Hats Off to the Past. Coats off to the Future. 2019: A Year in Review

And just like that, another year is over. This year’s been a big one for us. We’ve excavated some large sites, found some cool artefacts, and on top of all that we moved offices. This fortnight on the blog we’re looking back on the year that was 2019. The blog will be back at the start of February next year. Until then, Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to everyone.

Probably the biggest thing to happen for us as a company in 2019 was moving offices. If we flash back to the start of the year, the photo on the left shows the lab in our old office and the photo on the right is the lab in our new office. The question, “when are we moving?” was asked at least daily for the first few months of the year.

It took a bit longer than we thought but come May we finally made the big move. Here’s some photos showing the office just before we moved, versus how it is today. There’s still some more shelving and minor bits and pieces to go, but it’s great to have 80% of our artefacts now stored on shelves and a purpose-built artefact washing area.

One of the best things about our new office is that it’s big enough for us to hold exhibitions in. For Heritage Festival this year we held an open office night complete with talks about being an archaeologist and displays on some of our best sites (top photos). 2019 was a busy year for us in terms of public events. We gave talks at the Teece Museum and to the Workers Education Association, along with being part of Pecha Kucha Night for Archaeology Week (pictured bottom left). We’ve also been lucky enough to work with the Ng King family and their restoration works at the Ng King Brothers Chinese Market Garden Settlement (shoes from the settlement pictured bottom right).

The other perk of the new office is that it’s big enough for office badminton.

It wasn’t all badminton and moving. We did also do some archaeology! The best feature of 2019 by far would be this one. What you’re looking at here is an old creek bed or gully that was infilled during the 19th century, had 20th century features cutting into 19th century features, and a 21st century trench dug through the middle. The complexity of the feature made it both challenging and rewarding to record and interpret.

A few of the many, many features we excavated this year. See Hamish’s blog from a few months back for even more!

Of course, with features comes artefacts. We already did a wee summary of some of our best finds this year, and have also shared cool artefacts throughout the year. Whilst we love finding pretty things (we’re a bit like magpies), we also like thinking about what the social context the artefact existed in was (something we did in a more abstract way with our Life Before Plastic blog series).

And with archaeology, comes animals. For an office of cat lovers, I’m disappointed that nobody shared their site cat photos with me. Looks like birds and dogs won our hearts this year (#moaforbirdoftheyear2020).

And with archaeology at the Underground Overground office comes Malaise. A few of our funnier moments caught on camera.

That’s all for now folks. Merry Christmas!

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.

 

Conference uncovered

For a change of pace, a group from Underground Overground Archaeology spent last week out of the office, and out of Christchurch at the New Zealand Archaeological Association Conference on Stewart Island. The New Zealand Archaeological Association (known affectionately as the NZAA, and not to be confused with the automobile association) is the national organisation for archaeology, and is the primary group devoted to promoting the archaeology of Aotearoa. It’s membership includes both professional archaeologists like ourselves, but also interested amateurs, other heritage professionals and groups with a vested interest in archaeology. Every year, the NZAA has a conference, and members from all over the country (and further afield) gather to share and discuss their work. Among the many things archaeologists debate and fail to agree on is the collective term for a group of archaeologists, but I like to refer to it as an assemblage of archaeologists.

Archaeologists catching up over lunch. Photo credit: New Zealand Archaeological Association

Remains of a boiler and other sawmilling equipment at Maori Beach, Stewart Island. True to winter in the deep south, it was close to a miserable day when I visited. Photo credit: Tristan Wadsworth.

This year, conference was on Rakiura/Stewart Island, and Michael, Kirsa and myself braved the sickness-inducing southern waters to attend. The people of Oban and Stewart Island were great hosts, and in particular local iwi members shared a great deal of knowledge about Rakiura and its history. It was a pleasure to be there, and a few archaeologists who had done work on the island put together a series of public talks, to share our findings with the locals. Conference usually consists of a few days of papers/presentations across a range of topics and locations. This year the papers ranged from excavations on an early Māori site in the Bay of Islands, to tin mining on Stewart Island’s south coast, to occupation and landscape modification on the islands of Vanuatu. Subjects included stone fishing net weights, new techniques of radiocarbon dating pā palisades in the Waikato, DNA identification of previously unidentified animal foods in early Māori middens, the Ng (King) Bros Chinese market garden site in Ashburton, and the archaeology of servants quarters in Dunedin. Among the presentations were those by Underground Overground alumni Kat Watson and Jessie Garland who presented separately on their doctorate research on the buildings and artefacts of Christchurch, building on their work from their time here. I spoke about recent archaeological investigations I’ve been involved with here in Christchurch. The papers are a great way archaeologists to keep up with the wide range of work going on across the country, and to keep abreast of new developments in the field, particular in relation to ever-changing technological methods. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve come across something in the field and gone “hrm, this reminds me of that thing such-and-such talked about at conference”.

The newly refurbished Rakiura museum kindly gave us special access to their collections. Photo credit: New Zealand Archaeological Association

The archaeological community is small (the NZAA only has between 300-400 members) and everyone knows each other, so conference is as much a social occasion as a professional one. Discussions bleed on from papers to the pub, as the community shares war stories and recent finds, argue about minutiae and various theories, and generally enjoy spending time with old and new friends.

Members of the association swarm the Norwegian Ross Sea Whaler’s Base. Photo credit: New Zealand Archaeological Association

Archaeological remains at the whaler’s base. I’ve always wanted to do a presentation with props. Photo credit: Tristan Wadsworth.

The association also typically organises a field trip to local archaeological and heritage sites, because archaeologists are big nerds, and even when ostensibly ‘on holiday’, they like to talk archaeology and see archaeology. This year we took a boat trip with local guides around to Paterson Inlet, to the site of a winter base for Norwegian whalers operating in the Ross Sea between 1923 and 1933, now protected as an archaeological site under the Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga Act 2014. We also visited the Ulva Island ecosanctuary, saw dolphins, weka, a leopard seal, mollymauks, sea lions, tieke, and other smaller birds aplenty. Not technically archaeology, but a major part of the discipline is investigating human interaction with other species and the environment, and also, birds are cool.

A local keeps a wary eye on proceedings. Photo credit: Jessie Garland.

Steam-powered log hauler associated with the Maori Beach Timber Company. Photo credit: Tristan Wadsworth.

Conference is typically in a different location each year, and the field trips are always a fun opportunity. Archaeology and archaeological landscapes exist everywhere you go in New Zealand, and no matter where conference is held, there is a local element, because we all walk through a land steeped in heritage and archaeology. It was a great conference, in a great location, and thanks to the people of Oban and Stewart Island for having us!

Acker’s Cottage, among the oldest stone structure’s in the country, built by Lewis Acker between 1834-1836. The remains of an early pier can be seen on the beach just below the cottage.Photo credit: Tristan Wadsworth.

If you’re interested in joining the New Zealand Archaeological Association, check out the NZAA’s website, Facebook, or visit https://nzarchaeology.org/membership/join-nzaa to join.

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.