One of the most fascinating things about studying and interpreting the past is the possibilities it holds. Could the broken tea cup I’ve found been smashed against a wall in a fit of rage after a wife found her husband being promiscuous with another man? Could the alcohol bottle lying at the bottom of a latrine be from a teenage son and his mates sneakily getting drunk in the backyard? Could it really be the year 2518 and we are all computer-generated simulations in an elaborate experimental archaeology project to examine consumer behaviour in the early 21st century?
Archaeology is an interesting combination of science and humanities. When we approach the past, we begin by dealing with what we know or can determine as fact…
- This rubbish pit was located 300 mm below the top soil.
- It contained a plate manufactured by the pottery company Pinder, Bourne and Co.
- Pinder, Bourne and Co. operated between 1862 and 1882 so the plate must have been manufactured between 1862 and 1882.
From there we go to what we can determine as likely…
- ceramic plates on average had a lifespan of 15-20 years, meaning the plate was likely disposed of between 1879 and 1902, but could have been disposed of earlier or later.
- the Johnson family was living at the property between 1870 and 1895 meaning they were likely the family who owned and disposed of the plate, but it could have also been disposed of by the families who preceded and succeeded the Johnson’s occupation.
- the plate was decorated with a pattern featuring motifs from the Aesthetic Movement. The Aesthetic Movement was popular around the 1870s and 1880s suggesting the Johnson family were keeping up with fashion trends in homewares.
And then there’s always what’s possible…
- Mr Johnson forgot Mrs Johnson’s birthday. In a rush he ran to the store and bought Mrs Johnson the newest, fanciest plate he could find. Mrs Johnson, however, was not appeased by the gift. She could not believe that Mr Johnson had forgotten her birthday after she had been dropping hints all week. She hated the offset designs of the Aesthetic Movement’s patterns and was a strong believer that Willow pattern was a classic which will never go out of fashion. In a rage she stormed out of the house, left Mr Johnson, and moved to Guatemala. Mr Johnson, devastated by the break up of his marriage, threw out the plate, burying his love for Mrs Johnson along with it.
As archaeologists we work firmly in the realms of what we can determine as fact and based on those facts what we can determine as likely. Whilst we do speculate, we generally don’t go very far outside the realms of possibility. In today’s blog post, however, I want to throw all that science and fact out the window and just run with wherever my imagination takes me.
The assemblage we’re going to be looking at today came from a single rubbish pit, found at the rear of a nineteenth century dwelling. The artefacts found in the rubbish pit included items which were typical of late 19th and early 20th century households. Several items contained manufacturer’s marks indicating they were made after 1891, but there were no items which were distinctively 20th century. This suggests the material was deposited either at the very end of 19th century, or the very beginning of the 20th. The Northey family, consisting of Paul, his wife Jane, and their son John, lived at the house between 1878 and 1926. Given the Northey’s long occupation of the property, and the date of the artefacts found in the rubbish pit, it’s highly likely they were the ones to dispose of the items.
That’s the facts folks, now let’s tell a story. The following are “extracts” from Jane Northey’s diary.
January Third, 1899.
Today was quiet. I went to the shops in the morning and purchased three bottles of Worcestershire Sauce for 1/-. An excellent bargain. Naturally, I chose Lea and Perrins. I don’t understand how these New Zealand made products can claim they taste the same as traditional English Worcester Sauce. I saw there’s even a Dunedin brand which has called itself Royal Worcestershire Sauce( making out like it’s endorsed by the king!) when really it’s made at the bottom of the world. No product which was not made in England will ever be stored on my shelves. The items you have in your house reflect on your person, and I am very much an English lady.
April Eighth, 1899
I could not believe it. Paul came home from work today wearing his ‘tramp’ hat. Whilst I might have tolerated him wearing such an article of clothing when I was trailing around after him on the goldfields in ’72, he now works in a respectable drapery business, and I will not have him walking around the town looking like a tramp. What would the neighbours think? We’ve spent the past twenty years building a livelihood here, extending the home, decorating the parlour – I’ll not have people thinking we aren’t a respectable family. Rather than having yet another argument over it I offered to wash it. I’m sure there will be some way to make it fall apart in the process.
July Fourth, 1899
I made a most excellent purchase today. I was reading in the newspaper about Strawberry Sets. Apparently, they’re all the rage in London at the moment. There’s a small handled dish to hold the strawberries on, and a sugar bowl and creamer which sit within the dish. The dish can be offered around during a garden party for people to eat strawberries off – very on trend. After reading about them I knew I just had to get one. I popped down to Ballantynes and managed to purchase my own, a dainty wee porcelain one. Of course, there aren’t any strawberries in season yet, but come November I will be prepared.
July Fifth, 1899
Paul and I had a wicked argument last night over the Strawberry Set. He screamed at me that I shouldn’t have bought it and that my insistent spending was the reason why he went bankrupt back in ’84. I wasn’t having any of that and threw it back in his face that he promised me a better life when I followed him over here and that if we wanted to be a respectable family and impress our peers then we needed to look the part. He of course went off, ranting about the mortgages we’d taken on and that the house didn’t need to be as grand as we’d made it and that all I cared about was impressing the neighbours. Honestly, the man doesn’t understand. Of course I care about impressing the neighbours. He’s not the one who has to deal with Mrs Stevens coming over here and withering on about her new teapot and then saying “Oh, but the one you have is perfectly nice dear, it’s always sensible to purchase within your means”. Well the fight got a bit heated and he picked up my lovely flower vase that I use when I have ladies over for tea and hurled it at the wall. I couldn’t believe it. I picked up his whisky glass which was sitting on the table and hurled it back at him. That ended the fight quickly as it’s his favourite glass and he couldn’t believe I’d done it. He stormed out to the pub and I cleaned up. I hope none of the neighbours heard, although I saw Mrs Riley’s curtains twitch so I bet the nosy bat was listening in.
September Tenth, 1899
Something most devastating happened today. I dropped the mixing bowl. Whilst most people might not shed a tear , most people wouldn’t have taken the effort to purchase such a wondrous mixing bowl! When I was at Mrs Riley’s house for tea last Tuesday (Mrs Riley who always makes a point of showing off her brand new set of china), the kitchen maid came running in shouting that there was a fire in the kitchen. We ran to the back of the house and saw a spark had jumped out of the range and onto the rug. We of course simply stamped out the flame, something I’m sure the ditzy kitchen maid could have done herself, but while doing so I looked around and saw Mrs Riley had plain creamware bowls in her kitchen. They looked like they were nearly thirty years old! So for all the airs she puts on it looks like the new china set is the only thing of any class which she owns. I’ve always been most aware that you never know when someone might snoop around and have made sure that the bowls I keep in my kitchen are of good quality. This bowl in particular was very nice, with moulded detail and green bands which almost match the rest of the dinner set. I feel most put out that it’s now broken.
November Second, 1899
An absolute disaster of a day. I invited Mrs Riley and Mrs Stevens around for tea today. Naturally I used the good china, my Lucerne patterned set, rather than the banded set. I was most excited as I had managed to purchase some strawberries from the grocer and it was my first opportunity to use my strawberry set. Well, we were sat down in the garden sipping our tea when Mrs Stevens children came tearing into the garden chasing their new puppy. The wee monster came straight for me, I jumped up on the chair to escape its nipping jaws but in doing so dropped the cup and saucer I was holding. I couldn’t believe it. But then to make matters worse while the children were trying to grab a hold of it one of them bumped into the table, sending my strawberry set to the ground. The dish survived alright but the creamer and sugar bowl both broke. I was so livid. Mrs Stevens simpered around saying how sorry she was, and that the new puppy had been such a handful. Naturally, I just smiled and said “It’s okay dear”. It definitely was not okay. I think she set the whole situation up on purpose because she couldn’t handle that I had something which was fancier than anything she owned.
At the end of the day, these “diary entries” are completely fictional. It’s possible that these events happened, just as it’s possible that there’s still moose living in Fiordland. As archaeologists, it’s important that we focus on the known facts. Yet doing so can mean we lose sight of the humanity of the past – artefacts become data in a spreadsheet, numbers rather than objects which people owned, used and maybe even loved. Whilst the stories I’ve told here are fictional, there may be an element of truth in them. The Northey’s did take out several mortgages on their property between 1878 and 1894, and Paul Northey did declare bankruptcy in 1884. Yet despite that, they had several unusual, high-end objects. We don’t normally find fancy vases or strawberry dishes. These are the kind of artefacts I would associate with a wealthy family, or at least a family which was trying to appear wealthy and “keep up with the Joneses”, which might be what the Northey’s were doing. Narratives and stories such as these remind us that artefacts belonged to people, they’re not just broken fragments of china, and as long as we’re clear that we’re telling a story, then they are an excellent way of exploring the lives of the people of the past.
Just as long as there aren’t any aliens in the stories. Aliens and archaeology don’t go well together.