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

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

References

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.