The heady nature of pseudo-science

One of the most interesting things about being an archaeologist or a historian is seeing the development of ideas and knowledge throughout the ages. We are reminded, time and time again, that the ideas and theories that we consider primitive or even ridiculous in hindsight were the cutting edge of scientific enquiry or social theory at the time. It follows that at least some of the things we consider to be cutting edge here and now will be primitive or ridiculous to our children and grandchildren in the decades to come.

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Comparative physiognomy. One of the more, uh, interesting theories humans have come up with. Image: J. Redfield 1852, Public Domain Review.

At the same time, it is easy to see the foundations of our current knowledge base and thinking in those same primitive or ridiculous ideas. Every theory or discovery that was later proven to be wrong or misapplied was still, in fact, part of a conversation – a social, philosophical and scientific discourse – that came to inform our understanding of the world in the present day. They either provided the building blocks for the development of an idea (the four humours of the body to miasma theory to germ theory, for example); a point of contention which forced the development of a more accurate theory; or used approaches and ideas that later proved to be useful, even if they were misapplied at the time. From geocentrism, the four elements of all matter (earth, fire, wind, water…heart! Oh wait…) and Copernican astronomy to the miraculous cough curing properties of heroin, our history is littered with theories and ideas that were wrong, but without which our current knowledge base would not be what it is.

One such subject – and the thing that got me thinking about this in the first place – is the now much maligned science of phrenology, a subject brought to our attention a while back by the discovery of a crumpled up poster inside the walls of a 19th century house in Christchurch. The poster depicted the head of a man in profile, with the skull divided into a quilt of small images, numbered and labelled with various character traits, including sublimity (“conception of the grand, awful and endless”), mirthfulness (“wit”), causality (“desire to know the why and wherefore of things”) and alimentiveness (“appetite”). Above this arresting image, a headline read “Phrenological Head of Charles Peace, The Burglar.”

The Phrenological Head of Charles Peace. Image: J. Garland.

The Phrenological Head of Charles Peace, The Burglar, 1879. Image: J. Garland.

As it turns out, Charles Peace was quite the well-known figure in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a sort of combination of Sherlock Holmes’ master of disguise and Catwoman (this is not at all an accurate description, but it amuses me). His fame – or infamy – was on par with what we now attribute to Jack the Ripper or Bonnie and Clyde and his story has all the elements of a great melodrama (which, indeed, it became later on). A cat burglar with a limp who “could scale a wall like a fly”, the “man with many faces”, a master of disguise who “could change his face in a moment”, the “prince of housebreakers”, betrayed by his mistress after a daring near-escape from the police, having evaded the police as a wanted man for years. It’s a blockbuster in the making. Probably starring Peter Sellers (or the current equivalent – Steve Carrell?).

Peace was a Sheffield-born criminal executed in 1879 for two murders and a long, long list of burglaries committed during his adult life. Having plied his thieving trade in Sheffield and its environs during the 1860s and 1870s, he shot the husband of a couple that he had befriended and fled to Peckham, London. There, he continued to rob the houses of the wealthy, while living under a pseudonym (and under the very noses of Scotland Yard). He was arrested in 1878 after an altercation with police during a robbery, and eventually hanged (Auckland Star 14/05/1932: 3).

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Image: Cromwell Argus 20/05/1918: 7.

Contemporary and later newspapers described him as the “cleverest burglar that ever lived”, a figure so famous that “even Dick Turpin could not hold a candle to him” (Alexandra Herald and Central Otago Gazette 4/12/1929:1). He became the subject of waxworks, of crime fiction, a stage play (which outraged society by depicting his hanging on stage, carried out by an actual retired executioner) and increasingly outrageous and dramatised depictions and characterisations in popular culture. One 1930s newspaper, for example, said of him “Peace is shown as he was, a dwarf of phenomenal strength, a colossal braggart, repulsive in mind and body and a perfect burglar.” Another went even further and called him “almost a monkey of a man…an unrestrained savage.” More interestingly, from the perspective of our phrenological head, is an article that equates his prominent ears and “head of enormous size”, with his criminal proclivities.

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“Peace’s greatest asset…was an immense lower jaw which he could manipulate at will.” Image: Dunstan Times 14/03/1927: 7.

And this is the thing. It is no wonder that, notorious as he was, Charles Peace became the subject of phrenological investigation. The science of phrenology, particularly in its heyday, was often associated with criminals and criminal behaviours, used in an attempt to make sense of why certain people did such unreasonable things – and perhaps, to impose an order on a world that didn’t always seem to make a whole lot of sense.

The ‘science’ was first ‘discovered’ in the late 18th century, by Franz Joseph Gall, a German neuroanatomist and physiologist. It was based on the premise that the various personality traits of a person corresponded to different parts of their brains, the size and shape of which could be ‘read’ in the bumps and indents of their skull. While ultimately discredited, Gall’s theories influenced the development of neurological science as we know it today, particularly when it comes to different parts of the brain being used for different functions (not a neuroscientist – am hoping I’ve paraphrased this correctly!).

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A description of the science of phrenology, as told in a lecture in 1865. Image: North Otago Times 20/07/1865: 3.

(On a side note, I had great plans to apply the phrenological model to our office full of archaeologists in an attempt to determine the most criminal amongst us. However, as it turns out, practicing the science of phrenology involves feeling for the bumps and cavities of a person’s skull with your palms and fingertips, which seemed like it would cross a boundary from which there is no going back. We’re all friends here, but there’s a line, right?)

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The various phrenological organs and how to find them. A full how-to of phrenology is available here, if you feel like trying it out on yourself/someone whose scalp you’re comfortable exploring. Image: Wikimedia Commons. 

Phrenology was most popular during the mid-19th century, but continued to be given credence by a small fringe of society through into the early 20th century. During the height of its popularity in various parts of the world, it was applied to criminal proceedings – both to understand the criminal defendant and to be assured of the character of the jurors, recommended to ladies as a subject of study that would ensure happiness in marriage and suggested as a way to “determine what should be restrained, what cultivated and the pursuit of in life best adapted” in children. One account even has it used to determine which of a lady’s suitors she ought to marry. It was also, in its most infamous applications, used to reinforce racial stereotypes, equating negative cultural and behavioural traits with physical – and racial – appearance. Essentially reducing human people, cultures and personalities to bumps on a skull.

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This one cracks me up. Image: Vaught’s Practical Character Reader (1902).

In New Zealand, phrenology makes an appearance here and there throughout the 19th century, with varying degrees of sincerity and skepticism. French naturalist and phrenologist, Pierre-Marie Dumoutier, for example, took four casts of Māori heads during his travels with Durmont d’Urville around the country in 1840, adding them to a collection of phrenological busts of indigenous peoples that he later displayed in Paris (photographic portraits of two of those busts, of rangatira Takatahara and Piuraki, are currently on display in the Christchurch Art Gallery). Several phrenological professors and consultants were active throughout the country, including in Christchurch, throughout the latter half of the century (sometimes these consultants also offered palmistry readings and séances, for what it’s worth). Demonstrations using “a large collection of the sculls of murderers, bushrangers, Maoris and notorious and eminent characters” were incredibly popular. And phrenological assessments of criminals and famous figures continued to turn up in popular culture well into the early 20th century.

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An 1891 phrenological chart of Sir George Grey, Governor of New Zealand. Image: Auckland Libraries.

At the same time, in the 1840s and 1850s, jokes about the empty skulls of those who believed in phrenology and long arguments over the merits of the ‘science’ were being published in New Zealand newspapers. The lectures of a vocal and eminent phrenologist, Mr A. S. Hamilton, were treated and reviewed with a healthy degree of skepticism (and an appreciation for the appeal of spectacle) in the 1860s. In the 1870s, demonstrations of phrenology also included lectures on mesmerism, palmistry and electrical psychology. By the 1890s and early 1900s – both in New Zealand and throughout the rest of the world – it seems to have been more of a novelty than a science.

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Image: New Zealand Colonist and Port Nicholson Advertiser 31/03/1843: 3.

There’s this great argument printed in the letters to the editor of the Colonist in the 1850s about the merits of phrenology as a science that really brings home the weird juxtaposition of ideas that it encapsulated in the subject. Because the arguments made in favour of it ring just as true to a modern scientific mind as those made against.

For example: “Phrenology depends neither on speculation nor on theory…it is essentially the science of observation, like chemistry and botany. It was discovered by observing facts, was perfected by comparison and induction, and every man with sufficient capacity may with his own eyes, test and verify its truth.” – Colonist 9/02/1858: 3.

It’s just that as far as the application of phrenology went, those arguments simply weren’t true. Rather than being a ‘science of observation, like chemistry and botany’, it was actually a system of flawed assumptions and correlations, used to perpetuate a very narrow perspective of character and personality that failed to account for the effects of experience, cultural background, social upbringing and any of the other myriad factors that make a person who they are. Whoops, got a bit ranty there.

Enough said. Image:

Enough said. Image: Colonist 29/01/1858: 3.

The truth is, as an anthropologist and an archaeologist, phrenology both intrigues and terrifies me. Intrigues, because it is ultimately about understanding people, about trying to understand why and how people work. Because the analytical approach that it incorporates also forms the foundation of much of what I do as an artefact analyst, what so many analysts and scientists do (even little social scientists like us). But terrifies, because it is also so narrow, so rigid, so structural that it fails to employ the holistic approach necessary to truly understand a person – or, in our case, a culture or society. It sees correlation as cause, takes something – character – that is the result of a myriad of factors and experiences and distills it down to a series of boxes to check.

But it is, ultimately, part of that progression of ideas and knowledge that I talked about at the beginning of the post (remember that, doesn’t that seem like ages ago?). Call it a pathway, a tree, a foundation, whichever analogy or metaphor suits – however much of a misstep it was (and it really, really was), phrenology had its part to play in this ongoing human struggle to – and, ironically, I believe the definition of phrenological causality sums it up best – “understand the why and wherefore of things.”

Jessie Garland

References and Acknowledgements

Jeremy Habberfield-Short, for excavating and sharing his excellent discoveries.

Talking treasure

Words. Words, words, words. Words[1].

We’ve been talking about words this week. Specifically, the words and phrases associated with archaeology (and heritage) in the public sphere that we – as a profession – can find problematic. Even more specifically, the use of the word ‘treasure’ to describe the things we find, especially when we’re talking about them in a non-archaeological context (like an exhibition).

Much of this conversation arose following the opening of the pop-up archaeology exhibition we’ve been involved with curating (created by the fantastic Heritage Rescue team, currently at The Commons in Christchurch, Saturdays and Sundays 11 am-4 pm, go and see it!). The exhibition is called ‘Buried Treasures’, which is both an excellent and evocative name for a display and a term that, from a purely archaeological perspective, has some troubling associations.

Our exhibition, thanks to the excellent people behind the Heritage Rescue TV show. Also, some excellent clouds. Everybody go and see it!

Our exhibition, thanks to the excellent people behind the Heritage Rescue TV show. Also, some excellent clouds. Everybody go and see it! Image: J. Garland.

Treasure immediately brings to mind several other words and meanings, many of which are not only inaccurate from our perspective, but potentially damaging to the archaeological record. In an attempt to make sense of what is, frankly, a somewhat circular and confusing topic we have once again turned to our friends in the Hundred Acre Wood. Because everything makes more sense when it’s being said by talking animals. And Christopher Robin.

So let us go then, you and I, to where the evening is spread out against the sky (thanks T. S. Eliot) and our friends Owl, Tigger and Christopher Robin are once again embroiled in archaeological discussion. I’ll leave you in their capable hands….

It was a situation not dissimilar to this. Image:

Let’s just say that Christopher Robin’s behind the camera and Owl is lurking on a branch…

“Right,” says Owl, with purpose and no small amount of pomposity. “Treasure. I have thoughts. I have many thoughts.”

Tigger bounces in anticipation. Christopher Robin waits patiently.

“The heffalump[2] in the room is the immediate association with treasure hunting, which leads on to things like fossicking and site destruction. The thrill of adventure and discovery and all that. I think the biggest problem with a term like treasure, though, is the different perspectives on value that underpin the use of the word. We can all agree that treasure is something valuable, it’s just that definitions of valuable diverge.”

“Hmm,” says Tigger. “Even though that’s a perfectly cromulent–“

“Cromulent!” Owl hoots, rudely interrupting. “Good word.”

“–use of the word,” continues Tigger. “I think the heffalump[3] in the room is more that treasure brings to mind images of shining coins spilling out of chests and gold jewellery and the like.”

“Ah, yes,” says Owl. “Pirates and dragons and hoards of gold.”

The results of a Google image search for 'treasure.' Image: Google.

To be fair to Tigger, this is what you get from a Google image search for ‘treasure (for the record, the overall first result is a Bruno Mars song – I was not expecting that). Image: Google.

“Exactly,” says Tigger. “It makes me think of that film, National Treasure, where the treasure isn’t really the Declaration of Independence – a really significant historical document – but an actual roomful of gold and junk that they spent the whole movie looking for. In that movie, it’s the gold and statuary that’s most important and the priceless one-of-a kind dusty old piece of paper that’s just the means to an end.”

“That’s a terrible movie,” says Owl, darkly.

“But widely seen!” exclaims Tigger, standing strong against avian judgement. “So the message, whether or not it was intentional, was far reaching.”

Own continues to frown and exude cinematic outrage. It’s a skill.

“If you search for archaeological treasure on Google,” continues Tigger, blithely ignoring Owl, “the results are all sunken Spanish galleons, shipwrecks full of Blackbeard’s ill-gotten gains and Mycenean gold burial goods. It’s ALL gold and hoards and jewellery.”

“All things that fit a modern, capitalist definition of ‘valuable’ in the monetary sense,” says Christopher Robin, thoughtfully.

Again, this is what google thinks when you search for archaeology treasure. Image:

Again, this is what Google thinks when you search for “archaeology treasure”. Image: my computer screen. And Google.

“I wonder if we do that – that immediate, unconscious valuation of artefacts by economic means – because that’s the easiest and most obvious way for people to wrap their heads around the significance of something in today’s society,” says Tigger.

“I hope not,” says Owl. “That’s a depressing thought.”

“There’s a lack of understanding of the cultural value of heritage on its own,” continues Tigger, “so people turn to something they’re familiar with, which is monetary value. I’m biased, of course, but I do think that this is a problem. You don’t see it with natural heritage, though. People don’t look at a baby kiwi or the view from a mountain in a national park and wonder how much money it’s worth.”

“Not to be cynical,” says Owl, “but they kind of do. Especially with views. Real estate prices on the coast, anyone?”

Both Tigger and Christopher Robin make a face at that.

Just because. Image:

Just because. Image: Jesse Rhodes, Smithsonian Magazine.

“We do place value on archaeological objects,” muses Christopher Robin. “It’s just not necessarily value that has anything to do with money or gold.”

“Yes,” says Owl, emphatically. “From my perspective, the ‘treasure’ to be found through archaeology isn’t physical things, it’s the information they offer and the window into our heritage that they provide. Knowledge is treasure! That said, although ALL artefacts have value as sources of information – collectively and individually – there are some that we value more as physical objects than others, because they’re rare enough or cool enough that they help us share the excitement of what we do with everyone else. I still don’t put a price on them, though. It’s a use value rather than a currency value.”

“Does treasure have to have a monetary value?” asks Christopher Robin, slightly plaintively. “If we’re talking about children’s impressions of treasure, for example, is it always associated with monetary worth?”

“I think it does, for the most part,” replies Tigger. “Blame the dragons and pirates and treasure hoards.”

“There’s another popular meaning of the word, though,” says Owl, ponderously. “In the sense of something treasured, something with sentimental value.”

“That’s still a problematic meaning, from an archaeological perspective,” says Christopher Robin. “We – at least here in Christchurch – don’t really find things that were treasured like that. People look after their valuable possessions – both those of monetary and sentimental value.”

“Unless they’re lost or broken,” says Owl, with just a hint of melancholy. “Sometimes I think that should be our professional motto. ‘Archaeology: it’s all just lost and broken things.’ Sounds about right.”

Christopher Robin and Tigger pause, as they consider how to respond to that.

“Moving on,” says Christopher Robin, quickly. “What about the things of your own that you value? Would you call them treasures? I don’t think I would, simply because I relate the term to pirates and treasure hunting.”

“I wouldn’t either,” says Tigger. “Sentimental, sure, but not treasured.”

“There are things that I’d rescue in the event of a fire, or things that I might consider family heirlooms,” Christopher Robin continues, “but I’d never refer to them as treasures. Precious items, maybe.”

“Hmm,” says Owl. “I would never use precious, because I equate it with gemstones and Gollum. It’s just a different frame of reference.”

“This is the problem, isn’t it?” says Tigger. “It’s word association. We have to use terminology carefully – especially in science communication – where we want the word we’re using to match the meaning that people will think of when they hear it.”

“And with something like treasure, there’s a dissonance between the two,” agrees Owl.

Tigger continues, “I think, if you’re using a word in a different sense to the way most people will think of it, it’s probably not an effective word to use. Like, in some places in America, they use ‘space archaeology’ to refer to the study of spatial relationships between things – what sensible people call ‘spatial archaeology’ or ‘landscape archaeology. Space archaeology immediately conjures up images of moon landings and floating fields of historical debris around the planet and just sets people up for disappointment when they discover what it actually is.”

“Aha!” says Owl. “But if a word manages to excite and interest people in the topic at hand, even if it’s somewhat inaccurate, isn’t it still effective? Is it more important to make archaeology accessible and of interest to everybody than it is to use technically accurate terminology? Where do you draw the line?”

Christopher Robin nods. “I do wonder if we’re being precious about the term, or if we should just embrace it. Perhaps, through our use of the term, we’re also helping to show other people that these ordinary things are also a kind of treasure (and therefore worthy of protection and study).”

“And sharing our own valuation of those treasures,” adds Owl. “Because they are important and valuable, even if neither pirates nor dragons would think so.”

“So we take back the term?” asks Tigger. “Use it with clear emphasis on heritage values, on information potential, on treasures in the cultural sense?”

“I think so,” says Owl. “It does make the exhibition sound exciting[4].”

“The odd blog post explaining our thoughts on the topic can’t hurt either,” says Christopher Robin, pointedly.

“True,” says Owl. “I’ll get right on that.”

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Owl, Christopher Robin and Tigger

[1] The more you write and/or say words, the weirder it is.

[2] “A heffalump! Did you hear that, Pooh! A heffalump!” Piglet can be heard saying excitedly in the distance.

[3] “There is it again, Piglet! It must be nearby. A heffalump, Piglet, a heffalump! Let’s go!”

[4] And it IS exciting. You should all go and see it.

Acknowledgements

A. A. Milne, of course.

Archaeological challenges in the Hundred Acre Wood

Hello everyone! Belated happy new year and welcome back.

We’ve decided to begin the year by talking about problems (just to start on a positive note). Well, sort of. We’re participating in an international round-up of blog posts this month on the subject of grand challenges in archaeology (you can see the whole thing here). Obviously, we’re approaching this from the perspective of Christchurch (and, to a degree, New Zealand) and the challenges we face here – both in the sense of difficulties encountered and challenges to be met.

To this end, three of us – with different areas of interest and experience in archaeology – got together and had a bit of a discussion about the challenges that stand out to us the most, the salient points of which are presented here. However, partly because it amuses me and partly because I want to see if any of you can guess who said what, I have replaced our real names with the names of Winnie-the-Pooh characters for the purposes of this post.

Imagine, if you will then, that Christopher Robin, Tigger and Owl, playing at being archaeologists for a day, are sitting around a fire in a clearing of the Hundred Acre Wood. Their conversation turns, as it always does when archaeologists congregate, to their (current) profession, and some of the challenges they’ve encountered while uncovering the mysteries of the past. For the purposes of this tortured metaphor, The Hundred Acre Wood is not always a place in England but sometimes a city in New Zealand (just go with it, okay?).

(In reality, we sat at our computers and carried out an online conversation over a couple of days when we should have been doing other work. The truth is always so much less fun than fiction.)

It was a situation not dissimilar to this. Image:

See, doesn’t this look much better than people hunched over computer screens?

This conversation ranges from the specific and often practical difficulties they have faced in their daily work to some of the broader questions facing archaeology as a profession and field of research. Two major themes start to emerge: one revolves around the engagement of archaeology with the world today, the other encompasses the research potential of archaeological work, especially when it comes to answering big, broad questions.

The challenges of research – from the practical difficulties of realising it, to the scale at which it can be approached and the questions to be asked and answered – is perhaps the most obvious to the three participants, given the scale of work and amount of archaeological data being gathered in the city after the earthquakes. The last five years have resulted in over 2000 new recorded archaeological sites in Christchurch, approximately 1000 (or more) boxes of artefacts and the systematic excavation of the first 50 years of a whole city (not to mention several earlier Maori archaeological sites as well). It can be a little overwhelming.

“Indeed,” says Owl, hootingly. “Just from a practical perspective, there are the challenges presented by the time and money required to undertake research, by issues like databases and data management and accessibility and so on. A lot of which is made more challenging by the fact that all of the archaeological work in the city is done by archaeological consultants, who have neither the time nor funds to actually do the research.”

“Yeah,” says Tigger, bouncing up and down (please feel free to imagine this said in a Tigger voice, it’s kind of hilarious). “It’s the perennial problem of realising the research potential of archaeological consultancy, where most of the work happens but not much of the research. Unlike universities and research institutes, where most of the research happens, but less of the work. I mean, less of the initial data collection and excavation. I would never suggest that academics do less work.”  

In which Tigger bounces and

In which Tigger bounces and muses on the challenges of research in archaeological consultancy at the same time.

“Maybe,” says Christopher Robin (who has been uncharacteristically silent until now), “we’re excavating too many sites. There does seem to be too much data and not enough people to work with it. But it’s also important that we don’t lose the information offered by those sites.”

Owl nods. Wisely. Because owls are wise. “It’s not just the amount of information we have from sites being excavated and investigated right now. It’s also all of the accumulated information we have from old sites, which is constantly being re-analysed and integrated into new databases and new methods and new research questions.”

Christopher Robin gently suggests that Owl try not to be such an Eeyore, and think instead about the potential of this information. “The fact that so much data has been accumulated makes possible some really interesting challenges as far as research questions go. We can look at bigger, broader questions of life in the past that we couldn’t before. Ideas like the birth of the modern city, the development of regional architectural styles, the development of identity at different scales and at different groups.”

“Capitalism! Consumerism! Colonialism!” hoots Owl, in a momentary loss of dignity.

Tigger, in the typically positive manner of tiggers everywhere, reminds the other two that this potential is one of the most exciting things about working in Christchurch. The other two agree, nodding solemnly in the firelight. Christchurch has immense potential when it comes to broad research questions in archaeology, uniquely placed as it is to explore the past through the lives of individuals and communities and the global processes that changed the world. We’re excavating on a site by site basis, but accumulating a city wide dataset that fits within a much wider context. The scale of the archaeology (in every sense of the word) has so much to offer.

Owl, the ruffled feathers and dignity from the previous outburst settling back into place, adds “There are some challenges inherent in that as well, though. There’s a need for comparative data from other places and time periods in the world, especially if we want to address these questions on a global scale over time. Accessibility and data compatibility – and comparability – is a real challenge, as other archaeologists have already talked about elsewhere.”

“It doesn’t mean that incompatible or incomparable datasets can’t contribute to a bigger global conversation, though,” says Christopher Robin, reasonably.

“True” Owl continues, on a roll. “It’s not just the practicalities of it, though. It’s not always easy to reconcile different scales of research potential. When you’re looking at big picture questions, it can be hard to hold on to the nuances and details of individuals and things and easy to over generalise or simplify complicated situations and concepts. But, at the same time, these are the questions we need to be asking, the ideas and changes that are most relevant to the world we live in today – and some of the most exciting to pursue.”

Owl holds court on

Owl holds court on research potential in Christchurch.

It is at this point that a second big theme begins to emerge from the conversation: the challenge of engaging archaeology with the world today. Again, it is one that is particularly obvious to those of us working in Christchurch, where the value and relevance of heritage in the present day is a complex and often controversial topic. So much of the city’s visible heritage has been lost and the significance and future of those elements that have survived (the cathedral is a case in point) is very publicly and contentiously negotiated. The challenge goes beyond this, however, beyond the very obvious examples of symbolic heritage buildings to the ways in which archaeology (and heritage in general) is engaging with the world and lives of people today.

“Exactly,” says Owl, slightly long winded-ly. “There’s so much potential, especially with the situation here, to make use of all this information we have about the history of the city in the context of the world around us now. Like the parallels and contrasts you can see between the social, political, and urban processes that are occurring in Christchurch now, after the earthquakes, and those that occurred during the first decades of European settlement in the 19th century. Our past is relevant to our present (and our future) and we need to be better at communicating this.”

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They may not look like much, but sites and features like these can answer all kinds of questions on all kinds of scales. A small midden (left), when combined with other information, might shed light on how humans have impacted the environment in the past (through progressively smaller shellfish sizes over time, for example) or where and how people were getting their food. Historic rubbish pits and artefacts (right) might, when placed in a larger dataset or context, tell us about individual and collective consumption choices (and what those choices tell us about people and societies) or manufacturing and trade processes in the Victorian world. The potential of individual objects, sites and assemblages to contribute to a wider understanding of the past is something we’ve covered often here on the blog (because it’s something that’s important and needs to be talked about). Images: T. Wadsworth (left), J. Garland (right).

Christopher Robin adds, thoughtfully (everything Christopher Robin does is thoughtful), “There’s definitely a lot to be said for the value that relevance adds to archaeology, as well, especially from the perspective of non-archaeologists. That’s one of the biggest challenges for me, you know – the public perception of archaeology and the apparent lack of value that people place on heritage in Christchurch (and New Zealand), outside of a few select examples.”

“That’s something that archaeology faces all over the world, I think,” says Tigger.

“Yes,” says Christopher Robin. “It’s that issue of archaeology, and heritage in general, being seen as something that halts or holds up development and is therefore a nuisance, rather than something useful to society.”

Owl hoots in agreement. Or something.

ChristopherRobin

In which Christopher Robin ponders the challenge of archaeology and public opinion.

“For New Zealand in general, though” Christopher Robin continues, “it does seem like we place a lot of value on our natural heritage, which is such a huge part of our national identity, but not as much on our cultural heritage. Maybe, as a profession, one of the challenges to be met here is how we present what we do to the general public. Maybe we should be focusing more on what the public wants out of archaeology, rather than what we think they should know about.”

“Maybe,” says Owl. “It’s true that I am often surprised by the kinds of stories and discoveries that people – archaeologists and non-archaeologists, alike – think are interesting and cool. It turns out that the things that owls find interesting are not always interesting to other people.”

“Who knew,” says Christopher Robin, only a little sarcastically.

“It’s not just what we’re communicating,” says Tigger, still bouncing. “It’s how we’re communicating it. We need to be better at making archaeology accessible to non-archaeologists. Tiggers watch a lot of YouTube videos, you know, and a lot of the archaeology channels are dry. They should be active, experimental or – if we’re talking about that natural heritage focus – taking place in relation to the landscape. Time Team was a good example of that.”

“I miss Time Team,” says Owl, mournfully.

“And if we’re talking about individual artefacts or sites or even archaeologists,” adds Tigger, “they need to be personalised in some way.That’s it! We need to personalise the past, make it engaging and accessible.”

“What, like writing an entire blog post as fictional characters from our childhoods?” asks Christopher Robin.

“Sure,” says Owl. “That sounds like a good idea. Could be fun.”

Fun,” agrees Tigger. “Fun, fun, fun, fun fun.”

It is here that we shall leave our three intrepid archaeologists, although their conversation continues long into the night, as the flames of their campfire flicker through the trees of the Hundred Acre Wood. There are other challenges to be solved, other adventures to be had and discoveries to be made, but these are tales for another day.

(Or, the online conversation occurring in reality deteriorates into a series of typos and comments on coffee and shoes and the subject is tabled for another day.)

Owl, Christopher Robin and Tigger.

Acknowledgements:

The fantastic, fabulous work of A. A. Milne, of course.

Pieces of the Past

This week on the blog we’re sending you over to Pieces of the Past, an online exhibition we’ve curated as part of Beca Heritage Week here in Christchurch. The exhibition features the staff of Underground Overground Archaeology and their favourite artefacts. There’s a wealth of different objects and stories there (and a suspicious number of caffeine related biographies for our archaeologists), from a sheep hoof on a stick to pocket watches, spinning tops and poems about cowboys.

In fact, we may have been so excited about it that we modified (or butchered, depends on your point of view) a famous song in our excitement.

Glass eyes on skulls and sheep hooves on sticks,
Old broken watches and bright orange bricks,
Upright pianos, still with their strings,
These are a few of our favourite things.

Lost spinning tops and pointy bone hooks,
Cheese jars and Marmite and Rantin’s old books,
Cowboys and boats and small figurines,
These are a few of our favourite things.

When the trowel scrapes,
When the glass breaks,
When we’re feeling bored,
We simply remember our favourite things,
And then we don’t feel so bad.

Check it out here. 

In which a fortune is made, an Oddfellow is not a type of mint, and archaeology happens

Earlier this year, we excavated a site on Armagh Street that revealed not only a large quantity of artefacts, but also a historical and material narrative set in the swampy bowels of a fledgling city, a tale of politics, commerce, secret societies, nefarious happenings and BETRAYAL (cue ominous music). Well, maybe not those last two.  And maybe not quite as melodramatic as all that.

This story, told in turns by the objects and features we found on site and the records of those who owned them, included everyone from Oddfellows and Freemasons (even the United Ancient Order of Druids) to radicals (free radicals, even!) and liberals and some of the prominent voices of early Christchurch. Among the many figures whose history formed a part of the tale of this site, one who stood out was a Mr Edward Hiorns, tinsmith, hotelier, victualler, and protagonist of this particular post.

Excavating an archaeological feature filled with artefacts at a site on Armagh Street. Image: K. Bone.

Excavating an archaeological feature filled with artefacts at our site on Armagh Street. Image: K. Bone.

Mr Hiorns first arrived in Christchurch in 1862 on board the Victoria. A plumber, tinsmith and metal-worker, he operated a business from premises on Armagh Street East during 1860s and 1870s. By 1872, however, he had branched out into hotel-keeping, becoming the proprietor of the Central Hotel (later the Masonic), located on the corner of Colombo and Gloucester streets. He seems to have had something of a colourful time as a hotel proprietor, appearing in the courts several times as plaintiff and defendant in cases ranging from stolen watches to bail forfeit, forgery and the inappropriate sale of alcohol.

Edward Hiorns, the man himsef. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Edward Hiorns, the man himsef. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Like so many of Christchurch’s early residents Hiorns was a man of many hats, not just in terms of how he made a living, but also in regard to his involvement in the community. Among other things, he was a prominent member of the Licensed Victuallers Association (yes, this was a thing) from the 1870s onwards, as well as involving himself in local politics, both successfully and unsuccessfully. In 1875, he ran for the city council but only managed to finagle 21 votes, a meagre offering when compared to the winning candidate’s 634. Not one to be easily put off, though, he ran again successfully in the 80s and 90s. Hiorns was also a member of the Canterbury Freehold Land Association in the 1860s, a liberal organisation that aimed to assist working men with the purchase of land (an important part of socio-political independence and status at the time).

A description of the Canterbury Freehold Land Association from 1866, when they were first formed. Image:

A description of the Canterbury Freehold Land Association from 1866, when they were first formed. Image: Press 27/01/1866: 1.

On top of all this,  he was also active in the Oddfellows society, attaining the rank of Provincial Grand Master, an occurrence which seems to have been something of a prerequisite for the residents of Armagh Street in the 19th century (no, seriously, they’re ALL Oddfellows and I have the flowchart to prove it). If they weren’t Oddfellows, they were Freemasons, and if they weren’t Freemasons there’s every possibility that they were Druids. To modern ears, these societies (and their unbelievably amazing names, thank you “The Mistletoe Lodge of Druids”) sound incredibly anachronistic, but they were one of the major vehicles by which people (when I say people, I mean men, sadly) interacted with and supported each other. In the case of the Oddfellows, that support was largely aimed at the working classes. Ostensibly apolitical, they also likely fostered the growth of political ideas and movements enacted outside of the organisations, helped by the membership of men like W. S. Moorhouse, W. Rolleston, Rowland Davis, William Pember Reeves and many others.

The initial date of Hiorns’ arrival at our site on Armagh Street is a bit unclear, thanks to the existence of the similarly named Mr W. Hyorns, who leased the section in 1867 and may be the same person, a completely different person or a 19th century typo made flesh. Nevertheless, we know that he was active on Armagh Street in the 1870s and had leased the section on which our site was located by at least 1878 (for the period of 14 years, at the grand total of £20 a year; LINZ 1878: 337). Interestingly, one of the clauses of his lease was that he had to make £1000 pounds of improvements to the section at his own expense over the following two years, suggesting that he had a reasonable yearly income at the time (this is a LOT of money for the time). As it turns out, he later went on to buy and reside in Linwood House, the super fancy Georgian/Regency style house first built for Joseph Brittan. Pretty good for a tinsmith turned hotelier.

Linwood House in 2003, Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Linwood House in 2003, Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Archaeological site plan of the Armagh Street section on which Edward Hiorns resided in the 1870s. Image: K. Webb.

Plan of archaeological features on site. Image: K. Webb.

From historic photographs and maps, we know that between 1878 and 1884, significant modifications were made to the site. Two smaller buildings that are present on an 1877 map have, by 1884, been replaced with a large two storey brick townhouse (visible in the image below). It seems likely that this building tied into Hiorns’s £1000 pounds of modification to the section.  Unfortunately, we found no structural evidence of either this building or the earlier one during our excavations. What we did find, however, were several other archaeological features, including a large depression to the rear to the building that was completely and utterly filled with artefacts (unfortunately for us, this was the asbestos site was we’ve talked about previously on the blog, in the case of which more definitely wasn’t merrier). A smaller, rectangular pit feature was also found at the front of the section, containing a large quantity of tin and iron and a handful of artefacts, in addition to another small rubbish pit filled with domestic artefacts.

Ceramic artefacts from one of the rubbish pits on the section. Image: J. Garland.

Ceramic artefacts from one of the rubbish pits on the section. Image: J. Garland.

While it is difficult to associate the features found on the site with any one resident during the 19th century, it is almost certain that some of them were deposited by Hiorns and his family, including some of the 1037 artefacts found in the large depression to the rear of the building. That particular feature looks to have been used for the disposal of rubbish over an unknown period of time, based on the presence of small concentrations of objects within the feature as a whole, the size of the assemblage, and the wide range of manufacturing dates found among the artefacts. Many of the artefact dates, however, fit in well with the period in which Hiorns was resident on the section. On top of this, the assemblage contained a large number of alcohol bottles and several artefacts which are considered to be “higher status” items, or objects more often associated with people of reasonable wealth. It would make sense for the man who a) ran a hotel and wine bar and was in court more than once on alcohol related charges and b) later purchased the prestigious Linwood House, to have owned items like these.

Selected glass bottles from the site, including Rowland's Macassar Oil, a Piesse and Lubin perfume bottle and part of an infant feeding bottle. Image: J. Garland.

Selected glass bottles from the site, including Rowland’s Macassar Oil (mid-right), a Piesse and Lubin perfume bottle (top right) and part of an infant feeding bottle (top left). Image: J. Garland.

The assemblage also contained large quantities of ceramic tea and table wares, as well as household and hygienic items like chamber pots, wash basins and ointment pots, a quantity of shoes and fabric, food containers, pharmaceutical bottles and children’s artefacts. One of the most interesting finds, however, was a cluster of clay tobacco pipes that included pipes with political motifs as decoration. These pipes – bearing the name and bust of William Gladstone, liberal English politician, and the name of Garibaldi, famously nationalist and progressive Italian general – can easily be tied into Hiorns’ political engagement (which I sort of alluded to above, but haven’t had time to go into detail about) and the politically charged narrative of this entire Armagh Street site (which I definitely haven’t had time to go into). They’re an example of material culture that is actively entangled with the more intangible ideas and ideals of the people and society by which they are made and used (a topic for another day, I think).

Clay smoking pipes found in Feature 3 (the depression to the rear of the house). Image: J. Garland.

Clay smoking pipes found in Feature 3 (the depression to the rear of the house). The Gladstone pipe is the one in the top row, while the Garibaldi pipe is second from the right in the second row from the top. Image: J. Garland.

I may have started this post with a melodramatic paragraph that reads more as pulp fiction than historical narrative, but in truth, the story of Edward Hiorns (and all of the residents of this block of Armagh Street) is not all that sensational. What it is, however, is a tale we come across all the time in Christchurch. There are many interesting themes to be found in the archaeological and historical records of his life, but two of the most interesting from my perspective are the way he “improved” his situation in life, so to speak, and the way he involved himself so readily in the governance and development of the city in which he had settled. It’s a combination that we see again and again in the lives of Christchurch residents from the 19th century.

People talk a lot about the fluidity of class and social affluence in the 19th century, especially in colonial settlements like New Zealand, and the significance of the capitalist ‘entrepreneurial spirit’ in the prospering of Victorian society. These are both more than evident in the case of Mr Edward Hiorns (and Mr Jamieson, and Mr Ruddenklau and Reverend Fisher). What is just as evident, however, is the active engagement made by people like Hiorns with the present and future of the community in which they lived – be it at the local, national or global level. I could, with the aid of Mr Hiorns and others, very easily take you all down the rabbit hole with me here into the fascinating world of political and social change in 19th century Christchurch (the labour movement! radicalism! women’s suffrage!) and the lives of the people who fought to change the world around them, but that is too much for any one blog post, let alone this one. Nevertheless, it bears remembering that theirs were the hands that shaped a city and, though the city, helped to shape a nation.

Jessie Garland.

References

LINZ, c. 1850. Deeds Index – A – Christchurch town sections and town reserves. Archives New Zealand, Christchurch Office.

McAloon, J., 2000. The Christchurch elite. In Cookson, J. and Dunstall, G., eds). Southern Capital Christchurch: Towards a City Biography, 1850-2000., pp. 193-221. Canterbury University Press, Christchurch.

Wright, G. R. 1998. The Petty Bourgeoisie in Colonial Canterbury; A Study of the Canterbury Working Mans’ Political Protection and Mutual Improvement Association (1865-66) and the Canterbury Freehold Land Association. MA Thesis, University of Canterbury.

Papers Past. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz.