Long-drops from long ago

It’s something so mundane that it forms a part of our everyday lives and it’s as inescapable as death and taxes. Even though we spoke of it last week on the blog, it’s something people don’t often speak about and it’s something we all have a very private and personal relationship with. In fact, this topic harbors so much taboo that it’s widely considered impolite to discuss one’s poo. I’m sorry!

Our evasion of our natural bodily processes was probably not always the norm. The Romans gifted us the first predecessor of a plumbed “toilet” – which consisted of a flowing water channel over which a series of hollow seats were sometimes built. But the Romans didn’t break down any of the aforementioned taboo walls… (in a sense, because they never built any walls in their latrines anyway). Instead, their public toilets were a communal affair, where a one handled their daily task sitting alongside his neighbor. They shared not only their sounds, smells and over all experience, but they even shared the cleaning sponge stick – the ancestor of our disposable toilet paper (side note – this is where the phrase ‘don’t get the wrong end of the stick’ derives).

However, when considering the attitudes of our conservative Victorian ancestors, it’s not hard to imagine the air of confidentiality that surrounded their ‘bathroom’ visits. The emergence of this modern western concept of privacy and secrecy during these practices is probably largely due to the evolution of the latrine structure itself, which eventually developed from a hole dug in a field to an enclosed, single occupancy arrangement. In this secluded situation, outsiders don’t specifically know what is taking place during these intimate moments and society sort of lost the concept of what was considered normal bodily functions. As result, secrecy, euphemisms and comical deflection ensued. [Insert toilet humour here].

We’re going to dive into these messy issues today as we discuss this less than glamorous topic of the Victorian privies/long-drops we have found. Before the days of flushing toilets and hand sanitiser, the citizens of 19th century Christchurch usually took care of their “business” in outhouses in their backyards. These tended to be situated at the rear of their property, within convenient stumbling distance of the house for ease of night-time visits (Butcher & Smith 2010).

An archaeologist sitting in a cesspit. Image: H. Williams.

We’ve found quite a few of these features on Christchurch archaeological sites, and it appears that it wasn’t just private human waste that was being deposited down the loo. The plethora of rubbish we find in them is very similar to the refuse found in domestic rubbish pits, an indication that privies were also used as a place to discard normal household items like table ware dishes and broken glass bottles. What is not always immediately apparent is why privies were used as a garbage disposal shoot in every case. Our data seems to show that the Christchurch Victorians often filled in their long-drops with household refuse when they ceased to be used. It also seems very logical that in the possible haste that one can sometimes be under to relieve oneself, or while fumbling about with way too many layers of intricate Victorian clothing, something might accidentally drop from a pocket down the hatch. If this had happened to me, I personally wouldn’t have gone reaching into a long-drop to fish out any lost possessions. But as well as that, it’s possible that this dark (and conveniently open), hole in the ground offered an opportune receptacle to throw out the odd plate fragment that someone may have accidentally broken… perhaps wanting to hide the evidence from a mother or wife?

… But the evidence doesn’t always stay hidden. Us nosy archaeologists come snooping 150-odd years later and we don’t tend to mind getting our hands a little dirty (once this ‘matter’ has decomposed). We will find the things that have been dropped in deliberately, accidentally or sneakily, although we may not always be able to tell the difference.

A typical privy showing how these features look when first found, half sectioned and then fully removed. This one had timber at the base. Image: J. Garland.

The image above is a typical example of an excavated long-drop. In this case, no structural features such as building foundations or post holes were found surrounding the privy, but it was almost certainly originally covered. The feature itself was roughly square in shape, and relatively deep when compared with the (much shallower) features that were found elsewhere on the section. This suggested that it was dug for a purpose (at this point we need not mention this purpose) other than rubbish disposal, a great example of a dis-used latrine that was filled in with refuse at a later date.

A collection of some of the unfortunate ceramic forms that had been dropped off down this loo. Image: J. Garland.

An archaeological deposit of toilet rubbish… or deposit of rubbish toilets? The image on the left shows an in situ deposit that was almost exclusively broken up sanitary ware (wash basins and toilet pans etc). The picture on the right is one of these fragments up close, which was made by Doulton and Co. ca. 1882-1891. This feature was found on the site inhabited by the Taylor and Oakley firm, who exhibited “toilet seats and other articles, painted and artistically decorated” at the Christchurch exhibition in 1884 (Star 12/1/1884: 4). It is likely that this assemblage represents broken or wasted stock from the commercial enterprise which had been deliberately smashed for easier disposal. Image: H.Williams and J. Garland.

Even if any of these forms represented broken items that had been hidden down the toilet, our finds aren’t getting anyone in trouble 150 years later. Where these clumsy individuals may have gotten caught out is when these privies were cleaned and emptied. Previous research on domestic archaeological sites the in U.S.A indicates that the typical life cycle of a privy included episodes of deposition and cleaning. The regularity of cleaning would depend on the rapidity of filling and this would naturally be related to the size of the privy, the number of users, and the kinds of deposition (Lee Decker 1994: 356). This research also suggests that some privies may have been filled in as short a time as six months, while other studies have suggested that the filling process extended over a period of several decades (Lee Decker 1994: 356). Such clean outs of privies may have been performed by a member of the household rather than a licensed ‘night soil man’ (Lee Decker 1994:356). Hamish Williams has discussed the night soil man on the blog before, – he told us that “the cargo of this fantastic public servant was collected from one’s property in the wee hours, carted away then dumped on the fringes of town. From 1886 in Christchurch, a specially converted tram was employed between the hours of midnight and 5am to take tanks of ‘night soil’ waste out to the Council’s newly established ‘rubbish reserve’ in Linwood (Alexander 1985:11). This service cost a household seven pennies a week (Clark 1878:14).”

Recently, I had the privilege (?) of analysing an artefact assemblage that came from a very special (probable) privy in Central Christchurch. Shown below, this latrine was located on the property of Cyrus Davie and his family. Davie was an early European settler to Christchurch and was employed as the town surveyor in Christchurch’s infancy. The first family home on his section was constructed by 1855, and the long-drop or cesspit feature in question was conveniently located near the site of this dwelling. This likely privy feature was identified as such because privies/long-drops are generally narrow and deep, while cesspits are generally wider then they are deep (this one had properties of the latter but due to the extent of the earthworks planed on this site, it was not able to be excavated completely).

The stratigraphic profiles of the privy feature. Image: S. Dooley.

What’s extra exciting about this site is that we found two additional, irregularly shaped deposits of dark soil, containing artefacts that were ‘scat-tered’ everywhere. These deposits were located elsewhere on the section and were identified as probable deposits of night soil (human waste). The archaeological contexts and artefact similarities identified between these deposits and the privy feature suggested that they were temporally related and it’s likely that the two night soil deposits represented clean out waste from the long drop. We also found a Thomas Hide and Edward De Carle token in one of these deposits. This may represent one of those items that were accidentally dropped down the throne, never to be seen again. After all, who actually wants to throw their money down the toilet?

One of the probable night soil deposits. The cross-section of the feature is shown on the left, and the feature after excavation is shown on the right. Image: P. Mitchell.

Wasted money… This Thomas Hide and Edward De Carle token was found in one of the night soil deposit features. It would have been used in lieu of normal currency (across the ditch), for this Melbourne Based grocery, wine and spirit merchants between 1857 and 1861 (Museums Victoria 2017). Image: J. Garland.

As mentioned, privy features are a type of deposit that can accumulate over a long period of time, but the artefacts from this example appeared to have been recovered from the same stratigraphic layer. The two night soil deposits were found in a relatively secure context – underneath another building on the property that were known to have been constructed by 1862. If these features do relate to a privy and the associated clean out deposits, the privy would have been conveniently located to the east of the main Davie house, while the privy clean out deposits would be located much further away from main house. This would have been preferable for smell and hygiene reasons.

So, while it seems most likely that this wealth of human excrement once belonged to the Davie family, they were not the only 19th century inhabitants of this section. For one short year, in 1881, the Davies leased their home to none other than Sir Julius Von Haast (the German explorer, geologist and the founder of Canterbury Museum). So maybe, just maybe, the archaeologists who excavated these features were privy to the private fecal matter of one of New Zealand’s most famous European settlers.

Chelsea Dickson




Alexander, M., 1985. Rails in the roads – the steam and horse tram era in Christchurch. Christchurch NZ: Christchurch Transport Board / Tramway Historical Society.

Butcher, M. & Smith, I., 2010. Talking trash: classifying rubbish-bearing deposits from colonial New Zealand sites. Journal of Pacific Archaeology 1(1): 43-61.

Clark, W. 1878. Drainage Scheme for Christchurch and the Suburbs [Online] Available at: http://canterbury.royalcommission.govt.nz/documents-by-key/20110929.36

Garland, J., Webb, K. J., Haley, J. and Bone, K., 2015. The Music Centre, 150, 154 and 156 Armagh Street: Report on Archaeological Investigations, Vol. 1. Unpublished report for The Music Centre.

LeeDecker, C. H. 1994. Discard Behaviour on Domestic Historic Sites: Evaluation of Contexts for the Interpretation of Household Consumption Patterns. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory, Vol. 1(4): 345-375.

Museums Victoria Collections 2017. [online] Available at: https://collections.museumvictoria.com.au/items/55261 [Accessed 09 October 2017].

Williams, H., Garland, J. and Geary Nichol, R., 2016. Christchurch Justice & Emergency Services Precinct archaeological report. Unpublished report for the Ministry of Justice.

Wilson, J., 1989. Christchurch: swamp to city. A Short History of the Christchurch Drainage Board. Christchurch NZ: Christchurch Drainage Board.

Toilet humour

This week on the blog, a selection of chamber pots for your perusal, ranked according to my entirely objective, and not at all arbitrary, assessment of how fancy they are. This is accompanied by my very best attempt at using as many euphemisms for talking to God on the porcelain telephone as I can bring myself to type. Starting right now.

(Fair warning, I got most of the euphemisms from the internet. I’m not entirely convinced that they’re all actually things that people say. I also struggled to say most of them out loud, let along type them up in a blog post, so these are some of the more innocuous ones…)

Fancy rating: fairly fancy. Who doesn’t want a lovely flared rim chamber pot decorated with cows in which to see a man about a horse (how confusing).  This one, which we’ve featured here on the blog before, is decorated with the pattern “Cattle Scenery” and dates to the 1850s-1860s. Image: M. Lillo Bernabeu.

Fancy rating: understated fancy. This porcelain throne is literally porcelain, unlike the others in this post, which are all refined earthenware. It may not have the charming farm animals or gaudy colours of its compatriots, but this is the kind of commode used by somebody who actually says commode and refuses to refer to doing one’s business at any time, by any kind of phrase. Image: J. Garland.

Fancy rating: boring but perfectly serviceable vessel for going where even the emperor must go on foot. I don’t really have anything to say about this one. It’s…respectable? Image: J. Garland.

Fancy rating: middling fancy, with aspirations of grandeur.  A person could check the plumbing using this and remain secure in the knowledge that while they may not own a castle, they can at least squat over the towers of one when they want to. This particular potty was found on the site of a china shop, so, unlike most of the chamber pots we find, it might not have actually been used. Image: J. Garland.

Fancy rating: classical overtones, with points for the purple. This pattern is known as the ‘Alma’ pattern, or rather, is one of several 19th century patterns known by that name. It may refer to a small river in the Crimea that was home to a significant battle between the armies of Britain, France, Turkey and Russia during the Crimean war. I very much doubt that the Crimea, its rivers and the war, were on anybody’s mind while using this to change the water on the goldfish (seriously, who says this!?), but you never do know. Image: J. Garland.

Fancy rating: stately. A slightly different shape to some of the others, this chamber pot is both tall and sturdy, with an imposing cold marble look to it and a spacious interior. The sort of porcelain – or marble – throne from which one reigns over one’s bodily functions, as one should. Image: J. Garland.

Fancy rating: as fancy as those “paintings” we used to make as kids with some paint and half a potato carved to act as a stamp. I kind of like this one, though. It’s somehow cheerful. If you had to visit kermit (apparently it’s Cockney rhyming slang, see if you can work it out), it’s not a bad option. Image: J. Garland.

Fancy rating: very. Decorated with the pattern ‘May Morn’, this glossy, beautifully shaped chamber pot is possibly the most elegant vessel for answering the call of nature that I think we’ve found to date. Maybe we should all decorate our toilets with scenes of springtime in the country. It (like most of the chamber pots in this post) would likely have been part of a bedroom set that included a wash basin and pitcher. Image: J. Garland.

Fancy rating: not at all. Plain, serviceable and child-sized, this is the most basic of vessels in which to sprinkle the tinkle. Image: J. Garland.

Fancy rating: relatively elegant, entirely inoffensive repository with which to refresh the body. Late Spode, made by W. T. Copeland in the latter half of the 19th century. Image: Underground Overground Archaeology.

I could bring myself to use it, but points to “humping the cats loin” for the strangest euphemism I came across.

Jessie Garland

Gin! That aromatic schnapps, that bright moon beam, the Mother’s Ruin…

Archaeologists and whisky go well together. I agree with that universal truth. However, I fit in the gin lovers team at the office. So, as Jessie did one year ago, I’m writing a post combining two of my favourite things: archaeology and gin.

To be honest, the blog today is also inspired by two recent personal and professional experiences. On the one hand, I’ve been on holidays in Spain and I drank a few gin and tonics over there, enjoying the warm and sunny days with family and friends. On the other hand, I’ve been working on Christchurch assemblages dominated by alcohol bottles for the last few months. And, now that I’m back in New Zealand and ready for the summer, well, I have to ask, who is the queen of that season? It is, of course, that most infernal of paradoxes, the drink that is both the fiend and that pure essence and bright spirit…Gin!

Gin and tonics. Image: M. Lillo Bernabeu.

We’ve talked before about gin, its good and bad reputation and the uses and brands found on 19th century Christchurch sites. We even showed you several gin recipes! However, that was a long time ago and we’ve come across even more gin bottles to share with you, along with new discoveries and perspectives on this popular product, which originated in Europe as far back as the Middle Ages.

Do you think that they deserve another drink? I don’t think that I could walk over the Serpentine (my tipsy body balance is not that good)… Despite the many efforts of the Temperance Union, alcohol consumption was a common social practice and problem throughout the 19th century. Image: Auckland Star 02/07/1904: 10.

Those of you who regularly read this blog know well that bottles are the most common artefacts recovered from 19th century historical sites in Christchurch and elsewhere in New Zealand. You will also know from us that labels and embossing are the best clues we can find to guess what a bottle contained. So, here’s a few that we’ve been able to identify as gin…

The most common gin bottle type that we find is the case gin, easily identifiable and so named for the shape that allowed it to be packed and shipped to be exported to the colonies by the case load.

This case gin bottle has the remains of a red label. Unfortunately, it cannot be associated with any manufacturer or product, although it is very likely that the bottle originally contained gin. Image: M. Lillo Bernabeu.

As well as the classic case gin bottle, we’ve found a variety of other gin bottle shapes. This appreciated and valued extract of juniper berries was stored in both ceramic and glass bottles of different shapes and sizes. The brands and manufacturers were stamped on the bottles using labels, embossing, blob seals and incised marks.

So, here we go…

OLD TOM GIN. A classic! It’s a sweeter style of gin (also referred to as a cordial) that was popular in the latter half of the 19th century. It’s having something of a renaissance at the moment, especially in cocktails, although to be honest, I prefer the drier styles of gin. The label on this  Old Tom Cordial bottle reads ‘Swaine, Boord and Co.’, referring to a company that used an “Old Tom” cat on a barrel as their trademark. This trademark was registered by Joseph Boord in 1849. There are various stories involving cats and the origin of the name, but the general consensus is that the gin was named after Thomas Chamberlain, an early 19th century distiller (Foundry, 2017). Image: M. Lillo Bernabeu.

HENKES GENEVA. J. H. Henkes was a gin distillery located on the Voorhaven in Delftshaven, Rotterdam and established in 1824. This Dutch region was known for its gin during the 19th century. It is unclear when the distillery ceased operations, although their name continued to be trademarked in the 20th century. Actually, Henkes Schnapps was still being advertised in New Zealand in the 1920s and 1930s. The first advertisement for the J. H. Henkes gin in NZ newspapers is in 1869 and refers to ‘J. H. Henkes Prize Medal Stone Gin’ (Nelson Evening Mail 05/12/1873: 3). Images: J. Garland (left) and New Zealand Herald 17/11/1931: 3 (right).

BLANKENHEYM & NOLET’S GIN. Blankenheym and Nolet was a distillery established in 1714 in Schiedam, a Dutch city well-known for its production of Genever (or Dutch gin). It is believed that they created the ‘Oude Genever’ (Nicks Wine Merchants, 2017). Their aromatic schnapps was advertised in New Zealand from 1877 well into the 20th century and was described as ‘the purest spirit in the market’ (Evening Post 11/09/1901: 2). By the end of the 19th century, the circular impressed marks were being replaced with paper labels and by the early 20th century the stoneware bottles themselves were declining in popularity (Garland et al. 2014: 158-169). Images: M. Lillo Bernabeu (left) and Evening Post 11/09/1901: 2 (right).

BOOTH’S DRY GIN. Booth’s were established in the 16th century as wine merchants, but by 1740 they had begun operating a distillery in London (Difford’s Guide 2014). Their products remained popular during the 19th and 20th centuries and Booth’s gin was heavily advertised in New Zealand newspapers of the period. Booth’s got the highest award from the Institute of Hygiene (the origin of the Society of Public Health) as the purest and finest Dry Gin, fair enough to taste it! Image: M. L. Bernabeu (left) and Press 13/02/1935: 16 (right).

GILBEY’S GIN. Brothers Walter and Alfred Gilbey founded their business in 1857 in London, as wine and spirits merchants and soon began to produce spirits, particularly London dry gin (Difford’s Guide 2017). The third brother, Henry, joined the firm in 1865. They opened branches in Ireland, Scotland and by the 1920s the company also had gin distilleries in Australia and Canada (Difford’s Guide 2017). Gilbey’s gin was widely advertised in New Zealand newspapers from the end of 19th century onwards. Image: M. Lillo Bernabeu (left) and New Zealand Herald 24/05/1932:15 (right).

Do you like flavoured gin? Have a look at this special Gilbey’s Orange Gin made from the ‘pure juice of the Seville orange’. I still prefer the original sour taste of this marvellous schnapps… Image: Press 1/04/1934: 13.

BOLS GIN. Erven Lucas Bols, Lootsje, Amsterdam was a company formed in the late 16th century in the business of producing, distributing, selling and marketing gin and other liquors. By the 1820s, the distillery introduced a new gin, defined by a better balance of malt wine, neutral grain alcohol and botanicals (Bols Amsterdam 2017). Despite its claim to be the oldest distillery brand in the world, Bols Gin was first mentioned in New Zealand newspapers in the 1920s, described as ‘a tonic 350 years old’ supplied by ‘hotels, clubs or merchants’ (New Zealand Herald 19/10/1925: 13). Image: M. Lillo Bernabeu (left) and New Zealand Herald 19/10/1925: 13 (right).

Bols Gin is well worth a mention, because it seems to be (supposedly) the perfect pick-me-up…if you are a sports person, a businessman (or woman), if you feel sick, tired or want to sleep well and wake up fresh, that’s it! A shot of gin will work it out! Have you taken yours? I got my one! See below to find yours!

Do you feel sick or a bit weak? Are you a hay fever sufferer? Get into the gin! (New Zealand Herald 14/01/1926: 10).

Do you play cricket, bowling, tennis? After your physical effort, you deserve the gin! (New Zealand Truth 25/07/1925: 6).

If you like playing football, you also need a refreshment after a strenuous match to recover energy! (New Zealand Herald 20/07/1925: 10).

That’s my one! Finally, I’ve found the antidote to keep me awake the whole day, particularly at ‘siesta’ (nap) time. The secret of my happiness and joy… (New Zealand Herald 23/07/1925: 7).

It is also quite common to have trouble sleeping sometimes… (New Zealand Herald 23/11/1925: 7).

At this point, we have everything we need to enjoy a nip of gin: several brands to choose and a range of perfect excuses to drink it! To complete this heavenly sin, the archaeological record also offers us what we need: a glass. Glass table ware is often encountered on Christchurch sites, mostly fragmented and incomplete. While the tumblers were probably used as drinking vessels for either alcoholic or non-alcoholic beverages, stemmed drinking glasses were exclusively intended for alcoholic drinks such as sherry, port, brandy, cognac, champagne, sparkling wines and why not? Gin or maybe whisky?

Tumblers (top) and stemmed drinking glasses (bottom). The two bright glasses are my favourite! They are decorated with a diamond pattern in an unusual shade of lime green. These were made of glass known as uranium glass, ‘canary’ glass or ‘vaseline’ glass, containing oxide diuranate uranium as a colouring agent (Jones 2000: 147). It became popular during the mid-19th century, in particular from the 1880s until the 1920s (Jones 2000: 147). Image: M. Lillo Bernabeu.

As we keep uncovering 19th century artefacts, the information about alcohol consumption in Christchurch is continuously updating. But let me finish as I began, referring to my lovely colleagues. I would like to send a message to the majority of whisky drinkers at the office. Will you be able to resist the charms of the Mother’s Ruin?

Otago Daily Times 28/04/1927: 4.

Perhaps, you will become gin lovers sooner that you might think, keeping in mind that ‘good gin makes and ideal morning refresher…with ginger ale, squash and soda, ginger beer or tonic water’ (heaps of choices, including yummy ice cream!) and the summer is coming… (although I’m aware of your whisky loyalty, my buddies!). I’m not trying to persuade you all to convert, I promise…

New Zealand Herald 7/01/1925.

Maria Lillo Bernabeu


Auckland Star. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz. [Accessed October 2017]

Bols Amsterdam, 2017. [online] Available at https://bols.com/brand-promise [Accessed October 2017]

Difford’s Guide, 2017. History of Gin (1831-1953). [online] Available at https://www.diffordsguide.com/encyclopedia/1060/bws/history-of-gin-1831-to-1953 [Accessed October 2017]

Evening Post. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz. [Accessed October 2017]

Foundry, G., 2017. An Intro to Old Tom Gin. [online] Available at http://www.ginfoundry.com/insights/introduction-old-tom-gin/ [Accessed October 2017].

Garland, J., Carter, M. and Geary Nichol, R., 2014. The Terrace, M35/1050, Christchurch: Report on Archaeological Investigations, Vol. 1. Unpublished report for Hereford Holdings.

Jones, O. R., 2000. A Guide to Dating Glass Tableware: 1800 – 1940. In Karklins, K. (Ed). Studies in Material Culture Research. Society for Historical Archaeology, Pennsylvania.

Nelson Evening Mail. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz. [Accessed October 2017]

New Zealand Herald. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz. [Accessed October 2017]

New Zealand Trust. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz. [Accessed October 2017]

Nicks Wine Merchants, 2017. Blankenheym & Nolet Oude Genever. [online] Available at https://www.nicks.com.au/blankenheym-nolet-oude-genever-jenever-1000ml [Accessed October 2017]

Stichting Vrienden van de Oude, 2011. Pelgrimvaderskerk Rotterdam-Delfshaven [online] Available at http://www.pilgrimfatherschurch.org/en/history-of-delfshaven [Accessed October 2017]

Star. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz. [Accessed October 2017]

Van Kessel, I. 2002. Merchants, Missionaries & Migrants: 300 years of Dutch- Ghanian Relations.


All things great and small

Here at Underground Overground Archaeology we try not to sweat the small stuff – particularly because the small stuff we find is often super cool and makes us say “aww, that’s cute!”, similar to the way many people react when they see baby humans next to regular sized, adult humans.

For example: one product, in two very different sized pots (it’s John Gosnell’s Cherry Toothpaste – first produced in the 1850s). The image on the left shows the size we commonly find in 19th century Christchurch assemblages. The one on the right was a unique find for us. It’s super cute, but it wouldn’t have held a whole lot of toothpaste. Images: left and right: C. Dickson.

Big things coming in small packages are quite literally the bread and butter of an archaeologist. We have often mentioned the theory of how the smallest or most ordinary of objects can illustrate the histories of people and places in ways we might not expect. This was an idea first brought forward in the 1970s, by – American archaeologist, James Deetz, in his bookIn Small Things Forgotten.’

While many of the artefacts we find are small fragments, or what Deetz would consider small things anyway, there are also those that we would classify as “mini sized.” These tiny versions of some of our commonly found Victorian artefacts don’t appear to be particularly rare among online collectors, but information regarding their functions is rather scarce. When faced with identical artefacts with such extreme size differences, our best guess is that these may represent samples of a product – much like a tester you would find in a pharmacy today. Although humorous to imagine, it seems a little farfetched that a mini-sized champagne bottle would have been found in a 19th century boarding house minibar, or that a mini toothpaste pot was fashioned as travel size to fit in your carry-on baggage. Moreover, the subject of vessel reuse is one that constantly plagues our ability to accurately attribute vessel function to our finds, and intrinsically assigning the normal contents of a ‘regular’ sized vessel to a ‘sample size’ vessel, seems even more problematic than usual. For instance, the volume of the mini ring-seal bottle pictured below suggests that it probably wouldn’t hold more than one serving… So champagne for one anyone?

Less is more? Here are some smaller versions of some larger alcohol bottles. On the right is a tiny version of one of the most common 19th century artefact finds – the black beer bottle. The left image shows the size comparison of a champagne shaped ring seal bottle – these were made in several different volumes, but the mini size is rare. Maybe sometimes people just weren’t overly thirsty. Images: J. Garland and C. Dickson.

Maria and I with two very different sized flagons, wearing two very similar tops…. Coincidence? …Actually yes. These vessels may have once held a number of beverage types, including cider, beer, wine or water. The large vessel was made by Stephen Green’s Imperial Pottery in Lambeth, between 1820 and 1858. The small vessel was manufactured by George Skey and Co., Tamworth – a known maker of ginger beer between 1860 and 1936 (Lorenzor 2011). Images: J. Garland and C. Dickson.

It is a small world after all, and maybe sometimes people only needed small amounts of certain products? The tiny bottles that we occasionally find may have been deliberately sized as such because their original contents were perishable and consumers didn’t use much at once. Cosmetics come to mind in this case.

Our in-house hand model, Jessie, is sporting two very small vessels which come in several different colours to suit every skin tone. We aren’t entirely sure what these tiny bottles originally contained, but the one on the left has black residue on the interior.

If we take a break from beverages and bottles, we can consider the small artefacts that are known as ‘miniatures’ (the type of bric-a-brac one finds on a mantelpiece). These items have been relatively overlooked by archaeological interpreters and theorists in the past, primarily because their origins and meanings are less understood than those of items that were used as part of daily domestic or commercial tasks. Indeed, the way we even sometimes refer to miniatures carries connotations of reduced importance, calling them “trinkets,” “trifles,” or “dainty” (Mullins 2001: 159). Perhaps I’m also guilty of this, having called the toothpaste pot “cute” earlier. It’s been thought that lesser archaeological value has been historically attributed to these ‘knickknacks’ because they are recovered from archaeological sites in comparatively smaller numbers, and have less meaning attached to them than other artefacts (Mills 2015: 250). Even modern-day enthusiasts and collectors of miniatures are often more concerned with the rarity, and thus greater monetary value of their antiques, so the original functions and meanings of these items are further ignored (Mills 2015: 250).

As a result of this gap in the discourse, we don’t know all that much about miniatures. While it’s true that they’re not found as commonly on historical archaeological sites as items that are ‘’utilised’ for everyday functions, we do still come across them. So it begs some questions – how did people acquire them? How did the manufacturers of miniatures decide what to make? And how were they promoted to potential consumers? (Mills 2015: 256). Nineteenth century advertisements for miniatures are scarce, despite the phenomenal increase in marketing that occurred during this century (Mills 2015: 256). But we can guess that many of these ‘luxury?’ items must have been inexpensive and versions of them were probably readily available to most people because miniature forms are found on archaeological sites widely spanning many different socio-economic groups.

Beverage break! Some of the Underground Overground Archaeology staff (including a very fresh-faced Luke), enjoying a cup of afternoon tea. Personally, I require more tea than this during my breaks, but that’s just me…

Despite the small issue of the gap in our knowledge, the idea has been put forward by scholars that “A reduction in dimensions does not produce a corresponding reduction in significance” (Stewart 1993: 43). As miniatures could often be considered more ‘luxury’ items (in this case, luxury refers to something that is not used as a part of everyday living), they offer us a rare opportunity to speculate about values and thoughts, rather than about everyday activities. The latter of these can be seen through household artefacts, and the theory behind their use can get a little mundane when they only show us home maintenance, cooking, cleaning, eating, grooming, child care etc. It’s been theorised that “while many artefacts can reflect the thinking of their owners indirectly (fashionable tea wares, for example), miniatures can depict attitudes and meanings since they were not acquired to be used, but for what they symbolized” (Mills 2015: 254).

But theorising/speculating about the meaning of miniatures is not without risk. Attributing meaning to any object is problematic because an individual’s ownership of an artefact can’t always be assumed, and connecting ‘backstories’ to possessions can reflect the biases modern interpreters (Mills 2015: 255). One of the main ways this happens with miniatures is by assuming that “small” equals “toy” and “toy” equals “child”. This is something we often do when finding miniature items like ceramic dolls, marbles and miniature tea sets on Christchurch archaeological sites – and as with other places in the world, documented evidence of children’s presence on these sites is not always found to back up this presumed ownership. Of course, children are not always recorded in historical sources, but this is beside the point. Meanings behind the creation, initial appropriation and continued possession of artefacts can be acquired, changed, and abandoned over time— for example, what starts as an item of childhood entertainment may be nostalgically kept by an adult, or even sometimes may be first acquired by an adult (Mills 2015: 255). This could explain the presence of things like miniature tea sets in our assemblages when we know that only a bachelor lived on-site historically. To confuse the issue further, the concept of childhood as a distinct from adulthood was not also widely recognised by all parts of Victorian society until the mid-19th century (Mills 2015: 255). Child labour was the norm among the Victorian lower classes at this time, but sentiments of youthful innocents requiring protection and education grew, and as a result, so did childhood leisure time. Prior to this, some children still had opportunities to play, but not in the ways children do today, and we can’t assume that all children played with ‘toys’ in the way that we think of them now.

A tiny dog and some tiny bricks. The bricks represent an artefact that we would typically classify as a ‘toy’ or ‘children’s artefact’. The bricks are called ‘kiddibricks’ – first made in Christchurch 1893, by Percival Adams (who was the son of a brick-maker). He made a miniature model of a brick-making press (which made miniature bricks; Truttman 2011). The name “kiddibricks” probably says it all, but these are essentially a precursor to Lego, and I know a few adults who love a good Lego set.

Regardless of their original contents or meanings, mini-sized artefacts and “miniatures” are always a welcome find on our historic sites. We may not be able to come to many conclusions about their place in the historic world, but it pays to remember, it’s the little things that count.

Chelsea Dickson


Lorenzor, M., 2011. Tamworth Time Hikes: George Skey´s Wilnecote Works [online] available at: https://tamworthtimehikes.wordpress.com/2011/06/16/george-skey%C2%B4s-wilnecote-works/

Mills, R. 2015. ‘Material Culture in Miniature: The Historical Archaeology of Nineteenth-Century Miniature Objects.’ The Importance of British Material Culture to Historical Archaeologies of the Nineteenth Century. Alisdair Brooks (eds): 243-273. University of Nebraska Press.

Mullins, P., 2001 Racializing the Parlour: Race and Victorian Bric- a- Brac Consumption. In Race and the Archaeology of Identity. Charles E. Orser, editor, pp. 158– 176. University of Utah Press, Provo

Stewart, S., 1993. On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection. Duke University Press, Durham nc.

Truttman, L., 2011. ‘A Little Brick Story.’ Timespanner [Online] Available at: https://timespanner.blogspot.co.nz/2011/03/little-brick-story.html

Artefact stories: 19th century chemists and other subjects…

Today’s blog was inspired by three pharmaceutical bottles that aroused my curiosity and gave me the perfect excuse to talk about a few 19th century chemists in Christchurch…

I came across the first small glass fragment in an assemblage from a late 19th century domestic site in the north Christchurch. I know, the fragment is tiny and the embossing is well-worn down, almost to the point of illegibility, but I could still make out a few letters: TOWN…, PHY… and CHRISTCHURCH. These provided me with my first clues in the tale of discovery I’m sharing with you today…

If you look closely, you can just make out the letters. Image: M. Lillo Bernabeu.

My first thought, given this partial evidence, was that this small fragment was part of a bottle of Townsend’s Sarsaparilla, a remedy we often find in Christchurch assemblages. It was advertised as a blood purifier and cure for general health in newspapers of the time, first introduced by Samuel Townsend in 1839. Although the name is similar, as you can see, it turns out that Dr Samuel Townsend was not the man we were looking for…

Left: Townsend’s Sarsaparilla (Image: Jessie Garland). Right: Press 31-10-1902: 7. Oh wow! If you are a woman with headache and feeling weak muscle, Townsend’s Sarsaparilla is the solution! If you are a man suffering the same symptoms, sorry!

Then, a little bit later on, I still had that tiny shard of glass fresh in my mind when archaeology presented me with the perfect opening in the case of this mysterious manufacturer. On a bottle from another archaeological site, this time in Lyttelton, I found the full inscription: DR J.H. TOWNEND CRYSTAL PALACE BUILDINGS CHRISTCHURCH. At this point, I was fairly certain that I had found him! Mystery solved!

On the left we can see the Dr Townend’s bottle. On the right, there is detail of the base, where we can see who the bottle was made by, through the initials Y. G. Co. This company, known as the York Flint Glass Company, was established by Joseph Spence in 1835 and continued in production until at least 1930. They were known for their high-quality glass bottles and jars for soft drinks as well as food containers and medicines. Image: M. Lillo Bernabeu.

Dr Joseph Henry Townend was a 19th century Christchurch doctor, who was born in England and first arrived in Lyttelton in charge of immigrant health on board the ship ‘Rakaia’ in 1874. One year later, he came back to New Zealand on the ‘White Rose’, with his brother William, and established his business in the Crystal Palace Buildings, where he remained until his death in 1902 (Star 11/07/1902: 3). He became one of the most popular physicians in Canterbury in the 19th century and some of the bottles used to hold his remedies made their way into the archaeological record to be found a century and a half later. My tiny mysterious fragment would have originally been part of a bottle marked ‘DR J. H. TOWNEND / CONSULTING PHYSICIAN / CHRISTCHURCH’.

View down Colombo Street toward the Port Hills. Right: Market (Victoria) Square. Left: Crystal Palace Building. Christchurch, ca. 1870. Image: Christchurch City Libraries.

You’d think that would be end of it, no? But, like some kind of stalker from beyond the grave, Townend seems to follow me through my working life, since, not long after this, another Townend’s bottle turned up! This example (I promise you that it is the last one!), although still incomplete, clearly read: TOWNEND CHEMIST CHRISTCHURCH. From this, I was led to William, Joseph Townend’s brother, who worked as a chemist in partnership with his brother here in Christchurch.

Image: M. Lillo Bernabeu.

A bit of historical sleuthing later, I discovered that William Townend, in addition to his pharmaceutical activities, had quite a few interesting episodes in his life (and yes, I do love this historical gossip, but only a little…).

Left: portrait of William Potter Townend. Right: Cinnamon Cure advertisement

William Potter Townend arrived in Christchurch with his brother Joseph Henry in 1875 and ran the Townend’s Chemist and Druggist Store from the Crystal Palace Building on Colombo Street well into the 20th century. He made a variety of medicines to treat common diseases, like his famous ‘Cinnamon Cure’ for throat and lung ailments, ‘Townend’s Bilious and Liver pill’, children’s teething powders and personal grooming products such as the ‘Antipityninne’ or ‘Townend’s Sulphur’ hair restorers. (Riley 2011).

However, his story deviates somewhat in the 1870s. On the 20th of May 1876, William was charged with the manslaughter of a baby born from Amelia Isaac, whom he had attended in the absence of his brother. The details are a bit grisly, but suffice to say that the baby died because of his assistance. Consequently, the Supreme Court condemned him to six months of imprisonment for the incompetent practice of medicine. The case had a huge social impact and more than 5000 thousand people signed a petition praying for his release. What a popular man! Certainly, the scale of this petition is something, given the offence with which he was charged…

And then, if being charged with manslaughter wasn’t problematic enough, William was also charged – along with his colleague George Bonnington – with the offence of selling poison to a man who died after purchasing laudanum. In this case, he had to pay a fine, quite a soft punishment, I guess…

Press 13/07/1877: 2. Quite the mulit-faceted man, Mr Towned. As well as practicing pharmacy and medicine, however badly, William was active in Christchurch society. He was a member of the Christchurch Musical Society, playing the contralto and singing with ‘much expression and sweetness’… Maybe singing was his secret talent? Who knows!

The manslaughter charge is interesting, not just because of the petition and social context of the crime, but also because it provides an example of a man doing what was usually considered women’s work. Generally, midwives in the 19th century were mostly married women who worked autonomously. The majority of the births during the 19th and early 20 centuries took place in the home. Although it was a difficult part of women’s role, it was also a natural part of their lives (Stojanovic 2010). Infant mortality was a serious problem and measures like regulating the midwifery practice, providing education, creating a midwifery register and improving maternity care were methods used to reduce that high rate.

Let’s come back to the artefacts, shall we? The archaeological record provides us with material evidence of several chemists based in Christchurch during the 19th century along with Mr William Potter Townend. Sometimes, as with the Townend fragments, these bottles can give us valuable information about the glass and the product manufacturers. We can also be the luckiest archaeologists in the world and figure out the exact contents of the bottle when the label or embossing is present. Here’s a few examples…

Probably the most famous one! Bonnington’s Irish Moss was used for the cure of respiratory ailments and was still in production until the 1970s. George Bonnington began his business in Christchurch in 1872. Image: J. Garland.

John Berry’s premises were located at Colombo Street in the late 19th century and remained there well into the 20th century. He advertises his ‘miraculous corn salve’ which, apparently, painlessly removes corns, bunions. (New Zealand Times 7/06/1893: 2) and other products as ‘Florolia’ (New Zealand Times 10/04/1894), Hair Lotion for children, Fruit Syrups (Press 29/11/1897: 1), Berry’s Indigestion Cure, Berry’s Rheumatic and Gout Remedy (Press 23/02/1898: 1) or Berry’s Killkorn (Press 2/04/1898: 10). He was also appointed as the agent for Wellington and District for the treatment of Female Complaints (Evening Post 28/04/1896: 3).

John Baxter was also a chemist in Christchurch from 1870 onwards. He patented his Lung Preserver in c. 1889, advertised as a remedy for influenza, coughs & colds etc. Image: J. Garland.

Finally, I can’t finish without sharing my latest discovery with you, drawn, again, from my particular obsession with women and gender, you know…

Who’s this? Elizabeth Robinson, the first woman chemist registered in New Zealand. She was working as a chemist and druggist from as early as 1872, before which time she was helping her husband Richard in the Joseph Arthur Cooke Pharmacy in Cashel Street. When her husband died in 1872, she became the owner of the chemist’s shop, running the business until 1886 and registering as a chemist on the 28th of June 1881 (Shaw 1998: 27). As you can imagine, I’m looking forward to finding at least one of her bottles…

Maria Lillo Bernabeu


Christchurch City Libraries [online] Available at: https://my.christchurchcitylibraries.com/

Evening Post [online]. Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz

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

New Zealand Times [online]. Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz

Riley, W. (2011). Cinnamon Cures and Cosmetic Connections. [online] Available at https://lostchristchurch.wordpress.com/2011/09/20/townends-chemist-1897/

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

Solomons, H. and Riley, W. 2017. Lost Christchurch. Remembering our Lost Heritage. [online] Available at: https://lostchristchurch.wordpress.com/

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