Kitchen Archaeology

kitchen_door_heart
I’m sure most of you know the axiom “the kitchen is the heart of the home”. I certainly think so – both as a cook and an archaeologist. Archaeologists are obsessed with hearths, storage pits, sherds of cooking pots, middens (rubbish heaps) – anything, really, that would tell us about how people lived in the past, often centered around food preparation areas.

We’ve been having some work done to the kitchen of our late Victorian house here in Northern England. So, when they started demolishing my kitchen floor, it was inevitable that I watched and documented what was uncovered. It was an interesting insight on the original construction and various “improvements” carried out since the time the house was built sometime shortly after 1892.

kitchen_hearthstoneKitchen Hearthstone

First layer (strata in archaeology lingo) to be stripped away was the 1990s laminate flooring, dated by a layer of newspapers used as padding. Its removal revealed a scarred and patched pine wood floor. On the floor was a hearthstone in front of a wall that obviously once held a fireplace that was now bricked in. The hearthstone had been drilled with holes (now plugged with wooden pegs) that indicated there must have once been a metal fire guard.

keeping_slabKeeping Slab – a good photograph is impossible to achieve!

The hearthstone is a single slab of thick limestone like the “keeping slab” we have in the basement – both dating to the original construction of the house. A keeping slab is a stone table that kept meats, cheeses and other products cool in the days before refrigeration. Many houses like ours in the area still have them. Ours is now a work bench, a paint and tool storage area.

kitchen_nailsIron Nails

Next to come up was the pine flooring boards nailed down using old iron nails. We knew that the basement did not extend under the kitchen, but there was a space for ventilation below the floor – common in solid stone houses of the era.

kitchen_rubble_underfloorRubble under Kitchen Floor

Below the joists on the earthen floor was a central support wall, different generations of pipes and wires – evidence of decades of building work and alterations. But, it was filled predominantly with building rubble – stone from constructing the walls, bricks (many with stamps of local manufacturers), pieces of old window moulding. A segment of cast iron drain pipe probably came from the old scullery attached to the kitchen. Black glassy globs of bitumen were evidence of a 19th-century form of damp coursing (to prevent rising damp). Fragments of plaster and lath strips were probably debris from construction of a ceiling or wall.

kitchen_artefactsKitchen and Garden “Artefacts” – sorry, no scale!

No cooking pots or utensils were unearthed – or gold hoards for that matter. But, in amongst that detritus were a few household items – a wooden cloths peg, an old (almost disintegrated) match box, a wicket (from the game of cricket, probably belonging to a child), and pieces of a hand-cut dovetailed wooden object (a small box?). The wicket reminded me of some of the old toys that have turned up in the garden – a fragment of a bone and wood domino, and lots of glass marbles.

We’ve now reburied those small, rather mundane objects from the past and added our own time capsule under the “new” reclaimed oak floor boards. They will always be reminders that the kitchen was, throughout its history, a place where every day activities are carried out – indeed, the heart of the home.

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28 comments

    • I was really hoping for some discarded kitchen implements, but it was not to be. The builders joked about finding gold and made me promise to let them have it, if found. I agreed, but didn’t tell them that it might have been classed as treasure trove and, therefore, property of the Queen. I don’t think she would have wanted a bent spoon or a shard of an old bottle, so I was safe with my expectations.

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  1. Great post! Made me think of Deetz’s “In Small Things Forgotten.” You gotta love how we archaeologists seem to leave a trail of time capsules in our wake. We just can’t seem to resist leaving clues (or directions) for future archaeologists. 🙂

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    • In Small Things Forgotten – that takes me back! Yes, once you’ve been trained to view the world through material culture (big and small), you tend to see the everything that way! Glad you liked the post.

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  2. […] I’ve been making a lot of cake in the past month. That is, in spite of a chaotic hit-or-miss access to the oven. We’ve had the builders in, re-structuring the now-antiquated additions from the 1960s to our kitchen. It’s amazing how well the original old Victorian structure has held up compared to those newer “improvements”. If you want to see some of the activity, have a look at my previous post, Kitchen Archaeology. […]

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  3. I love it! especially the clothes pin! a few months ago we pried up several of the floor boards in one of the bedrooms in our 18th century farmhouse and found a child’s treasure trove of beads and plastic jewelry from the mid 20th century…anything small enough to push through the knot hole had gone there between the first and second floors. Couldn’t have happened before 1900 because there was no ceiling on the first floor before that and everything would have simply dropped into the parlor! We’d have to dig in the back yard to find any kitchen relics since the original kitchen was an outbuilding for the first 100 years. Glyn

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    • How wonderful to have those little beads and things from a previous occupant of your home! Excavating the outbuilding might be interesting and might be worth contacting a local University Anthropology department for advice. They may be interested in what you find. Glad you liked the post.

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    • I’m sure I would have loved it. Did you record what you saw when they took up the floor? All sorts of things come to light – and great prompts for story telling. Glad you enjoyed the post.

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  4. You forgot FCR!!! (fire cracked rock) or maybe that isn’t big in the UK archaeology? Anyway, great post and I can feel your excitement. I would have been there as well. My degree is in Palaeotology BUT I did a lot of Plains Archaeology prior to graduation. I bet you can place the date of those nifty iron nails 🙂

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    • You’re absolutely right – I was quite excited watching them uncover what was beneath the old floor. I think that FCR are what the Brits call pot-boiler (with a hyphen to distinguish it from potboiler!). The only thing that might have had fire cracking was the hearhstone, but the corner where it appears lighter was actually peck marked and we assumed that this was from an attempt to break it up at some point after the chimney was blocked and the fireplace no longer in use. All the other stones that came out were very obviously rubble from building works since the back wall of the house is made up with similar stones. Yet, it would have been nice to get FCR! Evidence of cooking? I’m glad you liked the post.😄

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