Nassau Mills, revisited

Hello and welcome, it’s a bit cobwebby here at the moment, but I wanted to give an update to work that has been progressing on the site. Completing the excavation is a huge milestone, yes, but that is only the beginning. Then comes the long, painstaking task to stitch all the recovered information together into a coherent narrative, and in this case it has taken us a couple years to work our way through.

We think we now have a pretty good handle on the site, and we have completed a final archaeological report which has been filed with the Ministry of Heritage, Sport, Tourism, and Culture Industries. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t still more to learn from our work at Nassau Mills, however, and there are many stories and threads that are still worth exploring but were outside the scope of the archaeological report.

I am also pleased to announce Dr Leigh Symonds and her Advanced Lab Methods students at Trent University had their first class meeting today, and will be diving in to the archaeological assemblage and sharing what they learn. I also have a backlog of posts to put up on the site, so please stay tuned as new content is on the way.

Friday I-Spy Answers

Hello hello! While the field school part with the students is now over, there is still a lot of work to be done. We need to finish cataloguing and then we need to photograph representative artifacts and write the report.

But it won’t end there, as students this fall in Dr Marit Munson’s Advanced Lab Methods course will be developing original research based on this material. I’ll post updates on this process as I am sure it will be fascinating!

Eventually we would like to publish a book on our work exploring sites related to Nassau Mills.

Here are the answers to the mega-I-Spy!

Can you find: 1. A wrench; 2. A jaw harp; 3. Part of a metal door handle; 4. Three slate pencils; 5. A single-tongue buckle; 6. Part of a comb; 7. A tobacco tag.
Can you find: 1. A wrench; 2. A jaw harp; 3. Part of a metal door handle; 4. Three slate pencils; 5. A single-tongue buckle; 6. Part of a comb; 7. A tobacco tag.

Can you find: 1. A small piece of Rockinghamware pottery; 2. A fragment of mirror glass; 3. A Blue Willow plate; 4. A coral-pattern transfer print sherd; 5. Part of a stoneware ink bottle; 6. A pressed glass dish.
Can you find: 1. A small piece of Rockinghamware pottery; 2. A fragment of mirror glass; 3. A Blue Willow plate; 4. A coral-pattern transfer print sherd; 5. Part of a stoneware ink bottle; 6. A pressed glass dish.

Can you find: 1. Part of a scissor-style candle snuffer; 2. A bone button; 3. A coin (our 1854 penny token); 4. Fence staples.
Can you find: 1. Part of a scissor-style candle snuffer; 2. A bone button; 3. A coin (our 1854 penny token); 4. Fence staples.

Can you find: 1. A light bulb; 2. Three ketchup bottles; 3. A kidney-shaped bottle base; 4. Straw-tint glass.
Can you find: 1. A light bulb; 2. Three ketchup bottles; 3. A kidney-shaped bottle base; 4. Straw-tint glass.

Can you find: 1. An inkwell, 2. Medicine bottle; 3. Chicken bone; 4. Part of the strainer from a teapot; 5. Parts of the lid from a pressed-glass dish; 6. Part of a teacup where the handle attaches; 7. A pig tusk.
Can you find: 1. An inkwell, 2. Medicine bottle; 3. Chicken bone; 4. Part of the strainer from a teapot; 5. Parts of the lid from a pressed-glass dish; 6. Part of a teacup where the handle attaches; 7. A pig tusk.

Can you find: 1. A barrel ring; 2. A fuse; 3. Two slate pencils.
Can you find: 1. A barrel ring; 2. A fuse; 3. Two slate pencils.

Student Blog — My First Test Unit

In this post, Joel takes you through one of the student exercises of digging a Stage 3 test unit. — Kate

On May 14th, 2018 I started my first archaeological stage 3 test unit at Trent University’s Archaeology site (Nassau Mills research site BcGn-23). This first test unit was strategically located through the use of a ground penetrating radar whereas through the GPR we located a area where there high possibility of archaeological significance. In this area we, as a team, dug roughly 9 test units among this area. Specifically this stage 3 test unit of mine and my partners proved to be quite the challenge, as it turned into a 1mx1mx1m cube of a unit without ever excavating deep enough to find the natural soil. The test unit started off like any basic test unit where it was simple matter of digging, context detection, and recording of context changes. This all changed when we began to hit a fill layer from early Trent university construction.

It begins!
It begins!

Early on in Trent University history the faculty bulldozed and landscaped the area around the corner of Nassau Mills Rd and Water St intersection and continued inwards towards what is now the Blackburn building. This bulldozing and landscaping resulted in a mixmash of cultural material from the 1960’s which included a very dense layer of solid asphalt from the previous road that linked earlier residences along the Trent bank to Water St. Upon finding this layer of asphalt myself and my partner Anthony began to struggle with the digging as it required extensive use of the mattock/pickaxe to remove this dense 60s fill from the contexts. This dense gravel and asphalt fill took the majority of a day to excavate properly, and throughout this dense context there wasn’t a single artifact found. Once we made it through this dense context we were sadly at the end of day.

Still innocent.
Still innocent.




Going down further.
Going down further.

Two days later May 16th we came back with high hopes of completing this test unit within a matter of a few of hours, sadly we were proven wrong. We were proven wrong because our unit proved to be a seemingly never ending jumble of contexts and transitions which made it much more complicated then your average test unit. Towards the end of the day we continually were tricked into the idea that we had hit natural soil, but we would make it down and find a small chunk of brick or terracotta and have to go another 10cm deeper, this happened until we made it down to 103cm deep. At this point we ended up stopping due to lack of materiel evidence and lack of time to continue excavation of the whole depth of the unit.

Still descending.
Still descending.

In order to finish the site we then had to draw the stratigraphic layers accurately to describe the contexts which we had removed, this was in my perspective the most enjoyable part of my first test as it as it involved a rest from all of the digging. Overall my first test unit was a great learning experience on how to properly excavate test units and accurately record contexts, and I am sure that I will remember that asphalt layer for years to come.


— Joel Tucker

Student Blog — It takes a team to dig a village (or in our case, a house)…

Caedda has some great observations about teamwork and how fieldwork is a collective practice. — Kate

With the field school coming to a close, I have been thinking about some of the things that we have learned over this month.  Out of the many practical skills we have learned and the knowledge we have gained, realizing just how important simply working well together is on a dig, was one of the coolest things I learned through the field school.

Most work places try to promote the idea of teamwork. They run seminars and host office events to try to create some resemblance of a community. And getting along in a workplace is important regardless of the job, but I have never worked in a place where these elements are so vital as they are during a dig.

This became evident right at the beginning. Our first day in the field we were learning the skill of traverse mapping. Personally, I was as nervous as I could have been. But after instructions were given out, we were left to figure it all out. This was the first time I realized that none of us would have figured it out as quickly as we did if we hadn’t done it as a team. Some people understood the math (not me J), some people understood the whole concept, some were natural leaders, and others helped along the way. These maps were a headache, but we managed after we began building on the strengths of the people around us.

Once we began digging, we fell into a rhythm, digging together, learning to screen and looking for artifacts together, getting excited when someone found something, and most importantly- sweating together. Seriously, nothing bonds people more that digging in the dirt in unbearable heat together.

Everyone working together in pairs to get our test units done. Photo: Caedda Ballantyne
Everyone working together in pairs to get our test units done. Photo: Caedda Ballantyne

It was really cool to look around the site and see everything working like a machine. People would help each other seamlessly, we would share tools, share ideas, and work around each other like a dance (cheesy yes, but with all the stumps and rocks it really was a dance to move around the site).  James and Kate made sure that we rotated work stations and groups so that we all learned to work with each other and so by the end we all had the same experiences that we could share.

Another major stepping stone in our path to community, was our daily log routines. Every day we filled out a daily log which detailed everything we worked on and notes for tomorrow. But Kate also informed us that we should have details of what others were doing that day. Our breaks would begin with everyone asking and discussing what they were working on, what cool things they had found, or how frustrated they were with their context. This was wonderful because it helped us all to have a full picture of what each of us were working on and to stay connected and informed.

Mary, Sarah, Andrea, Bree, and Katie cleaning artifacts together. Photo: Caedda Ballantyne
Mary, Sarah, Andrea, Bree, and Katie cleaning artifacts together. Photo: Caedda Ballantyne

Without the community and teamwork that we had, our site would not have functioned as smooth or efficiently as it did.

On a more personal level, teamwork and community was vital as well. Digging alongside someone for hours on end would be hellish if you weren’t able to get along in some way. When you are digging, or cleaning artifacts together, there is really nothing else you can do but talk. And after a while, being able to reach a point where simply working alongside each other in companionable silence was great. We didn’t all have to be best friends, but learning to work together, to be cordial and considerate, was so important.

While thinking about how great the community was on our site, I remembered a story one of my first year TA’s told us, about a dig she worked on for a few years. She said that one year, a person was working on the dig and could not work well with the rest of the crew. She wasn’t unskilled or bad at the job, but she was simply not a team player and for that reason she was not hired again the next season.  Even Kate, when asked, told us about having to work alongside people who were less than agreeable and how hard that can make archaeological field work.

Danny and Brooke goofing around after our group finally figured out how to set up the theodolite. Photo: Caedda Ballantyne
Danny and Brooke goofing around after our group finally figured out how to set up the theodolite. Photo: Caedda Ballantyne

Honestly this work is hard, physically and mentally, and trekking across an island, moving giant rocks, or setting up confusing equipment would be brutal without the camaraderie and support from a team that functions smoothly.  Or as Sarah is fond of saying, “Teamwork makes the dream work!”

— Caedda Ballantyne

Student Blog — Excursion to Big Island

Here’s Anthony’s impressions of our visit to Big Island. — Kate

On May 23 and May 24 the Field School undertook an out-trip to Big Island. Big Island, also known as Boyd Island or Chiminis. The first day was quite chaotic. The group was split between two different marinas creating a logistical issue for ferrying everyone to the island. James patiently took us all in three trips meaning we started later then usual. Once we all arrived on the island and gathered ourselves we began preparations for a full-group transect survey. We intended to walk in straight lines across the entire 3km expanse of the island. This quickly became difficult due to differences in instruments, dense terrain and overall confusion. Quickly the group became fragmented and the survey was compromised. After much confusion, and a long time waiting in the centre of the island for stragglers, we decided to call it a day and head back to the boat landing.

Anthony and Emma on the boat.
Anthony and Emma on the boat.

Day two was much more productive and fulfilling. After only two ferry trips to Big Island instead of three, we hiked up to the centre of the island with mapping equipment such as total stations and theodolites. These were used to map out the positions of the many cairns (rock piles) and white pine stumps in the central island alvar area. About two thirds of our group stayed in this area for the day, mapping out the multiple features. My group consisted of myself, Emma, Raine, Danny and Nick. We completed the transect survey where Kate had left off, on the 900 easting, at 10 metre intervals. The five of us hiked through some extremely dense brush. I cannot begin to describe the types of plants and foliage we managed to get through but it was thick, sharp and a strange dusty pollen was constantly in the air. While staying as straight as possible in our transects we would record any cultural materials, namely large pine stumps.

Anthony on the boat.
Anthony on the boat.

These stumps are the remains of massive trees that were logged over 100 years ago and thus culturally significant. It was fascinating how the current forest on the island is actually quite new as most of the island was previously logged and then used for ranch land. The stumps were a glimpse into the historic landscape. It was fascinating to me how much an area can change in a relatively short time. The island is now protected by the Kawartha Land Trust and thus has been left to become wild again. Our small group finally reached the northern end of the island and after lunch and a refreshing dip we began to search for the rumoured remains of an old house. We did not have much time however, and had to abandon our search to complete our transect survey. We once again hiked through incredibly thick forest finding virtually nothing except stumps and cairns. Some of these cairns were located in such thick parts of forest that it was hard to believe they were put their by some rancher a century earlier. They seemed much older then that, which led us to believe that Ancient Aliens had to be responsible. All joking aside, it was actually mind-boggling to try and imagine the original landscape of the island. All that remains of the prior island industry are a few stumps, multiple rock piles and some clearings, where its assumed cattle grazing took place.

Interesting tree formations on the island.
Interesting tree formations on the island.

We eventually managed to bushwhack our way back to the rest of the group. They had a successful day mapping out the cairns in their area. However, countless other cairns exist on the island, and it could take weeks to properly map out each individual cairn, let alone find them all.

Overall, Big Island was a ton of fun and super interesting. I’ve never taken a boat to school for any other class I’ve had so that was thrilling in itself. It was also a great experience to get out in nature and apply skills we’ve learned on site or in the classroom.

How many times do you say you get to take a boat to get to class?
How many times do you say you get to take a boat to get to class?

Being outdoors and exploring new areas is one of the reasons I’m interested in pursuing archaeology, so needless to say I really enjoyed myself on the island. Especially on day two where we actually managed to document a fair amount of information. I would love to one day return to Big Island and simply enjoy its tranquility and relative isolation. As the Field School winds down I find myself reflecting on the time we’ve had together. No doubt the Big Island out-trip will definitely be one of the most memorable aspects of a very memorable month! As a non-Trent student I can say I’ve more then enjoyed my time at Trent University and hope to return one day very soon.
— Anthony Miller

Student Blog — A bit of Peterborough History

Mary has some facts about Peterborough to share in her blog post. — Kate

The site our field school has been excavating is so conveniently on the south of the Trent Campus, that most people wouldn’t realize that back when the house was built, this site was considered pretty close to nowhere. At that time it was built, Peterborough itself would have been a fairly young community, though the city does have a some interesting history from the 1800s and even earlier. Here are four facts about the early city of Peterborough and its history in industry!

1) Peterborough’s location was chosen because of war.

The first European settlers arrived in what would become Peterborough on 1818. A larger group ended up following in 1925. Prior to these waves of settlers, the area was well known among Indigenous populations, especially those of the Mohawk and Ojibway tribes. At that time, the region would have been known as Nogojiwanong, the place where rapids end. The specific area appears to have originally been relatively unpopulated, and was probably chosen because the War of 1812 encouraged people to settle on waterways, simply to block off American invasions. Whatever the reason, a city soon began to form. The Europeans later named where they were living after the city of Peterborough in England. Early European immigrants were almost never creative when it came to naming cities, it seems.

2) Peterborough was considered Ontario’s best lumber producer

By 1870, Peterborough was known as being the greatest producer of lumber in all of Ontario. By the point in time, the Red Mill built by Charles Perry was up and running and most of the surrounding land was well on its way to being clear cut. The house being excavated by the field school was likely inhabited by someone who worked in the mills at this time. There was a budding clump of buildings were many mill workers and needed trades and facilities for them at this time too, all associated with the running saw mill.

3) Peterborough has a place in Canada’s history of electricity

If you were to look into the history of electricity in Canada, you’d see a lot of developments dating to the 1890s and early 1900s, and often you’d come back to Niagara Falls. As it turns out, Niagara Falls generating electricity occurred well after electricity had been brought to Peterborough. At one point in time, Peterborough was known as ‘the electric city’ because it was the first Canadian city to have electric street lights. This early development occurred because the Trent-Sevren waterway easily opened the way for generating hydro electric power.

4) Along with lumber exports, Peterborough made a lot of canoes

If anyone ever plans to go to Peterborough for a trip, or lives in the area, they’ve probably heard of the Canadian Canoe Museum. One might then wonder, perhaps, why canoes get their own museum. As it turns out, making them was quite a business in the area! While the Peterborough Canoe Company wasn’t founded until 1893, making canoes began in the 1850s. A factory was later built on of the same location as the Adam Scott mill had been. If one takes a look even further forward in time, it turns out a by the 1930s a quarter of Canada’s boat making industry was located in Peterborough. Peterborough may only be ever known for a few different professions, but when it does get known, it really does go all out!

— Mary Williams

Student Blog — Mapping: Is it worth it?

Here’s Danny’s post tying together some of the things he learned during the field school and potential avenues to pursue in the future. — Kate

When asked why I pursued archaeology drawing maps is not the first thing I would normally think to answer, but after about a month of experience in the 2018 Nassau Mills field school I have truly begun to appreciate the practice of map making.

It is important to understand that the excavation of a site, in turn, destroys a site. More significantly excavation can destroy context. Every artifact possesses context. Context refers to where an artifact was found in relation to the layout of the site and in relation to other artifacts. Let’s say archaeologists find 1960’s material in a layer made up of rubble and 1850’s material in a layer of sandy soil. Without context this information, despite being accurate and true, is not very useful. The relationship between the two separate layers tells you much more than the layers themselves. But at the end of the day all the artifacts are sitting in the lab because of course the first layer had to be removed to gain access to the second so how can we preserve these relationships? Mapping of course!

A sketch map of the local area at BcGn-23. Photo: Daniel Kavanagh.
A sketch map of the local area at BcGn-23. Photo: Daniel Kavanagh.

Every time a context is determined it is recorded and mapped before being excavated. There are many methods of doing this including using a total station, triangulation, baseline measuring, etc. At first this felt tedious but after Brooke and I completed an aerial map of context 19 and I went to submit it, Prof. Connolly showed me dozens and dozens of maps and contexts forms that had been previously completed for operation area 1. It was then that I understood the importance of mapping. In one folder he possessed a plethora of information such as construction methods, occupation, chronological order of construction, material densities, cultural depth, etc. the list truly goes on and on. It was clear to me that while artifacts tell you much about who were there, understanding their contexts tells about what they did.

Mapping becomes even more necessary when conducting landscape archaeology. When trying to understand a bigger picture about a site such as land use, trade routes, movement, etc. maps allow us to see patterns that would otherwise be impossible to see.

The team using the totalstation to map out the cairns. Photo: Daniel Kavanagh.
The team using the total station to map out the cairns. Photo: Daniel Kavanagh.

I gained an appreciation for landscape archaeology on Big Island when the team mapped out 40 Cairns and we were able to see their positions on a Google map of the island. I realized how much one could learn from spatial patterns such as why and how they were they made. We can learn so much without ever getting our trowels dirty.

I’m excited for the future of archaeology because of the advancements in mapping technology. Technologies like photogrammetry or VR site recreations will help us gain more information about sites as well as preserve that knowledge and make it easily accessible.

The 2018 field school has allowed me to get my hands dirty but I think the most important thing I have learned is what makes an archaeologist an archaeologist. That is the ability to make sense of it all and to preserve that information. The best part is these skills are highly transferable to many occupations. It is something I appreciate now and something I can see myself doing. Now when I’m asked why I pursue archaeology I tell them because I’m piecing together the story of humanity and then I ask them if they want to see my maps!

— Daniel Kavanagh


Student Blog — So You Don’t Like Working Outside?

For every day in the field excavating, you can estimate about 3 days in the lab to deal with the material recovered…Stephanie shines a light on some of the more hidden aspects of archaeology. — Kate

Throughout the 2018 field school we have been steadily accumulating artifacts from the days we have been on the Nassau Mill site, BcGn-23. By Thursday May 17, we had finished collecting most of this year’s artifacts [ Although a big whack just came in on the 28th! — Kate ]  and have over 6000 artifacts from 12 new contexts plus the previous 34 contexts of which we continued excavating about 15 of these.

Artifacts freshly washed and waiting cataloguing as soon as they are dry. Photo Stephanie Hudson.
Artifacts freshly washed and waiting cataloguing as soon as they are dry. Photo Stephanie Hudson.

When you think archaeology, I would assume you picture Indiana Jones or Lara Croft, people whose main job is in the field gathering artifacts and avoiding explosions. And while these media perfectly show the destruction of sites that comes from archaeology, though in a slightly different manner, these media do not show what takes the most time and is one of the larger parts of archaeological work…Lab work!

I know I’ve enthralled you in what I’m about to describe to you, but it is not dull like you may have been led to believe. Lab work consists of cleaning artifacts, letting them dry, cataloguing, recording the information in a database, and finally storing or displaying the artifacts. This is the time when artifacts are categorized, identified, and historically placed to date the site. This part is not shown in media; and the real-world issues come from those last two processes. This issue is called backlogging; and occurs when artifacts are either not recorded or left without a proper storage facility. This has become an increasing problem in the discipline and in particular North American archaeology.

Recording and storage or displaying artifacts is a problem not just faced in general North American archaeology but also on our site. Last year’s field school had numerous artifacts, over 12000, that were not all recorded by the end of the course and had to be continuously recorded by volunteers during the fall semester. Even during this year’s first lab day we were recording catalogued artifacts from last year’s final excavation days, and we may not have everything recorded digitally by the end of this year’s field school.

It is not yet clear on how to tackle backlogging issues besides working through the artifacts, but then the issue of new sites and their artifacts becoming backlogged and so on becomes the main problem. It seems like a never-ending process that will keep people in the labs forever, but it also gives archaeologists jobs that are not directly out in the field. That may sound strange to you…“an archaeologist that doesn’t work in the field?!” But if we look at it percentage wise with field work and excavation being around let’s say 30%, that still leaves 70% of archaeological work left to do. That is lab work and writing papers and articles about the site to give to in some cases both the public and other archaeologists interested in the site and what it tells us.

Therefore, hearing that I am partial to lab work and don’t fancy myself an outdoorsman doesn’t mean I would be less of an archaeologist, what it means is I have a different part to play in an archaeological excavation that is no more or less important than those out on site digging up the past.

When I think of Lab days, I think of inside jokes, insane laughter, and soundtrack music played in the background. It sounds silly but honestly our lab days are some of my best memories, as it holds a day when everyone is together, and laughter is never short; and that may be the one thing I miss the most when June rolls around.

–Stephanie Hudson

Artifact of the Day for May 29th, 2018 — Cockatrice Black Glass Button

Today’s artifact of the day is quite interesting, I think, and provides opportunity for all sorts of musings. It’s part of a black glass button that was found beside the north wall of the structure in a layer that had other domestic refuse. We’re still trying to sort out how that layer of material got there, and how it relates to the structure, the basement addition, and the midden, but hold that thought and let’s dive into what this particular artifact can tell us.

Black glass button half. Black glass button half.

Glass is an amazing substance that is worthy of many posts itself, but in a nutshell:

  • Glass is made from a mixture of silica sand, soda, and limestone.
  • By heating and mixing these materials together, you end up with a smooth paste that can be molded and shaped into a variety of forms.
  • The natural colour of glass is a pale aqua colour. By adding metal oxides, the glassmaker can change the colour of glass.
  • While one goal was to develop a recipe that was truly colourless, another goal was the development of colour recipes that resulted in glass that could be cut to resemble gemstones.

One gemstone in particular that was much copied was Jet. Jet is the fossilised remains of a certain kind of pine tree that lived 150 to 180 million years ago in areas that are now Spain and the coast of England. These two coastlines used to be much closer together, separated only by a narrow band of water. Over time, trees were washed out to sea and were buried in iron-rich muck at the bottom of the ocean. The iron went into the wood, and eventually pressure and time compressed these layers of iron-soaked wood into a mineral known as Jet.

Seam of Whitby Jet in cliff face. Seam of Whitby Jet in cliff face.

English Jet is prized as the best kind of Jet, and it is also known as Whitby Jet, as it is mined near Whitby, UK. Monks at the Whitby Abbey adorned their crosses and rosaries with carved Jet. Commercial mining of jet from the cliffs began in the early 19th century, and it became very popular with fashionable women for jewelry and fashion.

Silk and wool dress circa 1870. Photo from theAmerican silk and wool dress circa 1870. Photo from the <a href= American silk and wool dress circa 1870. Photo from the Met Museum.

Another little tangent here, for backstory. Men’s clothing changed fits in the 19th century. Instead of the earlier looser, heavily embroidered or woven jackets or coats with large buttons, tailors performed their magic in shaping woolen cloth to closely conform to the body. Buttons became much smaller and were usually made of gilded metal.

Women’s clothing follows another pattern. Pre-1820, most fashionable women’s dresses didn’t have buttons. Think of Regency fashions and Jane Austen films. The waist was just under the bosom (Empire waist) and the dress fell straight to the ground. This form changed to a lower waist closer to the natural waist, and a much more constricted body. A fashionable woman would employ a lady’s maid to do up the dozens of tiny hook-and-eye fastenings of these dresses.

Post 1840, Queen Victoria set a new fashion in the adoption of more sombre colours like dark blue, black, brown, and green. She also popularised high-necked dresses, and two-piece dress sets where there was a bodice and separate jacket, and a long, wide, skirt. These bodices and jackets were fastened with tiny buttons.

Jet-beaded mourning cloak. Jet-beaded mourning cloak.

How does Jet enter into this fashion? Well, I mentioned above that Jet had been prized since medieval times as decoration and ornaments.

Intricate mourning customs and symbology meant black was a very popular colour.

The new fashion for buttoned dresses was another factor, and finally, Queen Victoria’s adoption of lavish jet mourning jewelry and jet beaded embroidered clothing, and carved jet buttons after the death of her beloved Prince Albert in 1861 catapulted jet into the stratosphere of fashion.

It was obligatory in court circles to wear black gem/Jet buttons, and as court set the fashions of the day, the masses would follow suit. Jet was very expensive, but some enterprising glassmakers tinkered with various black glass recipes floating around and developed something that looked quite a lot like Jet, but cost a fraction of the price. Even better, items could be industrially produced by moulding or casting, instead of laboriously hand-carving each individual piece of Jet, or making each individual glass button using lampwork techniques.

This is what our button would have looked like when it was new. This is what our button would have looked like when it was new.

So now we know why Jet buttons and black glass buttons were fashionable, let’s turn to what is on the button. Picture buttons date to approximately the 1860s onwards. Our button has what appears to be a cockatrice, and indeed, some judicious internet browsing meant I was able to find a match.

What is a cockatrice? Well, it’s a kind of dragon-like monster that hatched out of a seven-year-old rooster’s egg that had been hatched by a toad. This beast had the head, chest and legs of a rooster, a serpent tail with a poisoned barb and wings. It is usually represented as being covered in feathers or scales.

I did a little browsing and there are three main interpretations of this beast. One is that it represents the infidelity of Pride, and another possibility is to avert the evil eye. The heraldic interpretation means “terror to beholders”, which kind of parallels the evil-eye aversion meaning.

So by wearing buttons with the image of the cockatrice, was this chosen to remind a woman about the evils of Pride? Or was it a bit of a talisman, where the dress will avert the evil eye?

Heraldic cockatrice. Heraldic cockatrice.

Who knows, but it is fun to think about! I also looked to see in slang if cockatrice meant anything, and in a 1905 book A Dictionary of Slang and Colloquial English which is abridged from a seven-volume(!) work by John S. Farmer and W.E. Henley, I found that cockatrice had this meaning: 1. A common prostitute ; also a mistress or ‘keep ‘ (1600). 2. A baby.

Unless there was some sort of secret uniform to denote prostitutes or a mistress, I find it unlikely that this meaning was secretly encoded into these buttons!

As I mentioned above, the peak production of black glass buttons came after the death of Prince Albert in 1861 and lasted until the end of the Edwardian era (c. 1910). By the 1880s, the market was completely saturated with black glass buttons, and people began to get tired of the sombre dark colours and crave the new brightly coloured textiles available. As a result, brightly coloured glass buttons became increasingly popular, and black glass buttons steeply declined in production post-1910. So likely our button comes somewhere between 1860 and the early 1900s.

As a final note of interest, I am sure that our cockatrice image is referencing some famous painting or sculpture as I have found several other versions made of different materials. It’s as if it is a meme of the time. Anyone know what it is referencing?

Two other copies of our button. Two other copies of our button.Metal cockatrice button. Metal cockatrice button.

Today as we were washing more artifacts from that area, we did find at least three other black glass buttons, but none of them were picture buttons like this one, they just had faceted designs on them to catch the light and sparkle like real Jet.

Student Blog — Living History

Emma shares her experiences at the Hope Mill and Lang Pioneer Village, and demonstrates the importance of comparative materials in reconstructing the past. — Kate

On one rainy day we decided to go to Hope Mill and Lang Pioneer Village in order to see what a water powered lumber mill, and a pioneer village looked like.  This was important to our learning experience, as we are excavating a building that belonged to the mill workers, and shared a date with some of the buildings located at the village.

The Hope Mill. Photo courtesy of
The Hope Mill. Photo courtesy of

Thanks to the excellent preservation/restoration of both the mill and the village, we were able to see how things were in the past.  We saw a house that would have been constructed in a similar size to the one we were excavating, and how it might have looked had the walls still been there.

Aerial view of some of the houses. Photo courtesy Lang Pioneer Village.
Aerial view of some of the houses. Photo courtesy Lang Pioneer Village.

It was extremely beneficial to see how the different rooms of the houses were constructed and positioned, as well as where certain objects would be located.  It was clear that there were not a ton of windows on these types of buildings, and the amount of window glass that we are finding on site line up with this fact.

Drawknife similar to the part of the blade we found.
Drawknife similar to the part of the blade we found.

It was also helpful to see some still intact artifacts, such as a draw knife, which we found a piece of.  Seeing some artifacts in their stage of functionality made it easier to identify pieces that we had found on site.  Kate has the ability to look at odd pieces of metal and identify them as their respected artifact.  Finally being able to see the whole of these artifacts was nice, and seeing the small piece that Kate was able to identify it with, is also interesting.

Lang Pioneer Village Carpenter Shop. Photo courtesy Lang Pioneer Village.
Lang Pioneer Village Carpenter Shop. Photo courtesy Lang Pioneer Village.

Being able to see how the old mill would have functioned in the old days was also neat, although the magnitude of the mill that was on Trent property was lost, since I believe, Hope Mill only has one saw, whereas Red Mill (at Trent) had 136.  So just trying to imagine that amount of activity and noise multiplied by 136 was a little bit daunting.

It is really important to accurately represent history and not fabricate any information.  An accurate and true representation of history is hard to come by, but so much can be learned from it.