Historical archaeology has many facets, it includes recording buildings and features, artefact analysis, names and dates, but if you take a moment, collaborate all that data, you have a powerful tool for telling someone’s story. Some call this type of analysis ‘interpretative archaeology’ or ‘storytelling’ and both of these are right in a way. In its most simplest form, it is an attempt tell the story of those ordinary moments lost in time. When an assemblage containing a large number of children’s toys came through our doors we believed we had a topic to blog about. If we could, through the analysis of both the archaeological remains and the historical documents, identify the children who had played with these toys, how interesting would that be, what stories could be told. I’ll be the first to admit it, this proved more difficult than I initially anticipated.
These artefacts were part of an assemblage from Moorhouse Avenue, where over 600 artefacts were recovered, many of them domestic in form. Preliminary historical research showed that there was a house on the section in 1877; however, the vague nature of land transaction records and land occupation records mean that we can’t definitively pin down who lived in this house. This was complicated further by a range of other factors: the owner of a section was not always its occupant in 19th and early 20th century Christchurch; the next map or plan that shows the area in question wasn’t published until 1915 (LINZ 1915); and, worst of all, the street numbers in central Christchurch changed completely in 1911 – the streets were numbered from a different end, and the odd and even numbers switched sides. One can only describe this as a researcher’s nightmare.
In spite of these complications, we know that the section was the site of domestic occupation until the mid 1910s (when ownership was taken over by the Tai Tapu Dairy Company), and we have at least two potential candidates: Jason and Maggie Isbester, who may have lived on the site from 1905-1908; and Frederick Hammond, who may have lived on the section from 1908 to at least 1913. But both proved elusive in the historical records, so we had no way to confirm our hypotheses.
So in absence of definitive historical records we turn to artefacts: what do the artefacts tell us, what story do they unravel to both the trained and untrained eye? A number of artefacts can be identified as ‘early’ due to their functional nature. The presence of candlesticks, gas lanterns and chamber pots suggest occupation of this house predated the advent of utilities such as sewerage and electricity. Moorhouse Avenue was connected to Christchurch’s sewerage system by 1882 (Wilson 1989) and electricity was available in the early 1900s. These artefacts represent Christchurch prior to the installation of modern services.
Whoever was living at the site in the late 19th and early 20th century appear to be reasonably affluent and may have been from the middle class. This assumption is based on the composition of the artefact assemblage, with a number of food serving dishes and the large number of children’s toys and other personal items. A number of serving platters or deep square dishes, champagne bottles, vinegar bottles and food vessels suggest the occupants liked to entertain at dinner parties, as was common for the middle and upper classes in the 19th and early 20th century. To find such a concentration of children’s toys in a single archaeological deposit is rare, as children are often surprisingly invisible in the archaeological record. Items of personal hygiene included everything from a toothbrush and accompanying toothpaste jar but also numerous perfume and cosmetic jars.
A variety of pharmaceuticals were found in the deposit, which suggests a reliance on selfmedication for ailments – this is a common feature in historic New Zealand sites and as common as finding a Panadol box in your rubbish. Some of those bottles found included Jeyes Fluid, which acted as a disinfectant and antiseptic, Wood’s Great Peppermint Cure for coughs and colds and one called Kruschen salts which, well, let’s say it dealt with the more unpleasant side of the digestive tract.
A number of paint supplies were also collected from the site, with one paint dish identified to Reeves and Son Ltd, a firm which started operation in 1891 (Grace’s Guide 2007). It is assumed that the paint brushes found in the site were used at the same time as the paint dish, due to their functional association.
So what does it all mean really? I did say we tend to use numbers, dates and names. But we also tell stories. Perhaps what we have is a story of a girl in the late 1890s who grew up in a somewhat affluent Christchurch home. As a daily chore she would exit the rear of her house and empty the chamber pots and as payment for her daily chores her father, the painter, rewarded her with toys (given New Zealand’s “servant problem”, there was probably no servant). As she sits with her figurine dolls and her tea set, her parents entertain with food served in large Willow patterned and Wild Rose vessels with candles glimmering in the night light. The cold air means the Wood’s Great Peppermint Cure will be on hand tomorrow. Actually, her mother’s bad cooking probably means Kruschen will be used as well. As the wine pours, the little 19th century girls heads to bed, she brushes her teeth and says her prayers, for tomorrow is another day of more chamber pots and the promise of new toys.
This is only one interpretation, and yes, it is a story but it’s that one moment lost in time given life for a brief moment. Perhaps I could encourage you to offer us your interpretation?
Evening Post. [online] Available at http://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/cgi-bin/paperspast
Grace’s Guide, 2007. Reeves and Sons. [online] Available at: http://www.gracesguide.co.uk/Reeves_and_Sons [Accessed on 14th June 2013].
LINZ, 1915. DP 4334, Canterbury. Landonline.
National Portrait Gallery, 2013. British Artists’ Suppliers, 1650-1950 -R. [online] Available at: http://www.npg.org.uk/research/programmes/directory-of-suppliers/r.php [Accessed on 14th June 2013].
Wilson, J., 1989. Christchurch Swamp to City: A short history of the Christchurch drainage board 1875-1989. Te Waihora Press: Lincoln, New Zealand.
Wise’s New Zealand Post Office Directories. [microfiche] Held at Christchurch City Libraries.