2019: The Best of The Best

The temperatures are heating up, there’s Christmas decorations in shops around the city and we’re on the countdown to summer holidays. In our penultimate blog post for the year we’re going to look back on some of our best artefacts from the past year. Enjoy!

Big is always better, or at least that’s the case when we’re talking about meat platters. Whoever threw away this gorgeous Royal Cottage patterned meat platter really must have needed the cupboard space, because how could you just chuck out such a beautiful piece. Image: C. Watson.

 

Meat platters aren’t the only ceramic artefacts we’ve found complete this year. Here’s a small section of the many complete or near-complete ceramic vessels we’ve uncovered during our excavations in 2019. This year we’ve analysed two assemblages from well-to-do families, and there definitely seems to be a correlation between wealth and willingness to throw away perfectly good dishes. I’m half of BURN THE RICH mindset, because how could people just throw these out, but also praise the rich because wealthy people throwing out vessels in the 19th century trickles down to archaeologists digging them up in the 21st century (like what I just did there, see last month’s blog for more witty socialism puns). Image: C. Watson.

 

And while we’re on the subject of ceramic vessels, we can’t ignore that we’ve found THREE vessels this year that are fruit and vegetable themed. I give you the Pineapple Jug, the Eggplant Flowerpot and the Corn Jug. I don’t really have anything else to say other than they’re all a big yes from me. Image: C. Watson.

 

Whilst bigger is always better in the case of meat platters, the opposite is true when we’re talking about children’s artefacts. Here’s a few of the various dolls, marbles, miniatures and other things we’ve uncovered this year. No matter what expression is on a doll’s face, they always seem to be blushing. Image: C. Watson.

 

I am notoriously bias for being a big ceramic lover, but we have found plenty of bottles as well. SO MANY BOTTLES. Far more than ceramics. And many more that were complete. But also lots of fragmented ones as well. Here’s a few. Image: C. Watson.

 

I probably shouldn’t be so hard on bottles, there are some cool ones out there. Take this bad boy for example. We’re pretty sure it’s an ink well that is shaped like a baby carriage (but open to other suggestions on the shape). Why? Who knows. But if you need a corn jug to serve milk (or water, or something else- I’m not sure if there’s a specific connection between corn shaped jugs and the specific task they were used for), then you damn well definitely need a baby carriage shaped ink well. Image: C. Watson.

 

This bottle is also very cool. It’s a hock wine bottle (typically assumed to hold wine), but it’s got a label for vinegar on it! This was cool for two reasons. Firstly, because the label meant we knew what the bottle held. Here’s our blurb from the report (because when it’s less than four weeks to Christmas you bet I’m copy and pasting).
The malt vinegar bottle was a hock wine bottle with a label reading “SIR ROBERT B…/ MALT V…/ VAUXHALL D…”. Sir Robert Burnett and Co. were distillers and rectifiers, wine and spirit merchants and vinegar brewers operating out of the Vauxhall Distiller and Vinegar Works in London. The company was initially established as Fassett and Burnett in 1770 and were best known for their product Burnett’s Old Tom Gin (Grace’s Guide 2019). The Burnett’s brand was first advertised in New Zealand in 1863 (Southland Times 30/10/1863: 5), with the malt vinegar first advertised in New Zealand in 1872 (Lyttelton Times 2/07/1872: 4).

Now the second reason why the bottle is cool is all to do with this advertisement here. It tells us that George Warner was the SOLE AGENT for Sir Robert Burnett and Co’s Malt Vinegar (which is what the bottle was). We found that bottle on the site of the business George Warner ran, called Walton, Warner and Co. Which means, we can 100 percent, for definite (no maybes or it’s likely or is strongly possible here), link the bottle with the occupant of the site. And that’s cool. Image: Lyttelton Times. 

 

We found an almost complete ginger jar. It might not be anything that special but I’m including it because I love ginger jars and it’s my blog so I’ll do what I want. Image: C. Watson.

 

Here’s a heart cut out of leather. I don’t know why someone made this, but I love that they did. Image: C. Watson.

 

Yes, you’ve all seen this glass basket a million times before. But I love it and it’s still my favourite artefact of the year (the cartridge shell from Metro Sports is a close second though), so here it is one more time. Image: C. Watson.

Clara Watson

 

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.

 

The Second Mayor of Akaroa and his Wife

The Beca Heritage Festival 2019 is currently on in Christchurch. There’s lots of interesting events being held, highlighting both the work being done in the heritage sector in Christchurch and providing opportunities to visit and interact with Christchurch’s heritage (see here for a full list). Last week we held an open office event, giving Christchurch residents an opportunity to check out our lab and listen to us talk about what we actually do as archaeologists working in Christchurch. As part of the open office night, we put on an exhibition telling the stories of three people we have encountered doing archaeology in Christchurch: Ada Wells, Henry and Elizabeth Watkins, and William Cuddon.

We had around 60 people come to our open office night; here they are admiring the artefacts we had out on display. Image: K. Webb.

This fortnight on the blog, we’re going to share one of those stories, that of Henry and Elizabeth Watkins. Henry Green Watkins (b. 1829) and his wife Elizabeth Maria Watkins (b. 1837) arrived in New Zealand in 1857. Following a brief stint at the Thames goldfields and some time spent in Lyttelton, the couple settled in Akaroa where Henry opened a general store. The couple were drawn to Akaroa as Henry’s father, Dr. Daniel Watkins, his mother, Julia Watkins, and his five siblings were already living in the town.

Henry and Elizabeth appear to have had a happy and successful life in Akaroa. In 1871 they moved into what was later known as Holly Cottage, a ten-roomed house with orchard gardens and a stream to the north. They had at least 11 children: Henry William Daniel (b. 1854), Frank (b. 1860), Walter (b. 1862), Amy Florence (b. 1864), Ernest John (b. 1866), Marina Maude (b. 1868), Arthur Evelyn (b. 1870), Albert Nigel (b. 1872), Lillian Rosina (b. 1874, d. 1875), Elizabeth Constance (b. 1876), and Beatrice Lilian (b. 1878).

Henry can be seen sporting an absolutely magnificent beard in the upper left corner. Image: Alexander Turnbull Library.

Along with his shop, located on Beach Road, Henry owned several blocks of land around the peninsula that he either leased or farmed, with the Watkins family well known for their orchards. Henry appears to have been an important figure in the fledgling town of Akaroa. He was elected as Akaroa’s second mayor, in office between 1877 and 1878, and during his term Farr’s bridge was constructed.

Akaroa Mail and Banks Peninsula Advertiser 21/09/1926.

It was a close race for the 1877 mayoralty, with Henry taking it out by only nine votes. Of course to vote in the 1877 election, you would have had to be male, a British subject, at least 21 years in age, own land worth at least £50 or pay at least £5 to £10 (depending on where you lived) a year in rent, and not be serving a criminal sentence. Image: Akaroa Mail and Banks Peninsula Advertiser 30/11/1887.

In 1879 Henry passed away, aged 50, leaving Elizabeth to care for their ten surviving children. Elizabeth not only raised her ten children (aged between one and 25 at time of their father’s passing) but continued to run the store and manage the blocks of land owned by the Watkins. Elizabeth was described as being “Of quiet and unobtrusive habits and of excellent business capacity, she had the knack, although in delicate health, of making her way in the world, and leaves behind her an unsullied reputation” (Akaroa Mail and Banks Peninsula Advertisor 20.07.1894). In 1894, aged 57, Elizabeth passed away, having had a weak chest for several years prior. In her will she left her estate to her sons Henry William Daniel and Ernest John, on the provision that it be sold, and the profits divided amongst all of her children. The sale of the estate revealed she owned 788 acres of land in Akaroa and around Banks Peninsula and Little River, a sizeable sum of land which reflects the success her and her late husband had.

Despite Henry being the mayor of Akaroa, Elizabeth sounds like she was the real hero. Raising ten children, running a shop and managing multiple blocks of land would be hard enough today, let-alone with all the difficulties of 19th century life. Image: Akaroa Mail and Banks Peninsula Advertiser 20/07/1894.

In October 2018, Underground Overground Archaeology monitored excavations at the site of Holly Cottage, where Elizabeth and Henry Watkins lived from 1871 until 1894. Unfortunately, Holly Cottage was demolished during the 20th century, and we’re yet to find a photograph of what the cottage looked like. During the excavations a large assemblage of artefacts was found, with over 2,000 artefacts recovered.

Most of these artefacts were found in what was interpreted to be an old creek bed, located just a few metres away from the modern stream. Unlike modern times where household refuse is collected by rubbish trucks, people living in the 19th century had to dispose of their rubbish by their own means. The most common way to do this was for people to dig a pit in their backyard and bury their rubbish.  However, it would appear that the Watkins took advantage of the natural depression created by the old stream and threw their rubbish into the gully. Doing this saved the hassle of digging a pit, and the old creek bed was located far enough away from the cottage that the unpleasant smell of rubbish was unlikely to make its way inside the house.

The old creek bed, identified through the darker soil and the presence of artefacts, can be seen in this photo. Image: A. Trendafilov.

The creek bed extended across most of the rear of the site. Image: A. Trendafilov.

The artefacts excavated from the old creek bed hinted at what the Watkins’ daily lives were like. They included food and beverage bottles, giving some insight into the meals Elizabeth was probably making for her family. The Watkins family appear to have made the most of Akaroa’s seaside location, with nearly 700 shells found, mostly oyster, cockle and pipi, along with kingfish bones. Worcestershire Sauce seems to have been a favourite, with 11 bottles of the sauce recovered. Several pharmaceutical bottles were discovered, many of which were patent medicines that promised to cure any kind of disease. These may have been purchased by Elizabeth in her later years to ease her chest pain. Also present were four bottles of Piesse and Lubin perfume, suggesting it was a favourite of Elizabeth’s.

What was most unusual about the artefact assemblage found in the creek bed, however, was the amount of complete or near-complete objects. These ranged from ceramic plates, platters and tureens to a glass decanter and basket, to two clothes irons and a cooking pot. Finding complete and near-complete items is relatively rare in the archaeological record, and it suggested that the items found in the old creek bed were not just day-to-day household rubbish. Following Elizabeth’s death in 1894, Holly Cottage was leased to Mr Joseph Barwick. It is possible that after her death her sons cleaned out the cottage, throwing away any of her possessions they did not want to keep. This would explain the presence of items such as the clothes irons, which were intended to last a lifetime, and gives us archaeologists a chance to see what the Watkins’ lives were like over 120 years later.

Some of the Watkins’ artefacts out on display. Note the many complete vessels, and the Piesse and Lubin perfume bottles on the left of the top shelf. Image: C. Watson.

More artefacts out on display, these are only a few of the many artefacts we found on site. Note the two clothes irons on the middle right shelf, not the kind of thing people threw out often, which suggests most of the artefacts were disposed of after the Watkins passed. Image: C. Watson.

For anyone wondering what my all-time favourite artefact is, here it is (you can also see it on the middle shelf of the top photo). This glass basket was decorated with a grape pattern and is very fancy. It was possibly used for serving fruit or treats on or may have simply sat on a shelf for decoration. Image: C. Watson.

Clara Watson

Life Before Plastic: Kmart Culture

Last time on the blog we talked about packaging and how our Victorian ancestors made do without plastic trays to wrap their cans of coke in (and all the rest of it). This week we’re going to take a closer look at plastic in the household. Plastic in the household isn’t quite as bad as plastic in the supermarket, but there still is a lot of it. There’s the plastic laundry basket, the plastic on the fridge door handles, the polyester clothes in the wardrobe and the plastic bucket in the laundry, to name a few.

If we were to go back in time to a Victorian house, we wouldn’t see any of those things. The clothes would be made of wool, or cotton, or linen, the bucket of metal, there wouldn’t be a fridge and the laundry basket would be an actual wicker basket. Now I could go through object by object and compare what we have today to what the Victorians used, but that would get a bit repetitive and boring. Instead what I want to do is take a look at the bigger picture and the different social and economic systems between now and 150 years ago. (A quick note, I make some big generalisations about purchasing habits in the next few paragraphs. Obviously, people’s purchasing habits are completely dependent on their individual economic situation and personal beliefs, and not every single object out there is cheap plastic junk. I’m just generalising to make a point about a certain type of behaviour).

A 19th century bone toothbrush and its modern-day plastic equivalent. Image: C. Watson.

Something you hear all the time is that things aren’t made to last like they used to. It’s a cliché, but it’s also true. As we discussed when talking about packaging, the main benefit of plastic is that it’s cheap to manufacture, meaning that plastic items are cheap to purchase. In the current economic climate, where manufacturers are focused on maximising profit and lowering the bottom line, plastic is often the most economical choice for goods to be made of. For some manufacturers that are using plastic the focus isn’t on making a high-quality product that will last a lifetime, but on making money. If we want to be really cynical, manufacturers benefit when products have a short lifespan as it means the customer has to keep purchasing the same product over and over again.

These cheaply manufactured plastic objects can be purchased from many stores, but I’m going to use one store that’s very popular at the moment to illustrate my point- Kmart- and what I’m going to refer to as “Kmart Culture”. If you’ve been paying attention on the internet for the past few years, you’ll have seen people going absolutely nuts for Kmart homewares. From the throws to the cushions, candles, and wall prints, there’s always a new trend.

Just a few of the many Kmart memes that exist on the internet. Image: Google.

Kmart Culture is completely focused on what’s new, because there’s always something new. There’s no consideration of the fact that there’s only so many places in the household that can be decorated with a throw blanket and a cushion. Instead new cushions are purchased, the old cushions are put in a cupboard, and they sit out of sight until there’s a Marie Kondo inspired cleaning spree and they go to the tip.  And the thing that facilitates being able to purchase new home décor, despite already owning various homewares, is the cheap price point, which is only possible because of plastic. You might be picking up on the fact that there’s a bit of a cycle going on here. Plastic makes goods cheap. People can afford to purchase non-essential items (eg. Home décor) because it’s cheap. People can afford to purchase even more non-essential items, even when they already have those items at home, because it’s cheap. People have no qualms about throwing out the old items, because they were cheap. Cheap plastic items end up in landfills.

With that pattern of behaviour in the forefront of our minds, let’s jump now to 19th century Christchurch where there was no plastic. By the mid-19th century the industrial revolution was in full swing. The introduction of mass-manufactured goods through the development of factories in Britain, combined with the discovery of new resources through world exploration and the creation of a global trade market through British and European colonisation meant products were cheaper than in previous centuries and there was a wider variety of things that could be bought (Rafferty 2019). This growth meant people had more money and there was a shift from people making things at home to purchasing them from shops.

All of this sounds relatively similar to modern times, and that’s because, in a way, it is. In the 19th century we see the beginning of the social and economic systems that led to modern day Kmart Culture. Whilst things weren’t as cheap as they are today, they were still cheaper than they had been in the past. In some ways it’s hard to compare the cost of goods in the 19th century with the cost of goods today. Whilst we can compare prices and index them (see here if you’re interested in more detail), in many ways it’s comparing oranges and apples. How do you compare the cost of a kettle in the 19th century, made of cast iron and designed to be heated on a range, with a modern electrical jug? And which electrical jug would you even choose to compare it with, the $10 one from Kmart or the $270 Breville one from Briscoes? Even if you chose to compare it with a cast iron jug they range from $30 to over a $100 in price.

Another way to compare is not looking at the cost of goods, but at what was thrown away. In Kmart Culture old items are being replaced by new items, despite the fact the old items are still useable. Think back over the past ten years, what household items have you thrown out? Nic nacs? Ornaments? Paintings? Cushions? Furniture? Clothing? Utensils? Pots and pans? Plates? If I think of my parents house 20 years ago and compare it to now, nearly everything in it has been replaced over the past two decades.

When we look at the archaeology of 19th century Christchurch, and in particular at rubbish pits and what people were throwing away, there’s two big patterns. Firstly, we don’t find homeware items that often, but we do come across them. We’ve found things like kettles, pots, cast iron ranges, irons, and bed knobs, but they’re rare and we definitely don’t find them in every site. There are other household items that aren’t rare, but we don’t find in every site. Things like cutlery, knives, vases and ornaments.

Some of the more unusual household items we come across. Image: C. Watson.

The relative scarcity of these objects in the archaeological record suggests there wasn’t a 19th century Kmart Culture around their purchase. People purchased these items and held onto them until they broke. In fact, a lot of the items shown in the above photograph came from a site where the occupants both passed away and we think the objects were thrown out by their children preparing the house for sale- proving that some things were intended to last a lifetime.

What we do find in nearly every single rubbish pit we excavate are ceramics. Plates, side plate, cups, teapots, platters, sugar bowls, tureens, jugs, chamber pots, bowls, basins, ewers- you name it and we’ve found it a thousand times over. And we find them in every form possible, from a single rim sherd to half a vessel that can be refitted to a fully complete item. It’s likely that a lot of the vessels we find are things that people have dropped or knocked and they’ve broken, and that’s why they’ve been thrown out, but given the quantities that we find either the 19th century residents of Christchurch were the clumsiest people in the world, or there was another reason why things were being thrown out.

Some of the many, many ceramic vessels we find in Christchurch archaeological sites. Image: C. Watson.

And so, ladies and gentlemen, I give you the Kmart Culture of the 19th century: ceramic dinner sets and tea sets. The industrial revolution led to pottery factories in the Staffordshire region of England producing large quantities of ceramic vessels for the export market. The scale of production meant it was possible for a range of different designs to be produced, and different fashion trends are apparent throughout the century. As new styles of ceramics became popular, people threw out their old sets and replaced them with new pieces.

19th stores were constantly advertising the arrival of new tea and dinner sets in the latest fashions. This 1893 advertisement shows both the availability of new ceramic vessels and the price range. Image: Star

Just a few of the ceramic pattern styles popular through the 19th century. The top left is the Willow pattern, an example of the Chinese inspired designs popular at the beginning of the 19th century (with Willow pattern itself popular throughout the 19th and 20th centuries). Top middle is the Asiatic Pheasants pattern, a floral pattern with Chinese influences. On the top right is the Rhine pattern, an example of the romantic landscape designs inspired by European scenery and buildings, popular around the middle of the century. The bottom left is the Cairo pattern. The style of the Cairo pattern, with a design that breaks the pattern of ‘central scene with border’ shown on the plates in the top row, was inspired by the Aesthetic Movement of the 1870s. Bottom centre is the Albert Star pattern, with a simple design featuring a central motif and a border pattern. Bottom right is a simple banded design, seen on plates and cups from the end of the century. Image: C. Watson.

When we take this concept of “Kmart Culture” and compare modern purchasing habits to Victorian era ones, we see they’re not all that different. When people’s wages are high enough to allow for casual spending, and the goods they’re purchasing are cheap enough, then people will buy stuff. In the 19th century not every item met these criteria- cups and plates might have but not furniture, and that’s one of the reasons why we find tea wares and table wares in nearly every archaeological site but not table-tops and chair legs. In modern times almost everything can be bought cheaply, meaning that we can throw away nearly everything, and if our Victorian era ancestors had been able to buy a new kettle for $10 (or the equivalent of $10), then I’m sure we would be finding kettles in the archaeological record as well.

Clara Watson

Bits and Bobs (again)

It’s been a while since we last did one of these, so here are some of our most interesting finds from the past six months.

I love this plate, but really, how could you not?! A Roman soldier on a rearing horse standing on a plinth, very majestic. The Latin phrase in the maker’s mark Vincit Veritas translates as Truth Conquers or Truth Prevails, very fitting for the image. This phrase was used by C. and J. Shaw in all their marks, although it’s not known if they were the manufacturers of the vessels, or if they were retailers who applied their own mark to the wares they bought and sold. The pair seem to have been operating roughly between 1841 and 1850, making this plate over 150 years old! Image: C. Watson

Black beer bottles are one of the most common artefacts we find on archaeological sites (I know I promised you interesting finds at the start of this post, but they look so nice all lined up in a row). Black beer is a generic term applied bottles of this style. We divide that into four sub-types: tall, small, large squat and small squat to differentiate between the different shapes and sizes. Whilst they might be called black beers that doesn’t mean they contained beer, these were used as general bottles for all types of alcohol and spirits, along with non-alcoholic beverages and sometimes even condiments and essences. Image: C. Watson.

It’s always exciting when we find multiple plates with the same pattern- leads us to wonder if people were cleaning out their china cabinet, and if so, why? These plates are decorated with the Columbia pattern which was a serial pattern produced by a variety of manufacturers, meaning there’s lots of variations to the design (Coysh and Henrywood 1982: 90). Common elements of this pattern are the shrine, the trees, a central river, distant mountains, and figures in the foreground. These plates were made by Davenport, and due to the “2.65” mark we know they were manufactured in February of 1865 (Gibson 2011: 61). Image: C. Watson.

This style of button, known as a trouser button in Britain and a suspender button in America, was used to fasten work shirts and trousers (Lindbergh 1999: 52). The buttons were made from a single sheet of copper alloy and often have an inscription running around the edge- like this one! Image: C. Watson.

I think I may just like images of bottles all lined up in a row, as none of these are overly unusual either. I guess that’s because so many of the artefacts we find are just fragments, meaning when we have complete or near complete objects it’s always exciting, even if we’ve found them complete before. Here we have a selection of various sauce and salad oil bottles, my favourite is the one in the middle. Image: C. Watson.

How idyllic does the farmhouse depicted on this cup and saucer look. It seems very quaint and summery, possibly the perfect destination for a weekend getaway. Unfortunately, we don’t know who made the cup and saucer, or what the pattern is called, so I’m unable to offer any real commentary other than isn’t it lovely. Image: C. Watson.

This artefact is cool, even if I have absolutely no idea what it is. It’s made from leather and is folded into a roughly cuboid shape, although a crease running diagonally along the front face suggests it might once have been ovoid. There’s no stitching at all, although one side is open so there may have been and it’s worn away. But the thing that makes this artefact so interesting is the small wooden sphere which sits perfectly inside the hole- blocking it. Based on that, the running theory is that it was potentially some type of water bag or storage bag, but we’re really not that sure. The fun and games of finding weird objects! Image: C. Watson.

I assumed this pot lid was going to be for toothpaste when it first appeared on my desk. I was wrong. It actually held anchovy paste, which sounds absolutely revolting. When complete the pot lid would have read “REAL GORGONA/ ANCHOVY PASTE/ SO/ HIGHLY APPROVED OF/ FOR TOAST SANDWICHES &c”. I can certainly think of nicer things to put in a sandwich! Whilst there’s no brand name included on the lid it was most likely made by John Burgess who sold imported luxury foods, including anchovies that were caught by fishing boats off Leghorn, from 1760 onwards. Image: C. Watson.

If you’re into makeup then the brand Rimmel is probably familiar. Believe it or not the company was founded all the way back in 1834 by Eugene Rimmel and his son. Eugene Rimmel was a perfumer and we find these Rimmel perfume bottles relatively often, suggesting the brand was popular even back in the nineteenth century. Image: C. Watson.

Once again, I don’t know the maker of this bowl, or the pattern name. I just think it’s pretty. Image: C. Watson.

Clara Watson

References

Coysh, A., & Henrywood, R. 1982. The Dictionary of Blue and White Printed Pottery 1780-1880. Michigan: Antique Collectors’ Club, 1982.

Gibson, E. 2011. Ceramic Makers’ Marks. Walnut Creek: Left Coast Press.

Lindbergh, J. 1999. Buttoning Down Archaeology. Australasian Historical Archaeology, 17, 50–57.