An encounter with an unexpected nappy (and other things)

Lately, I’ve been thinking about languages. Languages and cultures. Specifically, the languages of archaeology, as a profession: how, around the world, they reflect our different cultural backgrounds and historical contexts and, more personally, how they code the perspective and background of the collector and analyst into the archaeological record. Basically, I’ve been reminded how much of ourselves we put into what we record and just how much that reflects our lives and where we come from.

I’ve been away, in the US, Canada and, now, England, where I’m writing this in a café in Whitechapel, London (across the road from a fish and chip shop amusingly named Jack the Chipper…). Maybe it’s because I’ve been looking through archaeological collections from these places with a view to finding similarities and differences, or maybe it’s just me, but hopping from country to country has been a bit of a study in duelling senses of familiarity and strangeness. Some of the differences were obvious: street after street after street of brown brick and stone row housing in Boston and liquor stores disguised as “wine emporiums”. The cobbled streets and age-weathered building facades of London. The politeness of Canadians. I thought it was a stereotype, if I’m honest, but I have never seen so many people have such polite and friendly exchanges with bus drivers: it puts the rest of us to shame.

The snow and -12 to -20 temperatures were also something of a reminder that I was not where I should be in January. Clockwise from top left: snow in London, Ontario; the row houses of Boston; snow in Toronto; Jack the Chipper in Whitechapel, London, where ‘Ripperology’ is still very much a thing.

At the same time, there’s a commonality of culture between all these places – not necessarily on a grand scale, but in the minutiae of daily life. There is much that is the same, or that can at least be easily, unconsciously translated, but the little points of difference remain, creating a weird sort of cognitive dissonance where I feel at home and then remember where I am. It’s something I’ve felt before, living in Australia, although it can sometimes be less obvious there, I think, for a kiwi. There have been times when I’ve genuinely forgotten that I live in Australia, even when I am actually in Australia (funny story, at Canadian passport control, the passport person said “So, you live in Australia?”, to which I replied very authoritatively, thinking I’d been mistaken for an Australian, “No, New Zealand”, until she said, “but you’ve written Australia on the form in front of me”. I forgot. Again. I do live in Australia.).

As those differences and similarities exist in culture, they also exist in language (unsurprisingly, given how one is entangled with the other). In all the places I’ve been over the last few months, we speak the same language, but, still, the words don’t always mean the same thing (there are too many examples of this to list, but my favourite is the word “tramping” and the many baffled faces it elicits from Australians when I say I’m going tramping for the weekend). People and places, even those with shared cultural histories and language bases, grow together in different ways and, sometimes, even the same language requires a little translation.

This is the classic example, isn’t it, when it comes to English-speaking words for the same object: jandals, flip-flops, thongs, slippers, “toe-post sandals”. Image: J. Garland.

And, as with life, so too with archaeology (you might be forgiven for thinking otherwise, but this is actually a blog about archaeology, I promise). Working with archaeological collections in different countries has been an exercise in translation, of systems and of terminology. Despite sharing a great deal of our disciplinary and methodological foundations, we have each developed archaeological languages, or dialects, of our own. Never has this been more apparent to me than in navigating my way around collections of the same types of material culture from different parts of the world. I already knew that artefact terminology can be inconsistent, having spent a lot of time standardising catalogues created by different people, but I hadn’t quite realised how much that inconsistency, when viewed from a global perspective, reflects the different geographical, cultural and archaeological contexts of place.

Some of it is as simple as frames of reference. The British archaeological context is very different to the New Zealand one and their language of analysis is built upon a very different archaeological tradition. Recent, nineteenth century archaeology is only a tiny part of what is excavated and ‘colonial archaeology’ doesn’t apply in quite the same way, so things are labelled and ordered according to other frames of reference: what I would call colonial, European, or British ceramics in New Zealand are post-Roman or post-Medieval pottery in England. The system of archaeological data recording is structured differently, written for a different archaeological record, a different chronology. Just talking about systems of recording material culture data probably deserves a whole other post, if I can figure out how to make it interesting to more than just the data nerds, as does the more general framework surrounding the repositories and collections of archaeological material around the world and, more specifically, in New Zealand.

Some of it is even more meta than just the archaeological context and references the actual disciplinary tradition of archaeology in different places and the influences (for example, the language of collectors) that have impacted that tradition. This became apparent at the SHA Conference in Boston (which Kat wrote about last time), where I went to a forum on the use of synonyms in artefact collections and the need for a glossary of terms, particularly for researchers from different states and countries. This is a very good idea, as anyone who has come across a term like “glass nappy” in a report and had to very gingerly, and with some trepidation, google it at work, will be well aware.

Not what you expected from “glass nappy”, is it? Another term that might require checking, depending on where you come from, is the delightfully named “twiffler“. More mundanely, even something as ubiquitous as a black beer bottle can have multiple names: I’ve seen it called an English wine bottle, black glass stout or black glass porter, even just ‘dark olive bottle’. Image from here.

It was illuminating to hear people from Australia, England and the US talking about just how varied our archaeological languages are (the discussion on white granite and ironstone alone was INTENSE; so too, surprisingly, was the discussion about coarse earthenware). Among the many interesting points covered was one on the unexpectedly diverse languages used for site recording, including, for example, ‘spit’ and ‘artificial or arbitrary level’. Spit, which is, as far as I’m aware, the term used in New Zealand, is a more British term and our use of it, instead of the American artificial level, shows the influence of British field recording on the development of the discipline in New Zealand. Yet, when it comes to colonial archaeology in New Zealand, we borrow more heavily from American artefact terminology than we do from the ‘post-medieval’ British traditions, because so much of what is considered colonial or historical archaeology developed in North America in the twentieth century.

Another mix of terminology that confused me slightly the first time I encountered it: ‘Lots’. This is part of a Certificate of Title from Christchurch, in which “Lot” references a historic property boundary. But in Canada, it’s used to label archaeological features and contexts: “Lot 22” might instead refer to a cesspit.

On a more personal note, thinking about all of this made me think again of the reflection of my own personal disciplinary history and socio-cultural background in the language I use as an archaeologist and an analyst. I don’t know that I have any specific examples, but I have absolutely no doubt they exist. All of the things I’ve just talked about have a very clear and visible influence on the development of archaeological languages, but so too – especially in artefact terminology and analysis – does the human in the equation, i.e. me. The importance of objectivity in cataloguing, especially in the design of typologies, is undeniable, but it’s also impossible to avoid subjectivity entirely, because, in the end, it’s all done by a person and we are nothing if not a product of the world around us.

All of which is very meta and post-modern and other people have written about it with far more clarity than I’ll ever be able to articulate, but I guess what I’m trying to say is that it’s not a bad idea to be reminded every now and then of the world – in all its diversity and similarity – that influences the way that we, in turn, conceptualise the past. And, as always, to remember that context is everything.

Jessie

Hello (again)

This post has been surprisingly difficult to write. The first words on a blank page are always so much harder than they have any right to be. It’s that overwhelming sensation of just not knowing how to begin, how to possibly find the right words to start funnelling all you want to say down on to paper. We could begin with who we are (hi, we’re Jessie and Katharine) and what we do (archaeology!), but we’ve been down this road before and it almost feels like we’re starting in the middle. How much backstory do we need for this new chapter?

How about this? Hi. We’re two archaeologists who used to work in post-quake Christchurch, and used to blog about that work. Now, we’re two archaeologists who study Christchurch through the data generated from work we used to do and, not entirely unsurprisingly, have decided to blog about it.

Or, to put it another way, it turns out we’re both suckers for punishment and as incapable of saying no to things – especially our own ideas – as we always have been. Over the last couple of years, we’ve both genuinely missed the act of blog writing – unexpectedly so – especially as our research has grown and we’ve found ourselves going off on tangents that were just crying out to be written up into posts. So, here we are.

Just one of the many asides and tangents we’ve already discovered. I love this so much. Image: Globe 23/03/1876: 1.

We’re both now PhD candidates (I rest my case about being suckers for punishment – J), Katharine at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch and Jessie at La Trobe University in Melbourne. This blog is intended to be something of a way for us to talk about our research – into domestic architecture (Katharine) and material culture (Jessie) – in nineteenth century Christchurch, as well as an outlet for the million and one asides we keep finding along the way. Much of it will be related to Christchurch and the title of the blog is a shout-out to our continued connection to that city, as well as to the broader urban archaeological scope of our interests. We reserve the right, however, to veer slightly further afield from time to time.

To continue setting the scene, it seemed a good idea to devote this first post to a bit of an overview of our research (and, I suppose, of ourselves). Those of you reading this who know us personally may have already heard too much about this, so we forgive you if you just want to look at the pictures. We will be back in the new year (we picked such a great time to launch something new, don’t you agree?) with more posts on all sorts of things. We hope to see you there.

Jessie

I thought long and hard (well, distractedly) about what I wanted to say in this first post and all I could think of was how much there was to write about (something of a theme with me, whoops). With that thought, however, came the realisation that this perspective – a constant awareness of just how much potential there is in the Christchurch archaeological dataset, just how vast the possibilities are – is in itself a fairly crucial part of the why and the what of my current research.

Since the 2010 and 2011 earthquakes, the archaeological dataset from Christchurch has grown exponentially, revealing a complex array of information, artefacts, buildings and sites that connects the Christchurch of today with the physical imprint of its history. I worked in Christchurch from 2012 to 2018, analysing the various European artefact assemblages that were excavated, and it became increasingly apparent that the dataset we were building, site by site and artefact by artefact, was one that should be seen as an integrated whole. The more assemblages we worked with, the more connections we noticed across the archaeology of the city – artefacts that I had seen on sites before, individuals I’d encountered in passing through previous research, patterns in the archaeology and the material culture that only came into focus as each new assemblage added another piece of the puzzle.

Just a bit of stuff. Image: Wendy Gibbs.

I wanted the chance to explore those connections through material culture, to see if I can grasp some of the ways in which the interaction of people and place could be seen in the things people used and the way they used them. And, not content to stop there, I also want to know how Christchurch fitted, in terms of its stuff, with the world around it. How did consumer culture in nineteenth century Christchurch compare to the rest of the British colonial world? Did we have the same stuff, or were there differences? Did those differences contribute, in any way, to the distinct identity that the city developed over time? How much do the things we buy and use have an influence on the communities that we create? Especially in an age of mass production and global trade, whether it’s 150 years ago or right now?

Some of my favourite things. These artefacts were all found on the site of the new Justice and Emergency Services Precinct. Image: J. Garland.

All of which is to say: the scale of the Christchurch archaeological dataset is awesome, I have a lot of questions and all the time I’m spending staring at spreadsheets and wrestling with databases and reading reports will be totally worth it if I can answer even some of them. At the moment, I’m focusing on what was available to the residents of nineteenth century Christchurch: what the artefacts can tell me about how people were getting their goods, where those goods were coming from and who was making those decisions. I’m also looking at patterns of use and discard across the city – what people were throwing away, why, and what it tells me about their relationship with those things. Next year, I’m heading to Canada and the UK (in January, a truly terrible idea, given the ice, snow and Brexit) to work with some very accommodating archaeologists and gather the data needed to explore the global context. It’ll be fun! Also, freezing! Expect some photos of snow.

Me, four weeks from now.

Katharine

Old buildings have long captivated me, particularly the exterior of them, and I can spend many hours happily wandering around, looking at them, taking photos (in fact, this is what I love to do on holidays – it may not make me the most interesting holiday companion…). So it’s perhaps no surprise that, as we began to record many, many 19th century buildings following the earthquakes in Christchurch (more on this process in a later post), I should want to know more about them: about their layout, about the spaces within them, how people used buildings, about gender and buildings, about what they looked and about what this all means. Basically, to understand buildings as fully as I can. I’ll confess, I’m a bit less interested in the timbers and the framing and the roof structure structural elements, but obviously they matter too – and can be used to answer all kinds of questions about trade and the economy and innovation. It’s just that I’m more interested in people, and how they used buildings. Which is what brings me to houses. They seem to me to be the ultimate nexus between people and buildings, stemming from that basic human need for shelter, something, sadly, not everyone is able to enjoy.

The more I thought about houses, the more I wanted to understand why they looked the way they did. It fascinates me that mid-late 19th century urban housing in New Zealand can be so much the same and, at the same time, so different, whether within one city or across the country. There seems to me to be a continuum of appearance. While this was in part driven by what was available to buy, and the influence of pattern books, it was also driven by personal choice. People who were building a house wanted it to look a certain way and I want to understand why people made the choices they did, and how those choices are connected to who they are and how they see their place in the world. In essence, I want to understand how people’s identity is connected to the appearance of their house.

But before I can investigate that, I need to know what Christchurch’s houses actually looked like in the 19th century, what the different types of houses were in the city and how this changed between 1850 and 1900. Which, for me, is fascinating data in and of itself, even if it’s involved rather more statistics than I might have liked – numbers have never been my friend… Once I’ve got that data, I can start to look at how this relates to the people who built the houses, to see what types of houses different people, and different groups of people, were building, and what this might tell me about how people were using houses to construct and display their identity in a colonial setting. I’m also quite, quite interested in the city’s identity (don’t get me started on Christchurch as an ‘English’ city and it’s probably not a good idea to mention the ‘first four ships’ either) and how domestic architecture might be related to that. Whether or not time will allow for that, though…

So, that’s us. We hope, dear reader, that you’ll follow along on our voyage of discovery. We’re excited to share our research and our love of archaeology and all the wonderful and mind-boggling things the past can reveal with you, and hope that you enjoy this as as much as we do!

Jessie and Kat