Tools of the archaeology trade

These days, I’m deep in the results from the Baker’s Flat excavations of 2016 and 2017, analysing what we found as part of the ‘writing up’ of my PhD. As we excavated, the work was captured in words, photos, total station data, and more forms than you would care to imagine. And each time a photo was taken, its details were recorded on the Photographic Recording Form – photo number, description, photographer, date, direction of view.

But sometimes I took photos just for fun. And here are a few of them, deliberately taken without identifiable people in them, designed to highlight the tools we use. As you can see, most of them are very ordinary – buckets, string, brushes, plastic trays. They’re essential though, as are the trowels and sieves. And a sense of humour!

Sieving in the late afternoon sun.
Sieving in the late afternoon sun.
Shadows of archaeologists dancing.
Archaeologist shadow dance.
Two large sieves on top of a pile of sieved dirt.
Pink sieve and brown sieve on top of an ever increasing pile of dirt.

Posted in Baker's Flat, Excavation, Field work, Kapunda, South Australia | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Turnip carving? It must be Halloween

I’ve written before about Halloween, citing a spine-tingling poem and stories of children stolen by the good people. I loved this time as a child, that feeling of uncertainty, that strange things could happen on this one night when the membrane between our world and the next was thin and fragile, when we were on the cusp of winter and the short dark days. My mum told me how one year, one of the men she worked with saw the banshee on his way home late on Halloween night. The banshee was sitting in a window, high up in the ruins of Newtown Cathedral, combing out her long grey hair and wailing. This was just at the end of our road! I was terribly impressed.

In our family, we didn’t go calling on houses at Halloween. None of our friends did either. Most years, though, a group of young lads would call to the door masked and disguised, singing songs and playing the guitar, and in return we would give them coins and nuts. Once they had enough coins, they would go to the pub. I don’t know what they did with the nuts.

Aside from that excitement, we just ate barm brack and mixed nuts, and played games involving apples. We ducked for apples in basins of water. And we tried to snap bites of an apple as it spun round on a string hung in the middle of the doorway. This snap-apple game got more complex over the years. My dad made a small cross-piece from two pieces of wood. At each end he hammered a nail through and we stuck the apples on the nails. Four apples spinning round, and my brother and I trying to take a bite with our hands behind our backs. And then my mum would kiss us goodbye and head to her night shift as a nurse in the local hospital. As soon as she was out of sight, my dad would replace two of the apples with lighted candles. And then we had to try and take a bite of the apple before our hair caught on fire from the candles. Happy days!

These days, my Halloween adventures are a lot tamer but I do like to mark it in some way. Although I’ve carved pumpkins I’ve never tried to make a turnip lamp, which is the Irish tradition. And honestly, the year of 2020 needs all the help it can get in warding off evil spirits. So if a turnip lamp can help in some small way, I’m all for it.

To carve a turnip, you need a few tools. Some sheets of newspaper, a small cutting board, a sharp knife, a strong spoon and a ballpoint pen. The slideshow below shows the process, but basically I chopped the head off my turnip, scored a criss-cross of lines in the ‘lid’, then used these lines to help scrape out the innards with the spoon. Same process for the rest of the turnip, augmented by cutting a slice off the end for a flat base. Eyes and mouth drawn for a face, carved out with the knife and spoon, skull cap back on top, add a candle and there he is – one creepy turnip head.

That one had been so successful that I had to give it another go. With a smaller rounder turnip.

The final touches were to add a hanging wire, and then my two turnip lamps were ready to scare away all the ghoulies and ghosties that might be wandering around our South Australian suburban street.

Once Halloween is over, I’m going to hang them in the shed and see how they look in a year’s time. Watch this space!

Posted in Folk traditions, Halloween, Ireland, Irishness, South Australia | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

A tale of two buttons and some supernatural events

I’ve been cataloguing buttons from Baker’s Flat. The ones in the picture below are known as trouser buttons (suspender buttons if you’re in the US) and were used mainly on work trousers and shirts. These four hole, sew through buttons were stamped from large metal sheets, usually copper alloy. Manufacture began around 1810, and by 1850 they were being produced in massive numbers. They’re a common find on archaeological sites.

These ones have flat rims and the typical deep central recesses for the eye holes. Stamped around the rims are the words KIRKHAM EVANS & CO BON MARCHÉ. Because they’re branded in this way, it’s possible to discover quite a lot about these small, otherwise unremarkable artefacts.

Two trouser buttons, stamped with words KIRKHAM EVANS & CO BON MARCHE
Two trouser buttons stamped with KIRKHAM EVANS & CO BON MARCHE

As a starting point … In June 1884, Kirkham Evans announced in the local Adelaide newspapers that he was opening a gentleman’s outfitting and fashionable tailoring establishment. Called the Bon Marché, it was located at YMCA Buildings, on the corner of Gawler Place and Grenfell Street, Adelaide. At the same time, he advertised for a respectable and well-behaved apprentice. He also wanted tailors and tailoresses – they must be first class coat, vest and trouser hands. And he was looking for a good presser and machinist. He was clearly expecting business to be successful!

On sale were shirts, scarves and collars, hats and umbrellas, travelling bags and cases, and rugs. His tailoring department was in the hands of a first-class cutter, a trial suit was guaranteed to give perfect satisfaction with strictly moderate prices, and he could provide practical wear, clerical suits and liveries. His target audience was not just the men, youths and boys of South Australia, but also the ladies whose garments would be cut on the premises.

So … when it comes to these trouser buttons, I can determine that the earliest date they could have been made was June 1884. And the latest date is December 1897 when the last advert by Kirkham Evans, Gawler Place was placed. An advert shortly afterwards by Smith and Hawkes indicated that they had taken over the business. To be honest, that’s probably all the information I needed for my button catalogue – I’d already described the buttons and now I had dates, so far so excellent.

But my foray into the fabulous Trove had hinted that there was more to Kirkham Evans. It turns out that he was a prominent member of the YMCA, Our Boys Institute and the Boy Scouts.

Although the Adelaide branch of the YMCA had been started in 1850, its first permanent headquarters was opened in 1884 at the corner of Grenfell Street and Gawler Place, the very place where Kirkham Evans opened Bon Marché. He must have been the first shop tenant.

And there’s more. Kirkham Evans was also an accomplished amateur conjurer and a reformed spiritualist. He appears to have made it his mission to seek out and debunk unexplained phenomena of an otherworldly nature, informed by his own experiences with spiritualism as a malign influence. He believed that all mediums were imposters who preyed on the vulnerable.

Take, for instance, the case of the German cello player and passionate spiritualist, Christian Reimers. In late 1884, he organised a series of séances in Adelaide led by Catherine Wood, a well-known English medium who had been in Australia for about a year. You might imagine that Kirkham Evans would have been a bit tied-up with his new shopping emporium in late 1884. But he made time to attend one of the gatherings. Poor Catherine Wood held only a few sittings before she caught typhoid fever and died in a North Adelaide hospital.

Within a week of her death, Kirkham Evans delivered a public lecture at the YMCA Hall in front of an audience of 1,100. Here, he revealed that the séances were a hoax – he had hidden in the rafters and with the assistance of two friends had generated various raps and noises that appeared to be supernatural – and asserted that Wood was a trickster. A battle in the local press ensued between Reimers and Evans, bolstered by opinion pieces and letters from members of the public. Overall, public sympathy seemed to lie with Reimers who was described as ‘a thoroughly honest spiritualist’, while Kirkham Evans and his friends were advised ‘to be most heartily ashamed of themselves’.

Port Adelaide News and Le Fevre’s Peninsula Advertiser 19 December 1884, p.4.

And then, a few years later in 1887, there was the Cradock Ghost scare in the north of South Australia. A nine-year-old girl, Sissy Schultz, was apparently under the influence of supernatural powers, which manifested as loud knocks and occasional electric shocks. Kirkham Evans went to investigate, and together with the local schoolmaster, spent a night watching the girl sleep. Sure enough, loud raps were heard, but only when the child had moved far enough over in the bed (a mattress on the pug floor) to be able to reach out and tap the floor. The schoolmaster had taken the precaution of sprinkling lampblack on the floor, and sure enough, when inspected the child’s knuckles were black. This story also caused a sensation in the local press.

However, Christian Reimers’ assertion that Kirkham Evans was not as honest and reputable as he claimed did have merit because some years later, in 1917, a cryptic announcement appeared in the gazette of the Boy Scouts’ Association. It stated that the office of metropolitan commissioner, formerly occupied by Mr Kirkham Evans, had been declared vacant. It transpired that allegations had been made of sexual misconduct with the boys. In the age-old tradition of institutional cover-ups, Kirkham Evans had been given an opportunity to leave Australia. He fled Adelaide for Sydney under cover of darkness, with the intention of heading to Fiji, and was never held accountable. And there the story ends.

Posted in Baker's Flat, Cataloguing, Material culture, South Australia | Tagged , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Fizzy drinks, the Codd patent bottle and some experimental archaeology

When aerated mineral water drinks were first manufactured way back in the eighteenth century, they were stored in stoneware bottles. But the gas often escaped, the fizz disappeared and the drinks became flat. When glass bottles were used, a different problem popped up. Literally. The pressure of the gas in the bottles could force the cork stopper out, especially if the cork was dry. Again, no fizz. In 1809, William Hamilton invented a round-bottomed bottle to solve the problem. This bottle had to lie on its side, the corks stayed wet, the drinks stayed fizzy. Hamilton bottles were very popular right through to about 1900. However, they did have a tendency to roll off shelves and they were hard to transport.

Enter Hiram Codd, an English mechanical engineer, who lodged his first patent for the Codd bottle in 1870. Codd’s ingenious invention used a flat-bottomed bottle and sealed it with a marble stopper instead of a cork. The pressure of the aerated water was used to force the marble against a rubber washer in the neck. To open the bottle, the user pushed the marble down where it rolled happily into a channel designed for this purpose.

In Australia, Codd bottles became available in the 1880s and were used widely until the mid-1930s. Many didn’t survive because children would break them to get the marbles. But the one in this picture did, and you can see the marble still safe inside. It was made for the M.W. Co-operative Company of Adelaide. And we can date it to between 1893 and 1907, because on the base there’s an upper case ‘H’ in an embossed circle that indicates it was made by the Adelaide Glass Works. These glassworks were established by Gustav Henrichson at Croydon in 1893 and bought by the Melbourne Glassworks in 1907.

Well, that was mildly interesting historical information, you’re probably thinking. But, remarkably, Codd bottles are still being made in Japan. The Ramune carbonated soft drink comes in a variety of flavours including blueberry, cherry, cola, green apple, green tea, melon and strawberry. You can buy them in Adelaide, I discovered to my delight. There’s a strawberry one in the image below, and you can see how similar it is in design to the nineteenth century original.

19th century and 21st century Codd bottles

And now for some experimental archaeology. We start by opening the bottle, as indicated in the pictures below. First, peel off the plastic wrapper, making sure to first take a close look at the instructions. The bottle top is revealed with the marble in situ. Click out the green plastic bottle opener (these were made of wood in the old days, and you can use your thumb if you prefer). Place the opener on top of the bottle, press down firmly for about five seconds. And, like magic, with a satisfying pop, the marble dislodges and falls down into the channel. If you drink with the two indentations (the ones like alien eyes) facing you, the marble is contained there while you indulge in the strawberry flavoured contents.

But there’s more. A further experiment. The really smart thing about the Codd bottle was that the glass marble could be brought back into position after being opened so that the remaining liquid was sealed in. You just put your finger over the opening, shake vigorously for a few seconds, turn the bottle upside down so the marble moves back to the seal, then remove your finger. Although I discovered that this is a really difficult action to photograph when you’re the only person in the house, I offer the images below as proof that it really does work. In the first photo, I’ve put the marble back successfully and it’s no longer in the channel. Second and third photos, I’ve re-opened the bottle, and the marble is back in the channel, then resealed it, no marble in channel and also a reducing level of liquid as I’ve needed sustenance during the process. Fourth photo, proof that the bottle doesn’t leak.

And finally … there’s a legend that the Codd bottle gave rise to the term ‘codswallop’. Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable states that ‘wallop’ is a slang term for beer, and ‘Codd’s wallop’ became a disparaging term among beer drinkers to describe those who drank mineral waters and ‘weak’ drinks.

Ayto, J. (ed.) 2007 Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson.
Boouw, J. 1991 Early Australian Commercial Glass: Manufacturing Processes. Sydney: Heritage Council of NSW.
Vader, J. and B. Murray 1975 Antique Bottle Collecting in Australia. Sydney: Ure Smith.

Posted in Material culture, Research, hmmm, South Australia | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

Bonfires and St John’s Eve

Yesterday, 23 June, was St John’s Eve, which was traditionally celebrated in Ireland with large bonfires across the countryside. Hence its other name, Bonfire Night.

June in Ireland is the height of summer, and the long twilight would be a lovely time to have a bonfire and take part in some customary activities with one’s friends and neighbours. Leaping through the flames hand in hand to procure a good husband or wife, and to ensure love and fertility. Music and dancing, games and feats of strength. Snatching burning sticks from the fire and throwing them as high as possible into the air. Throwing weeds into the fire to protect the crops from unwanted species. Casting lighted torches into the fire to bring blessings on the fields. Even small holy objects that were broken or worn out, such as rosary beads, scapulars and little statues, could be destroyed without disrespect by being burned in the St John’s Eve bonfires. (Danaher 1972:134-153).

Here in Adelaide it is the height of winter. So we didn’t light a bonfire outside, although we did light a fire in the fireplace. Inside, where it was cosy and warm, and we could sit and look at the flames in comfort.


Substitute inside fire for St John’s Eve

From the mid 1850s, up at Baker’s Flat, Kapunda, the Irish continued their tradition of celebrating St John’s Eve. This is referenced in a few newspaper stories, including the Southern Cross (1936:29) which remembers:

On June 23, the eve of the Feast of St John, the men collected the wood from the neighbours for the centuries old custom of lighting the bonfire, and all danced the grand old dances and sang the old songs of Ireland till the early hours of the morning. Gaiety and fun was never wanting in the ‘Flat’…

The Kapunda Herald in 1901 published a report from a local man who was away fighting in the South African war and who wrote about bonfires, with a reference to Baker’s Flat:

We burnt many of the oldest waggons, carts, old clothing, etc. My word, you should have seen the bonfire! Talk about Baker’s Flat, it was not in it.

Again, in the Kapunda Herald (1949:2) an article about a centenary play at St Rose’s Catholic Church mentions that one of the scenes depicted ‘a bonfire at Baker’s Flat on St John’s Eve’.

I take my hat off, but not my ugg boots and warm flannelette pyjamas (yes, those are kittens), to the Irish of Baker’s Flat, who continued celebrating their traditions, even on the other side of the world. And I hope that the bonfires were big enough to warm the crowds, since this morning it was 2 degrees Celsius and there was frost on the grass down here on the Adelaide plains.


Danaher, K. 1972 The year in Ireland: Irish calendar customs. Cork: Mercier Press.
Kapunda Herald We burnt many of the oldest waggons … 23 August 1901, p.3
Kapunda Herald
Catholic Centenary at Kapunda. Successful celebrations. 29 September 1949, p.2
Southern Cross Early days and ways in Kapunda. 6 November 1936, pp.29-30.

Posted in Baker's Flat, Folk traditions, Folklore, Ireland, Irishness, Kapunda, South Australia | Tagged , , , , | Comments Off on Bonfires and St John’s Eve