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