Monday, 24 May 2010

bottles and jars

Archaeologists like pots. Pottery is durable, and is used to cook or store things in.

In the Roman and Byzantine context it's even more valuable as pottery production was concentrated in relatively few centres and we can work out a sequence of various types for each production centre. This tells us stuff like where a particular place was getting its pottery from, and at what times in history.

And of course the Romans and Byzantines used amphorae, pottery storage jars to ship around stuff like olive oil, fish sauce, wine, and wheat from place to place, letting us work out things about the flow of trade. That's why for example we can say with reasonable confidence the Byzantine period trade with the post roman British successor states came from north Africa, and not from Spain or somewhere further east under Byzantine control.

Recently I woke up at three in the morning and couldn't get back to sleep, and I started thinking about beer bottles and jam jars. Like pottery they're durable, and a lot of them are quite easy to identify. For example a Grolsch 330ml bottle is quite characteristic, and while a Bon Maman jam jar looks like a Bonjour jar - both have a fluted neckless design, they have different factory marks making them easy to tell apart.

The other thing that's good about jars was that they are quite often reused to store things, like pulses and bottled fruit.

Now our knowledge of european settlement in nineteenth century Australia is sometimes a little sketchy, but of course these people were in contact with the cities, and perhaps by mapping jar and bottle types to location, and tracing their provenance.

And we should be able to do this as people would have got their beer and whisky from particular places, and their bottled and preserved products, and when they'd used up the contents they'd either toss them on the dump out the back of the house, or else re-use them, and once they broke, toss them on the dump.

Doing this means we can perhaps start asking questions like:
  1. Did people always get their beer from big breweries in the cities, and if not when did this centralisation begin (my guess is with the railways)?
  2. Did people get many of their preserved products from the UK or elsewhere in preference to local production?
  3. Can we see a developing pattern over time of the displacement of imported products by local products?
  4. Can we use the distribution of jar types to map the boundaries of european settlement over time?
  5. Do we see in the distribution of jar and bottle types in aboriginal camps evidence of contact and trade?
And of course, does this tell us anything that we don't know about the process of settlement.

This of course doesn't just apply to the archaeology of european settlement in Australia. The same model could doubtless be extended to european colonization in Africa, in New Zealand, Malaysia, and North America.

All that needs to happen is to do it. The only problem is getting the initial information. In Australia at least there is a problem of bottle hunters, people who go fossicking for old nice looking bottles to sell as antiques, and like some metal detectorists in the UK, they're not particularly careful about recording what they found where, and of course only want the 'nice' ones.

Still, it might be interesting to give it a go, perhaps initially by looking at datasets from existing digs ...

1 comment:

tenthmedieval said...

I have seen some similarly-theorised work done on Georgian-period settlements in the pre-USA, trying to work out how English they remained for how long. The surprise there was that the material culture, and the imports required to sustain it, continued long and strong after independence. I could easily believe similar questions could be attacked for Australia using such methods.