The bitter waters of archaeology

This week on the blog, we delve – or dive, even (sorry, I can already tell you that this post will be filled with water puns) – into the bitter waters of the 19th century, by which I mean mineral and healing waters, not some kind of allegorical reference to a difficult period of the past. This watery submersion (sorry, can’t help myself) came about following the discovery of an unusual bottle in a recent assemblage that turned out to have originally contained German mineral water, exported from a small town called Friedrichshall to New Zealand from the 1870s onwards. It’s not the first example of German mineral water we’ve come across here in Christchurch and well, it got me thinking. And researching. Basically, I fell down the well (see what I did there?) into the world of healing waters and haven’t quite surfaced since.

Bottle base embossed with C. OPPEL / FRIEDRICHSHALL. The source of this descent into watery madness. Image: J. Garland.

Bottle base embossed with C. OPPEL / FRIEDRICHSHALL. The source of this descent into watery madness. Image: J. Garland.

The concept of water, specifically mineral water, as an elixir of health has been around for centuries – millennia, even. We’ve all heard stories of springs and pools that could miraculously cure the sick and restore the health of the ailing, in both the historical and fictional worlds. The notion of water – or rather, the ‘waters’ of certain places – as more than just a necessity of survival, as a life-giving (or life preserving) force is so prevalent in our collective psyche that it trickles through our pop culture, past (Jane Austen springs to mind) and present (Pirates of the Caribbean’s fountain of youth, for example).

During our period of study – the 19th and early 20th centuries – there are numerous references to springs, wells, pools, aquifers and other bodies of water with healing properties, sometimes bordering on the magical. The healing waters of Bath were, thanks to the Romans and Miss Austen, among many others, well-known for their alleged ability to cure anything from leprosy to rheumatism. There were several locations on the continent, including Royat in France, Pistyan in ‘Czecho-Slovakia’, Marienbad in Bohemia, Vichy in France, and Salsomaggiore in Lombardy. In California, the town of Carlsbad (not quite Carlsberg, as I thought for a while) was named after a famous Bohemian spa following the discovery of mineral water there in the 1880s. In Scotland, the well of St Maelrubha in Loch Maree, Ross-shire, “was credited with the wonderful powers of curing the insane” and, in possibly my favourite example, there was a pub in London that offered eye lotion made from the healing water in the cellar along with the normal beers and spirits. Apparently, the water contained high levels of zinc, which may have been “soothing to the eye.”

In which a publican has a strange clause in his lease regarding some mineral water in the cellar. Image:

In which a publican has a strange clause in his lease regarding some mineral water in the cellar. Image: Auckland Star 9/12/1932: 13.

New Zealand has its own tradition of healing waters, of course, the most famous of which is the thermal springs and waters at Rotorua. Other places in the country home to the miraculous springs of good health included Te Aroha, Puriri, and Waiwera. Dunedin soda water manufacturers the Thomson brothers also took advantage of the country’s natural resources and sold Wai-Rongoa (healing water), “the celebrated mineral water from the famed North Taeri Springs” during the early 20th century. Christchurch apparently tried to have healing waters, but the so-called mineral waters of Heathcote turned out just to be water. Nice try, Heathcote.

Advertisement for Wai-Rongoa, the healing water of the North Taeri Springs and Waiwera.

Advertisement for Wai-Rongoa, the healing water of the North Taeri Springs and the Waiwera Hot Springs. Image: Grey River Argus 21/09/1909: 4 and New Zealand Herald 15/05/1875: 4.

Archaeologically, here in Christchurch, the use of and belief in healing waters is represented through the bottled ‘bitter waters’ and ‘seltzer waters’ imported from Europe – like the Friedrichshall bottle – that survive in the archaeological record. To date, interestingly, all of the examples we’ve found have been German or Hungarian. We’ve mentioned the Nassau selter water bottles before on the blog, stoneware bottles that contained the waters of the Ober and Nieder Selters of Nassau, a Duchy (prior to 1866) and town in Imperial Prussia (after annexation in 1866). As well as these, and the aforementioned Friedrichshall bottle, we’ve also found examples of Hunyadi Janos, a Hungarian export which contained the waters of a spring in Ofen and was advertised as a medicinal remedy. Interestingly, both the Friedrichshall and Hunyadi products are referred to as ‘bitter waters’, marketed primarily as relief for constipation, obstruction of the bowels and congestions. Even more interestingly, Friedrichshall bitter waters also claimed that by “banishing lassitude and melancholy, [it] renders occupation a pleasure instead of labour”, while Hunyadi Janos was apparently “especially efficacious” in the treatment of obesity. So, you know, good to know.

Nassau selter waters (top left) and Hunyadi Janos bitter waters (top right), along with an advertisement for Hunyadi Janos extolling its healing properties. Images:

Nassau selter waters (top left) and Hunyadi Janos bitter waters (top right), along with an advertisement for Hunyadi Janos extolling its healing properties. Neither of these were supposed to taste very good, although I did find one advertisement that described the taste of bitter waters as “peculiarly pleasant”, which sounds like advertising speak if I ever heard it. Images: J. Garland (top left) Underground Overground (top right) and New Zealand Herald 2/11/1906: 2.

As a side note, searching for ‘bitter waters’ in old newspapers certainly brought home the melodrama of the 19th century. In addition to the actual products I was searching for, the phrase seems to have been something of a favourite among Victorian writers. Just a few of the examples I found included the bitter waters of sectarian intolerance, adversity, defeat, controversy, science (the bitter waters of science! Oh, science), national humiliation, penury, existence (existentialism was alive and well in the 1800s, apparently), class prejudices, tyranny and “the bitter waters of the cup of sorrow”, which seems excessively depressing.

Anyway, moving on. Back to the bitter waters of health. There’s two main things I find interesting about these Victorian healing waters. One is that, unlike so many of the other ‘medicinal’ remedies we’ve talked about here on the blog, the alleged health benefits of these mineral waters were not – and are not – wholly unfounded. They’re unlikely to have immediately cured rheumatism or leprosy through bathing (although there may have been other benefits, like the invigoration of muscles in warm water, relaxation etc.), but the ingestion of mineral waters may in fact have had some merit. I can’t speak for the specifics – presumably, mineral water didn’t really cure obesity or ‘render occupation a pleasure’ all by itself – but it’s fairly well established that certain minerals are an important part of human health and nutrition. Certainly, in the 19th and early 20th centuries, it wasn’t just quacks advocating for their use (I’m not a health professional and am leery of saying anything wrong here, can you tell?).

The second thing is the apparent scepticism with which these claims of healing waters were treated which, again, runs contrary to so many of the weird and wonderful products we’ve talked about here before. There’s numerous instances of waters being tested to determine the levels of minerals present and compared to various sources around the world. If they didn’t contain the acceptable levels of minerals, they were publicly outed as ‘just water’ (Heathcote, definitely looking at you). It’s telling that the truly reputable mineral waters of the 19th century are all derived from springs and wells in areas where the geological characteristics of the surrounding land have made possible the absorption of minerals and salts into the very waters of the earth, so to speak. Like little old geothermal New Zealand or Hungary and Germany, apparently, if we’re looking just at Christchurch’s archaeological record.

It's not completely related, but it made me laugh and it certainly illustrates that scepticism (and sarcasm) was alive and well in the 19th century. Image:

It’s not completely related, but it made me laugh and it certainly illustrates that scepticism (and sarcasm) was alive and well in the 19th century. Image: Patea Mail 21/04/1881: 4.

There’s so many things about this whole notion of healing waters that is fascinating to me and I can’t quite articulate all of them (I guess I still haven’t really surfaced from that well I mentioned at the beginning). Not just the physical properties of the waters themselves, but the things they tell us about our view of ‘health’ – I’m thinking here about emphasis placed on characteristics like ‘purity’ and descriptors like ‘natural’, ‘fresh’ ‘cool’ and ‘clean’ – and the ways that view of health has changed and endured over the centuries. Even here and now, we might scoff at the notion of ‘healing waters’, and I imagine very few of you would go and buy a bottle of mineral water to stave off constipation, but water is still intrinsically associated with health and some waters are still considered better – healthier – than others. New Zealand spring water, for example, is marketed in part through its connection to the idea of this country as clean, green, pure and natural: in other words, healthy. In that regard, at least, we’re just following in the footsteps of our ancestors.

Jessie Garland

Tales of a house

So, that message in a bottle? Well, it turns out it wasn’t the only interesting thing about the site it came from. A fellmongery, German Danes, shoes… read on!

First up, the bottle came from under a house built in 1887 (the land transaction records had suggested 1885, when the first mortgage was taken against the land; LINZ 1885). From the outside, this looked like a fairly standard 1880s villa (albeit modified), but inside – and its history – were not quite so standard. The differences inside weren’t that huge, but you have to understand that, in the 1880s and 1890s, there was little deviation from the standard plan for single-storey villas, so even the smallest difference is telling. On the outside, your standard villa might be flat-fronted or have a bay or two, and there might be some variation in the number of windows on the street-facing façade (depending on how much money you wanted to spend). Inside, villas of this type tended to have four rooms in the main body of the house, two on each side of a central hall. And there might have been some additional service rooms to the rear of this.

 The house. The conservatory on the left was originally a veranda. Photo: K. Webb.

The house. The conservatory on the left was originally a veranda. Photo: K. Webb.

As I said, this one wasn’t so very different. Instead of a central hall, it had a sort of T-shaped hall, with six rooms opening off it. Not only was the hall a different shape, but there were more rooms than usual in the main body of the house, although the house was roughly the same footprint as the standard villa (and the house’s layout had barely been modified since it was built). And only one of the front rooms opened off the front hall – normally both did. While this detail seems particularly small, it’s actually more significant than the hall shape/position.

In the standard villa design, the front hall and the two front rooms, both of which opened off it, were the ‘public’ part of the house, where visitors were likely to be entertained. Usually, this part of the house was separated from the ‘private’ part by an arch in the hall, and guests were unlikely to pass from the public area to the private area. One of the front rooms was the parlour or drawing room and the other was the master bedroom, where guests might leave their coats (Stewart 2002). It’s always seemed slightly odd to me that the master bedroom was part of the public area of the house, and clearly it wasn’t in this house. Visitors would only have gone into the parlour, nowhere else.

The house’s history revealed that it was built for Neils Carl Heinrich Püschel (without recourse to a mortgage) and transferred shortly thereafter to Tryphona Püschel, his wife. The Püschels owned the house until 1896, when it appears to have been sold as a mortgagee sale (LINZ 1888).

Püschel. Not a very English name, that. The family was of German origin, although Neils – who was generally known as Carl – was born in Denmark. In fact, three Püschel brothers came to Canterbury, only one of whom was born in Germany. John, the eldest, and Carl established a fellmongery (where sheepskins were prepared) in Rangiora, before setting up a fellmongery in Avonside in the late 1870s. That’s right, Avonside – hard to imagine now! By 1887, however, Carl Püschel was no longer part of the business, which William Püschel continued to run on his own, albeit with funding from John Püschel (Macdonald n.d.: P610, 611;  Watson 2013).

So could the layout of the house be explained as a fusion of New Zealand and German/Danish architecture? We don’t know, but it’s an intriguing possibility.

During our work on the house, we were fortunate enough to meet Jenny, the most recent owner. Jenny’s parents had bought the house in the 1920s, and Jenny had grown up there and lived there until the earthquakes changed everything. Jenny told us some awesome stories about the house, including how, after they’d bought the house, her parents journeyed to Christchurch on the train, complete with Dolly the cow. As a teenager, Jenny and her friends had played tennis on the lawn in front of the house (where Dolly had once grazed), with the aim of catching the eye of the local lads!

Not only did Jenny share her stories with us, she also shared her collection of early 20th century shoes –  her father was a Pannell of the Pannell bootmaking business. And she showed us a catalogue produced by the Pannells in c.1903-1904, containing all sorts of information about the most wonderful  sounding shoes: Goloshed Balmorals, Watertight Bluchers or Lorne Shoes, anyone?

Lace-up lady's ankle boots, with a military stacked heel and machine stitching along the vamp, tip and back quarter of the upper, c.1900-1920. Photo: J. Garland.

Lace-up lady’s ankle boots, with a military stacked heel and machine stitching along the vamp, tip and back quarter of the upper, c.1900-1920. Photo: J. Garland.

And then there’s that message in a bottle. But first, the bottle itself, which a number of you commented on, with a couple of you identifying the label. Jessie’s research indicates that the label represents two different companies: Read Brothers and Bass Brewery. The Read Brothers Bottling Company was founded in 1877 by William Thomas Read and John Walter Read. They were based in London and were among the largest, if not the largest, of the London bottling companies, inventing their own bottling machines as well as buying up and reusing old alcohol bottles from across London. The Bull Dog trademark, along with the ‘Dog’s Head’ brand, was registered by them in 1877 and featured the image of a bull dog in a circle on the label (Hughes 2006).


Read Brothers were closely associated with the Bass Brewery and their products, originally bottling only Bass sparkling champagne, cider and Guinness. By the early 1900s they were the largest exporter of Bass Pale Ale in the world.  Bass Brewery, usually represented by the red triangle seen on the label, was founded in 1777 by William Bass in Burton upon Trent. Their characteristic red triangle has the distinction of being the first trademark registered in the UK, under the Trademark Registration Act of 1875 (Hughes 2006).

DSC_0091ed1_web Advertisements in New Zealand newspapers frequently link the two companies from 1878 until 1886, after which the two are mentioned in separate advertisements for quite a time. Then in 1911, they appear again in the same advertisements. We’re not sure exactly what this means!

 An 1878 advertisement for Bass's Pale Ale, bottled by the Read brothers. Image: New Zealand Herald 13/6/1878: 4.

An 1878 advertisement for Bass’s Pale Ale, bottled by the Read brothers. Image: New Zealand Herald 13/6/1878: 4.

As for the message itself, well, I reckon that one of my colleagues got it right when he suggested it was a prank. Why? Well, there are a few reasons. Firstly, although the names on the message are difficult to make out, we couldn’t find any of the possibilities we tried in Papers Past – or at least, we couldn’t make any that we found work, in terms of time, place and/or occupation. And you’d expect an ‘Hon.’ to turn up the newspapers, even if a humble labourer didn’t. Secondly, the spelling mistakes, including of some quite basic words, such as bottle. Thirdly, since the earthquakes, we’ve seen a number of time capsules reported on. There’s something about time capsules that’s undeniably appealing, perhaps through that sense of a very direct message from the past. So, perhaps some workers on the site thought they’d have a good laugh by aping those time capsules and leaving their own message for the future.

Kirsa Webb, Jessie Garland & Katharine Watson


Hughes, D., 2006. “A Bottle of Guinness Please”: The colourful history of Guinness. Phimboy, Berkshire.

LINZ, 1885. Certificate of Title CB105/33. Landonline.

LINZ, 1888. Certificate of Title CB133/286. Landonline.

Macdonald, G. R., n.d. Macdonald dictionary of Canterbury biography. Canterbury Museum.

New Zealand Herald. Available at:

Stewart, D., 2002. The New Zealand Villa: Past and present. Penguin, Auckland.

Watson, K., 2013. Avonside wool scour: an archaeological assessment. Unpublished report for CERA.

Baker, hotel-keeper, confectioner, merchant…..mayor.

Once upon a time, there was a baker (a pie-maker, even) who left his home in Germany and travelled the length of the world to a small country in the South Pacific. There, in a young city built on a marsh, he made his name offering food, drink and lodging to weary travellers and local settlers alike. From near and far, they came to his hotel, his pie shop and his vault of wine until, eventually, he became so greatly esteemed that the citizens of the city on the marsh put forth his name and elected him to be their mayor. After he had retired, he still could not rest and continued to work tirelessly for the city, never once asking for recognition…

Photograph of John George Ruddenklau, taken c. 1892. Image: Christchurch City Libraries, file reference CCL PhotoCD 15, IMG0097.

John George Ruddenklau, taken c. 1892. Image: Christchurch City Libraries, file reference CCL PhotoCD 15, IMG0097.

It may seem a little silly, but the life of John George Ruddenklau, one time Mayor of Christchurch and a man involved in so much of Christchurch’s early history, reads a bit like a fairy tale. Or, at least, like the archetypal tale of the man who sets forth to find adventure and make his fortune in the big wide world.

He was born in the town of Hesse Cassel in Germany in 1829, and “brought up in the bakery business” (Cyclopedia of New Zealand 1903: 107) before leaving for London in the early 1850s. There, he continued to work as a baker until he took a berth aboard a ship to New Zealand in 1857, landing in Lyttelton later that same year (Press 16/12/1891: 5).

In Christchurch, he opened a bakery (also referred to as a pie shop and confectioner’s) and a beer shop at either end of a row of four buildings on the corner of High and Colombo streets, in the heart of the business district (Andersen 1949: 270-71; Lyttelton Times 3/4/1861: 1). Initially, he shared the location with two other businesses (a grocery and an eating house), before gradually taking over the whole corner. As well as operating as a “fancy bread and biscuit maker” (Andersen 1949: 270-71; Press 14/09/1861: 7), he had established the City Wine Vaults there by 1861, offering rooms for refreshment as well as supplying alcohol (Lyttelton Times 17/8/1861: 5).

An advertisement for the City Wine Vaults (left) and a drawing of what became the City Hotel block, with Ruddenklau's pie shop and beer store visible at either end (right). Image: Lyttelton Times 17/8/1861: 5; Andersen, 1949: 270.

Left: An advertisement for the City Wine Vaults (Lyttelton Times 17/8/1861: 5). Right: The corner of Colombo & High streets before the establishment of the City Hotel, with Ruddenklau’s pie shop and beer store visible at either end (Andersen 1949: 270).

An 1864 advertisement for the opening of J. G. Ruddenklau's City Hotel. Image: Lyttelton Times 12/4/1864: 5

An 1864 advertisement for the opening of J. G. Ruddenklau’s City Hotel. Image: Lyttelton Times 12/4/1864: 5

Eventually this part of town came to be known as the City Hotel block, after the hotel that Ruddenklau opened there in 1864. In opening this hotel, Ruddenklau combined his various skills to provide “every comfort and convenience appertaining to a first-class hotel” (Lyttelton Times 12/4/1864: 5). By all accounts the City Hotel was a large, well-furnished establishment, claiming such luxuries as the “best billiard room in New Zealand” (Star 15/6/1868: 1). Its central location must have been great for business, especially after a cab stand, which later grew to include Hansom cabs, set up right outside his front door.

Unfortunately, when we excavated the site of the City Hotel (which later became the Triangle Centre) we found almost nothing in the way of archaeological material, a result of the long history of construction in that location (Hennessey 2012). The wooden City Hotel building that Ruddenklau built in the early 1860s was demolished before 1910 to make way for a stone and brick building known as Mitchell’s City Hotel (Rice 1999: 46).

A photograph of the City Hotel building on the corner of High Street and Colombo Street. This was taken in 1880s, after Ruddenklau's retirement, by E. Wheeler & Son. Image:  Rice 1999: 46

The City Hotel building on the corner of High Street and Colombo Street. This was taken in 1880s, after Ruddenklau’s retirement, by E. Wheeler & Son. Image: Rice 1999: 46

What we did find, however, through archaeological excavations at other sites in Christchurch’s central business district, were fragments of ceramics printed with a pattern specific to the City Hotel and to Ruddenklau himself. The pattern is a rather garish pink and brown design, but the use of both the City Hotel name and Ruddenklau’s initials provides an interesting example of Victorian personal and commercial branding. It also suggests that Mr Ruddenklau was prosperous enough to warrant his own custom china set (which would have been made elsewhere in the world (probably Staffordshire) and imported into New Zealand).

Fragments of a saucer, teacup and mask jug, decorated with the City Hotel pattern and the initials J. G. R.

Fragments of a saucer, teacup and mask jug, decorated with the City Hotel pattern and the initials J. G. R. Image: J. Garland.


The spout from a mask jug decorated with the City Hotel pattern and found in a site at the corner of Cathedral Square. Image: J. Garland

A closeup of the spout of the City Hotel mask jug found in a site at the corner of Cathedral Square. Image: J. Garland

One of the fragments, found at a site on the corner of Cathedral Square, formed the spout of a ‘mask jug’, a jug decorated with the moulded relief of a face on the spout. Jugs like this are relatively rare archaeologically (although there are a couple of complete ones in the Canterbury Museum), and can feature a variety of different ‘faces’,including the male bearded face depicted here.

The other City Hotel china fragments include pieces of a tea cup and a saucer, also found at the Cathedral Square site, as well as another sherd from a (different) hotel site on Lichfield Street. It’s interesting to consider how, exactly, such distinctively branded tea-wares (which were presumably, part of a much larger set) ended up in the ground at sites with no known connection to either the City Hotel or to J. G. Ruddenklau.

The most likely explanation probably revolves around the fact that Ruddenklau retired from the hotel business in 1869 and was succeeded by J. Oram, who ran the ‘J. Oram Sheppard City Hotel’ until the late 19th century (Hennessey 2012: 3-4). Ruddenklau’s personalised china would have had no place in the new establishment and may have been sold off, probably cheaply, to those who didn’t mind drinking their tea out of cups and saucers decorated with someone else’s name. The appearance of such china, however, is particularly surprising at another – presumably competing – hotel.

Ruddenklau appears to have retired to his home in Addington after he left the City Hotel in 1869, at the relatively young age of 40 (Press 16/12/1891: 5). However, he apparently found retirement “irksome” (Press 16/12/1891: 5), and set himself up into business as a grain merchant, as well as getting involved in local politics.

Details of a testimonial presented to J. G. Ruddenklau for his efforts as Mayor during the International Exhibition hosted in Christchurch in 1882. Image: The Evening Post 22/11/1882: 3

Details of a testimonial presented to J. G. Ruddenklau for his efforts as Mayor during the International Exhibition hosted in Christchurch in 1882. Image: Evening Post 22/11/1882: 3

He was first elected to the Christchurch City Council in 1863, then again in 1873 and 1877 (Press 16/12/1891: 5). He followed this up by running for and being elected as Mayor of Christchurch in 1881 (Press 16/12/1891: 5) and again (unopposed) in 1882 (Star 22/11/1892: 3). During his time in office Christchurch hosted the International Exhibition, a showcase of exhibits from all over the world held in Hagley Park from April to July of 1882 (Christchurch City Libraries 2013). Numerous accounts of his mayoral career mention the success of this event (Evening Post 22/11/1882: 3; Press 16/12/1891: 5). Later, in 1884, he was exhorted to stand as one of the Canterbury members of parliament by the electors of Stanmore, which he then did as part of Sir Julius Vogel’s party (Press 15/07/1884: 4; Star 17/07/1884: 3).

A photograph of the temporary buildings constructed to house the New Zealand International Exhibition,  hosted in Hagley Park in 1882.

The temporary buildings constructed to house the New Zealand International Exhibition, hosted in Hagley Park in 1882, during Ruddenklau’s tenure as mayor. Image: Christchurch City Libraries, file reference CCL PhotoCD 2, IMG0008.

As well as his involvement in local politics, it seems that John Ruddenklau was also a particularly active member of the local Christchurch community, like so many of the early Christchurch figures we’ve featured here on the blog. He served as the treasurer of the Albion Cricket Club (Lyttelton Times 3/10/1868: 1), Chairman of Christchurch Young Men’s Club Committee (Press 20/12/1883: 2), on the Board of Directors for the Canterbury Brewing Malt and Distillery Company (Press 2/07/1867: 3), and as President of the Christchurch German Association (Press 26/5/1863: 3), along with various other roles.

It was in that last role, as President of the German Association, that he was instrumental in procuring the ‘German Bells’  for Christchurch in 1873. These were church bells made for the German Church (Deutsche Kirche) from gun metal taken from the French by Germany during the Franco-Prussian war and gifted to the Association by Kaiser Wilhelm I (Press 26/5/1873: 3). The site of the German Church, on Montreal Street, was excavated as part of the construction of the Christchurch Art Gallery, which now stands in the same location. Interestingly, the church bells were taken down and melted following the end of World War I, seemingly as a result of anti-German and pro-French sentiments (Dominion 9/06/1919: 4).

John George Ruddenklau died in 1891 at the age of 72, following a long illness (Press 16/12/1891: 5). His name is not one that has endured in the public eye since his death, nor is he one of Christchurch’s more well-remembered figures. Yet his contribution to the early prosperity of this city is undeniable, and his tireless work, as a businessman, as a politician, and as an involved member of the 19th century Christchurch community, makes him a man worth remembering. Thankfully, and it’s one of the greatest things about this job, the archaeological work we’re doing here at the moment gives us the chance to do just that.

Jessie Garland


Andersen, J. C., 1949. Old Christchurch in Picture and Story. Simpson & Williams Ltd, Christchurch.

Christchurch City Libraries, Digital Collections. [online] Available at: <>.

Cyclopedia of New Zealand [Canterbury Provincial District]. 1903. [online] Available at <>.

Dominion. [online] Available at <>.

Evening Post. [online] Available at <>.

Hennessey, M., 2012. High, Colombo and Cashel streets triangle, Christchurch: A report on archaeological monitoring. Unpublished report for Mackey Leighs Demolition.

Rice, G. W., 1999. Christchurch Changing An Illustrated History. Canterbury University Press, Christchurch.

Press. [online] Available at <>.

Star. [online] Available at <>.

Telling time in days gone by

A little while ago, archaeologist Matt Carter was investigating a brick-lined basement on a site in Christchurch when he came across what turned out to be a small 19th century pocket-watch (below). You can imagine his surprise (and excitement) – artefact finds like this are rare in archaeological excavations, since people tended to hold onto and take care of valuable items like watches (as we do now).


Engraved gilt-metal pocket watch found in a buried basement in Christchurch. This watch is currently on display as part of the Canterbury Museum’s Quake City exhibition. Photo: K. Webb.

Of course, our watch didn’t look quite like this when Matt found it. Although it’s been cleaned carefully since being excavated, the corrosion on the watch means it’s difficult to make out many characteristics that would help us identify it further. What we know so far is that it’s likely to have been gold-plated and it has an engraved fish scale-like pattern on the back and a decorative engraved floral pattern on the gilt face. It’s just possible to distinguish the black enamel numbers on the face. We think that the watch probably used a keyless wound lever mechanism: such mechanisms were introduced to watches during the 1850s and 1860s to replace winding methods that required a separate key to work.

3D CT scan of the pocket watch found on the wreck of the Swan. (Image: National Museums Scotland.)

Computerised tomography (CT) scanning may be able to reveal engraved maker’s marks or manufacturing dates on the watch. This technique has been used successfully for a pocket watch found on the wreckage of the Swan, which sank in 1653 in the Sound of Mull, off the coast of Scotland. The resulting images revealed not only the type of mechanism but also the name of the maker – “Niccholas Higginson, Westminster” – engraved on the back.

Gilt-metal ‘clock watch’ by German watchmaker Peter Henlein, dated c. 1510.  (Image: Wikipedia.)

The first watches evolved after the coiled spring was introduced as an alternative form of motive power to the pendulum. This meant that timepieces no longer needed to be big enough to house the pendulum, but could be made small enough to be carried unobtrusively.

Some of the earliest watches have been attributed to the maker Peter Henlein of Nuremberg. An example of one of his watches is kept at the Germanisches National Museum, Nuremberg, Germany. Dated 1510, this ‘clock watch’ is contained in a gilt metal drum-shaped case with a single hand indicating the time on an engraved gilt metal dial. These early examples were designed to be hung around the neck by a cord rather than carried in the pocket.

Some early examples of watches have been depicted in contemporary paintings such as this untitled painting attributed to Tommaso Manzouli dated c. 1560. (Image: Science & Society Picture Library.)

Around the time of the introduction of pockets to clothing during in the first quarter of the 17th century, when a pocket was a fabric pouch worn underneath your petticoat or tied around your wrist or belt, watches developed into the form we know today in order to be carried in the pocket. The watch was housed in a case and a crystal or glass cover was added to protect the hands and dial.

The site where our watch was found was once the property of Herman Franz Fuhrmann, an affluent German immigrant, who owned the section until his death in 1907. Fuhrmann was an undertaker and cabinet maker and had established himself in Christchurch by 1869, having arrived by way of Melbourne. In 1873 Fuhrmann expanded his business to include a saddler and the following year became involved in the insurance industry. He also made profits buying and selling Molesworth station (in Marlborough).

A newspaper article advertising a watch similar to that found in the Christchurch basement.

From the small size of our watch (just 3 cm in diameter) we know that it was probably owned by a lady. She must have been a lady of some wealth – intricately detailed gilt pocket watches such as this were not cheap, although they were available in Christchurch from at least the 1860s and were advertised in local newspapers of the time.

What we don’t know is why the watch was discarded. Watches such as these were repairable and a quick search of Papers Past indicates that watchmakers were well represented in Christchurch so it is unlikely that it was broken. Was it thrown out deliberately? Was it lost accidentally? These are the kind of questions archaeologists seek to answer every day, to help us better understand the lives of those who came before us.


 Kirsa  Webb