Pottery and prosperity

Around a week ago, some people were getting quite excited about finds of high status Roman pottery from Carlisle, and how it suggested that it was more than a rude frontier settlement on the edge of empire – one commentator went so far as to claim that proved that Carlisle was not just ‘hairy barbarians selling cows’.

Myself I’m not so sure. Analogy is a dangerous game but one possible analogue is the mid nineteenth century gold towns of Victoria.

These towns were established quickly, were often formalisations of existing miner’s camps and were usually nicely and regularly laid out by colonial surveyors.

Among the first things built (after pubs) were usually some imposing and quite massive bank buildings, plus a post office and a court house. And of course the banks in particular were staffed by bank officials who expected the conveniences of mid Victorian life even if they were surrounded by gold miners and kangaroos.

So these people would have lived in nice houses, had nice crockery and probably drank imported wine from nice glasses, all of which would probably turn up in the archaeological record were we to look.

The people who lived in these nice houses would have been very much a minority. Most of the population would have been gold miners, often of Irish or Chinese descent. The Chinese are particularly interesting as a proportion of them came via California where they had been pushed out due to an increasing hardening of US attitudes to Chinese migration. The consequence is that in some of the camp areas or around the mines US and Mexican silver coins from the 1850’s sometimes turn up – either lost or hidden by their owners.

The Irish and other miners of European origin in the main only left whisky bottles and bits of discarded equipment behind them. The point is that the majority of the community was materially poor and only had their mining equipment and the clothes they stood up in. If we didn’t know about the Chinese we might even think that the coin stashes were associated with the high status houses and hypothesize about a shortage of Sterling currency in 1850’s Victoria, and people hiding their portable wealth.

So, the presence of nice pottery does not imply that everyone was prosperous, it implies that some people might have been and that might be because they had high status occupations and expectations – bank officials in colonial Victoria, imperial functionaries in colonial Carlisle …

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About dgm

IT professional, ex research psychologist, blogger, twitterer, and amateur classical and medieval historian ...
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