’S INFANTS FEEDING BOTTLE LONDON MANCHESTER. This type of baby feeder was known as ‘murder’ feeder, due to the difficulty of cleaning the lid. Hygiene and related difficulties were counteracted by disinfectants, medicines or even homemade remedies (Otago Witness 15/02/1879). During the 19th century, artificial feeding became extremely popular, in part to address the lack of wet nurses. The discoveries of Pasteur and the subsequent techniques for sterilising feeding bottles improved the sanitary risks associated with artificial feeding. The use of feeding bottles became widespread: they were initially made from pewter, tin plate, earthenware and porcelain, with glass bottles gradually becoming popular from the latter decades of the 19th century onwards (Alimentarium 2016). Image: M. Lillo Bernabeu.

So far, we have a selection of cool and interesting objects. However, we don’t yet have any direct association with the Rantin family. So, let’s demonstrate why this underfloor deposit is special.

First of all, the association of the assemblage with Rantin family is clearly evident from the appearance of the name of James Rantin on a few artefacts relating to his business and occupation as timber merchant like the bill and rebate book exposed below. His wife Caroline was the ‘executrix’ of the business until 1907, when her sons Thomas James and William Rantin took over the company as timber and coal merchants, under the name Rantin Bros (Press 3/12/1907: 1).

Top left: bill dating to July 1903 and addressed by post to James Rantin from the coal, firewood and general merchants, George McClatchie and Co. Bottom left: J. Rantin’s rebate book dating from 1897 to 1898. Image: M. Lillo Bernabeu. Right: Press 3/12/1907:1.

Even more intriguingly, what looks like a baseball set was also found under the house, consisting of a rubber ball and a wooden bat. This is not a common find in Christchurch archaeological sites per se, making them quite interesting artefacts just by themselves. However, a name was also written on the bat… To be honest, the name is illegible, we only figured out the surname. This was enough though, as the visible word read ‘Ratin’. The ‘n’ lacks, but we are pretty sure that it’s just an innocent bad spelling made by a child.

Baseball was played in Christchurch during the late 19th century (Te Ara The Encyclopedia of New Zealand, 2016). In fact, there were two baseball clubs in Christchurch by 1889, with the aim of providing a winter sport for cricketers who did not want to play rugby. In the early 20th century the interest in baseball was revived due to the Canadian visitors to the New Zealand International Exhibition in 1906, 1907, 1909 and 1910 (Te Ara The Encyclopedia of New Zealand, 2016). In addition, this baseball set is cool and valuable as indicates the presence of children on this site. Through play, young children were taught roles that would be important in later life. For example, emphasis on sport was particularly important for boys, who were expected to exercise their rougher instincts through play, so that they were able to behave respectably in the company of women. Girls were usually given dolls instead, in an effort to encourage maternal instincts (Prangnell and Quirck 2009: 42).

Top left: a detail of the surname Ra[n]tin written on the bat. Rubber ball with the world map engraved on it and the wooden baseball bat. Image: M. Lillo Bernabeu.

What else do we need as archaeologists? Nothing at all! No mysteries this time. The Rantin family’s belongings accumulated under this house for decades, and it is these lost things that tell us about their lives. At this stage, we know that James and Caroline Rantin had children. And yes, their sons and daughters were Thomas James, William, Elizabeth, Emily and Caroline. A few other conclusions can be also drawn about Rantin Family. For instance, there is a possible association with the navy derived from the anchor button (or just a special affection for naval emblems). Perhaps Thomas James or William, both of whom were Canterbury soldiers during the First World War (Star 11/12/1918: 5; Otago Daily Times 12/01/1917: 3). A particular passion for the monarchy or a royalist attitude is suggested by the presence of a pipe celebrating Queen Victoria’s reign (not unusual for this period), which otherwise makes evident the habit of smoking. Products like Bay Rum show a concern for hair care and maintenance, or perhaps for the appearance in front of the judgmental eyes of society. From mundane affairs to personal traits, this is an excellent example of life in a Christchurch house back to the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Either way, the discovery of this assemblage was a fortunate day in the life of Underground Overground Archaeology. A piece of cake! Thanks to the fascinating underfloor archaeology indeed…

Maria Lillo Bernabeu


Alimentarium, 2016 [online] Available at https://www.alimentarium.org [Accessed March 2018].

Beaudry, M.C., 2006. Findings the material culture of needlework and sewing. Yale University Press. New Haven, London.

Bruce Herald [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz [Accessed March 2018].

Lindbergh, J., 1999. Buttoning Down Archaeology. Australasian Historical Archaeology, Vol. 17: 50-57.

Otago Witness [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz [Accessed March 2018].

Petchey, P. and Innanchai, J., 2012. Bottle Top Capsules in New Zealand Historic Archaeological Sites. Journal of Pacific Archaeology, Vol.3: 1-16.

Prangnell, J. and Quirk, K., 2009. Growing up on the Australian Goldfields. Historical Archaelogy, Vol. 43: 38-49.

Press [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz [Accessed March 2018].

Star [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz [Accessed March 2018].

Te Ara – The Encyclopedia of New Zealand, 2016 [online] Available at http://www.teara.govt.nz/en [Accessed March 2018].

White, S., 2016. The McPhees, New Zealand’s First Clay Pipemakers. Archaeology in New Zealand. New Zealand Archaeological Association, Vol.59, No 3: 10-28.

‘The broken pitcher’

Today, art is my inspiration, at least as a starting point. The title of this blog post may seem whimsical, but it is both a practical description of our subject today and a reference to the art of centuries past. Some musicians, painters, writers named their masterpieces ‘the broken pitcher throughout the 18th and 19th centuries such as Henri Pontet, Jean-Baptiste Greuze, William Adolphe Bouguereau or Heinrich von Kleist. Artists may have been seduced by the curved shape of the vessel similar to a feminine body, or maybe inspired by earthlier meanings associated with the everydayness. Even the fragility of ceramics as easily breakable might suggest a deeper meaning…

We’ve previously written about ceramics on the blog (a lot), from transfer patterns inspired by the ancient world to toilet humour and all the way through to cuppas. Now, it’s turn of “the broken pitcher”. Not just as the inspiration for art, but also as something that can tell us about people, our topic. Broken ceramics in general, and jugs and pitchers in particular, were common parts of daily life during the Victorian Era – whether they were broken by accident, dropped from clumsy hands or smashed in a fit of rage, it’s hard to tell…

Auckland Star (17/02/1934: 4). I’m not sure if I’m understanding the illustration properly at all. It seems to me that the big man holding the teapot is blaming his wife for breaking the last jug. The man looks worried. How can he fill the jug with beer! I would say: that’s your big problem, mate!

South Canterbury Times (14/09/1889: 4). The mystery of the broken pitcher inflicted uncertainty on this woman. It seems bizarre. Splitting into pieces at a touch. Undoubtedly, I would be also wondering why that happened…

As archaeologists, we are used to dealing with broken ceramics. As we are not artists using the romantic topic of ‘the broken pitcher’ or Victorians in the 19th century struggling with their day-to-day issues, we deal with broken ceramics from a distinct perspective. During the artefact analysis we follow several steps. First, we try to put the pieces together. It’s like a game, figuring out a puzzle – as entertaining as it is handy for us. Refitting gives us the chance to determine how much of the vessel is present, and to further identify the forms and functions. Also, when you are holding the complete reassembled vessel, there’s a moment of joy and happiness. A real sense of satisfaction.

Left: The office is chocka! It’s a sea-ramic, even. Image: J. Garland. Right: After an amazing refitting job, I promise, Jessie was the authentic expression of delight. Unfortunately, we cannot check it out because she preferred to hide her face behind a pretty plate. Image: M. Lillo Bernabeu.

Technically, a jug is a vessel with a handle and spout used for storing or pouring liquids. This definition also applies to pitcher and ewer, terms that are often used interchangeably (although there are some distinct differences) for larger vessels. As it’s a bit confusing, we have our own typology here at Underground Overground, for the sake of consistency. We usually use jug to refer to milk jugs or smaller vessels, while both pitchers and ewers are large jugs. Particularly, ewer is used for those vessels that are found with matching wash basins, in relation to personal hygiene. Sadly, to find jugs, ewers or pitchers in a complete condition is as unusual as delightful. We often find them broken instead, largely just the pouring lip or part of the handle.

In defence of these fragmentary jugs, let’s say both have been identify thanks to the presence of the diagnostic elements mentioned above. Left: Gilt banded pitcher. Image: M. Lillo Bernabeu. Right: Holly patterned pitcher. Yes, the name makes sense. The Holly pattern features holly leaves across the vessel. Also, the pattern name is printed on the base. Unfortunately, the mark is incomplete, making impossible to trace it to a specific manufacturer. Image: J. Garland.

Otherwise, a broken jug occasionally becomes an almost complete one after being carefully refitted. From tiny to large examples, here’s selection of the jugs, pitchers and ewers we’ve found in 19th century Christchurch.

Miniature porcelain jug. So cute and tiny. Both now and in the past, children learn through play and toys, which teaches them about roles that will be important during their adult life. Girls, in particular, were educated in the Victorian era with dolls and tea sets, enforcing their role in relation to motherhood and domesticity (Prangnell and Quirk 2009: 42). Image: M. Lillo Bernabeu.

Dark and light. Both of these are milk jugs, likely used with a matching tea set. Left: a red refined earthenware jug with a tulip shaped body and a footed base. It stands out for its metallic brown glaze. Image: J. Garland. Right: a bone china jug decorated with gilt banding in combination with the ‘tea leaf’ motif. The ‘tea leaf’ design was first introduced in the mid-1850s by Antony Shaw and its popularity increased quickly, being produced by a number of manufacturers (Kowalsky and Kowalsky 1999: 15). Image: C. Dickson.

These milk jugs are as similar as they are different. The former (left) is decorated with blue sponging, while the latter (right) displays a romantic scene with towered buildings in the foreground and a man or woman ridden a horse. Despite the lost fragment, the scene is lovely. Unfortunately, there is no manufacturer’s mark and we don’t know the name of the pattern. Image: J. Garland.

Another pair of jugs, one of which is my favourite. Left: a yellow-ware vessel decorated with a blue and white dendritic mocha design. Such decoration originated in the late 18th century was formed by allowing a drop of a chemical solution known as ‘mocha tea’ to fall onto the still wet slip of the vessel. The ensuing reaction was carefully managed in order to create the fronds characteristic of the pattern (Rickard 2006). Right: a buff-bodied Bristol glazed jug. The relief moulding displayed a pastoral scene in which people are drinking surrounded by trees. This type of relief moulded jugs, depicting sentimental, floral, gothic, biblical or patriotic themes, gained popularity in the early Victorian period, from the 1830s until the 1870s (Oswald et al. 1982). Image: M. Lillo Bernabeu.

This is an elegant semi-vitrified pitcher or ewer, decorated with stylised foliage in relief. The pitcher had the mark ‘DUDSON’ impressed into the base of the vessel, referring to the Hanley pottery company of James Dudson, operating from 1838 – 1888. Dudson was known for producing “moulded jugs” like this one, as well as Wedgwood style Jasper wares (Godden 1991: 223). Image: J. Garland.

With appearance of the noble marble and with a faceted body, this little jug is just adorable! This style of transfer print is colloquially known as ‘marble’ based on its similarity with marble stone and the veins on its surface. This decoration is usually found in black, blue, blue or purple colours and typically used for jugs and toilet sets for many years (Kelly 2006: 122). This particular jug was found in a rubbish pit with several other near complete ceramic vessels dating from the late 1840s to the late 1850s. Image: J. Garland.

This huge black transfer printed pitcher features an aesthetic pattern, combining asymmetric floral and foliage motifs, including fruits and elements in clusters with geometric shaped vignettes. Aesthetic styles like this are fairly common on Christchurch sites during the 1880-1890s period. Image: M. Lillo Bernabeu.

I’m sure that you remember this one. It’s an imitation of a Mason’s Imari jug, looking like those made by G. M. and C. J. Mason in their Fenton factory in the 1820s. This colourfully design is inspired by Japanese motifs and the handle is in the shape of a dragon. Image: J. Garland.

Gorgeous shape, attractive curved lip, and flowered body, plenty of roses. So far, we cannot figure out the name of the pattern. Overall, scenic or scenic or sheet floral decorative styles like this, which cover most, or all the vessel are characteristic of mid-19th century (Samford 1997). This particular vessel, which is an excellent example of an ‘ewer’ shape, was found with fragments of a matching wash basin. Image: J. Garland.

Regarding to their function throughout the 19th century, jugs, pitchers and ewers were widely used to contain and serve a variety of liquids, including water, milk, beer or wine as well as being used in relation to personal grooming and hygiene. Unquestionably, a versatile artefact. Just saying…

Anything to add. ‘A terrible, yet amazing pun’ (Jessie’s quote). Colonist (21/05/1858: 3).

New Zealand Herald (20/08/1931: 11). I wouldn’t underestimate the multipurpose nature of a jug. This could be a good revenge against that ironic husband who jokes with pitchers, water and women, by the way. If a little drastic…

Maria Lillo Bernabeu


Auckland Star. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz [Accessed February 2018].

Colonist. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz [Accessed February 2018].

Godden, G., 1991. Encyclopaedia of British Pottery and Porcelain Marks. Crown Publishers, New York.

Kelly, H.E., 2006. The Glasgow Pottery of John and Matthew Perston Bell China and Earthenware Manufacturers in Glasgow. Glasgow.

Kowalsky, A. A. and Kowalsky, D. E., 1999. Encyclopedia of Marks on American, English and European Earthenware, Ironstone, and Stoneware 1780-1980. Makers, Marks and Patterns in Blue and White, Historic Blue, Flow Blue, Mulberry, Romantic Transferware, Tea Leaf, and White Ironstone. A Schiffer Book for Collectors, Atglen, U.S.A.

New Zealand Herald. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz [Accessed February 2018].

Oswald, A., Hildyard, R. J. C. and Hughes, R. G., 1982. English Brown Stoneware, 1670-1900. Faber and Faber, London.

Prangnell, J. and Quirk, K., 2009. Children in Paradise: Growing up on the Australian Goldfields. Historical Archaeology, Vol. 43, No. 3, pp. 38-49.

Rickard, J., 2006. Mocha and Related Dipped Wares 1770-1939. New Hampshire University Press of New England, Lebanon.

Samford, Patricia M., 1997. Response to a market: Dating English underglaze transfer‐printed wares. Historical Archaeology 31 (2): 1‐30.

South Canterbury Times. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz [Accessed February 2018].