Keen to have a cuppa

This week on the blog, a bunch of teacups classified according to how cute I think they are. It won’t be as fun as talking to God on the porcelain telephone, but teacups also give us heaps of scope!

Thinking about it – depending on your taste, most of you will be either tea or coffee drinkers (or maybe both, if you’re really breaking boundaries), as is the case in our office.  On the other hand, all of us can relate to making a storm in a teacup or feeling that something it isn’t our cup of tea, regardless of whether we actually drink tea or not. So, this Friday afternoon, grab your cuppa, relax and get lost for a moment in the teacups of yesteryear…

With your and, of course, Jessie’s permission, I’ve borrowed her rating system because we are already familiar with that. Well, except that this time the ranking is back to front, so that our expectations can increase from the beginning to the end.

Cute rating: not at all. Bone china vessels are frequently found on Christchurch sites, and although they’re a bit of cut above the basic refined earthenware vessels, they’re usually relatively plain in decoration. These were fairly affordable, and perfect for your daily caffeine dose. Left: gilt banded teacup, featuring a thin line on the rim and body. Right: sprigged teacup. This technique is easily identifiable by the small blue applied moulded sprigs of floral and foliage motifs, frequently used in the mid-late 19th century (Brooks 2005: 43). Image: M. Lillo Bernabeu.

Cute rating: everyday, as these were very popular in the 19th century. Fair enough. Left: Rhine pattern. A typical romantic pattern displaying a castle and people in a boat sailing on the river surrounded by large trees. Right: Asiatic Pheasants teacup. This pattern is likely the most common floral pattern of the 19th century, but is usually found in a pale blue colour rather than black. Both decorative styles were relatively low-cost but a tidy option for drinking coffee or tea. Image: M. Lillo Bernabeu.

Cute rating: boring? Not at all. I kind of like it, to be honest. The garland on top features repetitive dots and a ribbon with geometric elements hanging. This set seems a bit solemn, but these would have been a perfectly functional vessel for a morning or afternoon tea. Image: C. Dickson.

Cute rating: understated, in a lovely shade of pink. I love this type of aesthetic design. This style often places emphasis on asymmetry in design, combining geometric shapes with fans, birds, bamboo and blossoms inspired by Japanese imagery (Samford 1997: 19). Aesthetic decoration is relatively common on Christchurch sites dating to the 1880-1890s period. Image: C. Dickson.

Cute rating: relatively elegant teacup and saucer set. This motif was identified as the Napier pattern through the mark, which also indicates that it was made by William Brownfield, a Staffordshire potter, who operated from 1850 to 1871 under this name (Godden 1991: 110). Image: J. Garland.

Cute rating: attractive because of its naïve semblance. As the name indicates, sponged decoration is formed by the application of a sponge (Brooks 2005: 42). Also, this teacup and saucer set have extra points from me as the repetitive spirals remind me a little of the koru, the Māori symbol of creation, which also symbolises how life both changes and stays the same. Getting thoughtful and meditative at this stage… Image: M. Lillo Bernabeu.

Cute rating: minimalist fancy (by me). I guess this one is quite difficult to fit into our cute ranking. But I needed to include it. A teacup with plenty of insects! It puzzles me a bit! Ladybugs and butterflies are lovely little creatures though…but I don’t have the same feeling with the ants, cockroaches, beetles or what’s that? I’m not too sure. Perhaps, this teacup might be the best choice when offering a hot drink to someone who doesn’t please us to much… On the other hand, it could also be the favourite cup of an entomologist! Image: J. Garland.

Cute rating: very. With exotic connotations, an excellent companion for a relaxing moment – let yourself be seduced by (admittedly English depictions of) the Ancient Orient and the Moorish culture, travelling to India, Persia or wherever you want. Unfortunately, I can’t figure out (so far) the name of this pattern, which displays a variety of elements: buildings with minarets, palm trees, columns and three men with beards and black robes, it looks like one of them is teaching, lecturing or just rambling on, while the others listen. These patterns are based on English impressions of ‘exotic’ locations, showing a romanticised imagery of those, don’t necessarily depicted as they were. Anyway, lovely! Image: J. Garland.

Cute rating: majestic, as grand and noble as the rearing equestrian statue suggests. This one is a slightly different shape from the others, making it even prettier -the teacup has a flared rim and a sophisticated handle, both of which grant it a superb style. This pattern name is Walmer, inspired by the Walmer Castle, a defensive structure built by Henry VIII in the 16th century to defend the Downs of southeast Kent against foreign invasion (Transferware Collector’s Club, 2005-2017). Image: J. Garland.

Cute rating: the best of the bunch (in my opinion). Jessie is holding a precious treasure in this photo. Who doesn’t want this delightful cup and saucer? No words to describe how lovely they are! Also, this set has everything that we, as archaeologists, could ask of an artefact – the vessels are nearly complete, decorated with the flow blue technique displaying a beautiful Asiatic inspired scene and there is a mark on the base with the name of the pattern and the manufacturer! The pattern is Amoy, which use to be the name of the port city of Xiamen in China. The scene shows two Chinese figures, one is seated, and the other is standing. There is a fringed parasol between them and they are flanked by trees and other plants…an idyllic spot for a cuppa (or a smoke, as we can see from the pipes in the hands of the two figures). The maker’s mark indicate that they were made in England by Davenport c. 1844 (Mason 1982: 15). Image: M. Lillo Bernabeu.

Unquestionably, the consumption of both tea and coffee became an important part of New Zealand culture from the 19th century onwards. The archaeological record confirms this popular habit through the range of teacups and saucers found on Christchurch sites, and around the country. Nowadays, smoko, morning and afternoon tea are all essential in our daily lives to give us the energy for the day or, paradoxically, as a moment of personal relaxation or an enjoyable social moment with mates and friends. Keen to have a cuppa? Always.

Maria Lillo Bernabeu


Brooks, A., 2005. An Archaeological Guide to British Ceramics in Australia 1788-1901. The Australasian Society for Historical Archaeology & La Trobe University, Australia.

Godden, G., 1991. Encyclopaedia of British Pottery and Porcelain Marks. Crown Publishers, New York.

Mason, V., 1982. Popular Patterns of Flow Blue China. Library of Congress, Wallace Homestead Book Company, Iowa.

Samford, Patricia M., 1997. Response to a market: Dating English underglaze transfer‐printed wares. Historical Archaeology 31 (2): 1‐30.

Transferware Collector’s Club, 2005-2017. Welmar [online] Available at: [Accessed 13 December 2016].

Coffee: nemesis of tea, friend to chicory, moral downfall of sheep and lifeblood of archaeologists

It must be said that, here at Underground Overground Archaeology, we have something of a coffee problem. With a (very) few exceptions we’re an office of hardened coffee drinkers, ranging from one-cup-a-day habits to the occasional and somewhat obscene four-or-five-cups-a-day problem. We frequent our local coffee shop (the fantastic Vivace on Tuam Street) so much that the staff sort of just laugh kindly at us when we come in and order more coffee (and muffins!) than one office should reasonably be expected to consume. On the rare and terrible mornings when someone discovers that the coffee is, in fact, all gone, the discovery is met with a chorus of despair and rapid scramble to “get coffee, get coffee, get coffee”, lest we release the ravening caffeine deprived beast lurking within us all.

Everyday is a job for coffee.

Everyday is a job for coffee in this office. Image: Imgarcade

It’s a problem. Not an uncommon one in modern society, though, is it? A caffeine addiction seems almost par for the course in today’s bustling workplaces and busy lives. Coffee drinking is everywhere and with it comes the rise of coffee cultures, from the social and economic ubiquity of Starbucks to the hordes of hipsters congregating in fair trade organic coffee houses.

It’s not, however, an exclusively modern phenomenon, as many might assume. We tend, I think, to imagine tea as the hot beverage of choice in Victorian society and it was, just not exclusively so. Coffee, and the ritual of coffee drinking, was also a well-established part of 19th century life. Coffee houses (or ‘palaces’) were not uncommon establishments in major cities: in Christchurch over the years the city saw the Victoria Coffee House and Reading Room in Lyttelton, the Avon Bank Coffee House, the Old Post Office Coffee House and Uncle Tom’s Coffee House on High Street, among others. There were even coffee carts! Interestingly, as an aside, most of these houses appear to have offered food and sometimes lodging as well, with a notable number also involved in the temperance movement of the late 19th century (Lyttelton Times 19/12/1860: 6, 14/12/1861: 1, 21/12/1861: 1).

Coffee jacket and advertisement for the Victoria Coffee House in Lyttelton. Image

Coffee jacket and advertisement for the Victoria Coffee House in Lyttelton. Image: New Zealand Herald 13/06/1903: 6 and Lyttelton Times 8/07/1857: 8.

Along with the coffee houses, numerous articles can be found in contemporary newspapers on the subject of coffee drinking in 19th century society. Some discuss the proper preparations for a cup of coffee, the best culinary accompaniments and how to distinguish the good coffee from the bad. Others mention the names of famous people who swore by the drink, from Voltaire to Frederick the Great, in addition to numerous accounts of the benefits and the dangers of coffee consumption. In fact, in some sources, discussions and accounts of coffee and those who drank it are all but indistinguishable from similar discussions in the modern media (including an article on guarana as a rival to coffee, for all you V & Red Bull drinkers out there).

A selection of historical articles on coffee. Images:

A selection of historical articles on coffee. Images: Auckland Star 28/06/1916: 8Bruce Herald 8/11/1889: 5, 1/08/1899: 2Star 1/04/1905: 3, Taranaki Herald 29/05/1891: 4

Coffee, the moral downfall of Abyssinian sheep. Image:

Coffee, the moral downfall of Abyssinian sheep. Image: Evening Post 23/06/1923: 23.

On the other hand, the article suggesting that the ingestion of coffee plants led to the moral downfall of previously sober and well-conducted Abyssian sheep is perhaps more obviously a product of its time (I could not make that up, I swear). The same goes for the article discussing coffee as a substitute afternoon drink for the “once common absinthe”, or the one comparing the “muddy and yellowish” skin of coffee drinkers to the “withered, dried up and old look” given to tea drinkers. Another description of coffee drinkers employed the terminology of ‘coffee drunkeness’ and ended with a statement many modern coffee dependents may identify with:  “the victims suffered so seriously they dared not abandon the drinking of coffee for fear of death” (Mataura Ensign 8/10/1896: 4).

Article on 'coffee drunkenness' from 1896. Image:

Article on ‘coffee drunkenness’ from 1896. Image: Mataura Ensign 8/10/1896: 4.

In all seriousness, though, it’s clear from historical sources that coffee drinking was a common habit in 19th century Christchurch, and one not so far removed from modern culture as we might think. It’s interesting, then, to see how it is represented in the archaeological record (and to think about how it might be represented today). As with so many other consumables, coffee is only visible indirectly through the various objects used to store, prepare and drink it in the past, and the places (specifically, coffee houses) at which it was consumed. We haven’t yet excavated the site of any coffee houses in the city, so in Christchurch, our evidence seems to come down to two types of objects: coffee cups, or ‘cans’ as they are known, and coffee and chicory bottles.

Coffee cans are mug-like ceramic drinking vessels, with straight sides and lower, flatter bases than teacups, made from porcelain or earthenware. They’re predominantly associated with coffee drinking from the late 18th century onwards (Brooks 2005): advertisements from the Victorian era make special reference to coffee cups as an item distinct from tea cups and saucers (Lyttelton Times 14/11/1857: 7, Observer 22/08/1885: 4). Here in Christchurch, we find them in a variety of sizes, although they have a tendency to be larger than tea wares. They’re often decorated with transfer prints, sponged decoration or gilt banding, although they’re less likely to be found as part of an identically patterned set than teacups (this may be in part because coffee cans don’t seem to have had accompanying saucers).

A ceramic coffee can found in Christchurch. Image: J. Garland.

A ceramic coffee can found in Christchurch. Image: J. Garland.

When viewed from a broad perspective, coffee cans indicate a very clear delineation between the rituals of tea drinking and the ritual of coffee drinking. They suggest (through the quantities found on sites) that, however popular it was, coffee drinking remained less common than tea drinking in the 19th century. They may, eventually, be able to provide us with some indication of the types of people drinking coffee: whether they were predominantly male or female, if age or national origin was a factor or if class and social status played a part. As individual objects, however, coffee cans don’t actually tell us a whole lot, other than indicating the probable presence of a coffee drinker in a household. They certainly don’t tell us much about the ways in coffee was prepared or drunk (i.e. at breakfast, in social gatherings), or the types of coffee consumed by people in 19th century Christchurch.

In fact, there’s little in the way of archaeological information on the types of coffee available to the 19th century consumer, although there’s a surfeit of brands and types listed and advertised in the historical record. Historical examples include beans and grounds, sold by brands like Crease’s A1 Coffee, Webster’s Coffee, Dragon Coffee or Brown, Barrett & Co’s Excelsior Coffee. By contrast, the only archaeological evidence for the coffee itself comes from the coffee and chicory bottles occasionally found in Christchurch (and elsewhere).

Symington's coffee & chicory bottle found in Christchurch. Image: J. Garland.

Symington’ & Co’s coffee & chicory bottle found in Christchurch. Image: J. Garland.

Coffee and chicory was an essence, sold as thick syrup and used as a form of instant coffee during the 19th and early 20th centuries (Christchurch City Libraries 2014). The chicory, a plant root, was used to augment the bitter ‘coffee’ taste of the syrup, and the concoction appears to have been relatively popular in its time. Chicory was not always easy to come by in New Zealand: most of it was actually grown here in Canterbury and supplied to the rest of the country (Thames Star 25/01/1893: 4). Interestingly, most of the coffee and chicory bottles we find on Christchurch sites were produced by Symington & Co, an Edinburgh based company, rather than local chicory farmers such as Mr. W. Roberts, who owned the Canterbury Chicory Works in Lincoln, or Edwin Trent, based in Templeton (of Trent Brothers fame). As it turns out, people in other parts of the country turned to other ingredients when they couldn’t get their hands on chicory, local or international: unfortunately, in one case, the substitute used turned out to be turnip (Thames Star 25/01/1893: 4). Coffee and turnip? Mmm, no thanks.

Workers on Mr W. Roberts' chicory farm, Spreydon, 1905. Image: Christchurch City Libraries

Workers on Mr W. Roberts’ chicory farm, Spreydon, 1905. Image: Christchurch City Libraries, File Reference: PhotoCD 10, IMG0037 

All things considered, it seems that despite the use of such unconventional flavour supplements (and the apparent Victorian concern with the moral welfare of sheep), it’s not difficult to find parallels between the culture of coffee drinking in 19th century Christchurch and that of the present day. In fact, there’s far more of them than I was expecting when I first started looking into this. Coffee houses are a common and integral part of our everyday lives here and now and we regularly see headlines and articles debating the health benefits of coffee, the best techniques for its preparation and the characteristics of a good flat white or cappuccino. We still have specific cups from which to sip our delicious caffeinated beverages and, while chicory is no longer a common addition, some of us still take great delight in adding various flavoured syrups to our coffee. And, no doubt, much of the information available on the subject in the modern media will be as entertaining to future archaeologists and historians as the Victorian newspapers have been for me.

Jessie Garland


Ashburton Guardian. [online] Available at

Auckland Star. [online] Available at

Brooks, A., 2005. An Archaeological Guide to British Ceramics in Australia: 1788-1901.  The Australasian Society for Historical Archaeology, Sydney.

Bruce Herald. [online] Available at

Christchurch City Libraries, 2014. Chicory: an early Christchurch industry. [online] Available at

Evening Post. [online] Available at

Lyttelton Times. [online] Available at

Mataura Ensign. [online] Available at

New Zealand Herald. [online] Available at

Observer. [online] Available at

Star. [online] Available at