Artifact of the Day for May 30th, 2017 — ‘Frozen Charlotte’ doll

I was excited to see this find Brianne and Raine made while excavating a test unit in the field between our operation areas. I first encountered one of these in 2015, during an excavation on the east bank side of campus. The story behind these dolls is so interesting…

Head of a Frozen Charlotte doll.
Head of a Frozen Charlotte doll.

Let’s go back in time to 1843. The humourist Seba Smith published a poem called “A Corpse Going to a Ball” in The Rover, a Maine newspaper. This poem was a cautionary tale against vanity, perhaps, as it was inspired by a grim tale published on February 8, 1840 in the New York Observer of a young woman who froze to death on the way to a New Year’s Eve ball on December 31, 1839.

An excerpt:

“O, daughter dear,” her mother cried,
“This blanket ’round you fold;
It is a dreadful night tonight,
You’ll catch your death of cold.”

“O, nay! O, nay!” young Charlotte cried,
And she laughed like a gypsy queen;
“To ride in blankets muffled up,
I never would be seen.”

The poem became a folk song called “Young Charlotte” or “Fair Charlotte”, which was mainly spread and popularised by a blind singer from Vermont named William Lorenzo Carter who was a contemporary of Mark Twain.

An excerpt of one version:

He stripped the mantle off her brow,
And the pale stars on her shone,
And quickly into the lighted hall,
Her helpless form was borne.
They tried all within their power,
Her life for to restore,
But Charlotte was a frozen corpse,
And is never to speak more.

Another version excerpt:

He took her hand in his, O God, ‘t was cold and hard as stone;
He tore the mantle from her brow and the cold stars on her shone.
Then quickly to the lighted hall her lifeless form he bore,
For Charlotte was a frozen corpse and a word spake never more.

Parallel to this folk song gaining popularity was the export of small porcelain dolls from Germany beginning in 1850. These were known as “Naktfrosch” which colloquially translates to “naked babies”.  Made of one piece with fixed limbs, they were inexpensive to produce and came in all sorts of sizes, ranging from one inch to over 18 inches tall. Some were glazed, and some had minimal colouring like the hair and face painted. They were also known as pillar dolls or solid chinas. Some were called bathing babies, and marketed as Victorian bath toys as they were only glazed only on the front, meaning they float in water on their backs.

Tiny Frozen Charlotte doll recovered on a Trent campus excavation in 2015.
Tiny unglazed Frozen Charlotte doll recovered on a Trent campus excavation in 2015.

The popularity of the song quickly mapped on to these small immovable dolls and they began to be known as Frozen Charlottes, or in the case of some male version of the dolls, Frozen Charlies. The tiny ones cost a penny and were popular prizes, and sometimes were sold in a tiny coffin with a blanket/shroud. They were also sold undressed, which means that mothers and daughters could make little clothes for them.

Frozen Charlotte doll with handmade dress.
Frozen Charlotte doll with handmade dress and shoes.

In Britain, the smallest versions (called pudding dolls) were often baked into puddings or cakes as a prize at Christmastime and other holidays, similar to the baby figure incorporated into Mardi Gras King cakes.

Example German-made Frozen Charlotte dolls similar to the one we recovered.
Example German-made Frozen Charlotte dolls similar to the one we recovered.

The earlier Frozen Charlotte type dolls were manufactured until about 1914, and were replaced in the 1920s by similar bisque dolls mass-produced in Germany, Japan and the United States. The later models have many more types like aviatrix, flappers, adults, babies, and anthropomorphised animals. They generally fell out of favour in the 1940s.

We have now found parts of at least three different types of dolls this season. Two were cloth-bodied dolls with porcelain limbs and head, and now we have a Frozen Charlotte!

Student blog — In Search of….Something: Our First Stage 3 Test Unit

Here’s a little view into one of the activities our students learn during the course of the field school. They learn how to lay in and excavate a 1x1m test unit, and fill in the accompanying documentation. This is an important skill to have, as it is used widely in cultural resource management (CRM) archaeology in what is known as a Stage 3 assessment. Here’s Sam’s take on his experience. — Kate

Trevor and Sam and their Stage 3 unit!
Trevor and Sam and their Stage 3 unit!

In an ideal scenario, an archaeologist would know exactly where a site is located and would immediately begin setting up excavation units and get to work at it immediately. As Trevor and I have found out through experience, however, such is very unusually the case. In our case, we were tasked with digging to find out if something was there at all, and to achieve our goal, we needed to establish a Stage 3 test unit, one of several to be dug by the field school’s students.

Out of the four stages (numbered one through four) of the archaeological work process, Stage 3 is perhaps the most important. This is where archaeologists establish exactly what they have (or, do not have) in the area they’re looking at, how important that site and its artifacts are, and how it should be conserved and protected. While we know of our site located immediately behind the Trent University entrance sign at Nassau Mills Road and Water Street, the open field to the east gave much less an indication of the archaeological material that may lie underneath it. Thus, Trevor and I were among the first students to set out to reveal the field’s underlying secrets.

With a pre-existing grid having been mapped out previously, we marked our own one-square-metre Stage 3 test unit with pegs, peeled back the sod and began digging. At first, things seemed to come easy: the soil was loose, and easily scooped away with shovels. We even found some small artifacts, such as some glass shards, ceramic sherds and a couple cut iron nails. By the time we got about 40 cm down, however, things got tough. The soil was suddenly filled with a thick layer of small rocks, and the artifacts quickly dropped off to nothing. Soon, between the unit’s increasing depth and the large quantity of rocks, we only found progress at the sharp end of a pickaxe and the blades of trowels. We kept up hope, however, as we’d found stuff at greater depths in other units we had dug up beforehand, and kept going as best we could.

Though our progress was held up for a couple days by some unfavourable weather and a familial obligation, we were back at it today at last (May 30). Determined to find something to show for our efforts, we surged forward and got through a solid (literally) 35 cm of soil over the course of the day. As we kept digging, the rocks only seemed to get bigger, growing slowly from fist size, to requiring two hands to lift, and finally being impossible to lift or dig around. After getting to a full depth of about 87 cm, we contacted a deposit of numerous large rocks that were impossible to lift out or excavate around further, even with trowels. With no more artifacts on the way down and nothing to show a site was there, it seemed like we had, quite literally, hit rock bottom.

While it might seem like we have little to show for our efforts and just wasted a bunch of time and effort, both of these could not be further from the truth. Sometimes, in archaeology, it’s what you don’t have, rather than what you do have, that makes a difference. Knowing something is not there tells you that it’s time to rethink your methods and try digging someplace else to find what you’re looking for. Though it may not seem like much, I find solace and satisfaction in knowing that this is an archaeological achievement.

I don’t know what we’re trying to find out here away from our main site, but if Trevor and I could at least confirm where it isn’t, I hope my fellow students have some better luck confirming where it is. Regardless, wherever I go to dig next, I know the allure of the unknown will drive me to discover what lies (or doesn’t) beneath our feet. That’s the draw of archaeology: you never know what’s hiding underground.

— Sam Richardson