On Tuesday, 8 April 2014, the British-based newspaper, The Guardian, published the story of a fisherman who retrieved an old beer bottle from the Baltic Sea off the northern German city of Kiel. Sealed inside the bottle was a postcard with a handwritten message. Researchers from the International Maritime Museum in the northern port city of Hamburg were able to determine that the message was penned by Richard Platz who, during a nature hike in 1913, threw the bottle into the Baltic Sea.
The idea of messages in bottles is not new and has been much romanticised throughout the ages. Lead singer Sting of the English rock band The Police, wrote an all-time hit song about it in the 1970s, and the film adaptation of American author Nicolas Spark’s 1998 novel of the same title was released in 1999. Cartoonists have been using this theme for many decades and the bearded character on a small island, his only means of communication being a message in a bottle, is a well-known caricature.
Much as a message in a bottle would have been appreciated in the archaeological record, to archaeologists the bottle is the message. Archaeology is defined as the study of human history and prehistory through the excavation of sites and the analysis of artefacts and other physical remains. These artefacts and physical remains are collectively what is referred to as the archaeological record. Before explaining the role of glass in archaeological analysis, let us first take a look at what glass is. Although naturally occurring glass in the form of obsidian (black volcanic glass), has been utilised by mankind from the earliest times, the earliest archaeologic record of man-made glass dates to approximately 3500 BC.
To manufacture glass requires only three basic, non-toxic and abundant natural materials, namely silica sand, sodium carbonate (soda ash) and calcium carbonate (limestone), as well as an intense heat source. Silica sand alone is sufficient to manufacture glass but has a very high melting point (1 982 °C). The addition of a flux such as soda ash considerably lowers the melting point, but without the addition of a stabiliser such as limestone the resultant product would be a water-soluble glass! As packaging material for consumables, glass is the only material that does not affect the taste of food.
During the early historical period, glass was used as container material for almost everything, from toothpaste to poison. It can break but not decompose, and as such can survive indefinitely in a dump. Bottles and even just shards of bottles act as time markers and can provide valuable information on the time-sequence of the formation of a refuse dump. Time markers are important in determining the potential age frame of a dump and, accordingly, its associated homestead. The timeframe and the nature of the discarded items enable the archaeologist to gain insight into the inhabitants of the homestead.
Bottle anatomy starts with the lip at the top, followed by the neck and body and ends with the bottom or base on which it stands. The lip and neck provide clues to the method of closure and the bottom to the method of manufacture, often containing the seal of the manufacturer. All of these are clues to the date of the manufacture of the bottle. Added to these clues are brand names embossed on the body of the bottle, the colour of the glass, time of manufacture stamps (a bonus), the presence or absence of seams and pontil marks, and the shape and size of the bottle. The latter is often an indication of the contents it once held. Bottles containing poison often had ribbed panels to warn the user that the contents were poisonous.
Brand names on bottles found in the archaeological record also stand testimony to the longevity of certain brands such as Dr Williams’ Pink Pills for Pale People, Bovril, Marmite, Holbrook’s Worcestershire Sauce, Phillips milk of magnesia (today called Phipp’s milk of magnesia), Chamberlain’s Cough Remedy, 3-in-one oil, Horlicks, Jeyes fluid, Rose’s Lime Juice (today Rose’s Lime Cordial), Vaseline, Vicks rub and Vicks drops, Scrubb’s Ammonia, and Eno’s fruit salts, that indispensable item from the medicine cabinet needed after a heavy Sunday lunch.
Bottle collecting is a favourite pastime for some, but a word of warning for those in South Africa: dumps older than 100 years are protected by Section 35 of the National Heritage Resources Act, number 25 of 1999. These dumps may not be excavated without a valid permit from the South African Heritage Resources Agency or its provincial equivalent. That lovely bottle that might fetch a bit of pocket money on the flea market might turn out to be more expensive than anticipated in terms of a hefty fine.
On a lighter note, however, the expression ‘from trash to treasure’ takes on new meaning when one visits the ‘glass beach’ near Fort Bragg, California. This site was once a dumping site (early 20th century) for the residents of Fort Bragg, who simply dumped their refuse off the cliffs onto the beach below. From time to time the dump was set alight to reduce the volume, only for it to start building up again. During the mid-1960s, a ‘greener’ approach was adopted to deal with waste management and a formal municipal dump established elsewhere. The car wrecks and remaining trash were removed, and the old dump closed down. During the next couple of decades nature reclaimed the beach and revealed a beautiful glass-pebbled beach formed by heat-transformed glass shards, intermingled with some ceramics, and smoothed by continuous pounding of the waves. Today this is a protected area and forms part of the MacKerricher State Park.
Glass can be recycled an infinite number of times without losing any of its original qualities. By recycling we save valuable energy and natural resources. Glass is truly a gift from nature!
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Definition of Archaeology. www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/archaeology (12.5.2015).
Fletcher, E. 1976. Antique Bottles in Colour. Poole/Dorset: Blandford Press.
Glass Beach (Fort Bragg, California) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Glass_Beach_(Fort_Bragg,_California) (7.5.2015).
Historic Glass Bottle Identification & Information Website. www.sha.org/bottle/ (20.8.2015).
History of glass. www.historyofglass.com/ (20.8.2015).
How Is Glass Made? The Toledo Museum of Art. www.toledomuseum.org/kiosk/glass-study-interactive/exploring-glass/how-is (1.8.2015).
Lastovica, E. & Lastovica, A. 1982. Bottles and Bygones: A guide for South African Collectors. Cape Town: Don Nelson.
Message in bottle arrives after 101 years. 8 April 2014. www.theguardian.com/world/2014/apr/08/message-in-bottle-arrives-after-101-years (5.6.2015).
The beer bottle retrieved from the Baltic Sea as reported by The Guardian in 2014. (Photo: Uwe Paesler/EPA)
Raw obsidian and obsidian blades from the Mayan site of Takalik Abaj (Photo: Simon Burchell).
Poison bottles (Photo: www.antiquebottles.co.za)
Antique bottles (Photo: www.antiquebottles.co.za)
Glass Beach, Fort Bragg. (Photograph: Jef Poskanzer)