Romantic rubbish

I was enjoying some lunch-time soup at the home of my mother-in-law recently when I decided to date the spoon which I was given to drink it. The spoon was sterling silver so dating from the hall-mark was perfectly straight-forward. Archaeologists do not turn up silver spoons all that frequently but even I knew enough to appreciate that a crowned leopard’s head indicated a London hall-mark earlier than 1820. A few moments communication with an appropriate web-site resulted in the decision that I was consuming leek and potato potage with a spoon that was over 200 years old. To put that date in more concrete terms when the spoon was made in 1811 my great-great-great grand-father still had 27 years to live in Saffron Walden, Essex before the act of falling off a haystack brought an end to him. There weren’t many silver spoons in his life. My four times great grand-father was almost certainly alive at that date, although we are a little vague about exactly who he was.

I’ve never excavated any treasure myself but it is gratifying what interesting objects can be turned up merely by digging in an allotment or garden. These objects may lack the romance of archaeological standards, like querns, Roman coins or flint arrow heads, but every item has a date and a story to tell. In future I hope nobody will dismiss such items simply as ‘rubbish’. As an example broken clay pipe stems are the, almost indestructible, equivalent of modern ‘fag ends’. Clay pipes, and the tobacco they contained, became widespread in the seventeenth century. The pipe bowls got progressively larger as tobacco became cheaper. After 1860 most pipes that are marked at all show the maker’s name on the side of the stem. Earlier than this a ‘cartouche’ mark or initials were placed on the side or the rear of the bowl. A more accurate date still may be reached if an individual manufacturer can be identified and traced in local trade directories. The clay-pipe industry had virtually come to an end by 1914, although small numbers are probably still being made as a speciality item.

Broken pieces of blue and white (willow-pattern) pottery seem equally indestructible and are ubiquitous. By ‘blue and white’ I mean earthenware, not true porcelain, and evidently the characteristic pattern cannot be older than the invention of the transfer printing process in 1761. This pattern was extremely popular in the nineteenth century but its origin pre-dates the Victorian era by several decades and willow pattern plates are still being made today. Blue and white is likely to have entered the soil around 1780-1900. Material of this type will naturally find its way into rubbish dumps but potsherds have also been used for path making and added to manure for soil improvement since Roman times. On the subject of soil improvement I should say that although the Romans loved their oysters any shells of this creature you find today are more likely to represent oysters buried in nineteenth and early twentieth century shrubberies to sweeten acid soils.

Grey-green Cumbrian slate has been used for roofing since Roman times. Much commoner are grey, blue or purple Welsh slate fragments. Welsh slate roofed Victorian Britain and was exported world-wide. It was however the child of the railway system and is not likely to be found in northern England before 1840 at the earliest. In Bradford ‘Welsh slate’ was being offered for sale by 1860. While thinking about building materials how old are household bricks with depressions, frogs, for mortar? Eighteenth century bricks are hand-made, thin, and plain, that is flat on both sides. In the early nineteenth century, certainly by post 1830, the frog or depression was being introduced for the reception of mortar. Since manufacturers were taxed per brick produced bricks had become substantially larger by 1850 when the tax was finally rescinded. In the Bradford area manufacturers’ name stamps seem to have been introduced after 1860. By the 1920s local producers were failing and the products of the London Brick Company (LBC) had become commonplace. Modern perforated bricks are not moulded but extruded and wire cut. They can be recognised by their cylindrical perforations.

When houses are demolished wood is commonly recycled or burned. Brass screws will last much longer. Do they have a point? Pointed-end screws were invented as recently as 1850 and the patent was acquired by the Birmingham firm of Chamberlain & Nettlefold (later GKN). The earliest a pointed screw could be in the UK is 1855. What about the house water supply? I once attended a lecture on Bradford’s supply and was told that in the city centre excavations occasionally revealed hollowed out tree-trunks! I think the lecturer was joking. Hollowed-out elm pipes were certainly used for water transport from medieval times onwards. Inevitably they were leaky and only operated at low pressure. Mass produced cast iron water pipes were available after 1820. These could operate at a much higher pressure so that mains water could be supplied to upper stories. Ceramic land-drains and sewerage pipes are often found by those digging large holes. The former are unglazed to allow external liquids to seep in; the latter are glazed to prevent the internal contents, hopefully, from leaking out.

Stone-ware bottles with corks were the common early or mid-Victorian liquid containers. They were made in vast numbers and locally Manor Potteries in Eccleshill produced them. Stoneware was still being used for ink and ginger beer in the 1930s. I can just remember my teacher filling up stone-ware ink wells in our desks when I was at my first school, learning ‘joined-up’ in the mid-50s. Cheap glass bottles eventually replaced stone-ware. HP sauce is one of Britain’s great gifts to civilisation. If you find fragments of the embossed bottles you are in the Edwardian era at the very earliest since this savoury masterpiece was invented in 1903. The embossing of glass bottles is surprisingly old and was certainly possible throughout the nineteenth century.

Glass which is totally colourless will almost certainly be of twentieth century date; embossed colourless milk bottles may seem timeless but were introduced in the 1920s. The nineteenth century saw the introduction of glass in bright colours, before that time glass was generally ‘natural’, green or brown. If you find a large fragment of bottle look for a mould seam. A seam extending up the entire length of a bottle and on to the top of the rim will indicate a wholly machine made bottle produced after about 1900. If the side mould seam fades out before the finish you may have a bottle produced in a mould around 1820-1915. A gather of molten glass was hand blown into a mould. If there is a pontil mark at the base of the bottle you are looking at a pre-1870 product.

I am fond of glass and it is consequently my favourite dating evidence but there are many bottle experts who are infinitely better at this than I am. If you find this subject of interest I must strongly recommend The Historic Glass Bottle Information & Identification website at:

This site is based in America but is full of valuable information and pictures of beautiful glass bottles. The authors claim that typically the bottles can be dated to a 10-15 year interval. This is slightly better than radio-carbon dating then, and does not require mass spectrometers.


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