Finding out more, under the floor

Recently, Peter Mitchell, one of our building archaeology specialists, recorded a 19th century residential dwelling just on the edge of Christchurch’s Central City. This dwelling was similar in form and function to others we have seen in Canterbury – it was a square plan salt box cottage, made of weatherboard timber with a corrugated iron roof. During demolition, it became apparent there were at least four phases of construction in this building, with the first phase represented by a cottage with a two-room gable section at the front and a smaller single room gable kitchen/scullery at the rear (Mitchell 2017).

The salt box cottage, as it stood before prior to demolition. Image P. Mitchell.

Scale drawing of the south elevation of the salt box cottage with the hypothesised Phase 1 building marked by the dotted lines. Image: P. Mitchell.

After the house was recorded, it was demolished due to earthquake damage, and when 19th century houses are taken apart like this, we have a great opportunity to see what lies beneath them. Fortunately, for those of us who are into a bit of material culture, this often means artefacts!

With these types of ‘underfloor’ deposits, individual artefacts can often be spatially associated with the individual rooms under which they are found. This can be pretty interesting when the functions of the artefacts are related to the functions of these rooms – for instance, when one finds food remains and condiment bottles under the kitchen. We’ve posted about nice examples of this before on the blog, but things don’t always work out quite so conveniently. Original contexts aren’t always so clear when building alterations are made, when walls are moved and when room functions change. And, unfortunately, sometimes artefacts that are scattered on the ground surface also get accidentally moved around during demolition (by those pesky mechanical excavators, or by falling building materials). As a result, the artefacts can lose their original provenance information. Alas, this is what happened to the artefacts that were found under our salt box cottage. But all is not lost – we still recovered some cool artefacts from under this house which can add to our knowledge of Victorian domestic goods and tell us about the lives of the people who resided in this house back in the 19th century.

Artefacts found under the house following demolition.

As a general trend, underfloor contexts frequently provide a superior preservation situation to scatters of artefacts that are found under the ground. In many cases, the conditions underneath structures are relatively dry, and rubbish that is thrown, placed or lost under a building is largely safe from the taphonomic processes that affect artefacts in the ground. These processes vary depending on the context of those sub-surface deposits, but many of the factors – such as moisture, disturbance from foot or vehicle traffic, the chemical and biological composition of the soil – that weather and adversely affect artefacts underground are not so applicable to underfloor contexts. As a result, fragile artefacts like paper, textiles or leather, are often found underneath the floors of houses in relatively good condition (that is, if they haven’t been subject to flooding, mould and gnawing by cats and rodents). Artefact life is hard, no?

But despite these dangers, the cottage assemblage provided us with several interesting household vessels – by which I mean non-food related artefacts associated with the day to day activities of the cottage household. For example, we recovered the ‘chimney’ section of a glass oil or kerosene lamp (visible below). This vessel had a (very well preserved) Brendel and Loewig maker’s mark stamped in on the outside, which is exciting because this is a unique find in our Christchurch assemblages to date. The company initials were featured within a round starburst motif with the words “BALDUR BRENNER 20””added to the mark (Brenner translates to burner in German, and this section of the mark probably describes that size and lamp model). Further research on this company indicated that Brendel and Loewig were founded in 1861 in Berlin, by Otto Brendel and Carl Loewig, as a metal and paint shop. In addition to the bird cages (very niche?), washing bowls and kitchen utensils they made, they also made chandeliers, stall lanterns and oil lamps (which amounts to a very eclectic mix of specialties). They had several ownership changes but largely kept the company in the family until Otto’s son Erich became the sole owner from 1906 onwards. This company was so successful that it remains in operation under different ownership in Germany today (Designretter 2017).

Brendel and Loewig lamp.

An example of a similar German 20” “brenner” from Stoll, 1889 – a rival German lighting company. Image. This is what our lamp would have looked like when it was whole.

Not to be left out, we also recovered a bottle of Spooner’s Royal Navy Boot Dressing – this product was essentially boot polish, the remnants of which can still be seen in the bottom of the vessel if you look closely. Spooner’s were a Melbourne based company that made polish and dressings for leather products such as footwear and horse saddles etc. Similar bottles to this one have been found in several other New Zealand archaeological sites, in contexts dating between the 1890s until the 1910s.

Front and reverse of Spooner’s boot dressing bottle embossed with their maker’s mark. The tell-tale Spooner’s boot can be seen on the front of this vessel.

As you can see, Spooner and Co., had some interesting and inappropriate names for their boot polish colours… “Cobra” “Satin Blacking” and “Maori Gloss” are featured in this advertisement… Something tells us this wouldn’t be an item that would be stocked in today’s local supermarkets. Marlborough Express 20/2/1903: 3

This is also the site where we found the Ezra Kelley watch oil bottle from Massachusetts that we showed you a couple of weeks ago. At first glance, it seems like the previous owner of this product likely took some pride in their possessions – polishing their boots and lubricating their pocket watches.

Can’t get enough of that Ezra Kelley pocket watch oil.

So, who was this pocket watch sporting, shiny booted person who lived our salt box cottage? Unfortunately, historical records don’t provide us with a clear indication of a specific culprit – in fact, these artefacts were actually likely to have been deposited by more than one occupant of the cottage over an unknown period of time. One of the drawbacks of underfloor deposits is that they lack the closed, ‘discrete’ context of deposits like rubbish pits, the nature of which allows us to narrow down when assemblages were discarded and whether that deposition happened in one event (or, if there are layers in a pit, in several different events that can be dated). Instead, artefacts that are found underneath structures could have been discarded separately over an unknown period, anytime between the date of initial building construction and the date that they were found. This is often seen under historical buildings that have gaps between the wooden floorboards through which small artefacts could fall. Or alternatively, as in this case, it happens in structures that have gaps between the floor and foundations, where rubbish could have been deliberately thrown under the building or dragged under by animals. The reality is that not enough research has been carried out on underfloor assemblages to be sure how these types of assemblages are deposited and accumulated. But that doesn’t mean we are left completely in the dark – for the purposes of dating the assemblages that we find in these contexts, we can make calculated guesses, taking into account the manufacturing date ranges for the individual artefacts that we find. We can also further compare these dates with the construction phases of the associated buildings, suggesting when items are most likely to have been first deposited or subsequently moved around.

Our salt box cottage section has a long history of occupation starting from the early 1860s. Even before it was built, the site was home to an earlier residence and a retail store. The occupants of these buildings may have discarded their own rubbish or possessions on the land, and any such artefacts may still remain elsewhere on this site. However, due to the location that our artefact assemblage was found (directly underneath the floorboards of the cottage), it is likely that they would have been accidentally lost, or deliberately discarded by the occupants of this building, rather than the earlier ones. So when did this happen?

The cottage was built around 1875 by William Ellis Voller and it was inhabited by several individuals after him. Many of the artefacts have long ranging manufacturing dates which span the occupation period of multiple known residents of the cottage and this makes it is difficult to determine exactly who they might be associated with. Potential suspects included Voller himself, between at least 1875 and c. 1878, followed immediately by John Goodman. Goodman sold the property in 1890, at which time the house was in its second phase of construction, which we know because it was advertised in local newspapers as having four rooms (which was one more than the original three). Samuel Thomas Longley resided in the dwelling between 1890 and 1893, after which time he sold it to a widow, Mrs Eliza Ann Friedman. Friedman remained a resident until 1903, so it is likely to have been Eliza who deposited the Spooner’s boot polish. The same can’t be said for the rest of the assemblage though, which could have been associated with any of the previous occupants of the cottage.

An 1877 Map of Christchurch, showing a building present on William Voller’s section (outlined in red). Image: Strouts, 1877.

It’s in confusing times like these that it can be helpful to find a personal artefact that can be directly associated with different individuals, genders or ages – certainly, the presence of a child’s shoe and a possible wooden spinning top toy suggests that these artefacts would likely have been discarded by one of the occupants who had a young family – but no records of children at this property have been found to date.

Possessions of a nameless child.

Another mystery, another site, another day in the life of Underground Overground Archaeology. Until next time.

 Chelsea Dickson

References

Designretter 2017. Lighting Manufacturer from Germany: Brendel and Loewig [English Translation Online] Available at: https://translate.google.co.nz/translate?hl=en&sl=de&u=http://www.designretter.de/&prev=search.

 

 

2 thoughts on “Finding out more, under the floor

  1. Hello Chelsea,

    Yet another excellent informative article~of~discovery. Thankyou. 🙂
    In light of this article, may I enquire please, if any such project was carried out at old # 13 (Now # 441) Madras St; the home of W.H. Bowen and family. Some time ago an article was done on that property. My mum’s mum was Ida Ellen Cox BOWEN; one of W.H. (“Willie” or Bill?) & Ellen Bowen (“Nellie” nee COX). Ida Ellen Cox BOWEN married Robert James JAY; the company manager of the seven story building W.H. BOWEN built, for the predecessor of the NZ Couriers Co.
    GE still shows a streetview for 441, so it may stillbe* standing.

    *Stillbe, a sedentary extremely slow-moving animal, oft times considered stuffed, found in places of taxidermy. Usually with a shiny glazed look in their eyes.
    {A bit like me; when I need another coffee!! } 🙂

    • Hi Noel,

      Thanks for your comment, but we don’t have any further information about that property at this time.

      Cheers,
      Chelsea.

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