Early Christchurch women, breaking the rules: the exhibition.

The ideal Victorian woman

In Victorian society, a woman was to be meek, mild, virtuous and peaceful (Whiteside 2007). She was expected to marry and have children. She would stay at home, looking after her children and her husband and keeping the house perfectly. Public affairs were men’s matters, although a woman might engage in charitable or other social works, but nothing that could in any way be construed as ‘masculine’. She was selfless – everyone else always came first. She certainly wasn’t involved in politics, and nor did she run a business. At least, that was the theory!

Left: M Heslop & Co (Christchurch) fl 1870s: Portrait of unidentified man, woman and child. Ref: PA2-2063. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/23056667. Right: well, it would be an alternative middle class family! Image: Observer 14/11/1903.

In fact, this standard was mostly applied to middle class women, and it seems to have been much less unusual for working class women to, well, work. But there were middle class women who broke these ‘rules’ of Victorian society too, in a range of ways. Discovering the lives of a number of these women in 19th century Christchurch – and our fascination with their ‘hidden’ lives – has led us to curate an exhibition: Women breaking the rules. You can see the physical display at Rewind at Ferrymead Heritage Park on Sunday 14 October, and also follow these women’s stories online via our Instagram exhibition @womenbreakingtherules.

Designed by A. Gibson.

But regardless of class, women were always defined in relation to the men in their life, whether father, brother or husband. So, being a spinster could be difficult and challenging. Much as we might not like it in this day in age, men provided often critical financial security for the women in their lives, particularly in a world where there was no pension or unemployment benefit, let alone a domestic purposes benefit. In fact, there was no state support of any kind in New Zealand until the end of the 19th century, and the poor were reliant on charities for support.

Unlike spinsters, widows seem to have had far more freedom and to have been more ‘respectable’ than unmarried women. While their situation might have been financially difficult, the range of jobs society approved of them taking on was broader than the range available for single women. And widows – as in some of the stories here – often ended up running their husband’s businesses, meaning they took on a variety of professions (Bishop 2012).

Women and work

Yes, women did work in the Victorian era! And not just as domestic servants – although this was far and way the most common occupation for women. In fact, some women ran businesses of their own. The jobs that women took on, though, and even many of the businesses they ran, tended to involve caring, or to be domestic in character. Jobs like teaching or nursing were both acceptable for middle class women (Bishop 2012).

Working class women could take on quite a range of work: dressmaker, needlework, hotelkeeping, storekeeping, confectionary, haberdashery, drapery and so on. Women could also earn money by taking in boarders, doing laundry or by looking after other women’s children. And let’s not ignore that they could be prostitutes. These were all ways of earning money that might fly under the radar and not be recorded officially (Bishop 2012).

Just relaxing under a tree, along with other women, working in the seaside or the countryside, riding a horse… working women and classy ones, all sort of women depicted through the artefacts! Image: J. Garland, C. Watson and M. Lillo Bernabeu.

Telling women’s stories

As regular readers of the blog will know, researching the lives of most people who lived in 19th century New Zealand is tricky – official records can be patchy or may not even exist (Minchinton 2017). People only turned up in the newspapers if they were famous, got in trouble or were advertising for servants, leasing or selling properties. Unless someone has a really unusual name, you often can’t be certain you’re researching the right person.

Mary Portelli, the antithesis of the Victorian ideal, a woman in endless trouble! Images. Right: Star 29/05/1895: 3. Left: Southland Times 20/09/1906: 2.

Studying women’s lives is even harder. For one thing, they changed their surname when they married. Then, they were often referred to only as Mrs…, without their first name, or including their husband’s name instead – for example, Mrs L. J. Smith. Women who ran businesses often traded under their husband’s name, or didn’t advertise at all (Bishop 2012). And, in general, women’s activities meant they didn’t end up in the newspaper.

The branded china L. J. Smith – and presumably Elizabeth, L. J. Smith’s wife – used at events he organised as caterer. Image: C. Dickson.

Despite these difficulties, archaeology and history reveal the lives of six Christchurch women who, in one way or another, broke the rules of late 19th and early 20th century society: Fanny Cole, prohibitionist; Elizabeth Robinson, chemist; Sarah Gault, dressmaker; Elizabeth Smith, caterer; Caroline Rantin, timber and coal merchant; and Mary Portelli, woman in trouble.

There are no Māori women in this exhibition, unfortunately, because we’ve not found any record of Māori women living in 19th century Christchurch. This isn’t to say that they weren’t, just that we’ve not found them yet. If you want to learn more, we highly recommend checking out the book He Reo Wāhine: Māori Women’s Voices from the Nineteenth Century.

Why are these women important?

These six women were not the only exceptional ones who broke the rules. It turns out that there were many more women pushing the boundaries of Victorian society than we initially expected. The six women we’ve featured in this exhibition serve to highlight the lives and occupations of all these women, along with their concerns and daily battles and how they struggled against what was accepted and respectable (Whiteside 2007), whilst working within the confines of the ideals of that time. But slowly, slowly, pushing these boundaries would come to change society as a whole. So, let’s look at the archaeology and the historical record and bring women into the picture!

This exhibition is a joint production between Underground Overground Archaeology and the Christchurch Archaeology Project.

Katharine Watson and Maria Lillo Bernabeu

References 

Bishop, Catherine, 2012. “Commerce Was a Woman: Women in Business in Colonial Sydney and Wellington.” PhD thesis, Australian National University.

Minchinton, Barbara, 2017. “’Prostitutes’ and ‘lodgers’ in Little Lon: construction a list of occupiers in nineteenth-century Melbourne”. Australasian Historical Archaeology, 35, pp. 64-70.

Whiteside, Heidi, 2017. “’We Shall Be Respectable’: Women and Representations of Respectability in Lyttelton 1851-1893”. MA thesis, University of Canterbury.

Walk this way

Lyttelton is a fun and exciting place to do archaeology. I’ve been lucky enough to get to do a bit of archaeology in Lyttelton in the last few months, mainly out in the road, because of the digging that’s been going on for the installation of new sewer pipelines. Once completed, these pipelines will make Te Whakaraupō / Lyttelton Harbour a much happier and healthier place: for the people, for the fishes, and for the mermaids. Although road formation archaeology (concerned with exploring how historic roads and their footpaths were formed and have changed over time) is not necessarily the most glamourous subject of archaeological enquiry, I’ve become rather fascinated by it lately, and so I thought that I’d share.

Built on the steep sides of an extinct volcano, Lyttelton’s topography presented all sorts of challenges for 19th century roadbuilders. It’s much easier building a road on the flat – Christchurch was lucky in this respect, (even if their roads had to be formed across swamp). Lyttelton had it tough – building roads on a sloping terrain is so much trickier. Civic authorities had to first work out the best levels and gradients for the roads to be formed at, so they could then work out which parts needed to be cut down, and which parts built up. Many of these cuttings needed to be supported by retaining walls so they wouldn’t collapse.  Drainage was especially important, so the roads and retaining walls wouldn’t wash away in bad weather. The steep gullies that ran through the town were perhaps however the biggest of challenges that faced 19th century road builders. These gullies carried stormwater off the hills into the harbour – and in many places were impassably wide and deep. Stone culverts and brick sewers were laid along the length of them before they were all filled in by the late 1880s; often with clay and rock derived from road formation works that were happening elsewhere. And then of course there are those flat parts of Lyttelton that were reclaimed from the harbour – where precious flat land for roads and port infrastructure was created not by building up or cutting down the existing terrain, but by building outwards from the edge of it, into the water.

The 1880s red scoria retaining wall on Brittan Terrace, Lyttelton, exposed in section. This was one of my favourite 19th century retaining walls that I had the pleasure of recording with SCIRT, during the course of it being repaired and rebuilt. Image: Hamish Williams.

A small section of the brick barrel drain on Hawkhurst Road, Lyttelton. This drain was built in sections throughout the 1870s and early 1880s down the side of Salt’s Gully, before the gully was filled in and Hawkhurst Road built on top of it. Image: Hamish Williams.

Road formation stratigraphy exposed underneath Norwich Quay, Lyttelton. I could determine that there was at least five different road surfacing events, because there were five different layers of rocks laid down one over top of another. Image: Hamish Williams.

Road formation stratigraphy – the differential layers of gravel, stones, and rocks laid down in times past to surface the roads before they were sealed – is at the best of times pretty hard to interpret. Unless diagnostic artefacts are found in association with particular layers, when exactly these layers were laid down is notoriously hard to pin down, even when you have historic records to help you make sense of it. Every now and then however, strange and unusual things, (or things that are strangely familiar) surface that are a little easier to make sense of and date – like the Norwich Quay crossing.

The Norwich Quay crossing

By 1860 the two main thoroughfares in the port town, Norwich Quay and London Street, were formed, in places with rudimentary footpaths on either side, but most other roads were little more than rough tracks cut through the tussock-covered hills (Rice 2004: 26). £30,000 had already been spent by the Provincial Council in forming the Sumner Road by this time – the critical overland goods route between the Lyttelton and Christchurch – but locals were irate that they couldn’t just walk a little distance down the road to the shops without having to inconveniently wade through mud. “Norwich Quay is a filthy slough, Oxford Street worse than any newly ploughed field, and London Street an alternation of watery mud and muddy water reported one local (Lyttelton Times 23/6/1860: 4).  In 1874 the footpath along Norwich Quay was reported as being “in a totally disgraceful state, and totally unfit for ladies”, who shouldn’t have had to make their way through ankle deep mud to get to the railway station (Lyttelton Times 5/8/1874: 2, Globe 6/8/1874: 2).

High leather boots up to the neck indispensable. Must have been pretty bad. Image: Star 29/6/1868: 4.

Trenching along Norwich Quay, approaching the Oxford Street intersection, looking east. Image: Hamish Williams.

In early June, I found some evidence of how different sections of the Norwich Quay roadway had been built up over time. Some of the most interesting road formation archaeology was uncovered at the intersection of Norwich Quay and Oxford Street, when the sewer pipeline trenching was passing through. Historically this has always been one of Lyttelton’s busiest intersections (and it still is today). Here was the location of the Post Office (built 1875), and on the opposite corner the offices of the Lyttelton Harbour Board (built 1880). You had to pass through this intersection to get to the wharves and jetties, and the railway station and gasworks was only just down the road a bit. Here evidence of historic road formation layers were well preserved beneath the modern asphalt road surface. Crossing at right angles to the trench and in perfect alignment with the footpath on the eastern side of Oxford Street, was exposed the remains of what turned out to be an old pedestrian crossing. Today pedestrians are spoilt for choice with three pedestrian crossings at the intersection to choose from, back in the 19th century they had just one.

Lyttelton. Burton Brothers Studio, Dunedin, NZ. Image credit: Te Papa (C.011652). Looking south along Oxford Street, this post-1880s photograph of the Norwich Quay intersection shows the Lyttelton Harbour Board offices at left, and at right, the Lyttelton Post Office. The pedestrian crossing can be seen at left.

The stone pedestrian crossing as first exposed by the hydro excavation team. Image: Hamish Williams.

The hydro excavation team found it first, at days end and at shallow depth when searching with water blasting wands and suction hoses for all the important pipes and cables that were not to be damaged by the digger. Only a small patch of the crossing’s stone cobbles (or setts – to be more accurate) was exposed – so I went to work to expose the rest of it. These were covered in a very hard, compacted gravel that was covered with a very sticky, stinky coal tar – not very easy stuff to dig through. Trading in my trowel for a 4-pound mallet and cold chisel, I managed to get only perhaps about half of it exposed before it got too dark to see what I was doing. Those short winter days, roll on Summer.

Half of the stone pedestrian crossing that I excavated by mallet and cold chisel in the failing light of a cold Winter’s day, looking north. Image: Hamish Williams.

The next day, as the digger punched through the stone crossing, I was able to confirm that it was approximately 1.75 m wide, (the same width as the footpath) and had been made from dark grey basalt rocks of various sizes firmly bedded into the underlying natural loess clay. The top of the stone crossing was not flat – instead it had a bit of a curvature or camber to it, which would have helped it to shed water when it rained. The rocks that made up the centre-line of the crossing were taller and were bedded deeper into the clay than the rest. This certainly would have made the whole crossing a lot more durable. Historic records suggest that this stone crossing may have been buried around 1914, after the Lyttelton Borough Council decided to spend big money modernising its streets by tar sealing them (Lyttelton Times 14/10/1913: 8).

The stone crossing in section, looking north up Oxford Street. I’m a big fan of the fat sticks of footpath chalk, like the pink stuff you can see here, handy bit of toolbox kit for marking out the edges of archaeological things. Image: Hamish Williams.

When was this Norwich Quay pedestrian crossing constructed? It is hard to say for certain, though it appears in a couple of post 1880 photographs– so our best guess is that it was built around about this time. According to an August 1880 newspaper report, the Council works committee had finally decided to upgrade all the footpaths around the intersection at this time, a works programme that may have included the construction of the crossing (Lyttelton Times 4/8/1880: 6).

The Oxford Street Norwich Quay intersection today, looking southeast. Image: Hamish Williams.

The Norwich Quay crossing was a fun feature to investigate and record, it reminded me once again that history is all around us. The past isn’t buried deep, it’s there just below the surface. The streets we walk today are the same streets walked by the people of the past – all the streets a stage and all of us merely players.

Hamish Williams

Lyttelton, 1880s. Burton Brothers Studio, Dunedin, NZ. It’s hard to determine from historic photos to what extent people silly-walked the mean streets of Lyttelton in the 19th century, but by the looks of this picture, it appears that people weren’t afraid of just standing around like they were waiting for something to happen. Image: Te Papa (0.031057) [original], Hamish Williams and Zoë Meager [mash up].

References

Globe [online]. Available at: www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz

Lyttelton Times [online]. Available at: www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz

Rice, G. 2004. Lyttelton Port and Town: An Illustrated History. Christchurch N.Z: Canterbury University Press.

Star [online]. Available at: www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz

 

 

Toys through the years

“It must have been a happy household,” was the remark made by one of our team members when she saw the artefact assemblage we are discussing on today’s blog post. Whilst children’s artefacts are relatively common finds on New Zealand archaeological sites, we rarely get an assemblage as large and varied as this one. These finds came from a vicarage constructed between 1867 and 1868. At first glance we might not directly associate a vicarage with children, thinking instead of the religious responsibilities of clergymen and the church. However, the vicarage was home to the reverend who lived there with his family, meaning a lot of the artefacts we found related to them and their daily life.

From the 1860s through into the 1990s, various reverends and their families occupied the vicarage. Many of the families were large with lots of children. Over the years the various children who lived in the vicarage lost toys through cracks and gaps in the walls and floors, lying forgotten until the friendly archaeologist came along to find them. We’ve done a few posts on the blog before about children, however this post is a bit different as it showcases mainly twentieth century toys. Generally, we don’t collect twentieth century material as it falls outside the legal definition of archaeology, however we do when excavating under floor deposits. This is because the assemblages we find under the floor typically build up over time, and contain nineteenth century material sitting alongside twentieth century.

Enjoy looking at images of the various toys played with by the vicarage children over the years.

This rough, hand carved doll was likely made by the first reverend to live in the vicarage for his daughter. We can date the doll to the 1870s based on the context it was found in. This is the only children’s artefact featured on this post which definitively dates to the nineteenth century and it is interesting comparing it to the other toys, particularly when considering the impact of mass-production on styles and tastes. By modern standards the doll is barely a doll, with no arms or proper legs, yet it is likely the girl who owned it thought it was beautiful and treasured it dearly. Image: C. Watson.

Games, games, and more games. This compendium of fun contains three games, meaning there’s something for everyone. Made by Tower Press London, the compendium likely dates to the mid-twentieth century . My favourite part about the set is that it includes play money, even though none of the games require money. I’m just picturing kids playing the steeplechase game and taking bets on whose ‘horse’ was going to reach the finish line first. Image: C. Watson.

This paper figurine was found tucked away in the corner of the room behind the wall. Lots of the finds discussed on this blog post were found in similar places. Images: B. Thompson, C. Watson.

This piece of cardboard in a delightful shade of pink reads “wrong for once Mr Sharp Eyes, I’m same size as my brother.” It was half of an optical illusion produced by the Stereoscopic Company, advertised as a ‘novelty and trick for winter evenings.’ The other half of the illusion, which we did not find, was a similarly shaped piece of cardboard (this time in blue) reading “Come! Guess now the larger. This one, or the other?” No doubt the illusion must have been arranged in such a way that the answer wasn’t staring the observer straight in the face. Image: C. Watson.

This paper plane was a very cool find, made even cooler by the fact that we can date it based on the piece of paper its made from. The plane is constructed from an unused Airfix Products Ltd product complaint form. Airfix Products Ltd formed in 1939, meaning the paper plane must postdate this year. Image: C. Watson.

This “Indestructible” comb appears to have been reasonably accurate, with only a few teeth missing. Indestructible was a favourite descriptor for various household items, with Indestructible Shoes, Indestructible Hats, and even the Indestructible Davis, a brand of sewing machine advertised in nineteenth and early twentieth century newspapers. Image: C. Watson.

A selection of lolly wrappers found around the vicarage. The top right wrapper is for sweet cigarettes. These were a white sugar stick, similar to a modern spaceman lolly, with a red end imitating a cigarette. No doubt the child who ate it pretended they were smoking a real cigarette, something which would be very non-PC today. The bottom right wrapper is for Cadbury’s Maple Nuggets. Cadburys has a long history in New Zealand, with the brand introduced by Richard Hudson in 1868 . A quick google search revealed no results for a Cadburys Maple Nuggets product making the wrapper something of an enigma. However, lollies called maple nuggets were advertised in newspapers from 1916 through into the 1930s, suggesting the lolly was sold based on its name as opposed to the brand it was from. Image: C. Watson.

A selection of other toys found at the vicarage. Clockwise from top left: tin enamel shaped instruments, decorated with a slightly terrifying tiger and monkey. Glass marbles – these were all found under a fireplace. We think there must have been a crack in or close to the fireplace which the children would lose their marbles down when they played on the floor in front of it. Play money, possibly from the board games discussed above, and two puzzle pieces, one with a lion and the other a girl. Image: C. Watson.

Of course, it couldn’t be a post about old toys without a slightly terrifying one. This miniature plastic horse is scratching its nose with its hind leg. This is something which real life horses do, and apparently is quite hilarious to watch. Unfortunately, the manufacturers of this toy horse haven’t quite nailed the hilarity of the position and have instead ended up with something which looks more like a demon possessed horse. I think it was colouring the eyes red where they went wrong. Image. C. Watson.

If you thought the horse was terrifying then this doll’s eye is equally creepy. As a general rule of thumb Victorian era dolls are scary (check out more here) however the realism of this one, especially with its fake eye lashes, makes it particularly creepy. Image: C. Watson.

Clara Watson

Picture perfect – a gallery of archaeologist’s art

Today we would like to take you through some art work created by our team over the years. But this isn’t for your local charity art auction – these images illustrate the archaeological process we undertake on a daily basis. Long time followers of the blog and Facebook page (and any other archaeologists keeping tabs out there) might be familiar with some aspects of this process. However, the extent of the work that goes into an archaeological site from A to D (or Z if a particularly tricky site) is not something we explore often. Part of the reason for this is it often requires quite a bit of boring paperwork and long explanations of legislation. In order to avoid the elements of the process which might put you to sleep, here is generalised version of the typical archaeological process with pretty pictures alongside.

Step 1: Assessment of the project area

Before a single trowel goes into the ground, proposed earthworks which have the potential to disturb any recorded or yet to be recorded pre-1900 archaeological sites must go through an archaeological assessment. This assessment forms part of the paperwork required to apply for an archaeological authority (the legal document that allows earthworks to take place while protecting and/or mitigating damage for any archaeological material exposed) from Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga. The risk of encountering archaeological sites, the possible sites types located in the project area and the impact of the works on potential sites are all included in the assessment. In order to assess these aspects, our historical researchers go to great lengths to source and uncover as much of the historical background of the property section or area which will be subjected to works. Much of this work focuses on historical sites of the 19th century as these types of sites form most of the work we undertake. If the historian is lucky they might encounter well-documented suburbs, families and buildings – making this part of the process relatively straight forward. Other projects may require many hours of painstaking research into archives, attempts to reconcile contradictory land parcels and transfers, exclamations over insufficient records and over-consumption of tea and coffee.

In the images below, we have a couple of colourful illustrations drawn by one of the resident historians. These drawings were done to assist the process of teasing out where the relevant historical occupation is located on a larger section. In an ideal world, this information would be neatly filed away in an easily accessible online resource – although in that world the robots may have already taken over our jobs if things were that easy.

An overlay of a land parcel subdivision on an aerial photograph with additional annotations…all to get to the bottom of where the house was located. Image: L. Mearns.

A colour coded sketch of a town section – useful for working out how subdivisions correspond to certificates of title. Image: L. Mearns.

Step 2: Field work

Granted the authority process went smoothly and the paperwork is all in order, it’s time for the works to begin. Our job as field archaeologists mostly deals with mitigation for works that have to take place such as demolition of buildings, new building construction, service repairs and so on. The fantastic work undertaken in the assessment process means the field archaeologist is pretty well prepared for what could be encountered during the works. Projects which have visible, often above ground archaeological sites (such as historic buildings or other structures) usually involve pre-recording of the archaeology before any work impacting the site. The images below show some of the notes and illustrations taken by one of our field archaeologists during the recording of a rather ornate building.

A rather elegant sketch of an ornate window. Useful for later reference and adding a touch of class to the field notebook. Image: K. Webb

This one could almost adorn an illuminated manuscript. Almost. Image: K. Webb.

I think someone missed their higher calling as an artist – look at that shading work on this sketch of a window dating to 1879. Image: K. Webb.

But until we perfect our ground penetrating sunglasses, we can never be too sure what will or won’t be uncovered below ground. Recording of below ground features, whether early Māori ovens, rubbish pits or brick barrel drains, must be recorded according to standard archaeological practice. This process often involves to-scale drawings such as site plans showing the locations of the recorded features, specific illustrations of complicated or noteworthy features and detailed drawings of layers of soil and features (known as stratigraphic drawings). The images below were drawn onsite during works and show examples of each type of drawing mentioned above.

A rather large but very neat site plan of historic house site, showing the location of the earthworks and recorded archaeological features. Every pile in its place! Image: R. Geary Nichol.

When your feature is so large it takes nine separate pieces of paper to record. This was one large brick floor recorded on a central city project. Image: H. Williams.

This stratigraphic drawing (featuring multiple layers of cultural material, large ovens and scattered artefacts) is a bit of a work in progress but demonstrates how complicated this recording can be. Image: T. Anderson and H. McCreary.

Step 3: Interpretation and reporting

At this stage all the works associated with the project are complete and the archaeologist can relax in the sun (or the June snow as it were) with a cold beer and contemplate the meaning of life, the universe and everything. Or at least that’s the fantasy after extensive recording and excavation in the field. The reality is that an archaeologist’s work is never done! All the artefacts, drawings and notes need to be ordered, analysed and turned into a report. Aside from being a requirement under the archaeological authority, the production of a report stands as a record of the work that was done, the archaeology that was exposed and the interpretations of the archaeologist/artefact analyst/other specialists. Such a record not only enriches our understanding of the past but also becomes a part of the historical record of the site in its own right (and is hopefully of great use to future researchers). Depending on the extent of the archaeological material found during the works, the report can be as labour intensive as the previous steps of archaeological process, requiring digitisation of the drawings produced onsite, detective-like interpretation of the features and analysis of the artefacts (sometimes hundreds, if not thousands of them!). The artefact analysis in particular is an important part of the process as we can often draw a lot of information about the date, spatial relationship of features and occupation from the artefacts found. This information can confirm, add to or contradict the historical research, and sometimes the archaeologist’s onsite interpretations. These post-field aspects of a recorded site are like a puzzle – we try to put the big picture together with the pieces that are available to us. Sometimes it’s a 50 or 100 piece puzzle, sometimes it feels more like the most difficult puzzle in the world – we don’t really get to choose.

Sometimes this interpretation process needs a few visual aids. The images below have been drawn by our artefact analysts to help understand the relationship between different archaeological deposits on a site and to assist with recognising the different features of an artefact.

Working out the spatial relationship between different archaeological deposits from the information recorded onsite and from the artefact analysis. Multiple depositions can be quite the headache. Image: M. Lillo Bernabeu.

A lot of different colours and patterns went into this interpretation sketch. Sometimes it takes a bit of creative colouring to make sense of the archaeology and brighten our day. Image: M. Lillo Bernabeu.

Who knew there were so many different parts to a shoe, aside from a cobbler I guess. Image: J. Garland.

Lovely teacup handle types. Image: J. Garland.

We hope you’ve enjoyed your digital sojourn through our gallery of archaeological creations and have learned a bit more about the work we do behind the scenes of all those glamorous photographs. We may even be able to start a side business creating high end art after this…or at least deserve some of the gallery wine and cheese.

 

Megan Hickey

We dig cats

Whether you share your home with one or not, they say that you’re either a cat person or a dog person. Hamish’s mid-week ‘hands up if you’re a dog person or a cat person’ office poll revealed that most of us here at Underground Overground Archaeology are cat people, and the majority of us have furry four-legged friends at home that love us (or just love our ability to open cat biscuit bags and jelly meat tins for them). Why do archaeologists dig cats so much? Perhaps because cats are both ANCIENT and MAGICAL. As if the internet didn’t already have enough cat content, here’s our long overdue cat archaeology blog. What more can I say? Meow Meow Meow.

The mandatory Grumpy Cat internet meme. Image: https://www.instagram.com/p/nY-DSzk5Ck/

Ancient Cat

DNA studies suggest that the domestic cat (Felis catus) emerged as a distinct and separate species from their ancestors – the African wild cat (Felis silvestris lybica) in the Middle East something like 10,000 years ago. From here they spread out across the globe, travelling alongside us humans as we explored and settled new lands (Marchini 2016). Dogs have been [hu]man’s best friend for longer than cats (about 15,000 years) and, although it’s not a race folks, dogs did in fact make it to Aotearoa New Zealand long before cats did, in the 13thcentury with their East Polynesian peoples (it is not recorded whether these kurī dogs made the trip half-hanging out the window of the waka the whole way).

It is generally agreed that cats sort of domesticated themselves when we decided to settle down and become farmers at the beginning of the great ‘Agricultural Revolution’. We started growing and storing grain and this attracted rats and mice, which in turn attracted into our farming settlements the wild cats for an easy feed. It was a mutually beneficial relationship – we got pest control and they got full bellies. They have stuck around with us ever since.

Sacred to the people of ancient Egypt, killing a cat was a crime punishable by death, and after your cat died, you’d shave off your eyebrows to let everyone know you missed your moggie. Cats were mummified, just like people were, to allow them passage to the afterlife, and to show respect to the cat goddess ‘Bastet’. This culture of cat worship meant that there would eventually be thousands, if not millions of mummified cats in Egypt. Towards the end of the 19thcentury these were being exported to England in great quantities to be pulverized into ‘mummy manure’ – a potash rich fertiliser that was reasonably cheap at about £4 a ton. (South Canterbury Times 26/4/1890: 3). I bet this magical ancient cat powder made the potatoes grow big.

Mummified cat – ancient Egypt, 2000-100 BCE. Image: Science Museum, London. CC BY 4.0.

Ship cat

Because they were so good at catching vermin, cats have been carried on ships since ancient times, and it was ship cats that would first make it to New Zealand. Cats are important at sea because they offer crew companionship and a sense of home. Captain James Cook had cats on board the Endeavour, and cats would also have been on board the different sealing, whaling, and trading vessels that began to visit New Zealand waters in increasing numbers from the late 18thcentury onwards. Sadly history rarely records the names of these pioneering, sea-legged cats.

Convoy, the ship’s cat aboard HMS Hermione. Convoy slept in his own little hammock – how cute is that. Sadly, Convoy perished in 1942 along with 87 of his crew mates after the light cruiser he served on was torpedoed in the Mediterranean by the German submarine U-205. Rest in peace, little Convoy, rest in peace. Image: courtesy Imperial War Museum (Image A6410).

House Cat

Like many 19thcentury towns and cities, early Christchurch had its fair share of problems with rodent infestations, so keeping a household cat was a good way of keeping the vermin population down. In addition, everyone knows that regular cat cuddles keep the black dog at bay. It’s hard to say how many cats there were in early Christchurch, though they were certainly common enough pets by the 1880s that the proper way to care for them should be the subject of an 1884 newspaper article.

Although adept hunters capable of catching their own food, cats need to be fed regularly by their humans to keep them healthy and happy. They should be fed at least once a day, but preferably twice, on a diet of at the very least bread and milk, or potatoes mashed up in milk, or potatoes mashed up with gravy. Pussy cat is healthiest when she gets meat at least once a day, and fish is a good treat, especially if pussy cat is sick. Horse-flesh is ok sometimes, but too much will have a laxative effect. Pussy cat must always have access to a saucer of clean water, and this should be replaced every morning – cats like their water fresh. Cats also need access to grass to chew on – if none is available to the city cat, some should be pulled and placed between two bricks in the scullery, where here it should keep fresh for a week. Most importantly, pussy cat’s food should be nice and clean, as clean as the dish it is served on (Lyttelton Times 23/8/1884: 6).

This pit (at top) containing exclusively the bones of 34 rats (at bottom) which was found on a Victoria Street site suggests that 19th century Christchurch once had a vermin problem of epic proportions. Both images: Hamish Williams.

Ceramic cat figurine found on a Lyttelton site. Image: Maria Lillo Bernabeu.

We have found quite a few cats on archaeological sites in Christchurch, and there have also been a few cats that have also found us on archaeological sites. The cats that have shown up on our sites (without correct PPE mind you) have been mostly pretty helpful with our investigations, but in true cat fashion, only when it suits them.

Rubbish pit feature half sectioned by cat. The excavation field notes that this cat wrote up about this feature were somewhat illegible. Image: Chelsea Dickson.

This skinny cat with the David Bowie eyes showed up on one of my Lyttelton sites a couple of years back. He helped me record the stratigraphy, but only in exchange for all the bacon out of my paleo salad. In the end, he stuck around not much longer than I ended up sticking to my grain-free fad diet. Image: Hamish Williams.

Before it was demolished in 2014, Kirsa recorded this category 2 Heritage New Zealand listed convent building in Rangiora. A number of the corner bricks around the main entrance of this 1907 building had little kitty paw print impressions on them. Not dissimilar to the kitty paw prints left on the 1st century AD Roman tiles that archaeologists found in Nottinghamshire, check out a picture of it here. Image: Kirsa Webb.

Of all the cats that we have found on archaeological sites, none have been found in discrete deposits that we could identify as representing intentional cat burials. I’ve dug up a dog that had been buried out the back of an old hotel (we named this pub-dog Barclay) and I helped dig up a dog that had been buried next to a ditch behind an old foundry (we named this dog Rusty). But we haven’t yet found any deliberate cat burials. All of the cat remains we have found have been the dried up and naturally mummified or completely skeletonized remains of cats which had crawled in underneath old buildings and died. At the best of times it’s pretty much impossible to tell how long they had been there. Regardless, the location where these moggies expired I plot on the site plan, in addition to the location at the back of the section where I formally lay them to rest. Rest in peace anonymous house cat from the past, rest in peace.

This naturally mummified cat was one of the first I found in Christchurch, underneath a house in Addington. I gave him a proper burial at the back of the section, and named him Max – the Cat Warrior. Image: Hamish Williams.

This one-legged articulated cat skeleton I found last August underneath and 1860s dwelling on Kilmore Street. He can’t have possibly crawled in under there with only one leg, leading me to conclude that his other three legs had been taken away post-mortem by rats. Image: Hamish Williams.

Rest in peace, one-legged cat. Rest in peace. Image: Hamish Williams.

Clever Cats

Not just household pets and vermin catchers in 19thcentury Christchurch, cats were also, for a short time, stage spectacles. Between June and early August 1897 William and Musgrove’s ‘Matsa Vaudeville Company’ toured New Zealand, performing for the people of Christchurch with a six-night season at the Theatre Royal. Star of the show was Europe’s renowned ‘Cat King’ Mr Leoni Clarke and his menagerie of performing cats, rats, mice, and canaries. Clarke was evidently something of a Dr Doolittle, and in his early career went by the name of ‘The Professor’ (I couldn’t find out if this was just his early stage name or if Mr Clarke had actually been a zoology professor). So popular was the show expected to be, that special late night tram services were put on to all the suburbs during the season so that all patrons would be able to get home afterwards (Star 3/7/1897: 6).

Star of the 1897 Matsa Vaudeville Company: Mr Leoni Clarke – ‘The Cat King’. Image: Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/22685244. Ref: Eph-B-VARIETY-1897-01-1.

Contemporary descriptions of Clark’s animal show suggest it really was something to behold. The cats and monkeys first held a hurdle race, before the cats tightrope-walked a pole ‘thickly studded with canaries, mice, and white rats’. The cats and monkeys then jumped through burning hoops, before the cats entertained the audience with a boxing match. Clarke was perhaps most famous for pioneering the ‘parachuting cat’ act. The cat climbs up a long rope suspended from the ceiling to reach a basket with parachute. At the given signal, the cat descends down by parachute safely into Clarke’s arms (Taranaki Herald 19/6/1897: 2). I don’t know about you, but I’d pay top dollar to see that.

Are Cats easy to train? “There is no animal I know of half so hard to train as a cat” said the Professor. Cats are very scarey. How do you accustom them to the audience? “ Why, that’s easy enough,” replied the Professor. “ I rehearse them at first before a gang of roughs with orchestra accompaniment. The roughs make noise enough, and after a few months the cats don’t mind an audience any more than I do.” How well do they stand the show life? “Not very well. They are continually dying, and there are times when the whole troupe will get the sulks.” Do you ever get scratched? The Professor replied by holding up both hands. They were simply covered with scratches. “They can’t hurt me by scratching,” said the Professor. “I’m tough” (Lyttelton Times 19/5/1891: 2).

Clarke was not the first of Europe’s famous 19thcentury animal trainers, nor would he be the last. Certainly there was good money in training and showing cats – Clarke later reckoned he made up to £100 a week from his cat show (Wanganui Chronicle18/6/1917: 6). The cat thing must have gotten old pretty quick though, because by December 1898 Clarke had seemingly given up on cats and was instead touring his boxing kangaroo around the London music halls (New Zealand Times 3/12/1898: 1).

Space Cat

According to some ancient astronaut theorists, cats are magical creatures that were worshipped as gods in Ancient Egypt because (just like pineapples) they are not of this world. Although the extraterrestrial origins of cats certainly cannot be ruled out, I am unaware of any firm archaeological evidence to support such a theory (and I’ve certainly not found any supporting archaeological evidence myself). Knowing how smart and secretive cats can be, I don’t think that they would give away much in the way of clues if indeed they were from outer space (but do check out this video). Regardless, just in case cats are from out of this world and they indeed have a grand plan in store for us, let us always be kind to, and show respect for the cats, and indeed all other animals, in life and in death.

Muncho the space cat (2016-2018) and 19th century salt-glazed sewer pipes. Rest in peace space cat, rest in peace. Image: Hamish Williams.

Hamish Williams

References

Marchini, L. 2006. Of mousers and men: The archaeology of the Domestic Cat. Current Archaeology 318. [Online. Available at:] https://www.archaeology.co.uk/articles/features/archaeology-of-the-domestic-cat.htm. [Accessed 25/05/2018].

Lyttelton Times. [online]. Available at http://papaerspast.natlib.govt.nz

New Zealand Times. [online]. Available at http://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz

South Canterbury Times. [online]. Available at http://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz

Star. [online]. Available at http://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz

Taranaki Herald. [online]. Available at http://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz