A small thing forgotten: tall tales from tiny things

In the 1970s, an American archaeologist by the name of James Deetz coined the phrase ‘in small things forgotten’ when he wrote a book that discussed how the smallest or most ordinary of objects could illustrate the histories of people and places in ways we might not expect. To this day, as discussed in our opening post a couple of weeks ago, this idea remains an important part of what we, as archaeologists, do when we record and investigate the small details of the site as well as the big ones.

Here in Christchurch, the artefacts we recover from archaeological sites often have connections to the international world as well as to local people and events. The tiniest object can be part of a much bigger story, which can take us out of our own city, across the world and into the lives of people with diverse backgrounds and places in history.

No doubt this will be a theme evident in many of the entries found on this blog, but this week it is especially obvious in the story of a clay tobacco pipe that we found during earthworks on the site of a former theatre in Christchurch. The pipe, although broken, is decorated on the bowl with the insignia of the Royal Iniskilling Fusiliers, an Irish infantry regiment with a history going back over 300 years.


The clay smoking pipe found on a site in Christchurch. Although broken at the stem, the pipe is complete enough to see the raised relief of a castle and crown above the image of a sphinx on both sides of the bowl. The name of the regiment is stamped across this design, while ‘EGYPT’ is stamped below the sphinx and ‘DERRY’ is stamped into the stem of the pipe.

Known colloquially as ‘Tiffins’ after an early colonel, Zachariah Tiffins, the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers formed in 1689 to stand against James II following the ‘Glorious Revolution’ in England the previous year. During the following centuries they were stationed all over the world, from the West Indies to Spain, and fought in numerous battles, including the Siege of Namur (1695), the Battle of Culloden (1745) and the Battle of Falkirk (1746), the Seven Years War (1756-1763), the Battle of Alexandria (1801) and the Battle of Waterloo (1815).

By all accounts, they had a fierce reputation and were awarded numerous battle honours during their long history of service – the sphinx image and reference to Egypt impressed on the bowl of our tobacco pipe represent honours awarded to the regiment for the battle against the French at Alexandria in 1801.

10th Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers on the march to Londonderry, May 1915

10th Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers on the march to Londonderry, May 1915. Photo: Gardiner S. Mitchell. 

The regiment went on to fight in both world wars, with their participation in WWI leading to the creation of nine ‘New Army’ battalions (in addition to the two existing battalions) recruited between 1914 and 1918 and later disbanded. Our pipe is associated with the 10th Battalion, who were formed from the Derry Volunteers in Omagh in September 1914  and consequently became known as ‘The Derrys’. They fought in the Middle East and the Battle of the Somme and were part of the Battle of Gallipoli in 1915, before being eventually disbanded on 21 January 1918, in France.

complete pipe

A complete example of a smoking pipe decorated with the symbols of the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers 10th Battalion. The design would have been carved or raised on the inside of the mould used to make the pipe – this kind of moulded decoration was common on clay pipes from the late 16th century onwards and often had designs relating to organisations, places or prominent people as well as to their original manufacturers.
Photo: Gardiner S. Mitchell.

We know, then, that our pipe must have been made after 1914 and buried before 1929, when the building under which it was found was built. This gives us a clear date for its origins and arrival in Christchurch, but still doesn’t explain how or why it ended up in Christchurch. The Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers were never stationed in New Zealand and we found no trace of a connection between them and our site.

Still, there are many possible explanations for its presence. Perhaps a veteran soldier from the regiment moved to New Zealand in the early 20th century and brought it with him; maybe the child or family of a soldier did the same; a New Zealand solider serving in WWI may have met someone from the 10th Battalion during their time overseas (at Gallipoli perhaps) and exchanged or been given the pipe; it could have changed hands multiple times throughout the world, until, eventually, it was dropped or lost or thrown out here in Christchurch. However it came to be here, the pipe reminds us that Christchurch was just as connected to the wider world in the past as it is today.

Jessie Garland


For more information on the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, see:

–  The Irish Brigade: the story of the 38th (Irish) Brigade in the 2nd World War

The Long Long Trail: The British Army in the Great War of 1914-1918

The Inniskillings Museum

Three Cheers for the Derrys!, a book by Gardiner S. Mitchell on the history of the 10th Battalion can be found here. Our thanks go to Gardiner for his assistance with research on the history of the pipe and the Battalion.