Seize the means of production! The archaeology of tools and labour.

For a lot of us, Labour Day is celebrated in the same way as a lot of public holidays: not thinking about work, catching up the gardening and odd jobs around the house, going away for a long weekend, having a barbie, that sort of thing. But unlike say, New Year’s Day, or Boxing Day, or The Day After New Year’s Day, or Queen’s Birthday (Down with the Monarchy!), Labour Day is a public holiday with actual historical and national significance beyond an excuse for a day off. Labour Day is among our oldest holidays and was first celebrated on 28 October 1890, a year after the establishment of the Maritime Council, a collection of transport and mining unions (Atkinson, 2018).

Union members march in the first Labour Day, Dunedin, 1890. Generally, I try and avoid a large group of people wearing white, but these guys seem alright. Derby, 2016.

The day was not yet a public holiday enshrined in law, but instead a day of collective action.  In Christchurch, newspapers report that “the crowds of merry-making children were scarcely happier than parents and elder relations” (Star, 29/10/1890: 2). The Star described it as “the greatest popular demonstration seen in Christchurch since the day when the people of Canterbury assembled in thousands to demand the West Coast Railway” (Star, 29/10/1890: 4). There was a procession of unions, too many to list, but including carpenters, joiners, plasterers, tailors, butchers, labourers, bookbinders, shipwrights, shop assistants, bricklayers, carriers, bakers, boilermakers, engineers, plumbers, gasfitters, and bootmakers. The annual parades and recognition of Labour Day were political in nature, with workers and unionists lobbying for the enforcement of a universal eight-hour working day (among other advances), a right that workers in some industries already enjoyed, while others did not. Though the eight-hour working day never made it into the legislation, Labour Day was made a public holiday by act of parliament in 1899 (Atkinson, 2018).

Eventually ‘Mondayised’ to make everyone’s lives easier.  (Evening Post, 2/11/1899:2).

As Christchurch archaeologists, most of the material culture we find is domestic, and related to consumption- both the commercial consumption kind, and the ‘nom nom nom’ kind. When excavating a domestic Pākehā site in Christchurch, we’re most often faced with a bevy of teacups, plates, platters, bottles and other refuse in a rubbish pit; all products, all artefacts of consumption. In contrast, the reverse is true of Māori archaeological sites, where the majority of artefacts we find are by-products from the manufacture of tools. In the case of Pākehā sites, it can seem a stretch to reconnect these products to their production, and to the hands, machine, and labour that created them. Today’s blog attempts, in honour of good old Labour Day, to reconnect artefacts to labour and production (the first step in the life-history of an artefact), by looking at some of the common tools we find in Pākehā archaeological sites in Christchurch. I won’t be talking about the processes of artefact manufacture per se (but if you’re interested in that, check our earlier blogs here and here).

I’m of the opinion that no shed is complete without a spade, a shovel, a family of spiders that refuse to give you their name or say a polite hello in the mornings, a rake, and a jar of snake specimens in formaldehyde that you stole from your last job (don’t worry, they won’t read this). Digging tools are crucial for construction, agriculture, and household chores, and would’ve been the tool of choice for digging the rubbish pits that are our bread and butter here at Underground Overground Archaeology. Canterbury’s first industry was agriculture, and many of the suburbs surrounding the central city have been converted from market gardens, orchards, and farms (Wilson, 2005). Even as the residential area spread, many people kept animals and gardens, and it’s no surprise that some of the most common tools or implements we find are representative of the agricultural labour that formed early Christchurch’s backbone, the construction associated with the city’s gradual expansion, and the conversion of the surrounding farms. Just as the last eight years have seen a construction boom in Christchurch, construction was a burgeoning industry in the early decades of settlement thanks to steady growth, as the Pākehā population grew from stuff-all to over 50,000 over the course of six decades (Thorns and Schrader, 2010).

Truly ground-breaking tools. Spade and shovel blades from the Justice Precinct, F38. Ca. 1860s-1870s. Williams, et al., 2017.

A very toothless rake from a site in Johns Road, Harewood. Bradley et al. 2016.

Stop.

Hammer time. Also, a sweet pair of pliers. Both from a site on Oxford Terrace,, F45. Ca. late 1860s-early 1870s. Garland et al. 2014.

Of course, not all labour is hammers and shovels. In the first decades of Christchurch settlement, ‘industry’ largely involved small-scale manufacture of products like beer, soap, shoes, and dairy-products (Burnard, 2000; Pickles, 2000). Many of the commercial and/or industrial sites we encounter in Christchurch reflect this small scale, often being small businesses and the homes of their operators. To contrast with picks and spades, we also find the archaeological remains of planning, drafting, and other sketchy workplace behaviours (you’ll see what I did there when you get to the photos). We also often find artefacts commonly  associated with the manufacture of clothing, like scissors, bobbins, pins, sewing machine fragments, and off-cuts of cloth and leather. Sometimes these are from sites of professional tailors and dressmakers, but often they are from households of other occupations, and represent the often-unrecorded, unpaid, and underappreciated labour of the domestic sphere, largely done by women. These are a helpful reminder that even though the majority of artefacts we find are associated with consumption of the ‘nom nom nom’ type, they also represent the uncredited labour of those who prepared food and drink throughout the past.

Left:  A hinge from a folding ruler, Tuam Street. Right: a set of “Studley” (I’ll say) callipers from the Justice Precinct.  Ca. 1860s-1870s. Williams, et al., 2017.

A drawing compass, and a protractor, complete with measurements incised on the surface, St Asaph St, c. 1860s-1870s. Dooley et al. 2016.

A feature of leather off-cuts from shoe manufacture. Ca. 1860s-1870s.  Williams et al. 2017.

Half of a pair of scissors (a scissor?), from a site on Kilmore Street. Williams and Watson, 2019.

Tailoresses at work, clothing factory, Christchurch. Ref: 1/1-008930-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/22763367.

Of course, Christchurch was founded during the western industrial revolution, with artisanal and  small-scale manufacture gradually giving way to larger factories, like that shown above, and increasing mechanisation of what had previously been handmade (Pickles, 2005). We’ve excavated sites of smithies, workshop and foundries in central Christchurch, places where tools and machinery were forged, perhaps including some of those shown above.  Initially, most of the city’s tools were imported from the UK, but the development of local foundries soon filled the gap, and between the late 1800s and early 1900s, Christchurch was New Zealand’s major manufacturing centre (Williams, 2005: 131). Foundry workers forged the agricultural implements and machinery that farmers used to produce the food that fed the labour force and drove a major portion of the economy. The foundries and workshops also produced and assembled the carriages and locomotives that formed the backbone of New Zealand’s early transport network, making vital connections to distant towns. On foundry sites, we not only find rubbish pits chocka with scrap metal, off-cuts and extras from the manufacturing process, but we’ve also been lucky enough to find the remains of furnaces, factory floors, and other structural features that help to bring these workplaces to life, and to illustrate the lives of the workers that produced the tools and machinery that ran the colony.

Foundry workers at the firm of P. & D. Duncan, Christchurch, possibly their Tuam Street premises. Webb, Stefano, 1880-1967: Collection of negatives. Image: Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. Ref. 1/1-019285-G. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/23193943.

Two of a row of five brick features surrounded by ash and charcoal-stained soil,  likely representing furnaces, at the site of the P. and D. Duncan foundry. These may be the same furnaces shown in the photo above. Dooley et al. 2018.

A rubbish pit filled with scrap metal, from a central city foundry site.

Remains of farming machinery from a central Christchurch foundry site.

One of the challenges in archaeology is trying to connect the artefact to the person that made or used it. It’s a little easier in historical archaeology, where we can use documents to roughly equate the dates of features to the occupants of a property at that time, but it’s an imprecise process. Rarely do we get an artefact that we can directly infer, rather than suggest, a connection with a particular individual. Well, if you didn’t think the previous sentences were a lead-up to a picture of an artefact with a specific person’s name on it, YOU ARE SORELY MISTAKEN AND BAD AT READING FORESHADOWING.

Boom. Check this out. A broken file with an embossed handle reading “J. GILL” and a second illegible word reading “B(or R)OW..S..”. Williams and Watson, 2019.

A carpenter’s tool associated with a particular named carpenter! There is a 1909 reference to J. Gill from Christchurch who was a carpenter and joiner, but there is no known association between Gill and the site where this was found (Star, 05/08/1909: 3). The file was part of an underfloor deposit at St Luke’s Vicarage on Kilmore Street, and it is possible that Gill lost or discarded the file between the floorboards while at work at the vicarage. We may not know much about Gill, but this file is a tangible remnant of the man and his work. When we talk about putting all our ability and effort to a task, we talk about putting all our “blood, sweat, and tears” into it. Though these things leave no (or little) trace behind to tell of the labour and effort we expend over our lifetimes, many of the physical remains of this labour remain, as do the tools we use to produce them. The archaeological record preserves these remains, and can give us an insight in to the labour that went into the formation of Christchurch, and the lives of its inhabitants.

Here are a couple of my favourite tools: a sickle that I liberated from my Grandad’s when we cleared it out, and my trusty trowel.

Possibly been in the family for generations. I primarily use this now to take the heads off of thistles.

An archaeologist’s best friend.

Finally, I wish you good weather, good company, good food, and good times for the Labour Day weekend. I leave you with a photo of some folks celebrating Labour Day the way many New Zealander’s have for decades, and a poem from the first Labour Day.

“Farmers and friend, having a beer at the end of the day (note the beer being poured from a glass half gallon jar) Labour Day, Southbridge, 1949, at an agricultural fair.” Source: Kete Christchurch.

Tristan Wadsworth

References

Atkinson, N., 2018. ‘Labour Day’, URL: https://nzhistory.govt.nz/politics/labour-day, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 19-Jun-2018. Accessed 23 October 2019.

Bradley, F., Webb, K. and Garland, J., 2016. 448 Johns Road, Christchurch: report on archaeological monitoring. Unpublished report for the New Zealand Transport Agency.

Burnard, T. 2000. ‘An Artisanal Town – The Economic Sinews of Christchurch’ in Cookson, J. and Dunstall. G. 2000. Southern Capital – Christchurch: Towards a city biography 1850-2000. Canterbury University Press, Christchurch.

Derby, M. 2016. ‘Strikes and labour disputes – Early labour disputes’, Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/artwork/20469/first-labour-day-procession-dunedin (accessed 24 October 2019).

Dooley, S. Haley, J., and Dickson, C. 2018. Laneway area, 93, 103, and 105 Manchester Street, 196, 204, and 206 Tuam Street, 221 and 227 St Asaph Street, Christchurch (M35/1132): report on archaeological monitoring. HNZPT authority 2016/701eq. Unpublished report for Ōtākaro Ltd.

Dooley, S., Whybrew, C., Garland, J. and Mearns, L. 2016. 150 St Asaph Street, Christchurch (M35/1164, M35/1165, M35/1166): report on archaeological monitoring. HNZPT authority 2016/435eq. Unpublished report for Southbase.

Evening Post, 2/11/1899:2. Available at: https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/.

Garland, J., Carter, M. and Geary Nichol, R., 2014. The Terrace, M35/1050, Christchurch: Report on Archaeological Investigations, Volumes 1-2. Unpublished report for Hereford Holdings.

Pickles, K. 2000. ‘Workers and workplaces – industry and modernity’ in Cookson, J. and Dunstall. G. 2000. Southern Capital – Christchurch: Towards a city biography 1850-2000. Canterbury University Press, Christchurch.

Star, 29/10/1890: 2. Available at: https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/.

Star, 29/10/1890: 4. Available at: https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/.

Star, 05/08/1909: 3. Available at: https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/.

Thorns, D. and Schrader B., 2010., ‘City history and people – The appeal of city life’, Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/graph/23512/population-of-the-four-main-cities-1858-2006. Accessed 23 October 2019.

Williams, H., Garland, J. and Geary Nichol, R., 2017. Christchurch Justice and Emergency Services Precinct, Volumes 1-3. Archaeological Report.  Unpublished Report for the Ministry of Justice by Underground Overground Archaeology Ltd.

Williams, H., and Watson, C. 2019. St Luke’s Vicarage (former), 185 Kilmore Street, Christchurch: report on archaeological work under HNZPT authority 2017/757eq. Unpublished report for Maiden Built Ltd.

Wilson, J. 2005. Contextual historical overview for Christchurch City final draft report for comment. Christchurch; Christchurch City Council.

 

One thought on “Seize the means of production! The archaeology of tools and labour.

  1. Hi Tristan,
    What a delightful blog you bless us with.
    Besides having no pains of foreshadowings (I saw it coming! 🙂 ), I found your tangible file comment most sneeky. Having avoided pointing-out/commenting on the fact that that file as part of it’s anatomy included a Tang.
    I shall now depart (momentarily), leaving you happily ensconsed in muddy murky mire, rumaging about (I wouldn’t drink any!) amongst the delightful rubbish-of-the-past (Sometimes now a paste).
    A really good post Tristan. that any fine filly would love to be tied to.
    Well done. 🙂

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