Under the ground, over the ground and under the floor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maria Lillo Bernabeu


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The spoils of oils

We all know that fish oil is great for our skin and hair but does the use of whale oil tickle your moral compass? It was utilised for many household purposes during the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries and today we will take a look at a couple of men who made a big splash in the whale oil industry.

Not too long ago, a miniature vial was found in one of our artefact assemblages from Christchurch’s Central City. This vessel had “Ezra Kelley” embossed on the base, which we traced to a 19th century watchmaker from New Bedford, Massachusetts. Ezra Kelley was a special fellow in the 19th century watchmaking and repairing scene, because he was the first maker to commercially use oil from the jaws of porpoises and blackfish (pilot whales) to lubricate watch mechanisms (Goodwin 2016). Prior to this, olive and vegetable oils were used instead. Oil extracted from the jaws of porpoises and blackfish had been used by carpenters to sharpen their tools without the risk of rust since 1816, but it wasn’t until 1829 that the sailor, Solomon Cook, sent the first batch of blackfish jaw oil to Kelley for testing (Goodwin 2016). Kelley found it superior to all other oils, as it didn’t congeal at low temperatures, nor did it rust brass, and its light and fine properties also gave it a low freezing point. This made it a suitable, year-round lubricant for delicate machinery such as clocks, watches, and sewing machines (at a lower grade, sperm whale oil was advertised as best for sewing machines, firearms, and telegraphs; Goodwin 2016). In 1884, Kelley began selling this new oil (supplied by the Cook family), for a whopping US $5-$15 per gallon, which converts to around US $111 – $333 in today’s money (Goodwin 2016). As a comparison, a barrel of modern crude oil, contains 42 gallons and sells for $90-$110 (Cherrybalmz 2017). Whale oil was so expensive at this time due to supply and demand, but also for one other key reason – it’s lubrication properties were worth it (Cherrybalmz 2017).

Ezra Kelley watch oil bottle found in the Central City. Image: C. Dickson.

Sperm Sewing Oil! Also found in Christchurch Central City, this bottle probably contained a lower grade of whale oil than what Kelley made. Image: C. Dickson.

Just like a fine wine, Kelley’s oil improved with age. The processing of his blackfish oil included a two-year aging stage after the oil had been gently heated to remove excess water. Processors then spread the oil out into thin layers and slowly froze it, causing any solids to precipitate within it, which could be later strained through a cloth. The more competently this process was carried out, and the fresher the oil was, the better the grade of lubricant could be produced – the premium Blackfish grades could operate reliably below -50°F (-45.6 degrees Celsius; Cherrybalmz 2017). So, you could be cold, but you’d always know what time it is.

Ezra Kelley oil advertisement c. 1890. Image.

It seems that Kelley’s major failing was that his oil sold too profitably. All his success didn’t go unnoticed by the rival oil seller, William Foster Nye, who originally dealt in other oil types, like burning oils, castor oil and salad oil. After witnessing Kelley’s success, Nye subsequently developed a method for processing “fish jaw oil” – capitalising on Kelley’s discoveries and managing to secure a British distributor six months after his first advertisement. Having captured the British market, Nye was able to undercut his predecessor’s prices by offering large discounts to his customers and he was so successful at this that he managed to absorb Kelley’s business by 1896 (Zabawski 2017). Within the year, the new company was responsible for nine-tenths of the global supply of fish jaw oil raw materials and it ran a monopoly of the industry that would last until the decline of whaling during the next century (Nye 2017, Zabawski 2017). However, the end of whaling didn’t spell the end for Nye -the fish jaw oil continued to be sold into the 1970s, but the threat of whale extinction and the technological advances of synthetic oils ended the company’s reliance on blackfish/porpoises and the era of synthetic fluids began (Zabawski 2017). Due to their ability to adapt, the Nye oil company remains in operation today (Nye 2017).

Nye advertisement. Date unknown. Image.

‘Watching’ an 1886 whale massacre… Image: Attic Paper.

Massachusetts, where Kelley and Nye were both based, was once a hub for whale oil production. Specifically, New Bedford Massachusetts was such a busy whaling port that it was known as “The City That Lit the World” and, “The Whaling City”, because during the 19th century, it was one of the most important whaling ports in the world, along with Nantucket, Massachusetts and New London, Connecticut (Huntington 2009). This American whaling industry had a strong focus on spermaceti (the waxy oil found in the head of sperm whales), named after an initial misconception that the substance was the coagulated semen of sperm whales… Unfortunate naming aside, this oil type was commonly used in candle manufacture and in oil lamps when distilled – its natural properties produced bright, clear flames when burnt, without excess smoke (McNamara 2017).

As most Kiwis know, New Zealand was not exempt from what we now consider to be a barbaric industry. Eighteenth and 19th century whaling ships visited the waters around the country, and this natural resource began to be exploited off our coasts before New Zealand was even settled by Europeans. The industry began to decline here by the early 1840s, as over exploited whales became scarce and New Zealand’s new government imposed duties and port charges on whaling ships (Phillips 2006). Occasionally, American whaling ships still visited in the mid-1800s, the last of which was probably the Charles W. Morgan, in 1894 (Phillips 2006). However, pilot whales to this day are notorious for stranding on our beaches, and beached whales continued to be used as a resource in the 20th century.

Cutting up the blubber of beached pilot whales. New Zealand, 1911? Arthur James Northwood (1881-1949) Image.

Men boiling down blackfish blubber, Tokerau Beach. Taaffe, James Thomas Benjamin, d 1971: Photographs of the Far North district, Northland region. Ref: 1/2-026801-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/23070974. Image. Date unknown.

Clearly, 18th and 19th century society didn’t share the modern distaste for the whaling industry. As you’ve seen, Kelley and Nye’s advertisements for their whale oil often pictured the graphic scenes depicting whales being caught and processed, and given how successful these companies were, this violence can’t have been a deterrent for sales. Herman Melville also provides us with insight into how revered whale products were – calling whale oil “as rare as the milk of queens” in his classic, Moby Dick, which was written in this era (Melville 1851). Essentially, the entire industry is a parallel to crude oil in today’s market, given the similarities in costs, peoples dependence on it and its range of applications.

These applications included not only lubrication and illumination, but also the manufacture of soaps, paint, varnish, margarine, and as a treatment for textiles and rope. “Whalebone” which was commonly found in corsets, was not actually what it describes – it was not bone, but baleen from whales (a form of keratin – the same material as human fingernails), and its purpose is to filter plankton into whales mouths. Baleen is strong but flexible (which are similar properties to that of plastic), and it was not only used in other attire like shirt collars and eyeglass frames, but also for buggy whips, hair and chimney brushes and umbrellas (Cherrybalmz 2017). It was also featured as a key component of early springs, including carriage, mattress, and piano springs (Cherrybalmz 2017). To continue with the industry comparison, in 1891 a pound of ‘whalebone’ was worth up to US $7 – that’s nearly $200 per pound today! (Cherrybalmz 2017). In 1882, a single whale produced 6000 gallons of oil and 2550 pounds of baleen, for a combined worth of $11,200 – or roughly a quarter million dollars in today’s money – and this was just from one animal! (Cherrybalmz 2017). Whale teeth (or ivory) were also marketable to whalers, but these yielded smaller profits than whale oil. Teeth were regularly carved by whalers in a practice known as scrimshaw, and they often featured intricate designs and nautical themes. Such artefacts are now collectors’ items and museum pieces, providing historians with a glimpse into the whaling industry through the depictions rendered by those who drove it.

A New Zealand example of scrimshaw depicting the whaling ship ‘Pacific’ and compass points, which were formed by intersecting harpoons. The tooth is inscribed with “28th January 1860, Captain Sherburd”. The reverse is inscribed with a poem reading: “Sudden death to our best friends. Success to their killers long life to our Sailors’ wives and greasy luck to the whalers.” This ship was reported in the Otago Daily Times as sinking on the 13th of February 1864 at Patterson’s inlet on Stewart Island in a heavy westerly gale. Image.

Thankfully, since the decline of the whaling industry in the late 19th century and the development of new technologies, most of the applications of whale oil have been replaced with superior products – margarine is now made with vegetable oil and lamps began to be filled with cleaner, less smelly, and cheaper kerosene. It was a relief to many in the 1920s when fashion moved away from women wearing corsets, but those who still want to add a little ‘boning’ support to a frock, now use plastic instead of baleen. The vocal anti-whaling sentiment is strong among New Zealanders today, and since 1978, whales within New Zealand’s 200-nautical-mile (370 km) zone have been protected under the Marine Mammals Protection Act. A short time later, in 1986, the International Whaling Commission declared a moratorium on commercial whaling, which has all but eliminated the use of whale oil today. Cheers Greenpeace!

Chelsea Dickson



Cherrybalmz 2017. Gun lubricant history: Sperm whale oil. [online] available at: http://www.cherrybalmz.com/history-sperm-whale-oil

Goodwin, P. 2016. Ezra Kelley Watch Oil [online] Available at: http://educators.mysticseaport.org/artifacts/ezra_kelley_watch_oil/

Huntington, T. 2009. “Treasure Trove of Documents Discovered in Whaling Town,” American Heritage.

McNamara, R. 2017. Whaling industry produced oil, candles, and household tools: whales were the raw materials for many useful objects In the 1800s. [Online] Available at: https://www.thoughtco.com/products-produced-from-whales-1774070

Nye 2017. A History of Nye: The Beginning of Cilliam F. Nye Inc. [online] Available at: https://www.nyelubricants.com/stuff/contentmgr/files/0/582d6e5844567263cbd951ebdb44f573/en/nye_history_overview.pdf

Phillips, J. 2006. ‘Whaling – Ship-based whaling’, Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.teara.govt.nz/en/whaling/page-1 (Accessed 14 September 2017)

Zabawski. E. 2017. Purposeful porpoise oil. [online] available at: http://www.stle.org/files/TLTArchives/2017/01_January/From_the_Editor.aspx



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