The Shape of Things

On Wednesday I celebrated my six year anniversary working at Underground Overground Archaeology. I did plan on marking this milestone by staying up all Tuesday night to bake a special six-tiered chocolate cake to bring in to work and share with the team, but because of an out-of-town work assignment, this didn’t happen. Oh well, might get to bake a seven tiered cake next year.

I really wanted to celebrate my six year stint at UOA by writing this week’s blog about my absolute favourite, or at least the most memorable, Christchurch site that I have had the privilege to dig over my six year tour of duty, but I struggled to nail down just one site, because there have been so many, and each of these sites memorable in their own unique ways. So instead, I thought I’d share some of the most memorable archaeological shapes that I have met along the way. When put in context, each shape is like a puzzle piece that holds a little bit of the picture, (or at least the promise of a little bit of the picture), of what life was really like for the people of the past who made  that shape, who left behind their mark in the landscape. Please enjoy.

A small shape from one of the most memorable, and largest of our Lichfield Street sites. Small shapes, round or square, we usually interpret as postholes – those marks left in the ground where the posts of long demolished fences, buildings, or other such structures once stood. The magic of these small shapes often only materialises later on when we are out of the field, when with available historic plans at hand, (and usually a bit of creative guesswork) we can connect the posthole dots on our site plans, and work out where fences and buildings were located. Gotta love the humble posthole. Image: Hamish Williams.

Helen, I really do miss investigating archaeological shapes with you. Image: Hamish Williams.

Larger shapes, whether they be square, rectangular, circular, or like this one, irregular/amorphous, more often than not turn out to be rubbish pits. These are by far the most common type of feature that we find on historic period Christchurch sites – because digging a hole in the back yard and burying your trash was so much easier and cheaper than paying a man to come and take it away. I especially liked the shape of this one, after so many rubbish pit circles and rectangles this one was simply a breath of fresh air. Image: Hamish Williams.

This rubbish pit had a nice rectangular shape, and contained some interesting 19th century rubbish, but it was memorable for me mostly because at the time of finding this one I had a really gouty foot and I did a lot of limping around site from shape to shape. Two weeks of blue powerade and steak and cheese pie morning smokos is less than ideal, I now know, but boy, they were really good pies. Everything in moderation folks. Image: Hamish Williams.

A nice, little, sort-of square rubbish pit. Gouty foot at right of image. Image: Hamish Williams.

Thought at first that this big rectangle was a rubbish pit…..

But then we half sectioned it and found (most of) a timber triangle. The rimu timbers in this large posthole were well preserved and well braced – they clearly supported a big structure. There were in total three such rectangular shaped pits from this site that contained timber triangles – all of these found in a nice neat line. Both images: Hamish Williams.

The two square shapes in the foreground turned out to be long drop pits, and both were memorable because they were some of the first such long drop pits in the city that we got a chance to investigate – they went pretty deep. When they filled up one shape they dug another right next to it (or so we reckon) and then they filled that one up. Some shapes are dirty. Bonus points if you can tell us which of the earthquake damaged buildings in the background was demolished with explosives. Image: Hamish Williams.

These two shapes I liked because they were found so close together, but the shape on the right (a sewer pipeline trench) was made about 30 years after the other one. So close, but oh so far, they almost met, but didn’t – ships passing in the night. Image: Hamish Williams.

These two square shapes I found some time back on a small residential site in Phillipstown, within the footprint of where an 1890s villa once stood. Both shapes were memorable because of their nice clean, straight sides (pits that were dug with a spade not a shovel, me thinks) and that upon investigation both shapes ended up being related to the construction of this 1890s villa – used for mixing up the lime mortar used to build the villa’s brick chimney. I investigated both of shapes in terrible rainy conditions, on an evil wet autumn day. Well worth it though. Image: Hamish Williams.

This square-ish shape with bulged-in brick lined sides Angel found. He asked me to site for a second opinion on how to best go about excavating it (you can investigate archaeological shapes in any number of different ways depending on what kind of information you are after). Turned out to be a brick lined cesspit filled with all sorts of goodies – which we decided would be best going at it not from the top down, but instead we attacked it from the side (classic textbook outflanking manoeuvre). Learn more about the investigation of this curious shape here . Image: Hamish Williams.

Is psychedelic a shape? Better go ask Alice, when she’s 10 feet tall. Image: Hamish Williams.

Rectangular rubbish pit and brick lined well – possibly my two favourite shapes of 2017. Another one from Angel’s site: both shapes ended up teaching us a lot about water supply in 19th century Christchurch. Learn more about that curious subject here .

The shape of a shape is sometimes, but not always, made the way it is because of its intended function. This 1881 brick sewer located deep below Moorhouse Avenue that I got a chance to look at with SCIRT some years ago had an oviform – or egg-shaped cross-sectional shape. Oviform sewers go way back to Roman times: this shape means that irrespective of whether the sewer is carrying a small or large amount of sewage, that sewage will always be travelling at more of a ‘self-cleansing’ velocity. Absolutely the stinkiest archaeological shape I ever had the privilege to know, this was one of the most interesting. Find out more about the repair of this earthquake damaged section of 19th century sewer in one of my earliest blog posts here.

A cross-section through the Ferry Road brick barrel stormwater sewer – built in 1875. The biggest circle – and almost a perfect one. Image: Hamish Williams.

 

What shape is your favourite? We’d love to know.

Hamish Williams.

 

Life Before Plastic: Packaging

Last time on the blog we introduced our Life Before Plastic blog series, and today we’re continuing the series by discussing packaging. A lot of what we find in the archaeological record are containers, which are a form of packaging. These include glass and ceramic bottles that held beverages, foods, medicines, or household products.

A few of the many different types of glass and ceramic containers we come across. Top row, from left: ginger beer bottle, syphon ink bottle, Bordeaux bottle, Lamont patent aerated waters bottle, wide mouth pickle jar. Bottom row: penny ink, jam jar, capers bottle, Ayer’s hair vigour, Eno’s Fruit Salts. Image: C. Watson.

These are items where the packaging is essential to the transport and storage of the item. Things like liquids, jams, and pickles need to be contained within something; they physically can’t be transported by just being carried in cupped hands (or at least there’s not going to be much left over if they are). I tried to think of examples of packaging that we find in the 19th century archaeological record where the packaging isn’t essential but struggled to think of any. There are tin cans, matchboxes and hoop iron from barrels- but similar to bottles they’re generally essential for the transportation and storage of the products they contained.

More packaging: tin cans, matchboxes and hoop iron from barrels. Image: C. Watson.

The contrast to modern society is significant. These days, almost everything we buy is packaged, whether it needs to be or not. The packet of biscuits, the box of pens, the cellophane wrap around a birthday card, the plastic container with the new plug for the bathroom sink- try to think of an item you bought recently that wasn’t packaged. Sometimes that packaging is essential, but a lot of the time it’s not.

 

There are a lot of ridiculous packaging examples on the internet, but I think this one is the worst. Image: Bored Panda.

When we compare 19th century packaging to packaging today, one of the big differences between the two is that there is a lot more non-essential packaging today than there was 150 years ago. We can look at packaging as fulfilling a number of roles. Some of these are essential- they make the transportation and storage of items possible, e.g. bottles or barrels that held liquids or products like flour that need containment. Some of these are non-essential- they make the transportation and storage of items easier, e.g. the cardboard box my laptop came in protected the laptop from being damaged during transportation, made transportation and storage easier as it could be stacked with other boxes of laptops, and kept components such as the power cable and user manuals together with the laptop, but the laptop could have been transported and stored without it. There are also other roles packaging plays that we view as being essential, such as the packaging of medical equipment in plastic to keep it sanitised.

The other big difference between 19th century packaging and packing today is cost. Prior to 1846 tin cans were manufactured at a rate of six per hour. After that it was at a rate of 60 per hour. In 2016 Ball Corp. was producing six million cans a day, at an hourly rate of 250,000. After 1879 cardboard boxes could be produced at a rate of 750 sheets an hour. I couldn’t get a precise statistic on cardboard box production rates nowadays, but in 2017 about 240 billion square metres of cardboard packaging was produced. Today packaging is mass-manufactured on an extraordinary scale, making it extremely cheap. In the 19th century packaging was either manufactured by hand or in rudimental factories, likely making it much more expensive.

The expense of packaging meant that unless items needed to be contained, they weren’t individually packaged. Packaging still occurred, but in a very different system to today. Products like flour were transported from the mill to the general grocers store in barrels for most of the 19th century, which were replaced by sacks in the latter half of the century. Many products – e.g. flour, biscuits, grains, rice –  could be purchased from stores in bulk: either by the barrel or sack, or weighed out into a smaller amount that was wrapped in paper and placed in a basket to carry home. Once home these were unwrapped and placed in various tins, containers and bins for storage. Meat was also sold wrapped in paper. Items that weren’t foodstuffs were generally sold loose – blankets, cooking pots, knives, etc – weren’t packaged like they often are today.

There are still aspects of that system today. Most of our fruit and vegetables are sold by weight or quantity at the supermarket and placed into bags that we take them home in. If I go to Bin Inn or a wholefoods shop, I can buy flour and grains by weight, and I can still buy things like towels and saucepans loose at Briscoes. However, for the most part, most items I buy are individually packaged, and I then place those individually packaged items in a bag to take home. Once I get home I either keep the items in their packaging and use them from that- for example my bag of flour sits on a shelf in my pantry, or I take the item out of the packaging and throw the packaging away, like the cardboard box my new electric blanket came in.

The low cost of packaging means we’ve created a system where the cost of packaging an item is such a minute contributor to the overall cost of the item that we can justify packaging absolutely everything. Which would be fine, except that most of that packaging is plastic that won’t decompose for thousands of years.

The second most ridiculous packaging example I found. Because avocado skin is apparently not good enough packaging in Canadian supermarkets. Image: Bored Panda.

In the 19th century packaging was expensive, meaning every effort was made to reuse containers. The various crates, barrels, sacks and bags that items were transported in were used and reused over and over again. A really good example of the reuse of containers in the 19th century is the glass bottle reuse system. Prior to 1922 there were no bottle manufacturing factories in New Zealand, and all glass bottles were imported into the country from overseas. This meant there were a limited number of bottles in circulation in New Zealand for the entirety of the 19th century. In addition to only having a limited number of bottles, bottles were expensive to manufacture. The cost to manufacture a bottle was anywhere from two thirds to double the cost of the beverage it contained (Woff 2014:17).

As a result, once a bottled product had been purchased and consumed, that bottle was returned to the company it was purchased from or sold to a bottle merchant. From there the bottle was washed, refilled, then sold again containing a new product. Paper labels were placed on the bottles to advertise the product they contained. Some bottles were reused for many different products, such as black beer bottles and ring seal bottles. Other products needed a specific type of bottle, such as aerated water bottles.

The lifecycle of a glass bottle. Image: B. Woff (2014: 15).

Due to the carbonation of aerated waters, these couldn’t be contained in normal black beer and ring seal bottles. Instead they were bottled into the likes of torpedo, Lamont and Codd bottles that were specifically designed to hold carbonated products. As these bottles were presumably more expensive to purchase, aerated water manufacturers did not want bottles they had purchased being used by competitors. Bottles were trade marked to indicate they belonged to specific aerated water manufacturers and that they were to be used only by that company and not anyone else.

Half of a J. Whittington aerated waters bottle. Whittington used a ship as his trade mark on his bottles. Image: Underground Overground Archaeology.

When we compare 19th century packaging to packaging today there are both positives and negatives to the way things used to be done. The biggest positive would be that most forms of packaging were reused over and over again. Of course, at some point they were thrown away, that’s why we find them in the archaeological record. But for the most part that wasn’t after only one use. Today so much of our packaging is single-use, and it simply gets thrown away after it’s served its purpose. You could say the 19th century system of reuse is somewhat similar to our modern system of recycling, but in recycling new packaging is still being made and packaging is still single-use. The biggest negative to 19th century packaging is how unhygienic it could be. Imagine buying biscuits from a barrel at the store but knowing that they’d probably been touched by every hand that had dipped into the barrel to purchase biscuits before you. Having things stored in packaging that wasn’t airtight would mean products were more likely to be contaminated with bacteria and mould, or for weevils to get into the flour. As I said earlier, there’s a good reason that modern medical equipment is packaged in plastic to keep it sanitised.

A possible example of bottle reuse in action. I say possible as both labels on the bottle were for Robert Porter, a London bottler that sold Bass Pale Ale Light Beer for export (Hughes 2006: 119). But that doesn’t mean they were placed at the same time. This bottle may have been reused multiple times for Bass and Co.’s beer. Image: C. Watson

It’s hard to imagine our society ever going back to a system where most packaging was reused. There are little incentives for corporations to put in place packaging reuse systems when packaging is so cheap to manufacture. In addition to the expense of a reuse system, individual packaging allows companies to easily brand their products. These days single-use packaging is marketing, and the containers that hold products are cleverly designed to entice us to buy them. It’s hard to imagine companies being willing to give up packaging if it’s going to affect their marketing strategy and potential sales. But when we see images like the one below, perhaps we need to consider if costs and sales are what’s most important.

A sea of packaging. Image: The Jane Goodall Institute New Zealand. 

Clara Watson

 

References

Hughes, D. 2006. A Bottle of Guinness please: The colourful history of Guinness. Phimboy, Berkshire.

Woff, B. 2014. Bottle Reuse and Archaeology: Evidence from the Site of a Bottle Merchants Business. Unpublished honours thesis Archaeology Program, La Trobe University, Melbourne.

Cocaine Cough Medicine and Liquid Mercury Eye Drops

It’s that time of year again. The days are getting shorter, the nights are getting colder, and the number of people coughing and sneezing in the office is increasing day by day. Flu season is here, and with it comes the variety of cough mixtures, cough lollies, honey and lemon teas, and other concoctions all designed to try and make it through the day without your colleagues wanting to evict you from the office.

Never be the person who sits in the corner of the office coughing all day. Image: Meme Generator.

Our Victorian forebearers also struggled with the common cold, but not to fear, they too had cough medicine. We’ve talked about pharmaceutical products on the blog before (see here, and here and here), mainly about how most Victorian medicines claimed to be made from ‘secret recipes’ that could not only cure your cough, but also improve your complexion, grow back your receding hairline, stop a heart attack, cure epilepsy and fix any and all gastro related incidents (I’m exaggerating a little bit here, but only a little). Every time we research a new Victorian medicine it always feels like the claims get more and more extraordinary. So, without further ado, here’s five more Victorian medicine bottles that we’ve found on archaeological sites.

Are you wanting something that will help with consumption, wasting diseases, nervous debility, indigestion, constipation, dyspepsia, cholera, rickets, bone softening, bronchitis, coughs, colds and more? Then look no further than Maltine. Maltine was an extract of malted barley, wheat and oats that was highly fortified with alcohol. The product was first created by John Carnrick (1837-1903), a pharmacologist who invented a range of different pharmaceutical substances (Sullivan 2009). The product was marketed firstly as a nutritional supplement for those who were struggling to eat due to illness but, like most Victorian medicines, could be used to cure any and all ailments. Along with plain Maltine, there was Maltine with Cod Liver Oil, Maltine with Peptones, and Maltine with Coca Wine. For those of you not familiar with Victorian medicines, coca wine is literally wine and cocaine. It’s no surprise that Maltine with Coca Wine was the most popular product, selling around 10,000 bottles a year in the late nineteenth century (Sullivan 2009).

This bottle of Maltine was made by the London-based Maltine Manufacturing Company. The Maltine Manufacturing Company had been established by 1882 and was advertising the sale of its products in New Zealand from 1886 (New Zealand Mail 26/03/1886: 28). Image: C. Watson.

When I said before that Maltine could cure any and all ailments, I wasn’t exaggerating. Image: New Zealand Mail 9/4/1886: 28.

When contemplating which particular brand of medicine to take, appearance is an important thing to consider. Luckily Alfred Bishop’s Granular Citrate of Magnesia is “perfectly white and delicately clean” meaning there’s no worries there. Bishop’s advertisements for his product talk a lot about the medicine’s looks; in another the granules are described as “handsome in appearance”. Now, the fact that Bishop focused so much on the appearance of his product in advertisements is somewhat hilarious given that his Granular Citrate of Magnesia was actually just a laxative. The product likely contained a mixture of sodium bicarbonate and tartaric acid, common ingredients in laxatives of the day (Era Formulary 1893). Of course, the product wasn’t obviously advertised as a laxative, rather it was said to help “stomach ailments”, but we all know what that means.

A handsome bottle for a handsome product. Alfred Bishop, based in London, established his business in 1857 and sold a range of different citrates and pharmaceutical products. Image: C. Watson.

Speaking of laxatives, here’s another good one: J. C. Eno’s Effervescing Fruit Salts. Eno’s Fruit Salts were created by the pharmacist James Crossley Eno in the mid-nineteenth century and were advertised as a remedy for constipation, bowel complaints and general health issues (Colonist 11/07/1907, Otago Daily Times 20/10/1893). Similar to Bishop’s citrate magnesia, the product was a mixture of sodium bicarbonate and tartaric acid, with a bit of Rochelle salt thrown in as well (Era Formulary 1893). I’m not going to say much more about the product, because the advertisement below really speaks for itself. Who would have thought a laxative was so crucial to the development of the British Empire.

Eno’s Fruit Salts bottle. Eno began selling his products in Newcastle from the 1850s, but it wasn’t until 1876 that he trademarked the ‘Fruit Salt’ brand. Image: C. Watson.

Possibly the best medicine advertisement ever. Image: Otago Daily Times.

I’m very sceptical about the claims made by this next product. Singleton’s Golden Eye Ointment could cure all eye disorders, everything from helping sore eyes, to getting rid of styes and ulcers, helping inflammation, fixing weak and watery eyes, and restoring eyelashes (Evening Star 18/08/1929; New Zealand Mail 25/11/1903; 21/12/1899; Press 18/06/1936). In fact the ointment was such an amazing product that it was able to cure a large number of British soldiers who eyes were injured from the hot desert sand in Egypt (Barker 2019). The reason why I’m so sceptical is because the ointment contained quicksilver (The Mirror 1834). Quicksilver is of course liquid mercury. The mercury was heated with nitric acid until the product evaporated, leaving behind salts. These salts were then mixed with clarified butter to produce an ointment that was rubbed on the eyelids at night. I’m not a chemist or a doctor, but I imagine rubbing anything that contains mercury on your eyelids is not going to be safe.

This is known as a pedestal pot. The ointment was placed on the top of the pedestal and secured with a layer of wax paper. Whilst most of the other pharmaceutical product we’ve mentioned in this blog were invented in the nineteenth century, the recipe for this one dates back to the sixteenth century. Dr. Johnson, a physician operating in Elizabethan times, was apparently the creator of the ointment and passed the recipe to George Hind in his will. The recipe was then passed on from generation to generation, with the name Singleton being added when Thomas Singleton married into the family (Barker 2019). Image: C. Watson.

Whilst the nineteenth century was renowned for its patent medicines, that made extraordinary claims despite containing dubious ingredients, it was also a period of many medical advances. One of those advances was germ theory and the realisation that cleanliness and sterilisation would help prevent infection and disease. An important background figure in these advances was Dr. Frederick Crace Calvert, a Manchester analytical chemist. Calvert was the first person to commercially produce carbolic acid (phenol), doing so under his company F. C. Calvert and Co. Calvert’s phenol products were used by Joseph Lister in his work on antiseptic surgery, and had many far-reaching applications (Grace’s Guide 2017).

Caption: Established in 1859, F. C. Calvert and Co. made various household disinfectants and cleaners using their carbolic acid, along with medicinal products. This bottle likely contained a disinfectant. Image: C. Watson.

So there you have it, medicine in the nineteenth century. A mixture of products that actually helped, products that might do something, and products that will probably poison you in the long run.

Clara Watson

The Curious Case of the Red Building

The two-storey red building in the centre of Christchurch was like many typical pre-1900 buildings that had been modified over the years. The veranda was enclosed to provide more rooms within the building and multiple other extensions and rooms had been added over the years. The building had even been divided into flats which is not a strange sight for such a large old building in the centre of Christchurch. What was curious about this building was the saltbox cottage butted against its east exterior wall.

The west elevation of the two-storey building at the time of demolition. Due to the proximity of the fence and the overgrown trees detailed photography of this elevation was restricted, so this drawing is the best way to show this elevation. Figure: J. Hearfield.

The south elevation of the saltbox cottage joined to the main two-storey house on the left. Image: P. Mitchell.

There was a building built on this property between 1877 and June 1881. Through historical research we were able to pin down the occupation of this land to this time period due to a map in 1877 showing no dwellings recorded on the town section (Strouts, 1877) and June 1881 was when this building named ‘Gidleigh’ is first mentioned in newspapers as a property advertised for let (Press 3/6/1881:1). During this time the property was owned by Church Property Trustees (CPT) who are likely to have developed the property before renting it out to Mr Neville George Barnett. Until 1884 Barnett consistently advertised his services as an organist and professor of music at this address. In February 1884 Barnett accepted a position in Auckland and relocated to the North Island (Star 16/2/1884:2). In 1884 Barnett assigned his lease to a Mr George Frederick Tendall, who had been living next door at ‘Penwynholme’, with his family (LINZ, 1850: 340; Press 12/9/1882:1).

Within the first year of leasing the property Mr George Frederick Tendall and his wife Mrs G. F. Tendall (Eliza), built an extension, to be used as a school room (Lyttelton Times 3/5/1884:7).

Mrs Tendall begs to announce, she is about to have built a large and commodious Schoolroom, which will enable her to take an increased number of pupils. She offers a thorough education, including religious instruction, in the subjects usually taught in private schools…” (Lyttelton Times 3/5/1884:7).

Post-1910s additions to the buildings included an extension on the north elevation of the two-storey building that was completed before 1955 and a lean-to on the east elevation of the 1884 extension. During this time the buildings were converted into seven flats, which included the addition of more kitchens and bathrooms and altered the larger rooms with partition walls to create multiple rooms. At some point after 1955 the front veranda on the west elevation of the two-storey building was converted into two more rooms with the addition of a French door on the new west elevation. These additions changed the number of rooms in the two-storey building from the original eight rooms to 22 rooms and in the saltbox cottage it changed the number of rooms from four rooms to five rooms.

Aerial imagery from 1955 shows the north extension and the front veranda still in place. Image: National Library of New Zealand.

The ground-floor layout of the buildings before it was demolished in 2018. Figure: J. Hearfield.

Research into the history of this site provided no insight into what came first – the two-storey building or the cottage. No mention of the cottage could be found in the historical documents. During the recording of the building they both had similar building techniques and materials. These included:

Wide timber floorboards, measuring to 150 mm, are common in pre-1900 buildings and were found within both buildings. Image: P. Mitchell.

Split laths and plaster in the walls and ceilings of both buildings, which is another characteristic of a mid-19th century dwelling; not usually seen in buildings built after about 1880. Image: P. Mitchell.

Example of the bricks found in both buildings in all three original fireplaces. The bricks had frogs but did not have any makers marks and appeared to be pressed but not machine made. Image: J. Hearfield.

These three building materials found throughout the two buildings indicate they were built before 1900 as spilt lath and plaster, large timber floorboards and pressed bricks are common in buildings built in New Zealand before 1900 (Arden and Bowman 2004; 163,170 & 171). With no evidence in the history it could only be hypothesised at this point that both buildings were originally built within the same time period.

It wasn’t until the buildings were demolished that the truth was revealed. Underneath the floor of both buildings was a shared concrete and limestone ring foundation. This provided us with the evidence that these two buildings would have been built at the same time. But how unusual for a large building to have a small cottage butted against it.

An example of the foundations used for both buildings. Image: J. Hearfield.

After much discussion, it became clear exactly why there were two buildings built at the same time on this section – it was actually one large dwelling. Within the two-storey building there was no fireplace with an opening large enough to be the kitchen fireplace. The only fireplace large enough for cooking was in the cottage. This led us to the conclusion that there could have been an internal door from the hall in the two-storey building into the cottage. This means that the cottage would have been used as a utilitarian annex and functioned as the kitchen, scullery and servant quarters.

Newspaper article talking about the lease of the property and mentions servant bedroom and scullery (Lyttelton Times 9/6/1881:8).

What we have concluded may have been the original layout of the building in 1881. Image: J. Hearfield.

Whilst many pre-1900 buildings show evidence of a divide between public and private spheres, including areas that were designated for servants such as the kitchen and their living quarters, this usually is shown in the difference between decorative features such as skirting boards and architraves. However, this building took it to a whole other level by making the servant quarters look like a completely different building. Perhaps this was to give the servants a feeling of having their own space or else was it the owner wanting separatism between the family and their servants?

Jamie-Lee Hearfield

References

Arden, S., and Bowman, I., 2004. The New Zealand Period House: A conservation guide. Random House New
Zealand, Auckland.

LINZ, 1850. Canterbury Land District Deeds index – A – Town sections and town reserves register. Archives New
Zealand, Christchurch office.

Lyttelton Times. [online] Available at: http://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz. [accessed 07/18].

Press. [online] Available at: http://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz. [accessed 07/18].

Star. [online] Available at: http://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz. [accessed 07/18].

Strouts, F., 1877. Map of Christchurch,

Black Beers and Ring Seals: the underdogs of the artefact world

This week’s blog was inspired by a Facebook comment on our previous blog post. You might remember that in the last blog we went through some of the artefacts we’ve uncovered over the past six months. One set of artefacts we included were black beer bottles of various shapes. In the blog post I wrote that black beer bottles weren’t particularly interesting or unusual as we find them all the time, but I included them in the blog as I liked the photo of the different shapes lined up together. One of our reader’s commented back saying that she found it interesting learning more about black beer bottles and the range of products they held.

This comment somewhat surprised me as I don’t always find black beer bottles the most interesting of artefacts, and led me to ponder the value we place on ‘rarity’. Does an artefact have more value if it’s unusual? Does an artefact have less value if it’s common? Arguably, for archaeologists, the value of an artefact is in its ability to tell us about the people who used it and discarded it – rarity is the realm of collectors and antique dealers. Yet rarity and commonness does have its use in interpretation – artefacts that are commonly found likely represent objects that were cheap, easily available, or fashionable. Artefacts that are more unusual suggest there were other factors behind their purchase. This means the ‘rarity’ or ‘commonness’ of an artefact is useful for interpreting what an artefact means, what it can say about the people who owned it. Yet when it comes to the physical object itself, there’s just not the same feeling of excitement and intrigue when pulling a broken black beer bottle base out of a bag when compared to pulling out a complete porcelain vase. You could say, that all artefacts are valuable, but some artefacts are more valuable than others. Putting that pondering aside, this week on the blog we’re going to focus on two of the artefacts we find in nearly every archaeological site: black beer and ring seal bottles.

Just last week one of our archaeologists exclaimed, “Black beer bottles! Again! Every site! Black beer bottles! We must have thousands of them!”. And I’d say we probably do. Black beer bottles and ring seal bottles are the most common glass artefacts that we find. For those of you who aren’t familiar with these bottles, this is what they look like:

Or at least this is what they normally look like by the time we get to them. If we’re lucky we find complete bottles but most of the time we’re just left with tops and bases. Image: C. Watson.

Black beer bottles appear black (they’re actually a dark olive colour) and ring seal bottles are green in colour (like the one in the top right corner). Black beer bottles come in pint and quart sizes in two different shapes, normal and squat. We refer to them as small, tall, small squat and large squat, but that’s just our terminology and you might see different names for the shapes. Ring seal bottles look like a champagne bottle (they also get called that, along with ring seal beer and ring seal wine bottles). They typically come in pint and quart sizes, although we’ve found miniature ones before as well. In addition to these we also get stout, Bordeaux, hock or rhine, and cognac bottle shapes.

This image brings to mind the song ‘99 bottles of beer on the wall’ (you can thank me later for getting it stuck in your head). Some of the many black beer and ring seal type bottles we get. From left to right: stout, tall black beer, small black beer, large squat black beer, small squat black beer, small ring seal, large ring seal, cognac, Bordeaux. Image: C. Watson.

While many of these names are also a type of alcoholic beverage (such as cognac), they’re used to describe the shape of the bottle rather than the specific contents. Typically, these styles of bottles were used for all types of alcohol, be that beer, wine or spirits. The bottles were  usually imported into the country with the alcoholic content already inside  – we found hundreds of still sealed bottles that contained Pale Ale at a bonded warehouse site (presumably they went off on the journey over and that’s why they were thrown out). Once in New Zealand the bottles were sold, the contents consumed, and the empty bottles collected by local brewers who refilled the bottles with their own product and re-labelled them. Alternatively, the bottles were just thrown out leaving us to find them quite a few years later. Prior to 1922 all glass bottles were imported into New Zealand, meaning there was a limited supply of bottles and companies often advertised in newspapers for more. Bottle shortages affected all businesses that sold bottled products, not just brewers, which led to companies bottling their product in whatever type of bottle they could get their hands on. In other parts of the country, ring seal and black beer bottles have been found with labels for ginger beer, lemonade, and lemon essence, although in Christchurch we’ve mostly only come across labels for alcoholic drinks.

A typical sight in a nineteenth century newspaper: an advertisement for a company wanting wine and beer bottles.

Some of the labelled ring seal and black beer bottles we’ve found to date in Christchurch: a Bass Ale (that had a message inside), a Crown Brewery, and a Treble London Stout. Image: J. Garland and C. Watson.

When we analyse these bottles, we look at several different attributes. Many of these focus on describing the physical appearance of the bottle – what colour it is, the shape of the different portions including the finish (top), the neck, the shoulder, the body and the base (who knew there were so many parts to a bottle), and which portions are present. Recording these allows us to see what variation exists within a bottle type, and (where possible) to link those variations to specific processes in the manufacture of the bottle.

Typical variation in black beer bottle finishes and bases. Looking at the bottle finishes we have a finish that tapers up on the left, a finish that is flat with a bead or collar below the flat section in the middle, and one that is curved with a skirt below the curved section on the right. The bases are a bit easier to see the differences. The one on the left has a conical profile whilst the one on the right is more domed and has a small pimple off-set from the centre. Image: C. Watson.

We also record how the bottle was manufactured.  In the nineteenth century, manufacture of glass bottles was done by hand, with the glass-blower blowing the bottle into a mould. Different types of moulds were used, with each mould leaving different types of seams on the body of the mould. Black beer bottles were normally formed in single or three-piece dip moulds, whilst ring seals were either dip-moulded or turn-moulded. Occasionally they were made in a two-piece cup bottom mould, but this is less common. The types of moulds used by glass blowers changed over the nineteenth century, giving us an indication of when the bottle was likely made. If you’re interested in bottle manufacture, I definitely recommend checking out the SHA Website as it’s an absolute treasure trove of information.

Some of the many moulds used by nineteenth century glass makers. The glass was blown into the mould to form the body and base of the bottle, with the finish applied by hand (finishing the bottle- get it). Images taken from the SHA Website.

Finally, we record any embossing or labels on the bottle. When these are present, they can tell us either who made the bottle or what it likely contained. This in turn can help us to date when the bottle was likely manufactured. Unfortunately, paper labels don’t normally survive being in the ground for over a hundred years and we don’t find them that often. Embossing is more common, normally found on the base of black beer bottles.

Sometimes these marks are just a letter or a number, other times they’re a manufacturer’s initials. Two marks that turn up time and time again are those for Richard Cooper and Thomas Wood. Cooper and Wood were partners at the Portobello glass works in Scotland between 1859 and 1866. During that time the bases of their bottles were embossed with “COOPER & WOOD”.  In 1866 the pair broke their partnership and divided the company and factory into two separate glass works. Cooper retained the larger portion of the glass works and operated under the name Richard Cooper and Co until 1895, when the firm became a limited company. Thomas Wood built a new glass works next to the old factories, remaining in business until 1920. Richard Cooper and Thomas Wood both continued to emboss the bases of their bottles using their surname and Portobello.

Cooper and Wood black beer bottle bases. The one on the left was made by Thomas Wood whilst the one on the right was made by Richard Cooper. Both were likely manufactured between 1866 and 1885 after the separate glass works were established. Image: C. Watson.

So there you have it, black beer and ring seal bottles. Not the most unusual or unique of artefacts but still interesting in their own right. And in many ways the fact that these bottles are so common is what makes them valuable, as they represent an everyday quintessential item of nineteenth century life.

One of my favourite photos from the nineteenth century. Entitled “Scandinavian picnic with beer bottles”, it looks like a lot more fun than any picnic I’ve ever been on. I can count at least 23 ring seal bottles in the photograph. From the looks of it they’re all quart sized meaning there’s about 20 litres of beer being or waiting to be drunk. Not bad for an afternoon’s effort. Image: Scandinavian picnic with beer bottles, Lowry Bay. Ref: 1/2-052226-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/23033621.  

Clara Watson