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.

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

Odds and ends

A selection of the most interesting bits and pieces we’ve been working with recently here in Christchurch.

This gorgeous ceramic vessel is an 1850s-1860s chamber pot, found on a site just outside the central city. It’s decorated with the imaginatively named “Cattle Scenery” pattern, featuring, …well, cows. Image: M. L. Bernabeu.

What’s known as a ‘bent’ clay smoking pipe (referring to the curve, or ‘bend’ of the stem, with the mark ‘SQUATTER’S / OWN’ impressed on the side. The other side of stem has the mark ‘SYDNEY’. Squatter’s own pipes are a little bit of a mystery – identical pipes to this one have been found on other sites here in Christchurch and in Auckland, while variations (Squatter’s Own Budgeree) have been found in several locations in Australia. The budgeree pipes are often decorated with scenes featuring Aboriginal and European figures, while the ones found in New Zealand (so far) appear to be plain. Image: M. L. Bernabeu.

Another beautiful ceramic vessel. This time, it’s a saucer decorated with the pattern ‘Dresden Vignette’ and made by William Smith and Co. between 1825 and 1855. Image: M. L. Bernabeu.

Marbles! So many marbles! Several of the sites we’ve been working on lately have had different marbles in the assemblages. We’ve got German glass swirl marbles (top row and third from the left in the second row), ‘commie’ marbles (far right of third and fourth rows), onionskin marbles (far right of second row), Bennington, or glazed ceramic marbles (second from left in third row), pipe clay marbles (second from left in fourth row), and porcelain marbles with fine banded decoration (far left in third row). Phew. Did you get all of that? Some of them have been heavily used (might have been a child’s favourite marble, who knows!), while others are in pretty good condition. I think my favourite is probably the onionskin: it’s got a great name, and the colours are fantastic. Image: J. Garland, C. Dickson, M. L. Bernabeu.

A serving dish or tureen lid decorated with the Wild Rose pattern, a decorative motif that depicts the gardens at Nuneham Courtenay (near Oxford, England) and was extremely popular in the 1830s-1850s period. Image: M. L. Bernabeu.

This is easily the coolest thing we’ve found in a while. These stemware drinking glasses were coloured using uranium diuranate, which creates the distinctive yellow colour seen in the image to the right. But (wait for it), when you put them under a blacklight, they glow green with the light of a thousand superhero origin stories. Or alien colour schemes. Take your pick. Image: J. Garland.

It’s Friday afternoon, how about a wee tipple of gin? This fragment is from a labelled bottle of Nolet’s finest Dutch geneva. Nolet’s was established in Holland in the late 17th century by Johannes Nolet and is still in operation today. It’s the first label of its kind that we’ve found in Christchurch. Image: C. Dickson.

The ‘Grecian’ pattern, with the potter’s initials J. T. There are several different pattern variations known as ‘Grecian’ or that incorporate Greek and/or neo-classical themes into their motifs. Image: C. Dickson.

Another elaborately decorated saucer, this time displaying the Neva pattern. Confusingly for us, this is not the only 19th century ceramic pattern found under the name of ‘Neva’. This example was made by Thomas Bevington (1877 until 1891). Image: J. Garland.

How’s your reading comprehension? Up to 1870s standards? We found these pages from ‘The Royal Readers’, first published in the early 1870s, inside the walls of a schoolhouse in Governors Bay. Image: J. Garland.

The expressions on the faces of Victorian dolls never fail to amuse me. Image: C. Dickson.

Also found in the walls of the Governors Bay school house, this excerpt from ‘The School Journal.’ If you look closely you can see the typewritten words “Governors Bay, Lyttelton” in the bottom right of the fragment. Image: J. Garland.

And last, but not least, this wonderfully labelled wine bottle was identified as Champagne Vineyard Cognac, ‘Boutelleau Manager’. It appears to have been a well regarded product, if that extract from 1877 is to be believed. The bottle was found on the same Lyttelton site as the gin bottle shown above – someone had good taste! Image: C. Dickson.

Jessie Garland

Just kidding around

Presenting a selection of children’s ceramic plates and cups excavated in Christchurch for your perusal, with commentary.


It’s a bit blurry, this one (nothing but the best for the children!). If you can’t quite make it out, one image shows a woman sitting down and a child dancing or hopping or just waving its arms about and the other features a group of adults and children standing around outdoors in front of a tree. One of them may be a nun, or a ghost (you can see the fence through her – it’s – robes, a bit) or even a ghost nun, although the more I look at it the more I think that might just be the blurriness. Disappointing, in a way. A ghost nun would make things interesting. Image: J. Garland.

French farm

Lots of children’s ceramics featured the alphabet, functioning as a way to teach children their letters while still feeding them, I guess. These letters are often found on the rim (or marly) of plates or in a cluster on the side of cups. This ABC plate has been spiced up by the addition of a centurion (or a similarly be-plumed and be-shielded chap), with a spiffing blue painted robe. I have no idea what’s happening in the rest of the image, but I like to imagine that it features said chap with sword being defeated by a child with the power of pen and ink (old adages and all). Image: J. Garland.


In which girls with umbrellas and boys with hoops get told off by adults. I think that’s what’s happening here (I may be reading too much into this). The look on the boy’s face as he stares down the man with the parcel is part defiance and part abject misery and his body language is very much “I do not want to be part of this conversation.” Hoop and stick, the game that he’s playing in the image, was a popular and common Victorian children’s pastime, the object of which was to keep the hoop rolling for as long as you could. Image: J. Garland.


Yes, that does indeed appear to be a child being spanked by another child, with one arm in a sling, while adults look on. I don’t really have any explanation for this one. Image: J. Adamson.

T is for Tunnel

“T is for Tunnel, that’s under the bridge. Here the whistle is heard with a very long sound.” It turns out that this image was sourced from a mid-19th century book called “Cousin Chatterbox’s Railway Alphabet” (G. Law, pers. comm.), which explains the subject matter somewhat. Image: J. Garland.


The depiction of children making themselves useful through work or trades is a relatively common feature of these ceramics. Instilling a good work ethic while they’re young and all that (hurrah, capitalism!). While I haven’t been able to trace this one any further, I have come across similar images – of children selling birds (yes, birds) and going to market. There’s even a series featuring ‘the little doctor’, ‘the little blacksmith’ and ‘the little cooper’ (Riley 1991). Note the overglaze paint colouring the image as well. Image: J. Garland.


Another two ABC plates, this time featuring ‘THE VILLAGE BLACKSMITH’ print and ‘THE NEW PONY.’ Work AND play this time. The colouring of these two suggests that they might have been bought or sold together, perhaps as part of a children’s ceramic set. I am curious about why they only colour each figure’s trousers. And why they coloured them yellow. Yellow trousers seem so incongruous with what we think of the Victorians. Image: J. Garland.


In which a suspicious looking character hides a letter in a tree for his lady love. I have several thoughts about this. First of all, that seems like a bad choice of hiding place. Unless you know she’s going to come and find it straight away (in which case, just wait for her and don’t be so suspicious), it’s not ideal. It’ll probably get damp, a squirrel or some other nefarious animal may abscond with it and, even if it is still there, there’s no guarantee that she’ll find it when she comes looking. Second of all, she’s right behind you. Image: G. Jackson.


Dr Franklin’s Maxims does indeed refer to the one and only Benjamin Franklin, whose bits and bobs of wisdom were published in Poor Richard’s Almanac in the mid-18th century. They were then later adopted for use on children’s ceramics in the 19th century. This particular one, if complete, would read “Fly pleasure and it will follow you. The diligent spinner has a large shift. Now I have a sheep and a cow everybody bids me good morrow.” Wise words, Dr Franklin, wise words. Image: Underground Overground Archaeology.


Ah, the old dressing up like foxes (is that a fox? It may be a cat) and lions and playing with riding crops. Note that the lion is wearing slippers and socks under his costume (which is better than the fashion crime of sandals and socks I thought I was looking at to start with). You young rogues! Come along! Image: Underground Overground Archaeology.

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Enough now, enough. Image: J. Garland.

Jessie Garland


Riley, Noel., 1991. Gifts for Good Children: The History of Children’s China, Part 1, 1790-1890. Richard Dennis, Somerset.

All dolled up

To many people they’re simply a nostalgic throwback to childhood. To some, they’re treasures to be collected and curated. To others, they’re objects of horror, a sentiment encouraged by tv, films and a particular island in Mexico. To archaeologists, they’re the remnants of long lost childhoods, a personal and sometimes poignant reminder of the children that came before us. They make visible an aspect of life in the past that is so often hidden, in both the archaeological and historical records.

They’re also cute and creepy by turns. The following are some of our favourites from Christchurch. Enjoy!

This one seems disappointed.

The porcelain head of an infant in a bonnet, with painted cheeks and hair and a disappointed expression. Which is disconcerting on a baby. That face says to me “did you really just do that?” (left), “I can’t believe you just did that” (right). Image: J. Garland.


This one, on the other hand, is disapproving. A lot of Victorian dolls seem to me to be either disappointed or disapproving. Which either says something about the Victorians or something about me. Let’s not go there. The rouged cheeks on this particular head are a common feature (see some of the examples below), although these ones are more than usually pronounced. Image: Underground Overground Archaeology.

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A small boy, raising his face to the heavens and pleading… for his lost innocence? The whereabouts of his lower body? For someone to please, please take the bib off?  This one is probably one of the creepiest doll artefacts we’ve found (picture it emerging from the earth, seriously), but it’s an unusual example of a clearly male doll. Most of the dolls we find are either recognisably female or figurines of babies too young to differentiate between. Also, his upper lip makes him look a little bit like he has a moustache. Image: J. Garland.


I get ‘unimpressed’ from this one. She was found on the site of a 19th century hotel (the Zetland Arms) on Lichfield Street, meaning that she may have originally belonged to a child visiting the hotel or the child of one of the hotel keepers. This particular doll is also likely to have been manufactured in Germany, as many dolls were during the latter half of the 19th century. Image: J. Garland.

This particularly shapely calf comes with a lovely little ankle boot.

This particularly shapely dismembered calf comes with a lovely little ankle boot, painted on over the glaze. Limbs like this one were often attached to a fabric body, tied using the groove you can see just below the top of the leg. Image: Underground Overground Archaeology.

I love this one. She looks like a soothsayer.

I love this one. She looks like a soothsayer. A smirking soothsayer. She definitely knows something that you don’t. And her hair is amazing. Image: Underground Overground Archaeology.

I find this one unsettling. One of my colleagues thinks it's adorable. You be the judge. If you look closely you can see that the baby is holding a rattle

I find this one unsettling. One of my colleagues thinks it’s adorable. You be the judge. If you look closely you can see that the baby is holding a rattle in one hand and there’s the edge of a quilt or blanket visible in the bottom right corner. The whole thing forms the lid to a small porcelain container of some sort, perhaps one that contained something associated with children or infants. Image: J. Garland.

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The always wonderful, yet completely awful Frozen Charlotte or ‘pudding doll’, named after the ballad about a girl who went out in the cold without a coat and froze to death… Image: J. Garland.


One thing that I find really interesting to note with dolls is the various different hairstyles they showcase. Much as we do today, the Victorians reflected changing fashions and social ideals in the toys and figurines they made for their children. Image: J. Garland.

More often than you might think, we just get a torso. Or an arm. A foot. A disconcerting remnant of somebody's once beloved toy. Sometimes, when struck by a combination of melancholy and melodrama, I find myself thinking 'archaeology: it's all just lost and broken things' and that sentiment never seems more apt than when you're looking at a bunch of broken dolls. Image: J. Garland.

More often than you might think, we just get a torso. Or an arm. A foot. A disconcerting remnant of somebody’s once beloved toy. Sometimes, when struck by a combination of melancholy and melodrama, I find myself thinking ‘archaeology: it’s all just lost and broken things’ and that sentiment never seems more apt than when you’re looking at a bunch of broken dolls. Image: J. Garland.

Then again, sometimes you get the head of a figurine wearing a fantastic

Then again, sometimes you come across the porcelain head of a a man in a very fine hat, and it’s a different story altogether. Image: J. Garland.

Jessie Garland