All Sherds are Equal

Modern archaeology, in New Zealand at least, is a democratic science. By this, I mean that as archaeologists we investigate and record ALL deposits, features, and artefacts we come across on sites. We don’t cherry pick our sites to only excavate those that represent the wealthy and elite of society (looking at you classical archaeologists *cough* Heinrich Schliemann *cough*). Instead, in Christchurch, we excavate sites where the working classes lived, along with those from the middle and upper classes.

This means we don’t privilege any people of the past, or at least not when we’re looking at artefacts (buildings are sometimes a different story). The archaeological deposits we find that relate to a butcher and his family who lived in a small four room cottage are equally as important as those we find that relate to an ex-mayor who lived in a large house. I personally think that this is important, as whilst we typically view our sites in an archaeological and academic context representing the history of New Zealand and Christchurch (and discuss them as such), they can also hold a personal connection for any descendants wanting to learn more about their ancestor’s lives (hot tip for anyone doing family research, archaeological reports are now available online from Heritage New Zealand if you know where an ancestor was living and want to see if any archaeology has been done at the site).

It also means we are able to do comparative research. How can we say (using the archaeological record) that a person was wealthy and that this is demonstrated in what they have thrown away, if we don’t have deposits from working-class sites to compare with? How can we know what items were typical for a period if we don’t have a representative sample from across society? From this viewpoint, everything is important. The rubbish pit containing unusual complete and near-complete vessels from a household clean-out event has as much information potential as the small pit with a few broken fragments of common items. Both can provide specific information on the occupants of the site and how they lived their lives, as well as being used to look more broadly at life in Christchurch through comparative studies.

This has been a very long introduction to basically say that today’s blog is show-casing some of the artefacts we’ve found over recent months. But unlike previous blogs, where we normally focus on complete or unusual objects, today I’m going to be sharing the small, broken fragments that we don’t normally talk that much about, because they’re just as important as the unusual artefacts.

Ooooh yeah, Asiatic Pheasants. We couldn’t do a blog talking about ceramic sherds and not include the Asiatic Pheasants pattern. We find this pattern on almost every archaeological site in Christchurch. It doesn’t matter who you were, what you did for a living, how much money you had, if you lived in Christchurch from the 1860s onwards then you probably owned Asiatic Pheasants patterned vessels. One of the best things about the pattern being so common is that it also doesn’t matter how small the fragment is, we can almost always identify the pattern. Image: C. Watson.

 

Fragments can also be frustrating though, in that you get a tiny glimpse into the pattern but it’s too small to work out what’s going on. Take this flow blue pattern for example. The figure in the centre of the sherd is clear. But is she facing another figure who’s much larger than her? Does that mean the central figure is a child and the larger figure is her mother? And why does the central figure not have legs? Is she a ghost? Has she come back to haunt the figure on the right? Have I been watching too many horror moves? So many questions, but unfortunately with such a small sherd we’ll probably never know what the pattern was. Image: C. Watson

 

Sometimes a fragment will have distinguishing elements (like a lot of the patterns pictured below), meaning that there’s something to start with when trying to identify the pattern. Others, like this one, I generally won’t even bother searching for. There were literally thousands of different patterns made by the Staffordshire potteries that had floral elements, meaning that unless you’re super familiar with a pattern (like Asiatic Pheasants), it’s near-impossible to identify a sherd that just has the edges of a flower on it. Image: C. Watson.

 

I think this sherd is made 100% better by the fact that the horse and rider are missing their heads *insert headless horseman pun here*. Image: C. Watson.

 

When it comes to random patterns on sherds then this is definitely the best. My favourite part is the smoking pipe the figure on the right is holding- that’s one long pipe stem. We weren’t able to identify the pattern, but I imagine that it’s probably based on an 18th or early 19th print that was adapted into a ceramic pattern by a Staffordshire pottery. Image: C. Watson.

 

Houses, but miniature, so they’re better. This is likely from the background of a romantic pattern. Image: C. Watson.

 

It’s very satisfying when you’re able to identify a pattern from only a small sherd. This plate is decorated with the Royal Exchange pattern and the central scene (which was missing) shows the third Royal Exchange building, opened in 1844 (Coysh and Henrywood 1982: 311). Image: C. Watson.

 

And what is perhaps even more satisfying than identifying the pattern from a small fragment, is identifying the manufacturer. All my time spent lurking in pottery groups on Facebook is paying off because when I saw these sherds my gut instinct was that this was Mason’s Ironstone with Imari pattern. A google search revealed a near-identical dinner set, with details like the small spines on the gilt spirals and slightly uneven painting of the flowers exactly the same as the fragments we found. The best part though was that the dinner set had the Mason’s Patent Ironstone China mark, making me pretty confident that my gut instinct was correct. Image: C. Watson.

 

And to end the blog, a scene from where we would all rather be: at home, lounging on the couch, patting a dog. Image: C. Watson.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Clara Watson

References

Coysh, A. W. and Henrywood, R. K., 1982. The Dictionary of Blue and White Printed Pottery 17801880, Volume I. Antique Collectors’ Club, Suffolk.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Gardens on a Plate

For some of us, that title may have conjured up childhood memories of making ‘sand-saucer’ gardens for the local flower show or ‘pet and garden’ day at school. But I’ve actually something different in mind.

We have found quite a few 19th  century ceramic vessels from around Christchurch featuring botanical motifs, either of specific flowers and plants, or of plant-heavy scenery. So today I’m going to tiptoe through the tulips of floral abandon, and track down some of the botanical wonders that 19th century Christchurch had on their sideboards.

This splendid platter is an example of idealised ‘Romantic’ scenery, featuring an assortment of pretty plants. I suspect horticultural accuracy was not top of the list of requirements for creating this type of pattern, so some educated guesswork is needed (especially without the help of flower colours) to identify some of these plants. Around the border, I see roses (both single and double flowered blooms with thorned stems), maybe zinnias (in 1858 the first double flowered types were bought to the UK from India), some small and rather stylized blooms that are possibly forget-me-nots (symbolic of remembrance and sometimes of freemasonry) or daisies. The central scene has a couple of elegant trees, a fern or two, some more roses, perhaps a chrysanthemum or marigold, and an assortment of flowering shrubbery. The tree on the left appears to have flowers and the one on the right fruit, with neither in proportion to the size of the tree or identifiable as a particular species so perhaps these are just ‘wish-list’ expressions of what ought to be in the ideal garden. Image: C. Watson.

We are going to see a few roses today. While roses have been grown as decorative plants for centuries, it was not until the late 1700s and early 1800s that the China Rose and the Tea Rose were introduced to Europe, which led to the development of the modern, repeat-flowering type of rose. There was an explosion of cultivars onto the market and roses became one of the most popular garden plants.

For something completely different, this plate features a fruit-laden grape vine. The grape is another plant not native to the UK (Wikipedia tells me that the Romans were the culprits here. The English climate was not ideal for this temperate to subtropical-origin vine, so the wider use of the heated glasshouse in the 19th century was a boon for those trying to produce grapes for eating or wine. The grape has a rich symbolic history, being associated with both the Greek god Dionysus (and the Roman Bacchus), and as a Christian symbol for Jesus Christ, from the scriptural quote “I am the true vine” (John 15:1). Was this design symbolic of something, or purely decorative in intent? Image: C. Watson.

This elegant design appears to feature lilies at first glance. The flower by itself looks very much like a Tigerlily or Daylily, but the leaves are clearly not those of a lily (lilies have narrow pointed strap-like leaves). They aren’t Hibiscus flowers either. There is some resemblance to Rhododendron occidentale (western azalea) from North America, (first described in the 19th century, with seed being sent to the UK in 1850) as pictured below ). What do you think? Do you recognise it as something else? Or is it an artistic concoction of the flowers of one species with the leaves of another? The other more instantly recognisable plant shown on this plate is the acanthus, common in classical decorative motifs, from Greek Corinthian capitals on pillars, to wrought iron work, to 1875 William Morris wallpaper patterns. Also known as Bears Breeches, the plant has many uses in herbal and traditional medicine, including treating asthma, arthritis, leprosy and snake bites! Image: C. Watson.

Rhododendron occidentale or western azalea flowers. Image: W. Gibbs.

This plate features the Asiatic Pheasants pattern. Frequently mentioned on the blog in previous posts, the history of the Asiatic Pheasant pattern is best summarised as following: “It is likely that the design originated with Ralph Hall of Swan Bank Pottery, Tunstall, Staffordshire, who was active from 1822 to 1849. Hall’s Pheasant appears to have been printed mainly and perhaps exclusively in black. Soon other potters began to produce Asiatic Pheasants, printed almost invariably in pale blue. Podmore Walker and Co. of Well Street, Tunstall, Staffordshire commenced business in 1834 and were early producers of Asiatic Pheasants and subsequently claimed to be the originators of Asiatic Pheasants. In 1853 they took over the Ralph Hall factory. By 1880 Asiatic Pheasants was the most popular pattern of all, toppling Willow pattern from the top spot” (Lovers of Blue and White).                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               So, what about the plants?  Roses are clearly featured here, both single and double-flowered forms with thorny stems.  Around the rim, at the 6 o’clock and 10 o’clock positions is a flower with a prominent carpel in the centre, maybe a passionfruit flower or possibly hibiscus. The passionfruit was rather exotic in the 19th century and became popular during the Victorian era, with many hybrids created from the winged-stem passion flower (P. alata) and the blue passion flower (P. caerulea). The flower has been given a strong Christian symbolism, which may have made it a popular design feature. Image: C. Watson.

The base of this cup is decorated with an elegant flowering plant, likely some sort of bulbous plant (based on the leaf shape and growth), possibly a snowflake, snowdrop, lily of the valley, scilla or Spanish bluebell. Without the clues of colour or more detail, it’s difficult to say for sure, but it is still rather pretty. Image: C. Watson.

This pair of handsome transfer printed and clobbered plates looks to me like a celebration of autumn. The gold-painted and gold-veined leaves are falling loose around a couple of types of flowers. Both the flower and leaf shape of the smaller flowers look very much like chrysanthemum, though the larger flowers with prominent veining are less easily identifiable. They could be another form of chrysanthemum or daisy, but I’m going to say they are flowers of the Tree Dahlia, a quite spectacular autumn-flowering plant introduced to Europe in the 16th century. Image: C. Watson.

This scene is of a couple of men hard at work in a garden. It could represent gardeners at ‘home’, planting out the exotic plants bought back from some far-flung locale by explorers or plant hunters. It could equally be viewed as settlers in a new land, freshly off one of the ships in the background, busily clearing land in order to plant out the cherished plants (seen in the pots to the right) they bought with them from ‘home’. There is a spade and watering can visible in the foreground and the figure on the left is carrying a bare-rooted tree or shrub (more clearly seen in the original print). The pattern refers to one of Dr Benjamin Franklin’s maxims, specifically his maxim “industry needs not wish, and he that lives upon hope will die fasting, there are no gains without pains, then help hands for I have no lands” (Riley 1991:275). The illustration was taken from 24 scenes of town and country life illustrating Franklin’s Lessons for the young and the old, on industry, temperance, frugality &c by Robert Drighton, published by Bowles and Carver, London in 1795 (Riley 1991: 270). Image: C. Watson. 

The 19th century in the UK was a golden era of gardening, and in particular of hothouse and exotic flower cultivation. Plant hunters were romping around the globe, many sponsored by wealthy patrons, finding, recording and returning with specimens of plants previously unknown to the western world.  Add to that the development from 1847 of methods to create larger pieces of plate glass, and better glazing and construction methods, and the Victorian-era glasshouse and conservatory was born. Here wealthy families grew the rare and exotic, or at least their gardening staff did, and showed them off to their friends (in a sort of botanical keeping up with the Jones’s). At the same time the middle classes had increasing leisure time and some spare cash, and those aspiring to a bit of societal climbing looked to grow some of the exotic offerings now available. Anything that survived in lower light levels, smoky rooms and cooler temperatures but still looked exotic became especially popular .Aspidistra, Hoya and the Parlour Palm were all introduced to the UK in early/mid 1800s. At the same time, deliberate selective breeding of ‘decorative’ plants became more widespread.

The citizens of Christchurch were equally keen on their gardens. The Christchurch Horticultural Society was established in 1861, and by 1863 were holding flower shows open to the public. (Press 01/12/1863: 2).In 1866 the Society took formal possession of the ground that would become the Botanic Gardens (Press 11/09/1866: 2).  By 1866 H. G. Burnell, Seed Merchant of Cashel St, was advertising 1000 varieties of flower seeds for sale (Press 31/08/1866:1) .  In the same year, there was an auction of “60 large specimen plants in full bloom, being fuchsias, petunias etc”, on the day after the flower show. (Press 01/03/1866).

There were at least three commercial plant nurseries advertising in the Press during the 1860s.  Grove Nursery, which sold, amongst other plants, a “choice collection of green-house plants, always on sale from England” (Press 17/05/1862: 7).  Woodburn Nursey (W. Hislop) who at various times advertised “upwards of one million hedge plants” (Press 01/06/1861: 7), carrot, turnip and parsnip seeds (Press 12/10/1861: 7) and an auction of “about 300 very choice Greenhouse Plants (including fuchsias, camellias, amaryllis, mimosa, cuphea, farfugium &…. other plants adapted for Greenhouse and window culture)” (Press 25/02/1863: 3).   And lastly, Christchurch Nursery, (W. Wilson) which sold a large variety of plants and seeds including “Cerrus (sic) Deodara seed recently collected to order in the Himalaya Mountains” (Press 04/01/1862:8), over a dozen different types of fruit trees (including mulberries and figs), rhubarb, asparagus, and many species of ornamental trees, shrubs and hedging plants (including including privet, gorse and broom!) (Press 14/06/1862: 8). It’s clear that gardening was a popular activity in Christchurch. There were even gardens open to the public for picnicking and other activities, such as Taylor’s (later Kohler’s) pleasure gardens and maze (in the area of the current Hagley High School). Formally opened to the public on 2 February 1862, it was described at the time as being “well laid out in grass plats (sic), flower borders, shrubberies, and an extensive maze, the first of its kind in the colony” (Lyttelton Times 28/12/1861: 5).

At the same time greenhouses were being constructed locally. Frederick Jenkins of City Steam Saw Mills, Planing, Joinery and Moulding Works  advertised that he was “prepared to supply the trade with first-class goods……greenhouses, hothouses and conservatories, on the most improved principles” (Press 26/03/1863: 6). When larger houses and estates were advertised for sale, greenhouses were regularly listed as part of the equipment. In 1864 Albourne Lodge a “large and beautifully situated house” had a greenhouse listed as one of the out-buildings (Press 13/12/1864:3).  When the Ilam homestead was advertised for let in 1862 a “greenhouse, well heated and stocked with vines” was listed as one of the assets (Press 05/07/1862:5).

But what if you couldn’t manage to keep any of these fancy or exotic plants, or to visit the locales from whence they came?  Well, why not have them on your crockery instead!

Wendy Gibbs

References

Lyttelton Times [online]. Available: https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers

Press [online]. Available: https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers

Riley, N. 1991. Gifts For Good Children: The History of Children’s China, Part 1, 1790-1890. Somerset: Richard Dennis.

 

 

 

 

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

 

A Brief Foray into Romano-British Archaeology

Archaeologists are often faced with the question of what happens to artefacts after an excavation is complete? As is the case for a lot of excavations, artefacts can find themselves housed in museums. This centuries old institution found its beginning approximately 1500 years ago, with the earliest recorded museum dated to 530 CE –  the birth of an institution that has grown to more than 55,000 museums found over 202 countries. Now that’s a lot of artefact management. Museums are where excavated material and artefacts often end up – either on public display or stored in extensive and very secure facilities. Modern accessions of artefacts into museums is a well-structured process that ensures the origin and information for each artefact is meticulously maintained. However, this wasn’t always the case. Back in the day there was less emphasis on knowing where things came from and more interest in having the biggest and the best. The procurement of artefacts, especially in the 19th and 20th centuries involved the very official process of people either dumping things they found at the front door of museums, or, more officially, ‘hobbyists’ would donate their private collections. It was, and remains, an absolute mystery as to where the artefacts came from. Sadly, the lovely museums of little old New Zealand are not exempt from this issue.

The struggles of dealing with artefacts excavated in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Image: imgflip

For my honours dissertation I wanted to see if it was possible to give history back to these artefacts. I chose the Otago Museum as my target location, due to its convenient location across the street from campus, to see if I could pick a portion of their collection and provide information as to where they may have come from. Before my research, the Otago Museum had a collection of 413 artefacts registered as Romano-British pottery. As a budding archaeologist, the thought of being able to handle such a large collection of 2000-year-old artefacts was very exciting. I was provided with the museum’s register of every item in their collection, with whatever information they were given at the time of accession, or details that have been added from later research. In the case of the Romano-British pottery collection, this included, but was not limited to, comments such as “Vase. Roman. Up to about 200. B.C.” or the ever descriptive “Roman Amphora. Found in London”, which doesn’t leave much to go off. This meant that each piece of information had to be teased out from every artefact in the collection. From the form, material, and decoration styles of each artefact, I was able to both eliminate any artefact that had been mislabelled as being Romano-British in origin and begin to quantify the collection. This narrowed the list down from 413 items to 121 complete vessels (note fragments that were not terra sigillata (a type of Roman pottery) were not included in this review). From the 121 artefacts, a random selection was made of 33 vessels that were then compared to assemblages from excavations in the Britain in the 1990s and 2000s. It is reasonably common for museum collections to have a higher quantity of fine ware vessels compared to what is found in archaeological excavations, perhaps indicating that even though this set of pottery was acquired largely through a random sequence of donations, there is a preference towards fine wares that are more ornate and ascetically pleasing. But this was appropriate for the case of Romano-British pottery, as it was common for there to be a higher portion of fine wares in a household assemblage, as coarse wares were mostly used just for cooking or other domestic needs. In the case of Romano-British pottery, fine wares generally referrers to terra sigillata vessels; pottery made from smooth, fine textured clay with a sleek red gloss.  The result of this method of artefact attainment by the museum has left them with a fairly representative sample of Romano-British fine wares from the first century CE through to the third and fourth centuries CE, represented in the museum’s collection of various vessels; jars, bowls, dishes, plates, lids, cups, beakers, flagons, and mortars.

A few larger vessels out of storage for photographing. Image: J. Jones.

Romano-British pottery was the by-product of Roman invasion of Britain, a gradual process that began in 43 CE and saw the eventual introduction of two items essential to the everyday Roman life: the potter’s wheel for vessel throwing and kilns for firing pottery, leading to the birth of Britain’s pottery industry.. The Roman period in Britain saw an explosion in the use of ceramics, enabled by the wide adoption of wheel-throwing and kiln-firing, which made a much wider range of vessel shapes available to ordinary people. Jars used for cooking and storage were the most common vessel type prior to the arrival of the Romans in Britain, but from 43 CE onwards the range of vessels was supplemented by table wares, comprising of bowls, dishes and drinking vessels, serving vessels, such as flagons, and specialised vessels that were new to Britain, such as mortaria for preparing food, and amphorae, which were used to transport imported staples, such as; olive oil, wine, fish products and occasionally fruit (Cooper et al., 2018). Imported table wares were the only vessels that, occasionally, showed signs of repair, meaning even these must have been affordable to most. The British style of ‘Roman’ pottery is distinguishable by a few principle features; red glossy finish, the use of stamps and rouletting, barbotine and mould-formed applied ornament, manufacture within moulds or over forming devices (Hayes, 1997: 12).

This vessel likely would have been used for cooking – note the oxidation. Image: E81.284, Otago Museum, Dunedin.

Typical drinking vessel, seen in the small handle and pedestaled base. Note the oxidation on this vessel is from the firing process. Image: E36.313, Otago Museum, Dunedin.

A rather peculiar shaped bottle – note the excavation location and previous accession location on the vessel. Image: F81.216, Otago Museum, Dunedin.

The origin of this jar was easy – see the excavation location written on the front. Image: E26.48, Otago Museum, Dunedin.

Great example of form 36 terra sigillata fine ware, obvious by the red, glossy finish and decoration around the rim – barbotine applique style with ivy leaves. Image: E48.100, Otago Museum, Dunedin.

Whilst I was able to link artefacts from the Otago Museum to the excavations they probably came from, it wasn’t easy, and it highlighted the problem of museum collections from archaeological excavations with no provenance information. Although I looked at Romano-British pottery, it’s a problem that can be applied to museum collections around the world, including those from excavations in New Zealand. Here in Christchurch, research has been undertaken on the Canterbury Museum’s collection of artefacts from the Redcliffs site complex to associate the artefacts with their archaeological provenance and show the value that museum collections can hold (Kerby 2017).

And of course, when we’re talking about museum collections it’s important to acknowledge the fact that many artefacts housed in museum collections were acquired by ill-means. There has increasingly been more conversation arising around the issue of repatriation. Repatriation is the process of returning an asset, an item of symbolic value or a person – voluntarily or forcibly – to its owner or their place of origin or citizenship. The placement of Kōiwi Tangata and Toi Moko in international museums is a major topic in the issue of repatriation. A programme was established in 2003 as the Karanga Aotearoa Repatriation Programme at Te Papa, mandated by the New Zealand government and supported by iwi. Repatriations have been conducted from 26 separate instutions, in Great Britain, the United States, the Netherlands, Argentina, Australia, and Germany. Since 2003 Te Papa has repatriated 420 Māori and Moriori ancestral remains from overseas institutions, with an estimated 600 ancestral remains still to be returned to New Zealand (Herewini, 2008).

During our excavations across Christchurch we’ve accumulated tens of thousands of artefacts. Whilst we currently store the artefacts, there is a possibility that one day they may end up in a museum for everyone to see. Understanding the problems that face museums when it comes to collections from old excavations means we can make sure we don’t repeat past archaeologist’s mistakes, and that our artefacts never end up in a museum collection with the only information being “found in Christchurch”.

Thanks to the Otago Museum for the use of their images.

Joanne Jones

References

Cooper, N. J., Johnson, E., Sterry, M. J. (2018) Eating in and Dining Out in Roman Leicester: Exploring Pottery Consumption Patterns Across the Town and its Suburbs. Internet Archaeology, 50.

De La Bédoyère, G. (2006) Roman Britain: a new history. New York: Thames & Hudson.

Hayes, J. W. (1997) Handbook of Mediterranean Roman Pottery. London, British Museum Press.

Herewini, T. H. (2008) “The Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa (Te Papa) and the Repatriation of Köiwi Tangata (Mäori and Moriori skeletal remains) and Toi Moko (Mummified Maori Tattooed Heads),” International Journal of Cultural Property. Cambridge University Press, 15(4), 405–406. doi: 10.1017/S0940739108080399.

Kerby, G. (2017) ‘Redcliffs Archaeological History and Material Culture’, MA thesis, Otago University.

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