“the marvellous antiquity…of our beloved ritual” – Past Master G. W. Speth, 1893.

Context is an important concept in archaeology. Everyday artefacts, often mundane and fragmented, can take on a powerful meaning due to an unusual placement or an association with other material of a different type or function. These circumstances will often nudge the archaeologists towards stories about the past that are easily overlooked in favour of the stronger, overarching narrative of a site’s archaeology. The excavation of Grubb cottage in Lyttelton in 2010 provided an opportunity to contemplate the broader meaning of two common artefacts recovered from unusual contexts. This incongruity, combined with a consideration of the broader context of the cottage’s history, informs an interpretation of the cottage’s occupants that extends beyond the daily domestic activities so often reflected in the archaeology of historical residences in New Zealand.

Grubb cottage is one of the oldest standing residential buildings in Christchurch. John Grubb, a ship’s carpenter from Scotland, was stranded in Wellington in 1847 when the ship on which he was employed was condemned due to leaks on a voyage between London and Melbourne (Cyclopedia 1903a). He made his way down to the newly established port of Lyttelton in search of work, and he liked it so much he decided to settle there and bring out his family from Scotland. His wife, Mary, and their three daughters arrived in 1850 on the Charlotte Jane, one of the “first four ships”.

John and Mary Grubb. Image: Cyclopedia 1903a.

John and Mary Grubb. Image: Cyclopedia 1903a.

With them they brought the building tools with which John established a thriving shipwright’s business at the port (Amodeo and Chapman 2003: 88). In 1851 John was the first to purchase a town section in Lyttelton after the balloted sections were allotted. On this section in London Street he built a simple timber cottage. The Grubb family grew as John’s business prospered and John himself became a figure of importance in the local community. He served on the borough council, as did his son James who became the Mayor of Lyttelton in 1902. When John died in 1898 (LINZ c.1860: 5W237), James inherited the cottage, which had been enlarged by a significant addition to the south elevation (Cyclopedia 1903b). The cottage remained in the Grubb family for over a century until it was sold in 1961 (HMS 2008: 8).

James Grubb. Image: Cyclopedia 1903b.

James Grubb. Image: Cyclopedia 1903b.

The archaeological excavation of Grubb cottage highlighted two themes: the deposition of the material debris of a century’s worth of occupation by the Grubb family, and changes made to the cottage and surrounding landscape as the Grubb family grew in number and community prominence. However, within these overarching narratives two small artefacts stood out due to their unusual context. During the excavation of new pile holes two timbers were uncovered, one under the other, running north-south along the line of the east elevation of the original cottage. Two coins were found lying on these timbers, later identified as a British bronze halfpence and a bronze penny (Clayton 2013). Unfortunately much of the detail on these coins was corroded but the material, dimensions and remaining detail were enough to date their issue to 1860-1890 and 1874 respectively.

The bronze penny (left) and half-penny (right) recovered from Grubb cottage.

The bronze penny (left) and half-penny (right) recovered from Grubb cottage.

Archaeologists often find coins during excavations and these can be useful for dating the context in which they were found. However, these coins were under the original cottage, which was built in the early 1850s and therefore predated the coins’ issue.  It is here that the physical context in which the coins were found provided a possible explanation for the dating discrepancy. The coins appeared to have been deliberately placed – what if their placement had a ritual purpose, rather than being the result of careless discard? It is likely that the east elevation of the original cottage was the location of the formal entrance until the addition, which included a new front door, was made to the south elevation at an unknown date. The date of the coins precludes any association with the opening of the original cottage entrance, but was it possible that they were used to ceremonially close that entrance before the opening of another? In which case, the coins would date the construction of the southern addition to sometime after 1874.

This possibility is evocative of common ceremonies such as the laying of time capsules, a custom that has been identified at several Christchurch buildings including an early 20th century Masonic lodge. Freemasons held elaborate ceremonies to lay the foundation stones of Masonic buildings, and these almost always included the laying of a time capsule containing a newspaper and coins (Speth 1893). Mention of Freemasonry often conjures notions of conspiracy theories and Dan Brown books, but ‘the brotherhood’ was a real and powerful influence in New Zealand’s male-dominated colonial society. The first lodge in New Zealand opened in Wellington in 1842 and by 1890 New Zealand boasted 151 lodges (Phillips 2012).Members included important society and political leaders, such as Richard Seddon, New Zealand premier and the Most Worshipful Grand Master of the Masonic Lodge of New Zealand.

Now this is where the broader context of the archaeology of Grubb cottage affects the meaning of those two little coins found in the ground – both John Grubb and his son James were Freemasons. Not only were they Freemasons, but they were leaders of the Masonic community in Lyttelton for almost 40 years. Together with several others they succeeded in founding the Canterbury Kilwinning lodge in 1875 (Press 3/12/1875; 21/2/1898). This was the second Masonic lodge in Lyttelton, the first being the Lodge of Unanimity, which was established in 1851 (Cyclopedia 1903c). Three years later John Grubb was elected lodge treasurer while James was elected a senior warden (Press 6/12/1878). The Kilwinning Lodge commissioned the construction of a hall on Canterbury Street, for which James Grubb as Worshipful Master laid the foundation stone in a ceremony in 1881 (Press 30/5/1881). John Grubb remained treasurer of the Kilwinning lodge for 18 years, resigning shortly before his death in 1898 (Press 3/12/1896).

So, if the placement of the coins was related to change in the cottage structure, it is possible that the Grubb cottage coins had a ritual significance that echoed the traditions of Freemasonry. But why were coins and newspapers used in such ceremonies? The reason seems obvious – to provide temporal information concerning the construction of the building for posterity in case of the building’s destruction. However, one would expect that the future destruction of the building was not a desirable result. Could there be an underlying explanation for these ritual actions?

George Speth, a prominent English Mason, related components of Masonic tradition to the folklore of construction. After all, a mason is a builder, and the Freemasons traced their origins to the cathedral builders of medieval Europe, and building tools were treasured symbols of the society (Newton 1921: 97-124). Speth associated common builders’ rites with the ancient belief that in order to ensure the permanence and stability of a structure it must be imbued with a soul (Speth 1893: 3). He suggested that originally this was undertaken by human sacrifice. Legends from around the world connect death to construction and Speth cited instances where human bones have been uncovered in the foundations of ancient buildings (Speth 1893: 4-22). He maintained that over time such sacrifice became symbolic in nature, with the use of animals and animal products, images and effigies. It is this symbolic form of sacrifice that Speth related to the custom of including coins in foundation ceremonies – ”…coins bearing the effigy, impressed upon the noblest of metals, the pure red gold of the one person to whom we are all most loyal, and whom we all most love, our Gracious Queen…” (Speth 1893: 22) – even if the conscious intention of imbuing the structure with a protective spirit had been shed over time.

A stained glass window depicting Saint Columba in Iona Abbey, Scotland.

A stained glass window depicting Saint Columba in Iona Abbey, Scotland. Legend has it that Columba buried alive his companion, Odran, to ensure the lasting stability of his chapel there. Image: Wikipedia 2008.

John Grubb was a builder by trade and a Freemason of high standing in Lyttelton. It is entirely likely that he was aware of the traditions and rites associated with construction. It is even possible that, on the closing of the old entrance to his cottage, he buried two coins to ceremonially mark the occasion. He didn’t necessarily do this while fully conscious of all the connotations of this little ritual. Perhaps it was done out of deference to Masonic practice, or perhaps it was done out of habit – an old superstition he picked up during his time in the building trade in Scotland. Whatever his motivation, this interpretation of past events was only made possible through consideration of two mundane objects within their immediate and broader context.

Rosie Geary Nichol


Amodeo, C. and Chapman, R., 2003. The Forgotten Forty-Niners: being an account of the men and women who paved the way in 1849 for the Canterbury pilgrims in 1850. Christchurch: Caxton Press.

Clayton, T., 2013. Coins of England and Great Britain. [online] Available at: http://www.coins-of-the-uk.co.uk/coins.html.

Cyclopedia of New Zealand, 1903a. Professional, Commercial and Industrial: Mr. John Grubb. [online] Available at: http://nzetc.victoria.ac.nz//tm/scholarly/tei-Cyc03Cycl-t1-body1-d3-d60-d2.html.

Cyclopedia of New Zealand, 1903b. Lyttelton: His Worship the Mayor, Mr. James Grubb, J.P. [online] Available at: http://nzetc.victoria.ac.nz//tm/scholarly/tei-Cyc03Cycl-t1-body1-d3-d60-d1.html.

Cyclopedia of New Zealand, 1903c. Orders and Friendly Societies: Masonic: New Zealand Constitution: Unanimity Lodge. [online] Available at: http://nzetc.victoria.ac.nz//tm/scholarly/tei-Cyc03Cycl-t1-body1-d3-d22-d3.html.

Heritage Management Services (HMS), 2008. Grubb Cottage Conservation Report. Unpublished report.

Land Information New Zealand (LINZ), c.1860. Probate Index – 5W237. Archives New Zealand, Christchurch Office.

Newton, J. F., 1921. A Story and Study of Masonry. [online] Available at: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/19049/19049-h/19049-h.htm#CHAPTER_IB.

Philips, J., 2012. ‘Men’s clubs – Masons’. [online] Available at: http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/mens-clubs/page-4.

Press. [online] Available at: http://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz.

Speth, G. W., 1893. ‘Builders’ Rites and Ceremonies: Two Lectures on the Folk-Lore of Masonry. Delivered by G. W. Speth to the Members of the Church Institute, Margate, On the 30th October and 13th November, 1893. [online]. Available at: http://www.slv.vic.gov.au/.