To many people they’re simply a nostalgic throwback to childhood. To some, they’re treasures to be collected and curated. To others, they’re objects of horror, a sentiment encouraged by tv, films and a particular island in Mexico. To archaeologists, they’re the remnants of long lost childhoods, a personal and sometimes poignant reminder of the children that came before us. They make visible an aspect of life in the past that is so often hidden, in both the archaeological and historical records.
They’re also cute and creepy by turns. The following are some of our favourites from Christchurch. Enjoy!
The porcelain head of an infant in a bonnet, with painted cheeks and hair and a disappointed expression. Which is disconcerting on a baby. That face says to me “did you really just do that?” (left), “I can’t believe you just did that” (right). Image: J. Garland.
This one, on the other hand, is disapproving. A lot of Victorian dolls seem to me to be either disappointed or disapproving. Which either says something about the Victorians or something about me. Let’s not go there. The rouged cheeks on this particular head are a common feature (see some of the examples below), although these ones are more than usually pronounced. Image: Underground Overground Archaeology.
A small boy, raising his face to the heavens and pleading… for his lost innocence? The whereabouts of his lower body? For someone to please, please take the bib off? This one is probably one of the creepiest doll artefacts we’ve found (picture it emerging from the earth, seriously), but it’s an unusual example of a clearly male doll. Most of the dolls we find are either recognisably female or figurines of babies too young to differentiate between. Also, his upper lip makes him look a little bit like he has a moustache. Image: J. Garland.
I get ‘unimpressed’ from this one. She was found on the site of a 19th century hotel (the Zetland Arms) on Lichfield Street, meaning that she may have originally belonged to a child visiting the hotel or the child of one of the hotel keepers. This particular doll is also likely to have been manufactured in Germany, as many dolls were during the latter half of the 19th century. Image: J. Garland.
This particularly shapely dismembered calf comes with a lovely little ankle boot, painted on over the glaze. Limbs like this one were often attached to a fabric body, tied using the groove you can see just below the top of the leg. Image: Underground Overground Archaeology.
I love this one. She looks like a soothsayer. A smirking soothsayer. She definitely knows something that you don’t. And her hair is amazing. Image: Underground Overground Archaeology.
I find this one unsettling. One of my colleagues thinks it’s adorable. You be the judge. If you look closely you can see that the baby is holding a rattle in one hand and there’s the edge of a quilt or blanket visible in the bottom right corner. The whole thing forms the lid to a small porcelain container of some sort, perhaps one that contained something associated with children or infants. Image: J. Garland.
The always wonderful, yet completely awful Frozen Charlotte or ‘pudding doll’, named after the ballad about a girl who went out in the cold without a coat and froze to death… Image: J. Garland.
One thing that I find really interesting to note with dolls is the various different hairstyles they showcase. Much as we do today, the Victorians reflected changing fashions and social ideals in the toys and figurines they made for their children. Image: J. Garland.
More often than you might think, we just get a torso. Or an arm. A foot. A disconcerting remnant of somebody’s once beloved toy. Sometimes, when struck by a combination of melancholy and melodrama, I find myself thinking ‘archaeology: it’s all just lost and broken things’ and that sentiment never seems more apt than when you’re looking at a bunch of broken dolls. Image: J. Garland.
Then again, sometimes you come across the porcelain head of a a man in a very fine hat, and it’s a different story altogether. Image: J. Garland.