Toward an Archaeology of the Twentieth-Century Suburban Backyard

By Brown, Steve | Archaeology in Oceania, July 2012 | Go to article overview

Toward an Archaeology of the Twentieth-Century Suburban Backyard


Brown, Steve, Archaeology in Oceania


Abstract

The archaeology of twentieth-century suburbs, in contrast to city centres, has received little attention from archaeologists in Australia. This paper presents the results of an archaeological investigation of a suburban block, a bounded space 347[m.sup.2] in size, created in 1905 and located in the Sydney suburb of Arncliffe. An extensive collection of objects has been recovered while undertaking gardening activities and six test pit excavations has produced an assemblage of 3600 things. A qualitative analysis of the material remains reveals a wide range of past suburban activities, encompassing building construction, domestic consumption/production and home-making practices. The paper explores links between past activities/behaviours and routine processes of material decay, waste disposal and loss in order to consider the archaeological research potential of the suburban block. Two specific areas of research are outlined--consumption with particular reference to the role of the female head of the house and ecology/health. On the basis of the study a case is made for the development of a 'suburban archaeology' in Australia.

Keywords: suburban archaeology, gardening, Arncliffe, housewife, waste disposal, pollution

So much stuff!

When my partner Allan and I moved into the house at 85 Fairview Street, Arncliffe, in August 2007, I had not expected to encounter a massive quantity of material remains evidencing past occupation across our suburban block. Perhaps I had been living in inner city apartment blocks for too long, and I had forgotten the mountains of artefacts that can be recovered from living sites, whether they be Ice-age rockshelters in south-west Tasmania, Australian Aboriginal shell middens, medieval cess pits in London, or inner city dwellings in nineteenth century Sydney or Melbourne.

Of course there are the obvious indicators of past occupation across our block--house, outhouse, back shed, fences, pathway, and cultural plantings. But what is surprising is the extent to which material traces collect within such a small area of land. Renovating the house turned up a collection that includes coins, toys, a gift card, pharmaceutical bottles and newspapers (Brown 2010). However, it has been through our garden project that a treasure trove of items has been dug up, ranging from fragments of late nineteenth-century glass and ceramic to recent plastic toy cars and soldiers. How did all this stuff get here and what can it all mean?

The suburb in Australian history and archaeology

As early as 1913, when my house was being constructed, Lucy Maynard Salmon (1853-1927), an American professor of history, economics and political science in New York, asked the question in an essay 'History in a Back Yard': "Why search for hidden treasure abroad when the history of the world was spread out in the back yard?" (Moskowitz 2009:67). Salmon examined different elements of the backyard--size and shape of the yards, fencing, plantings, garden furniture, outbuildings, laundry lines, garbage cans and material traces of elements no longer in use--in a landscape approach to suburban social history and history of domestic life.

Archaeological interest in the suburb is relatively recent, though archaeological investigation of the twentieth century has been part of mainstream archaeological practice for almost three decades (Harrison 2011). Contemporary archaeologies of the suburb (e.g. Gould and Schiffer 1981; Rathje 1979) are part of this body of work. However, in Australia an interest in the archaeology of the suburb is less evident. While Australian archaeologists have actively investigated nineteenth-century inner-city residences and backyards to understand urban city-centre historical experience (e.g. Lydon 1999; Murray 2010; Murray and Mayne 2001), the archaeology of twentieth-century suburbs has received little attention. Archaeologies of the post-1788 period have tended to focus on historical themes such as convictism, colonial-Indigenous encounter, founding manufacturing industries (e. …

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