Black Beers and Ring Seals: the underdogs of the artefact world

This week’s blog was inspired by a Facebook comment on our previous blog post. You might remember that in the last blog we went through some of the artefacts we’ve uncovered over the past six months. One set of artefacts we included were black beer bottles of various shapes. In the blog post I wrote that black beer bottles weren’t particularly interesting or unusual as we find them all the time, but I included them in the blog as I liked the photo of the different shapes lined up together. One of our reader’s commented back saying that she found it interesting learning more about black beer bottles and the range of products they held.

This comment somewhat surprised me as I don’t always find black beer bottles the most interesting of artefacts, and led me to ponder the value we place on ‘rarity’. Does an artefact have more value if it’s unusual? Does an artefact have less value if it’s common? Arguably, for archaeologists, the value of an artefact is in its ability to tell us about the people who used it and discarded it – rarity is the realm of collectors and antique dealers. Yet rarity and commonness does have its use in interpretation – artefacts that are commonly found likely represent objects that were cheap, easily available, or fashionable. Artefacts that are more unusual suggest there were other factors behind their purchase. This means the ‘rarity’ or ‘commonness’ of an artefact is useful for interpreting what an artefact means, what it can say about the people who owned it. Yet when it comes to the physical object itself, there’s just not the same feeling of excitement and intrigue when pulling a broken black beer bottle base out of a bag when compared to pulling out a complete porcelain vase. You could say, that all artefacts are valuable, but some artefacts are more valuable than others. Putting that pondering aside, this week on the blog we’re going to focus on two of the artefacts we find in nearly every archaeological site: black beer and ring seal bottles.

Just last week one of our archaeologists exclaimed, “Black beer bottles! Again! Every site! Black beer bottles! We must have thousands of them!”. And I’d say we probably do. Black beer bottles and ring seal bottles are the most common glass artefacts that we find. For those of you who aren’t familiar with these bottles, this is what they look like:

Or at least this is what they normally look like by the time we get to them. If we’re lucky we find complete bottles but most of the time we’re just left with tops and bases. Image: C. Watson.

Black beer bottles appear black (they’re actually a dark olive colour) and ring seal bottles are green in colour (like the one in the top right corner). Black beer bottles come in pint and quart sizes in two different shapes, normal and squat. We refer to them as small, tall, small squat and large squat, but that’s just our terminology and you might see different names for the shapes. Ring seal bottles look like a champagne bottle (they also get called that, along with ring seal beer and ring seal wine bottles). They typically come in pint and quart sizes, although we’ve found miniature ones before as well. In addition to these we also get stout, Bordeaux, hock or rhine, and cognac bottle shapes.

This image brings to mind the song ‘99 bottles of beer on the wall’ (you can thank me later for getting it stuck in your head). Some of the many black beer and ring seal type bottles we get. From left to right: stout, tall black beer, small black beer, large squat black beer, small squat black beer, small ring seal, large ring seal, cognac, Bordeaux. Image: C. Watson.

While many of these names are also a type of alcoholic beverage (such as cognac), they’re used to describe the shape of the bottle rather than the specific contents. Typically, these styles of bottles were used for all types of alcohol, be that beer, wine or spirits. The bottles were  usually imported into the country with the alcoholic content already inside  – we found hundreds of still sealed bottles that contained Pale Ale at a bonded warehouse site (presumably they went off on the journey over and that’s why they were thrown out). Once in New Zealand the bottles were sold, the contents consumed, and the empty bottles collected by local brewers who refilled the bottles with their own product and re-labelled them. Alternatively, the bottles were just thrown out leaving us to find them quite a few years later. Prior to 1922 all glass bottles were imported into New Zealand, meaning there was a limited supply of bottles and companies often advertised in newspapers for more. Bottle shortages affected all businesses that sold bottled products, not just brewers, which led to companies bottling their product in whatever type of bottle they could get their hands on. In other parts of the country, ring seal and black beer bottles have been found with labels for ginger beer, lemonade, and lemon essence, although in Christchurch we’ve mostly only come across labels for alcoholic drinks.

A typical sight in a nineteenth century newspaper: an advertisement for a company wanting wine and beer bottles.

Some of the labelled ring seal and black beer bottles we’ve found to date in Christchurch: a Bass Ale (that had a message inside), a Crown Brewery, and a Treble London Stout. Image: J. Garland and C. Watson.

When we analyse these bottles, we look at several different attributes. Many of these focus on describing the physical appearance of the bottle – what colour it is, the shape of the different portions including the finish (top), the neck, the shoulder, the body and the base (who knew there were so many parts to a bottle), and which portions are present. Recording these allows us to see what variation exists within a bottle type, and (where possible) to link those variations to specific processes in the manufacture of the bottle.

Typical variation in black beer bottle finishes and bases. Looking at the bottle finishes we have a finish that tapers up on the left, a finish that is flat with a bead or collar below the flat section in the middle, and one that is curved with a skirt below the curved section on the right. The bases are a bit easier to see the differences. The one on the left has a conical profile whilst the one on the right is more domed and has a small pimple off-set from the centre. Image: C. Watson.

We also record how the bottle was manufactured.  In the nineteenth century, manufacture of glass bottles was done by hand, with the glass-blower blowing the bottle into a mould. Different types of moulds were used, with each mould leaving different types of seams on the body of the mould. Black beer bottles were normally formed in single or three-piece dip moulds, whilst ring seals were either dip-moulded or turn-moulded. Occasionally they were made in a two-piece cup bottom mould, but this is less common. The types of moulds used by glass blowers changed over the nineteenth century, giving us an indication of when the bottle was likely made. If you’re interested in bottle manufacture, I definitely recommend checking out the SHA Website as it’s an absolute treasure trove of information.

Some of the many moulds used by nineteenth century glass makers. The glass was blown into the mould to form the body and base of the bottle, with the finish applied by hand (finishing the bottle- get it). Images taken from the SHA Website.

Finally, we record any embossing or labels on the bottle. When these are present, they can tell us either who made the bottle or what it likely contained. This in turn can help us to date when the bottle was likely manufactured. Unfortunately, paper labels don’t normally survive being in the ground for over a hundred years and we don’t find them that often. Embossing is more common, normally found on the base of black beer bottles.

Sometimes these marks are just a letter or a number, other times they’re a manufacturer’s initials. Two marks that turn up time and time again are those for Richard Cooper and Thomas Wood. Cooper and Wood were partners at the Portobello glass works in Scotland between 1859 and 1866. During that time the bases of their bottles were embossed with “COOPER & WOOD”.  In 1866 the pair broke their partnership and divided the company and factory into two separate glass works. Cooper retained the larger portion of the glass works and operated under the name Richard Cooper and Co until 1895, when the firm became a limited company. Thomas Wood built a new glass works next to the old factories, remaining in business until 1920. Richard Cooper and Thomas Wood both continued to emboss the bases of their bottles using their surname and Portobello.

Cooper and Wood black beer bottle bases. The one on the left was made by Thomas Wood whilst the one on the right was made by Richard Cooper. Both were likely manufactured between 1866 and 1885 after the separate glass works were established. Image: C. Watson.

So there you have it, black beer and ring seal bottles. Not the most unusual or unique of artefacts but still interesting in their own right. And in many ways the fact that these bottles are so common is what makes them valuable, as they represent an everyday quintessential item of nineteenth century life.

One of my favourite photos from the nineteenth century. Entitled “Scandinavian picnic with beer bottles”, it looks like a lot more fun than any picnic I’ve ever been on. I can count at least 23 ring seal bottles in the photograph. From the looks of it they’re all quart sized meaning there’s about 20 litres of beer being or waiting to be drunk. Not bad for an afternoon’s effort. Image: Scandinavian picnic with beer bottles, Lowry Bay. Ref: 1/2-052226-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/23033621.  

Clara Watson

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