A Fragment for Friday — Another Toothbrush!

The field school students are enjoying a well-deserved extra-long weekend. James and I have taken today to sort out some logistical issues for our proposed field school visit to Big Island on Pigeon Lake to perform a Cultural Landscape Survey for the Kawartha Land Trust.

I will be enjoying the long weekend as well, but before I do, here is a funny little random find from this week. Marit was excavating in the midden, and I was checking in on my rounds to see how it was going. While we were discussing what was happening, I happened to see a piece of bone sticking up from the surface beside the midden cut.

Now since the site has been walked on, plus rain, plus frost, plus other bioturbation, we have noticed a bunch of new artifacts popping out on the surface of the site this field season. In most cases we leave them, but important or interesting ones get tagged as a surface find.

I picked up this piece of bone and noticed it was worked. Someone had taken the bone and smoothed it and shaped it to a rounded end. It is quite pale, which means it was either bleached by a treatment, or from being exposed to the sun for a while. Since it was light on both sides, that suggests it was intentionally bleached.

Worked bone artifact, cylindrical with a tapered end.

I thought that was a bit curious, and suggested it wasn’t just part of someone’s supper like most of the bone pieces we have found on site! As I was walking over to get a surface finds bag, I suddenly noticed two small holes at one end of the artifact.

Worked bone artifact, with two small boreholes visible at one end, a toothbrush with the head broken off.

It’s another toothbrush! This one, however, looks much more rustic and home-made compared to the other one we found. It evidently broke at the head (no surprise as all those little holes for the bristles would have weakened the structural integrity). It’s still a fun find!

Happy weekend, and we’ll be back on Tuesday.

Another week done, and Artifact of the Day for May 17th, 2018 — Snuff Bottle

We are coming to the close of the third week of the field school! Only two weeks remaining.

Everyone worked really hard and completed their assessment units (motivated perhaps by James who suggested that if they were all completed the students could have Friday off!).

Danny and Brooke well into starting their unit.
Danny and Brooke well into starting their unit.
Stephanie and Mary starting their unit.
Stephanie and Mary starting their unit.
Wayne and Collette starting their unit.
Wayne and Collette starting their unit.
Anthony and Joel finishing up the profile drawing for their unit.
Anthony and Joel finishing up the profile drawing for their unit.
Caedda and Sarah finishing up their profile and plan drawings.
Caedda and Sarah finishing up their profile and plan drawings.
Charlotte carefully excavating around the rocks lurking at the bottom of her and Emma's unit.
Charlotte carefully excavating around the rocks lurking at the bottom of her and Emma’s unit.
Emma screening the last of the cultural layer from her and Charlotte's unit.
Emma screening the last of the cultural layer from her and Charlotte’s unit.

Now on to today’s artifact of the day!

Marit found it in the midden, and we believe it to be a snuff bottle. Certainly the handful of tobacco tags and the spittoon suggest use of chewing tobacco at this site. The dozens of fragments of white kaolin pipes, and several Bakelite pipe mouthpieces tell us also that some people were smoking tobacco on the site.

Today’s find suggests yet another use of tobacco, this time consumed through the nose! Snuff is finely ground tobacco that was “snuffed” through the nose. Snuff-taking by the Taino and Carib Indigenous peoples in the Lesser Antilles was first observed in the 15th century by a Franciscan monk travelling on Columbus’s second voyage. He brought snuff back to Spain and the practice soon spread throughout Europe, in particular by the French ambassador Jean Nicot (where we get the name nicotine from!).

Snuff was often flavoured with fruit, spices, floral oils, or menthol.

A German ceramic snuff bottle.
A German ceramic snuff bottle.

The name snuff comes from the Dutch, who called it snuif and were using it by about 1560. It quickly became an important luxury commodity. It didn’t really catch on to colonial use in the Americas, although American aristocracy took up the habit, modelled after the English style of snuff use. The use of snuff in England gradually became more common during the next 150 years. Unlike Spain, at that time there were few mills in the country to grind the tobacco leaf into powder, and users therefore made up their own daily supply – so as to keep it fresh.

British royalty were big fans of snuff—King George III’s wife was known as “Snuffy Charlotte” and had an entire room at Windsor Castle devoted to her snuff stock. In 1843, Queen Victoria once gave a golden snuffbox to a French butcher who served her “particularly fine beef” on a visit to King Louis Philippe of France.

"A Pinch of Snuff" by Edwin Harris (1855-1906)
“A Pinch of Snuff” by Edwin Harris (1855-1906)

Snuff grew in popularity after the Great Plague of London, as it was believed to have valuable medicinal properties. Despite its popularity, the practice was not accepted everywhere. Writings by Pope Urban VIII in the 17th century ban the use of snuff in churches and threaten excommunication for snuff-takers.

By the 1700s, the use of snuff peaked in England during the reign of Queen Anne. At this time, domestic production of ready-made snuff blends was well underway in England, although home-blending was still quite common. A Mrs Margaret Thompson of Burlington Gardens, who died in 1776 stipulated in her will:

I desire that all my handkerchiefs that I may have unwashed at the time of my decease, after they have been got together by my old and trusty servant, Sarah Stuart, be put by her, and by her alone, at the bottom of my coffin, which I desire may be made large enough for that purpose, together with a quantity of the best Scotch snuff (in which she knoweth I had the greatest delight) as will cover my deceased body; and this I desire more especially as it is usual to put flowers into the coffins of departed friends, and nothing can be so precious and fragrant to me than that precious powder.

She went on to request that Ms Stuart walk in front of her pallbearers, scattering snuff into the crowd and on their path. The pallbearers were to be the “six greatest snuff-takers in St James”, and were asked to dress in brown instead of black, and take snuff freely as they liked.

Ad for Handysides' Electric Nervine SnuffSnuff was seen as less common than smoking tobacco, and thus was the tobacco product of choice among the elite. By Victorian times, snuff was often used in snake oil claims, such as published in a London Weekly journal called The Gentlewoman, which claimed taking a particular kind of Portugese snuff would cure poor vision and allow one to read without spectacles!

German engraved pewter snuff bottle.
German engraved pewter snuff bottle.

By the mid-1850s, snuff boxes and associated formality had been somewhat rejected in the North American colonies. Instead, new traditions such as dipping a twig into the ground tobacco and depositing an amount in the cheek (a precursor to dipping tobacco, which is essentially moist snuff) were popular. The mid-nineteenth century invention of cigarettes though was the main death knell to snuff.

Our artifact is a small metal bottle with an embossed design. Snuff became stale very quickly, so it was common for a snuff box or bottle to only have enough for a day or two’s use.

Snuff bottleSnuff bottle

It appears to have been made by stamping out each side and crimping them together at the seam. It looks like it was plated in some kind of shiny metal, which has mostly worn off.

A small neck was inserted into the bottle, and presumably there was a stopper of some kind, which is missing. The bottle does have what looks like ground vegetative matter still inside! It’s interesting that we found this artifact on site, I have some thoughts about what it could mean:

  • it could have belonged to someone who practiced snuff-taking past the mid-nineteenth century decline
  • it could have been someone who was following the more aristocratic idea of snuff compared to smoking to set themselves apart
  • or, it is just a family momento that was curated past the popularity of snuff
  • or, this could suggest the person was recently from Europe, where snuff-taking was still popular for longer

We’ll never know for certain, but certainly an interesting find!

 

 

On the home stretch…

We’re more than half-way through the field school, and the assessment units are well underway! The site has gotten much more orderly and is humming along quite nicely as our students are applying the skills they have learned.

Let’s see how the first group of assessment units are going:

These 1x1s are quite deep, but Joel is still finding artifacts!
These 1x1s are quite deep, but Joel is still finding artifacts!
Anthony takes over screening duty.
Anthony takes over screening duty.
Katie and Jodie have found part of the old road in their 1x1.
Katie and Jodie have found part of the old road in their 1×1.
Caedda and Sarah working out how to get through a rocky layer.
Caedda and Sarah working out how to get through a rocky layer.
Emma and Charlotte screening through the next batch of excavated fill.
Emma and Charlotte screening through the next batch of excavated fill.
Their unit is coming along nicely!
Their unit is coming along nicely!

Even though many of the crew were working across the field on their assessment units, we were still busy on site. Collette and Stephanie were busy finishing their elevations for wall 1 and wall 9, and Wayne continued in the basement entranceway.

James also began teaching some of the students (pictured here are Brooke and Danny) how to use the total station to generate maps for the site area.
James also began teaching some of the students (pictured here are Brooke and Danny) how to use the total station to generate maps for the site area.
Mary found an 1859 Victorian Large Cent in the midden!
Mary found an 1859 Victorian Large Cent in the midden!
Nic cleaned up a wall profile from last year and drew it for our records. You can see the various layers that represent different deposits of soil onto the site.
Nic cleaned up a wall profile from last year and drew it for our records. You can see the various layers that represent different deposits of soil onto the site.
Dan worked on sorting out the sequence of walls for the basement addition, and solved a mystery!
Dan worked on sorting out the sequence of walls for the basement addition, and solved a mystery!

After lunch, all the students who had been working on the structure or mapping started their assessment units, so we will check in with them tomorrow morning. Tomorrow is our last official excavation day, although there is still plenty to do.

Student Blog — Notes from a Lab Day

Here’s a post from Jodie recounting her lab day experience. — Kate

Mouse jaw

Due to the surprise rain this Tuesday morning we came to the Archaeology Center and began to clean the artifacts accumulated from the previous week. Myself and a few others cleaned the artifacts from context 20.1, 18, and 14.

The process of cleaning the artifacts from this site is very simple as the artifacts are stable and won’t fall apart as they are placed in water.

We fill basins with lukewarm water and place an artifact into the water and once it is wet we use a toothbrush to clean off the dirt. Once clean, we place the artifacts onto trays so they can dry overnight.

Squirrel SkullIn all of these contexts there were a lot of bone and context 14 was all bone with a small amount of glass and ceramic.

This was exciting because the other two times we did artifact washing there was a lot of metal, so it was fun to interact with something new. I also really enjoy trying to identify what type of bone is present and what animal it is from.

It’s funny when someone picks up a pig tooth because at some angles a tooth can look similar to a human tooth.

There were a lot of cow and pig in the context 14 box which made it fun to try and guess which bone came from what animal.

Pig maxilla

There were 3 mandibles that still had teeth in them and one had a tooth that came out but fits perfectly back into the cavity.

There were also 2 boar tusks which was really cool to see, at first it was hard to identify what it was but once I cleaned the dirt off of the tusk it was easier to see what it was.

There was also a very small mandible that I at first thought was a claw but then realised that it had small teeth further back, we were informed that it was a small rodent and that it was most likely a mouse jaw.

Overall, my favourite faunal find from the site would have to be the squirrel skull that was found in the basement of context 14, its really small and sort of cute.

— Jodie Leach

Lab Update and Artifact of the Day for May 15th, 2018 — Bone Toothbrush

Heavier rain than expected drove us into the lab today, which was probably a good thing as we had a massive backlog of artifact washing to tackle. We had Marit join us again today to help with artifact processing.

I am happy to say our crew are superstars and we managed to record all the material we washed last lab day, and we have every single artifact recovered to date washed and drying on racks awaiting cataloguing. Hooray! It was also a good time to sort out some context issues and so Dan and Nic started to draw the Harris Matrix of stratigraphy for the site.

Emma works on cataloguing material from the midden.
Emma works on cataloguing material from the midden.
Sarah and Collette worked on cataloguing some surface finds.
Sarah and Collette worked on cataloguing some surface finds.
Jodie, Caedda, Stephanie, Marit, Dan, Katie, Wayne, Danny and Brooke kept the trays filled!
Jodie, Caedda, Stephanie, Marit, Dan, Katie, Wayne, Danny and Brooke kept the trays filled!
James retreated to the truck to do some work, as we took over all the rooms in the Arch Centre today, including his office!
James retreated to the truck to do some work, as we took over all the rooms in the Arch Centre today, including his office!

Charlotte cleaning the toothbrush.This discovery of this bone toothbrush sparked a lot of questions (and disgusted reactions) about dental hygiene in the past. I couldn’t resist a photo of Charlotte cleaning a toothbrush with a toothbrush, how meta is that?

While people have rinsed their mouths with water, wine, or vinegar or used rags to clean their teeth for millennia, the first “toothbrushes” were sticks that would be chewed on at one end to split the wood fibres into a brush-like end that could be used to clean the teeth.

The other end was often sharpened into a point to make a tooth pick. The next innovation was choosing aromatic or nice-tasting sticks that would be pleasingly astringent or flavourful. Toothbrushes similar to what we use today were made of bamboo and hog bristles and used for centuries in China, but for whatever reason they just didn’t catch on in the West.

Toothpaste in collapsible tubes was not available until the 1890s and didn’t surpass tooth powder in popularity until nearly 1920.

There are several recipes for tooth powders from the 18th and 19th century, but I don’t know if you would want to follow some of these recipes. Some were so caustic it was only recommended that they be used every few months! Others use chemicals like borax which we think of more as a laundry additive as opposed to a tooth-whitener. Still others had abrasives like chalk, charcoal and pulverised brick!

A 19th century London Times advertisement promised an assortment of wonderful results for those who used tooth powder:

For the TEETH. Patronized and used by his Royal Highness the Duke of Kent. TROTTER’s ORIENTAL DENTIFRICE, or ASIATIC TOOTH POWDER, had been for 20 years acknowledged by the most respectable Medical authorities, used by many, and recommended. The Powder cleanses and beautifies the teeth, sweetens the breath, posses no acid that can erode the enamel, and puts a beautiful polish on the teeth. From its astringency, it strengthens the gums, eradicates the scurvy (which often proves the destruction of a whole set of teeth), preserves sound teeth from decay, secures decayed teeth from becoming worse, fastens those which are loose, and proves the happy means of preventing their being drawn.

Tooth powder was often applied using rags until the first commercial toothbrush was made around 1780 by William Addis of Clerkenwald, UK. William Addis was a ragpicker by trade, which means he collected rags and cloth scraps which were then pulped and used to make high-quality paper, which was sold to scriveners and bookmakers.

History says he was arrested in 1770 for rioting in Spitalfields and thrown into Newgate prison, and while there decided that cleaning his teeth using a rag and some brick dust was not the best way. He saved a piece of bone from his prison slops, drilled holes in one end, and was inspired by watching the charwomen sweeping to get some bristles from his Keepers and thread them through the holes and glue them in place.

Now I think this story is pretty ridiculous, mainly because of access to drills and lengths of bone (which could be potential shivs!), and wire, and glue, and boar bristles while in prison! Nevertheless, when released he began to manufacture toothbrushes from a workshop in Whitechapel and later on Radnor St., Hoxton. While apparently there were 53 individual steps to manufacturing each toothbrush, here is a brief summary:

Addis would source the bone for the handles from lengths of the shaft of bullock or ox thigh bones purchased from butchers (the ends of the bones were sawn off and sold to make buttons!). Once boiled and bleached, they were cut into strips of different sizes (he was a master of marketing and had big ones for Men, smaller ones for Ladies, smaller still for Children, and an even teenier one called Tom Thumb). From there, the head and neck would be carved into shape, and the head drilled with holes for the bristles.

Badger hair was the mark of a true conoisseur, but Addis also imported boar and sow bristles from Russia, Bulgaria, France and Poland.

At this point, the blanks were sent out to be filled with bristles as piecework. He would contract to women working from their homes in Whitechapel and Spitalfields, and pay them only for each piece that passed his standards. This meant the burden of cost for tools, time, and materials was on the women workers up front, and they did not get paid unless the goods were deemed perfect.

Addis toothbrush ad.It is no surprise that he quickly became exceedingly rich, and there were Addis family members running the Addis and Wisdom brands in the UK until the late 1990s. A pretty good run!

Even though Addis was the first commercial toothbrush, others quickly jumped on the bandwagon and registered their own patent designs.

In general early toothbrushes all had cattle bone handles, and bored holes in the head. Bristles were held in place with a thin wire. The wire was either seated into grooves carved into the back of the head that would be filled by wax, or was fished through holes drilled into the top of the head. These holes were first drilled by hand, so they will tend to not fall in a regular, ordered pattern, and often the holes vary in size and shape.

Another way that toothbrushes can tell us about time is the shape of the handle in relation to the head and neck. Some researchers have created a typology, or system of sorting the shape of toothbrushes in relation to their rough time period of popularity.

The toothbrush we found on site. It says "EXTRA FINE" on the handle.
The toothbrush we found on site. It says “EXTRA FINE” on the handle.

Early toothbrushes are often “cranked”, which means they are either convex or concave. Convex cranking is when the horizontally-held brush has the head angling away from the user’s face. This was most common up until 1884, but drops out of favour by the 1920s. Concave cranking is rarely seen before 1884. Brushes with no cranking appear as early as 1840, but most appear to have been manufactured post-1870. Our piece is not cranked at all.

1857 Patent Application from the United States Patent Office registered by H.N. Wadsworth.
1857 Patent Application from the United States Patent Office registered by H.N. Wadsworth.
Boar and badger hair bone toothbrushes.
Boar and badger hair bone toothbrushes.

 Shortages in the availability of boar bristles caused by the war between China (the leading source of bristles) and Japan was solved by the invention of nylon in 1937 at the DuPont Laboratories. This quickly became the bristle of choice and we no longer have badger, horsehair, or boar bristle toothbrushes! Funnily enough, the Addis company was in on this deal and secured the licensing rights to make nylon and polymer bristles in the UK.

The final death knell of bone handled toothbrushes appears to have been World War II. Wartime rationing meant that bones were kept in the home to be boiled down to extract every possible ounce of goodness out of them.

So next time you are brushing your teeth, think a little about the lowly toothbrush and how far we have come!

Student Blog — Plans and Walls

In today’s student blog contribution, Collette discusses what we can learn from excavation and other archaeological recording techniques like drawing elevations. — Kate

Today some of us were excavating, some were doing stage 3 pits and some were drawing and planning the walls that were exposed of the house we are looking at. I was drawing the east side of wall 1 which is where the construction of the house may have started. It is important for these walls to be drawn because it shows us the construction of the house. The plans and drawings are used for comparing other plans to other sites, the way the building was constructed and finding the purpose of the building.

The walls of this structure are made from stone which indicates potential social status of the people living in the house. Back when this house was built which was in the 19th century, it was a luxury to have houses made from concrete because it was expensive while most structures were made from stone. Therefore, the walls of this house indicates that this structure was a house and that this family may have been middle class in terms of status.

It is also important to understand how these walls were built in order to understand the logic behind the workers constructing the building. Different methods may be used for different buildings as well as certain materials are more expensive than others therefore, the workers may have been trying to construct a building safely while using the resources they had.

Houses that belonged to the more wealthy may have been made from concrete which demonstrates the differences in methods and materials when building homes and other structures. We also use these plans to see if we can construct buildings today using the same methods and materials they had back then.

— Collette Martin

Monday Update and Artifact of the Day for May 14th, 2018 — 1854 Penny Token

It was a bright and warm day today, perfect for shifting gears on site. We started diversifying, with some students beginning their assessment units. These are 1x1m excavations that are very typical in contract archaeology work.

Our project on the structure is a block excavation, which means we are excavating large areas of the site in order to answer particular questions of interest to us such as the sequence of wall construction, or the timing of the use of the site.

In contract archaeology, an archaeologist is contracted to perform an archaeological assessment because of proposed development. The archaeological investigations are divided into different stages.

Stage 1 is a background study of a site to determine the archaeological potential. Stage 2 is a sampling of the proposed development area by digging 30cm test pits every five metres into subsoil and collecting any artifacts that are present. Depending on what is found, the archaeologist can either recommend that no further heritage concerns are present, or it is necessary to gain more information by a Stage 3 assessment.

Stage 3 generally involves test excavations of 1x1m units over a five metre grid spacing in order to discover the nature and extent of a site, and to see if the site has enough cultural value to warrant a Stage 4 designation. Stage 4 means that either development plans are altered to avoid impacting a site altogether, or, the site must be completely excavated.

So, part of the students’ portfolio in this field school is learning how to lay out and excavate Stage 3 units, because that is often what you spend the summer doing if you are hired by a company to be a field tech.

Reaquainting themselves with the Pythagorean theorem to make sure their units are square.
Joel, Anthony, Katie and Jodie were reaquainting themselves with the Pythagorean theorem to make sure their units are square.
Luckily they have Jolyane and her team nearby so they can sneak a peek into the underlying stratigraphy!
Luckily, Caedda, Sarah, Emma, and Charlotte have Jolyane and her team nearby so they can sneak a peek into the underlying stratigraphy!

Back in the structure, we shifted some people over to drawing, in particular Stephanie and Collette were working diligently at drawing elevations for certain of our wall sections. James got in on the action as well and filled in some of the newly exposed walls in our master site plan.

Stephanie painstakingly drawing the south wall!
Stephanie painstakingly drawing the south wall!
Collette drawing the east wall.
Collette drawing the east wall.
James planning the newly exposed north wall.
James planning the newly exposed north wall.

That doesn’t mean that excavations had stopped completely, though!

Mary continued excavating a fill layer from the top of the midden deposit, so that midden is all ready to reveal its treasures tomorrow.
Mary continued excavating a fill layer from the top of the midden deposit, so that midden is all ready to reveal its treasures tomorrow.
Wayne continued to work on the basement entrance, and found some interesting glass bottles of a stomach remedy, among other things.
Wayne continued to work on the basement entrance, and found some interesting bottles of a stomach remedy, and a toothbrush among other things.
Brooke and Danny continued defining the interior of the north wall.
Brooke and Danny continued defining the interior of the north wall.
Dan and Nic started getting ideas about the basement, in particular how this complete bulb survived under a large boulder!
Dan and Nic started getting ideas about the basement, in particular how this complete light bulb survived under a large boulder!
1854 Bank of Upper Canada Penny Token
1854 Bank of Upper Canada Penny Token

Today’s artifact of the day was another coin (although it was a tie between that and a bone toothbrush so stay tuned for a special post on that because it deserves its own mention)!

Like the other 1852 Half-Penny Tokens, this coin was made for the Bank of Upper Canada. It’s in coin alignment, which means it was minted at Heaton’s Mint in Birmingham, UK. Like the Half-Penny, the face of this coin has St. George slaying a dragon. The 1854 coinage has two variants, one with a plain “4” and one with a crosslet “4”.  Ours is the plain “4”!

If you want to know more about every tiny variation in these coins, please check out this 1934 work by Eugene Courteau, M.D.

As I mentioned previously, a compromise Currency Act was passed in 1853 and proclaimed on 1 August 1854. This act meant that dollars and cents could be used in provincial accounts as well as pounds, shillings, and pence, and were recognized as units of Canadian currency. The final coinage struck by the Bank of Upper Canada was in 1857, as by then they were more seriously discussing the total adoption of a decimal currency. By 1863 the Bank was complaining bitterly that they were not able to disburse their remaining stock of coins due to the shift to the new system. Post-1867, some were able to reach circulation, but the majority of them had been bought by the government and stored as copper bullion! They were melted down in 1873 under government supervision.

If you are interested in the development of Canadian coinage, please check out this excellent booklet published by the Bank of Canada.

Unfortunately, this coin was found in the basement, in a disturbed context. So, even though it is from 1854, which is the year that Charles Perry opened his Nassau Mill, it doesn’t tell us too much other than that.

Student Blog — Site of the Unnamed House

Here’s Wayne’s impressions of the field school experience to date, and his insight into the relationship between the traces preserved in the archaeological record and how we can reconstruct past human behaviours and experiences. — Kate

This place doesn’t have an address, just a reference number.  We, archaeology students, were introduced to it in pictures that were more than 100 years old.  It wasn’t the focal point, just a bystander caught in the background of important buildings, in Nassau Mills.

As I first approached the fenced area, its remains simply displayed as low rows of organized stones.  The previous work of other students had partially revealed some of its features, but there were missing pieces.  A more careful observation showed these weren’t just neatly piled stones, but the work of skilled craftsmen.  The walls ran straight, their thickness fairly uniform, their corners precisely perpendicular.  One section was recessed with a large stone jutting out, as if it was a welcome mat.  Could that be a doorway, into the former owner’s house?  The visible walls seemed to be where my eyes and attention focused, but they created closed spaces that had provided shelter to its inhabitants.  Somebody, or several somebodies, used these empty spaces.  The obvious question is: How?

Nassau Mills Structure, North WallAs archaeology students learning field techniques, it was going to be our task to help uncover more information about this place, and who called this home.  After several hours of careful shoveling and scraping away soil, a new section of wall and a corner started to appear.  This additional section gave shape to another part of the remains that had stayed hidden since the upper portion had withered away.

Mixed into those scrapings, retrieved with respect and care, were little pieces of people’s lives, hinting at how they lived.  Square and round nails, a broken metal file, a few pieces of broken tableware, an 1852 coin, and bits of glass were uncovered or retrieved from the screened soil.  Finally, parts of a child’s “tea set” surfaced.

It surprised me that in only a few days, I was starting to gain insight into some details of this house’s history.  It causes me to wonder what I have similarly left behind in my existence that might reveal that I lived somewhere.  I can only imagine that my lost or discarded items are less likely to become an archaeological puzzle, as this early settlement house in Nassau Mills, Ontario, is for us.

Is there someone reading this that had grandparents, familiar with the area, that could give a family’s name to this old home?

— Wayne Hingston

Student Blog — One Man’s Trash is an Archaeologist’s Treasure: Broken Plates and Cups

Here’s a post from Sarah, who tells us why she and other archaeologists are so interested into looking through someone’s broken bits of trash! — Kate

Sometimes when people ask me why I’m studying archaeology, I tell them it’s because I like looking through old garbage, just to see people’s reactions. It might seem shocking, or odd, but a large part of archaeology is looking at material remains that other people threw away. You could even say archaeology is the study of trash.

Some "trash" from the midden, including pieces of Blue Willow ceramic. Photo credits Caedda Ballantyne
Some “trash” from the midden, including pieces of Blue Willow ceramic. Photo credits Caedda Ballantyne

Why study garbage? What’s the point? Aren’t there bigger, more exciting things to dig up like pyramids? Actually, a lot about who we are as families, individuals, and members of society can be found out by looking at the things we throw away.

Take dinner time for example. The plates, cups and cutlery people use can tell about their culture and socio-economic status. One could imagine that the Queen eats off of different plates than the average university student.

And what ultimately happens to these plates and cups? Some might accidentally break, or maybe they’ve just gotten old and dirty, and they end up in the trash. Even though they are in the garbage, the information about the people who used the items is still intact and able to be uncovered by archaeologists. It is like somebody in the past is opening up the door to their lives and saying “Hey! Come in for dinner!”

For three days this past week, Mary and I excavated the midden (trash pit) on the field school site. After getting through the fairly uneventful “fill layer” on top of the midden (loose soil that was added after the site was abandoned) we hit an enormous pile of garbage from the 19th century.

We found nails, cans, intact bottles, animal bones, pieces of ceramic pipes, hundreds of pieces of glass from containers, and lots and lots of broken plates and cups all jumbled together.

Some very pretty light green transfer print. Photo credit Caedda Ballantyne.
Some very pretty light green transfer print. Photo credit Caedda Ballantyne.

We found some interesting designs on some of these ceramic plates and cups which can tell us about the people of Nassau Mills. One of these is transfer print, a design for ceramic that uses a type of stamp to imprint a specific image onto the ceramic.

Transfer print was developed in England in 1783 and was popular in Europe and North America for most of the 19th century. The most common colour for transfer print was cobalt blue, and a popular style of this colour was called Blue Willow (which we found in our trash pile).

Blue Willow was a Chinese inspired design that was popular in England ’til about 1814, though its influence lasted a few decades longer in Canada. In our midden, we also found a wide variety of other transfer print dishes, such as blue, dark green, lime green and pinky/red coloured ones.

A nice example of the dark aqua green transfer print on a not quite complete plate! Photo credits Caedda Ballantyne
A nice example of the dark aqua green transfer print on a not quite complete plate! Photo credits Caedda Ballantyne

These different colours show different changes in transfer print innovation and style, and are very useful for dating a site to specific years. They’re also extremely pretty.

The ceramics at Nassau Mills show the adoption of changing styles over time, and how the Peterborough area related to the greater world-wide European cultural climate.

There’s almost something magical about it; I can dig underground and find the dinner plates that somebody used in their everyday lives in the 1850s. It allows the imagination to run wild. Were these the “good” china for company? Did someone eat their birthday cake off this plate? Was this cup smashed by accident or on purpose? In reality, it is impossible to answer these questions. However, remembering that the people who lived at Nassau Mills interacted with objects that we use in our lives today makes the site a little more human.

We can’t meet face-to-face with the inhabitants of Nassau Mills, but we can dig through their garbage, which I think is the next best thing.

— Sarah Robinson


Sources: https://www.jefpat.org/diagnostic/Post-Colonial%20Ceramics/Printed%20Earthenwares/index-PrintedEarthenwares.htm

Photo credits: Caedda Ballantyne

Site update for May 11th, and I-Spy answers!

A little bit chillier today than it has been all week! I thought I was going to have to start doing laps around the site (I am sure that would have been supremely amusing to our crew), but we persevered and made some good progress today before we break for the weekend. Here are a few snaps from our day:

Marit treated us to a lesson on how to describe stratigraphy from a reclined position...
Marit treated us to a lesson on how to describe stratigraphy from a reclined position…
Ok, not really! But the Midden Mavens Mary and Sarah did make progress in unpacking the several depositional events that have led to these soil profiles.
Ok, not really! But the Midden Mavens Mary and Sarah did make progress in unpacking the several depositional events that have led to these soil profiles.
Charlotte and Emma, two of the North Wall Breakers busted out the mattocks and got right into the business of clearing out some fill.
Charlotte and Emma, two of the North Wall Breakers busted out the mattocks and got right into the business of clearing out some fill.
The South Wall Trenchers of Stephanie, Danny, Brooke, and Collette finally got context 37 put to bed!
The South Wall Trenchers of Stephanie, Danny, Brooke, and Collette finally got context 37 put to bed!
The Basement Gang of Nic, Wayne, Anthony and Joel set to the cellar door with a will, and are wrestling with how the basement was added to the existing house structure. Please note the rest of the North Wall Breakers (Katie and Jodie) hard at work screening in the background!
The Basement Gang of Nic, Wayne, Anthony, and Joel set to the cellar door with a will, and are wrestling with how the basement was added to the existing house structure. Please note the rest of the North Wall Breakers (Katie and Jodie) hard at work screening in the background!
Dan went rogue on us, and decided to get to the bottom of things on his own! We think we now might have a handle on how the structure walls were constructed, but time will tell....
Dan went rogue on us, and decided to get to the bottom of things on his own! We think we now might have a handle on how the structure walls were constructed, but time will tell….

We didn’t pick an official Artifact of the Day, but there was part of a green-glazed ceramic high voltage threaded pole insulator buried beside the basement entrance. Funnily enough, just as we were identifying it, Jolyane’s crew had found a small ceramic piece from across the field that could have been from the same object! It was really serendipitous, and funny, as James walked over with Jolyane and said “Hey, do you know what this is?” and I turned around and said “Yes, it is what Anthony is holding right there!”.

This insulator probably dates to post 1901 when Canadian General Electric was leasing and then later purchased the property for generating stations to send power downtown to their main manufacturing plant on Park Street!

Leading into the weekend, here are the answers to yesterday’s I-Spy game:

Can you find: 1. The bottom of a pipe bowl; 2. A slate pencil; 3. Part of an edgeware plate; 4. The finish to a case gin bottle; 5. A wire nail.
Can you find: 1. The bottom of a pipe bowl; 2. A slate pencil; 3. Part of an edgeware plate; 4. The finish to a case gin bottle; 5. A wire nail.
Can you find: 1. An Eclectric Oil bottle; 2. A glass bottle stopper; 3. Part of a Maker’s Mark; 4. A chicken bone; 5. Part of what was probably a Brown Betty teapot; 6. Part of a Blue Willow plate.
Can you find: 1. An Eclectric Oil bottle; 2. A glass bottle stopper; 3. Part of a Maker’s Mark; 4. A chicken bone; 5. Part of what was probably a Brown Betty teapot; 6. Part of a Blue Willow plate.