The Dirtiest Word in Archaeology: Fossicking

Disclaimer: This blog post will mainly focus on fossicking on historic sites, as that’s what we have the greatest experience with in Christchurch. We wouldn’t be able to do justice to discussing fossicking on Māori sites, but it has occurred (largely outside urban areas and the standard authority process) since Europeans first came to New Zealand. To make matters worse, fossicking of Māori sites often includes the disturbance of burials, and the collection and treatment of Māori human remains as yet another object. Tangata whenua have made great strides recently in the return of their tupuna, led by Te Papa museum, which you can read more about here.

Second disclaimer: We also need to acknowledge that much of the “archaeology” conducted in New Zealand in the late 18th and early 19th centuries was essentially treasure hunting. New Zealand archaeology evolved from the activities of historians, museum anthropologists, students of Maori lore, and private fossickers and collectors. Back in the early days of “archaeology” – “archaeologists” disturbed archaeological sites to collect artefacts for museum collections, with little regards to context and stratigraphy. These actions have been thoroughly condemned by modern archaeologists and the damage that was done is widely noted.

 

Typically, when we think of archaeological sites being fossicked, images of Egyptian tombs and Mayan temples flash before our eyes. We picture people stealing gold and precious gems (possibly Indiana Jones style) and selling the artefacts to collectors for thousands of dollars. But what if I told you this activity happens all over little old New Zealand?

An Egyptian tomb, a classic fossicking site.

It might look like just an ordinary construction site, but really it’s a crime scene. This is just one of our archaeological sites that have been fossicked in the past year. Image: J. Hearfield.

We hear about archaeological sites being fossicked every so often, usually when weather or erosion has exposed a site on public land, or Heritage New Zealand is reminding the public of the law. In 2015 Northland Age published an article based on the notice Heritage New Zealand put out about what to do when you come across artefacts (don’t take them, cover it up and report it). In 2017 the Otago Daily Times reported that a known archaeological site near Oamaru was fossicked after a storm had exposed artefacts, and that a person or persons had used a garden fork to remove the finds. There are many other articles written over the years about the issue.

Fossicking in the headlines. Clockwise from left: RNZ 2015, Northland Age 2015, ODT 2017, Stuff 2019.

A quick refresher for those that are unsure of what defines an archaeological site in New Zealand: “The Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga Act 2014 defines an archaeological site as a place associated with pre-1900 human activity, where there may be evidence relating to the history of New Zealand.” – Heritage New Zealand This includes sites and features below ground as well as buildings, structures, and shipwrecks.

Fossicking is illegal in New Zealand, with archaeological sites and the artefacts they contain protected under several pieces of legislation. The Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga Act 2014 protects all New Zealand archaeological sites, whether they are previously known or newly discovered. Under this legislation modifying or destroying an archaeological site is an offence, unless an archaeological authority has been granted by Heritage New Zealand. Certain land is protected further: the Conservation Act and Reserves Act protect areas of New Zealand and taking items from places protected under this legislation is illegal. Depending on where you are, fossicking could involve trespassing under the Trespass Act 1980, and, depending on what you find, the artefacts could also be subject to the Protected Objects Act 1975.

Heritage New Zealand Archaeologist for Canterbury/West Coast Gwen Jackson says:

If you do discover an archaeological site, the best thing to do is to leave it in place and contact your local Heritage New Zealand office. If the site or object is at risk of being damaged or taken while exposed, you can cover it up and mark the site to find later. It’s important to remember that this applies regardless of how the find is made: whether you are walking along a beach, digging on your own private property, or working on a construction site any archaeological find is protected.

Fossicking not only destroys archaeological sites, it also denies the public their right to learn about the history of their communities.

While blanket protection for archaeological sites is capped at the year 1900 under the law, we also have a way to protect significant sites that are more recent. Sites can be ‘declared’ by gazettal, giving them the same protection under the law and making it an offence to disturb or fossick the site without an authority.

In the past 12 months, there have been at least four sites under archaeological investigation by Underground Overground Archaeology that have been fossicked overnight. The main target of these activities has been historic rubbish pits. These actions take away part of the puzzle piece, not only for the history of that site, but also the history and archaeology of Christchurch as a whole. The removal of artefacts, without proper recording, means we lose the ability to connect objects to people from the past, in essence meaning their stories are lost.

A perfect example of a historic rubbish put that was fossicked. When we left site the rubbish pit was exposed in the baulk (side) of the excavation. The next morning it was gone. It is likely the fossickers just shovelled out the contents, leaving a very unstable baulk for the construction team to deal with. Image: J. Hearfield.

On this particular site, not only did we find rubbish pits that had been dug over, but we also found the bottles they were after. Alongside the bottles were a pair of waders. As you can see from the picture above this one, the excavated area had filled up with water due to heavy rainfall. The fact there were waders on site means the fossickers had scoped out the site beforehand and come prepared. We’re assuming that because the waders and bottles were left on site, the fossickers got spooked and bailed, leaving a few things behind… Whilst they left behind the artefacts, we had no idea which feature they had come from as the fossickers managed to destroy five features in total. Image: J. Hearfield.

Another site that was hit. The broken ceramic and bottles were thrown around the edges of the pit, as these were not what these fossickers were looking for. You might be able to spy a couple of bottles left behind. This suggests these fossickers were also spooked while digging. Image: A. Trendafilov.

A third site that was hit. The rubbish pits were completely dug out, meaning no information could be recorded about them. Image: J. Hearfield.

So why is fossicking bad?

When people fossick archaeological sites, they are typically looking for items to keep as part of their personal collection. Whilst the artefact is preserved in these personal collections, the contextual information surrounding where the artefact was found is lost. An artefact by itself might hold information about its own history (such as where and how it was made) but will not tell us much about the people who used it in isolation. The ability for archaeologist to recover all artefacts, broken and whole, from a context we can identify and record (such as a rubbish pit or infilling of hollow ground) means we can connect the use of the artefact and the activity which created the context with the history of the site to reveal the story of the people from our past. Whether that story is one of a quick hole dug in the backyard to get rid of the week’s rubbish or the infilling of a large gully in the centre of Christchurch to reclaim more land for local businesses, archaeologists are able to analyse these artefacts, and share those stories with the public (which is what we do with this blog). When people fossick archaeological sites, they are, in essence, stealing New Zealand’s history from the public and preserving it only for themselves. Ultimately, it is destroying our history.

What type of fossicking happens in New Zealand?

All types! Fossicking ranges from

  • picking up artefacts from beaches and reserves that have been exposed by erosion and weather
  • metal detecting
  • digging up historic deposits on public and private land

What are the differences between archaeologists and fossickers?

Besides the training and working under the legislation, the main difference between the two practices is controlled excavation techniques. These techniques allow us to gain as much information as possible about the activity which created the archaeological deposit before it is destroyed or in some cases is left partly in situ for future generations.

Controlled excavation techniques include:

  • The recording of the exact location of the material that is then produced into a site plan
  • Careful excavation of the material
    • Including observing the type of deposit or feature it was found within (for example, a rubbish pit or infilled well)
    • Staying within the boundary of the feature to record shape and extent
  • Excavating to expose a cross section of the feature can be used to understand the layers of artefacts and other materials
    • A great example of this is a historic rubbish pit. When cross sectioned, it becomes clear if the pit was dug and used for a single deposit or if it was used to discard rubbish over a period of time, creating different layers of material. The artefacts can be used to date these different layers so we can work out how long the pit as used for.
  • Photographic record of the material in situ before being removed for further analysis
  • Analysis of the artefacts
    • used to date when the deposit was likely created as well as understand what activities people were using the land for.
      • Includes dating of maker’s marks, stylistic patterns and samples taken for radiocarbon dating
    • Identifying species from bones and shellfish to learn what people were eating in the past
    • The types of artefacts found can tell us so much about the activity and people who deposited the artefacts such as:
      • what activity was happening on site – whether commercial, residential, industrial
      • What kind of goods people liked/were able to purchase
      • Whether children were part of the family and what kind of toys were played with

Once the controlled excavation is completed, the archaeologist writes a report on all of the findings and submits it to Heritage New Zealand. The report serves as a complete picture of the information recorded on site and how it all fits together to add to our understanding of the past. Once the report is accepted by Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga, it can be accessed by the public through Heritage New Zealand’s Digital Library, meaning that New Zealand’s history is accessible to all.

Indiana Jones That Belongs In A Museum GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

Jamie-Lee Hearfield, Gwen Jackson, Clara Watson, Tristan Wadsworth.

 

Life Before Plastic: Final Thoughts

All good things must come to an end, and so this post marks the final blog in our Life Before Plastic series (here’s part one, two and three if you’ve missed any). Speaking of endings, today we’re going to be looking at what happens to the stuff we buy once it’s reached the end of its lifespan. Rubbish might seem simple but one man’s trash really is another man’s treasure, and it’s not always clear what is or isn’t ‘junk’.

Apart from the fact she’s a little bit broken, how could anyone think this beautiful porcelain doll/figurine was trash. Image: C. Watson.

In 19th century Christchurch there were a few different options available for getting rid of rubbish. Animal bones and food waste could be burnt in the fire or sold to the glue works. Rubbish could be buried in the backyard or used to infill an old privy or to level uneven ground. Rubbish could also be collected, similar to modern times. In April 1862 land was surveyed and set aside for a rubbish dump  and from January 1864 the Hadfield Brothers were contracted to collect refuse, slops, dry rubbish and ashes from bins left outside of houses. Prior to this, there was no organised, municipal collection of rubbish, and individual households or business had to deal with all their own trash. Whilst this rubbish collection was meant to be weekly, sometimes many weeks went by without collection, and there was little enforcement of making people use the collection service, hence why we find household rubbish pits with material dating later than the 1860s. Whilst rubbish collection eventually started to become more regular (we don’t bury our waste in the backyard these days…mostly) landfills themselves have problems of their own, namely that they contaminate the ground and that they eventually fill up. By the late 19th century Christchurch was facing these very problems, leading to the council investing in a rubbish incinerator known as the Destructor, which you can read more about here.

Most butchers and abattoirs likely sent their left-over bones to the glue factory, although as this advertisement shows glue works would accept bones from anyone. Image: Evening Star 27/05/1874.
Rubbish pits, one of the most common ways to dispose of waste in the 19th century. Image: J. Hearfield.
The middle black band you can see on the above stratigraphy is an old gully that was infilled in the 19th century with a mixture of foundry waste, household waste and commercial waste. Image: H. Williams.
Whilst rubbish collection did exist, it wasn’t as efficient as it is today. The writer of this article complains about the lack of collection from properties not located in the immediate city centre and business district, as well as the unsanitary conditions created by dumping waste in the backyard. Image: Globe 30/02/1881: 2.

19th century rubbish, whether it was buried in the backyard or carted away to a dump, almost always ended up in the ground. And the same is true for most of the rubbish created in the 20th and 21st centuries. From excavating 19th century rubbish pits we know that a lot of the material buried in the ground doesn’t break down quickly; we often still find organic material such as animal bones in perfect condition. In the 19th century the rubbish being generated was far less than it is today, both because of a lower population and because there was less single-use packaging. These days it’s estimated that New Zealanders currently generate 734 kg of waste EACH per year. There aren’t any statistics to compare back to the 19th century to see how much more that is but given that 734 kg was already a 20% increase from 2015, it’s safe to say that it’s a lot more. It’d be nice to think that burying waste in the ground means out of sight, out of mind, but given all the recent problems with the Fox River Dump it’s safe to say that that isn’t the case.

The introduction of recycling to New Zealand in the 1970s meant not all rubbish was going to landfills. These days paper, cardboard, plastic, aluminium, steel and glass are all able to be recycled into new products and reused again. Yet with China refusing to take any more plastic waste, material that could be recycled is once again being sent to landfills. Recycling, in of itself, has problems. New material is still being created, not everything that can be recycled is, and contamination means even when stuff gets recycled it can still end up in the landfill. In some ways that’s where our 19th century counterparts were ahead of us. The system of bottle reuse for example, where bottles were commonly washed and refilled, meant that not only were new bottles not needing to be made (or at least not at the levels they would be if bottles were single-use), but that there weren’t the contamination issues that exist with modern day recycling as all bottles were washed in the process. Yet the 19th century system of bottle reuse had nothing to do with reducing waste and everything to do with cost.

Money. I think that if we’ve learnt anything over the past four blog posts it’s that money is everything. Our Victorian ancestors might have made things to last a lifetime, but that’s because things had to last a lifetime as they were too expensive to be replacing every year. And as soon as things went down in price because of technological developments, people started spending and buying more. The reason we have a plastic waste problem is because plastic is cheap to manufacture. And because it’s cheap to manufacture it’s used for everything.

It’s pretty easy to feel helpless when thinking about the state of the world. Just walking down the supermarket aisles reveals how bad our plastic addiction has gotten. And here at UnderOver we’re just as guilty- we use plastic bags for all of our artefacts and despite writing a blog on Kmart culture we still ordered plastic trays from them.

The ultimate hypocrite: writing one blog moaning about packaging and another on Kmart culture and still ordering cheap trays from Kmart that came heavily packaged. Image: C. Watson.

I think at the end of the day there’s two things we can take away from this blog series. Firstly, if money is the main driver for plastic consumption, then as consumers we can take profits away from companies by choosing to only purchase from businesses that are environmentally friendly. Secondly, we can remember that there was life before plastic. Plastic has only been around for just over 100 years, for the rest of human history there was no plastic. And whilst life might be a little bit less convenient without it, surely giving up some convenience is worth saving the planet.

Clara Watson

References

Globe. Available online: paperspast.natlib.govt.nz
Press. Available online: paperspast.natlib.govt.nz
Lyttelton Times. Available online: paperspast.natlib.govt.nz

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

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.

Life Before Plastic: An Introduction

‘Rubbish’ is the most common thing we find on our 19th century archaeological sites. I have ‘rubbish’ in quotation marks because to us what we find isn’t rubbish, it’s the material evidence of what life was like in the early years of colonial New Zealand. The everyday items and the more unusual objects that help to tell us more about the successes and struggles of New Zealand’s first settlers and their families. Yet, to the people these items belonged to, they were rubbish; products that had served a purpose and were no longer needed. As archaeologists, it’s exciting that we’re finding 150-year old rubbish. As humans living at a time where global warming is an imminent threat to our own society, it’s concerning we’re finding 150-year old rubbish.

In the 19th century people would often dig holes in their backyard to dispose of rubbish. These rubbish pits are one of the most common features we find on archaeological sites in Christchurch. Image: T. Anderson

This is the first of a series of blog posts looking at the archaeology of 19th century Christchurch through the modern lenses of climate change and the growing problem of plastic pollution. Normally, when we write on the things we find we use an archaeological lens, asking questions like why were these artefacts disposed of? Who do they belong to? Where did they come from? Were they common or rare? What do they say about the people who disposed of them? Can they tell us more about what life was like in Christchurch in the 19th century?

In this blog series we’re going to take a different approach, asking questions like what did people use when they didn’t have plastic? How does life in the 19th century compare to now? What materials, objects and practices were present then that don’t exist now? Were these precursors to current ways of doing things? Were they better for the environment? Can we look to the past to help us now in the present? We’re still going to be looking at the archaeology of Christchurch, just interpreting it in a slightly different way.

I have multiple reasons for wanting to do this blog series. I’m 24, climate change is going to affect my life and it’s definitely going to impact on the lives of any children I have: it’s in my best interests to start debate on the topic and provide new ways of approaching it. I also want to write on this topic because it is current. One of the things we face all the time as archaeologists is having to justify our work. There are so many people out there who don’t understand what we’re doing/don’t see the value of recording our heritage/think that it’s a waste of time. When we can take what we find and put it into a framework that uses archaeological evidence to tackle modern problems then that adds even more value to the (already valuable) work we do. Finally, I want to write on it because I’ve never lived in a world where plastic doesn’t exist. Plastic has played a role in every single thing I have done in my life, from the plastic car seat I went home from the hospital in, to the plastic drink bottle I’m sipping out of now. I don’t think there’s been a single day of my life where I haven’t used a plastic object, so I think that looking at life before plastic is really interesting because modern society is untenable without it.

Count the plastic in the picture. I can see at least 25 items made of plastic, many of which I use daily to do my job (the Favourites are definitely essential). Image: C. Watson.

The Victorian era is a particularly interesting period to look back at through this modern lens of plastic pollution because it was during this time that so many of the things we now take for granted were invented. The Industrial Revolution began roughly a hundred years before the Victorian era. Technological developments in the textile industry led to more technological developments that could be used in other industries which led to even more technological developments and before you know it we went from writing with ink and quill pens in 1750 to typing on laptops in 2019 (John Green does a far better quick explanation here).

A few of the many things invented just prior to and during the Victorian era are:

  • Tin cans: In 1810 Peter Duran patented the idea, in 1813 the first commercial canning factory was opened and in 1846 mass-manufacture of tin cans began.
  • Cardboard boxes: Single sheet cardboard boxes were in use around 1817, although the exact inventor of them is not known. Corrugated cardboard was invented in 1856 and in 1871 Albert Jones patented an early style of cardboard box. It wasn’t until 1879 that the single sheet cardboard folded boxes that we use today were invented.
  • Paper bags: In 1799 Louis-Nicolas Robert invented a machine that produced rolls of paper. These were used to make rudimentary folded bags, but it wasn’t until 1852 that envelope-style paper bags were invented. These were surpassed in 1871 when Margaret Knight patented her machine that produced flat-bottomed paper bags, similar to what’s available today.
  • Plastic (kind of): The first man-made plastic was invented by Alexander Parkes who displayed it at the 1862 Great International Exhibition in London. Called Parkesine after Parkes, it was derived from cellulose. Another early plastic was celluloid, invented by John Wesley Hyatt in 1868 as a substitute for ivory in billiard balls. Further advances took place at the end of the 19th century, with Bakelite invented in the early 20th

What’s notable when we look back at the Victorian era is that many of the things we now view as being more environmentally friendly alternatives to plastic were only just being invented. We predominantly excavate archaeological sites that date between 1860 and 1900. These sites were occupied throughout these years of invention, meaning we can see what people used prior to new technologies being developed, the adoption of new technologies, and then their success as they became widespread and mass manufactured. You may have picked up that all the new technologies I’ve listed above are forms of packaging. That’s because in the second part of this series we are going to look specifically at packaging, what we find in the archaeological record and how it differs to what is used today.

The second half of the 19th century strikes me as an exciting period to have lived in. It was a time of possibility: new things were being invented regularly and people were wealthier, healthier and better educated. All of this is similar to the period we live in now. Yet for the people of the 19th century there was a cost to this development, particularly for those who worked in large industrial factories and lived alongside them. In the same vein, whilst we might be benefiting from the technological developments of the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries, we’re currently having to deal with the consequences of those developments.

Plastic pollution is just one of these consequences, and it’s something us archaeologists see all the time. Whilst we only investigate features that were created prior to the year 1900, we come across lots of 20th century rubbish pits. Many of these 20th century pits contain plastic objects, and these objects don’t look like they’ve aged a day. When we put plastic into the ground it’s going to be there for hundreds of years- no doubt future archaeologists will study plastic artefacts in the same way we study ceramic and glass now. By looking at life before plastic hopefully we’re able to imagine a future without it.

Spot the plastic. Image: A. Trendafilov.

Clara Watson