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

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