Class is a complicated concept, historically and in the present day. It’s difficult to define, somewhat ephemeral, and yet so clearly there in our societies and our cultures. For better or for worse, social stratification has been part of human life for a really long time now and it shows, in our material culture, in our buildings and in our landscapes.
As a consequence, class, much like gender, is visible in the archaeological record, although not without a whole lot of complications (as is always the way, really). If there’s anything I’ve learned while I’ve been researching this (other than how idiotically ambitious it was to try and write about class in a short blog post), it’s that class is one of those concepts that depends.
To start with, it depends on how we’re interpreting it, and on what kind of ideas and experiences we’re using to make sense of it. It’s very easy, when interpreting and talking about concepts like class, to project our own present day ideas back onto past societies, because they’re the frame of reference we’re working from. I know that our discussions about class here in the office over the past week have constantly touched on class as we understand it now, especially as we tried to untangle our thoughts about what it is and how it’s represented in our material culture.
It also depends on how we’re defining it: are we talking about a part of society which shares similar socio-economic characteristics – i.e. income, social values, social behaviour, consumer choices – or are we talking about a part of society explicitly defined by the way it contrasts with other parts of society. After all, the ‘lower classes’ are only so-called because of how they differ from the ‘middle classes’ and the ‘upper classes’, aren’t they?
Typically, from a characteristics perspective in Western society (and I’m being really general here), upper class denotes inherited family prestige and/or great wealth; middle class tends to refer to a combination of ‘white collar’ professions, comfortable incomes, a certain level of education and/or social manners; and lower or working class to blue collar jobs, lower end incomes, lower levels of education, etc. We’re certainly used to hearing these kinds of class definitions for Victorian society, if not for our own. Even as I’m writing this, though, I find myself disagreeing, thinking of exceptions, of variations within these definitions. How accurate, how universal are these distinctions? I end up with more questions than answers (and more than a little brain melting).
It depends on how we’re looking at it. From an archaeological perspective, we interpret individual and group behaviour and activities through the physical remnants of people’s lives. This includes intangible concepts like class, which are represented in the things people buy and use and the differences in those things between separate social groups. These differences could be stylistic, they could be cost or value based, they could be functional. If we’re using ceramics, we could look at the differences in decorative techniques and patterns between households, the differences in the types and forms of teawares and tablewares that people owned, or the relative cost of those different objects.
For example, archaeological studies elsewhere in the world have associated plain or minimally decorated tea and dinner sets with middle class Victorian households, for whom they’re not just aesthetically pleasing, but associated with ideals of gentility, domesticity and a kind of conformity with the fashions and ideals of their neighbours (Fitts 1991). Other studies have looked at the different types of ceramic vessels people owned: the more variety of types – i.e. the more elaborate and specialised the dinner set – the better off the household might be (Brooks 2002). Even more studies have looked at the relative cost of certain types of ceramic, to see if they might correspond to differences in the social status of households (Miller 1991). There’s always a danger here, though, of making broad, uncritical assumptions about social status or beliefs from artefacts (i.e. we have plain ceramics, therefore we have a middle class household). It definitely helps to have a good historical record for the site or assemblage: the more historical context we have, the more we can use material culture to explore how people navigated and dealt with social classes, rather than just using it to identify a certain class.
Context is hugely important when it comes to questions like this. More than anything else, I think, our understanding of social class depends on where and when we’re looking at it. Class is quite a fluid concept and reflects the various social, economic and cultural processes of different times and places. The characteristics of the different social classes in Christchurch, for example, are not the same as the characteristics of those classes in London, or even America, although they may be influenced by them. They’re not even the same as other cities in New Zealand. We’re operating in a very different social and historical context here: different background, different population demographic, different physical, social and economic environment. It’s been said that Christchurch’s upper class, or ‘elite’, was smaller and far more fluid than its British counterpart: here, the upper classes included professionals (lawyers, business owners, etc) who would elsewhere have been considered middle class (McAloon 2000: 193-221). It’s also likely that the so-called middle class of the city was larger than elsewhere and, again, more varied. Although, really, it’s hard to say.
You have to ask then, how did the idiosyncrasies (economic, political, cultural) of Christchurch society affect the definitions of classes in the city? Did it make the differences between what would elsewhere be considered the lower class and the middle classes less pronounced? Was there more mobility between the social classes here than elsewhere? Did people back then actively consider themselves to be middle or upper or lower class or are we just giving them our own labels? Were distinctions in the material culture of different social classes more or less obvious than in, say, England? And most of all, can we see this in the archaeological record?
The answer to the last one is yes, probably, but it’s going to take a while. At this stage, we haven’t excavated enough sites with known class contexts to make any meaningful interpretations of social status in 19th century Christchurch. Before we can start to explore how people in different social groups were using material culture we need to look a bit more at what those different social groups were and how we might be able to associate them with certain types of artefacts. And that requires lots of archaeological sites with good historical records, and the time to compare them all. It’s difficult, but not impossible, and certainly something we’re working on.
As of now, we really only have a few very, very preliminary observations on social status in Christchurch. We’ve noticed that a lot of the residential sites we’re digging up here have very similar artefact assemblages: this might reflect a less pronounced class distinction in the city, the prevalence of one particular social class (the middle) here, or that the material culture of Victorian Christchurch is just too uniform to be a good indicator of class. Alternatively, it might just reflect the sample of sites we’ve excavated so far. We certainly haven’t noticed the kinds of patterns here that have been commented on elsewhere: there’s not been much of a prevalence of plain ceramics here, or contrasts between assemblages with a wide variety of forms and those with just a few types. We have noticed some interesting correlations between the styles of buildings and the social positions or professions of their occupants, especially when it comes to the contrast between the public and private spaces within houses (next week’s post!). It’ll be intriguing to see how these observations change as time goes on and we gather more data. No matter what, it should be interesting!
Brandon, J. C., 2009. A North American perspective on race and class in historical archaeology. In Majewsk, T. and Gaimster, D., eds. International Handbook of Historical Archaeology, pp. 3-16. Springer, New York.
Brooks, A., 2002. The cloud of unknowing: towards an international comparative analysis of eighteenth and nineteenth century ceramics. Australasian Historical Archaeology 20: 48-57.
Fitts, R., 1991. The archaeology of middle-class domesticity and gentility in Victorian Brooklyn. Historical Archaeology 33(1): 39-62
McAloon, J., 2000. The Christchurch elite. In Cookson, J. and Dunstall, G., eds). Southern Capital Christchurch: Towards a City Biography, 1850-2000., pp. 193-221. Canterbury University Press, Christchurch.
Miller, G.,1991. A revised set of CC index values for classification and economic scaling of English ceramics from 1787 to 1880. Historical Archaeology 25(l): l-25.