Shopping for coffin decorations – how TradeMe helped us visualise colonial funerals

Today’s blog is another from our excavation co-director and expert historical archaeologist Dr. Peter Petchey. Here he tells us more about the decorated coffins and how sometimes help in visualising the past comes from unexpected places…

A previous blog entry looked at Victorian funerals and the decoration that was sometimes applied to coffins. As I said then, the Victorians loved pomp and ornamentation: we still live with evidence of this today in towns and cities that have surviving Victorian buildings. But while a stone building was designed to last permanently, coffin decorations were only made to look good for a few days before being buried, so the materials were usually quite insubstantial (with the exception of the iron coffin handles, which had to be strong enough to lift the coffin). So after 140 years in the ground, what do these decorations look like when we excavate them? And how do we know what they would have looked like on the day of the funeral?

The most important consideration is very careful excavation. Everything in the grave is fragile. It is also essential to remember that were are investigating actual people, so our excavation of the burial is done very respectfully and carefully. The coffin is invariably in poor condition, with the decorative elements decayed, fragile, and sometimes simply disappeared. So we only have fragmentary evidence to work with when trying to interpret the original coffin designs. Much of this has to be done in the field: for example all coffin dimensions have to be measured before anything is disturbed, as the wood always collapses when lifted.

As described previously many of the timber coffins were covered with black fabric, then trimmed with decorative metal (lead/tin alloy) strips, and then some had iron handles and ornate coffin plates attached. These metal strips and coffin plates were very thin, and sometimes only a shadow on the fabric remained to tell where they had been: pictured here is a section of embossed strip from one of the burials at the Gabriel Street Cemetery in Lawrence. Although the pattern can be made out, it takes some imagination to think how this would have appeared in the 1880s (when we think this person was buried).

A section of embossed metal strip from Burial G1 in Gabriel Street, Lawrence. This is how the coffin decoration usually appears when we find it.

This is where an unusual research source comes into play. Last year, someone in Invercargill was clearing out his late grandparents’ garage, and placed their stuff on TradeMe to sell. Amongst this material was a collection of ‘vintage antique coffin decorations,’ which we bought – we had to bid for them, someone else also wanted them! When it arrived in Dunedin, what we had was a collection of pressed tinplate coffin furniture and a bundle of the embossed metal strips, and the pattern these strips was an exact match for those on one of the Gabriel Street burials. When photographed against a black fabric background it gives an idea of how the coffin would have appeared when it was new.

A section of unused embossed metal coffin strip found on TradeMe, photographed against a black fabric background. This is the same pattern as we found in Burial G1 at Lawrence.

The tinplate furniture was also useful: all made from very thin pressed tinplate, they would have rusted away very quickly when buried. The designs included an angel (probably for the head end of a coffin lid) and a number of escutcheon plates (to be placed under the coffin handles). While we could not make an exact match with any examples that we had excavated, the general style and material was consistent with what we had found.

The tinplate coffin decorations purchased from TradeMe. Left: A pressed tinplate angel, probably intended to go at the head end of a coffin lid. Although dull now, this was originally a bright silver colour, with picked-out black details. Right: A pressed tinplate handle escutcheon. This was intended to be the backing for a coffin handle, on the side of a coffin. It shows two mourning women painted matt black, with details picked out in gloss black.

Using a combination of our archaeological discoveries, these items from TradeMe, and comparisons with similar published research, we are building up a detailed picture of nineteenth century funerals in Otago, contemporary attitudes towards death, and how these were expressed through funerary tradition.

These coffins would have rested in the deceased’s home (as was common then) and then travelled to the cemetery. Our work allows us to visualise them as they were – black coffins detailed with ornamental strips and plates showing angels, cherubs mourning women, flowers and foliage, all expressed in black and silver (and all of which had specific symbolic meanings). The drawing here shows Robert Rowley Thompson’s (Milton Burial 9’s) coffin as it would have appeared in 1877, when he was accompanied to the St. Johns Cemetery by a guard of honour from the No. 2 Battalion of the Otago Rifles, in which he had been a Staff Sergeant.

Left: Field recording of the coffin vs. Right: Reconstruction of what the coffin would have looked like when buried with black fabric, silver and black metal coffin strips and ornate head, chest and foot plates.

Peter Petchey, 22nd November 2019

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