Excavating buttons in the refuse dump associated with the military barracks and hospital in Cape Town

In October 2010 we were contacted to assist in the collection of material which had been disturbed during the course of the excavation of foundations for four steel supports for a roof covering an alley between two historic building. Both buildings were constructed in the first decade of the 19th century. The area more or less coincided with the location of a gully formed by one of the mountain streams flowing off Table Mountain into the sea. The gully was filled in c1811. Initially it was thought that the material was generic household rubbish, dumped into the gully at the time that it was filled.

Our brief was to excavate the foundations for the remaining 3 supports. (The one hole had already been dug out by contractors and the density of artefacts coming out of the hole alerted the architect that archaeological mitigation was required). Unfortunately it was possibly to excavate only one of the remaining holes stratigraphically. The first hole was situated at the entrance to the alley and had been extensively disturbed when service pipes had been laid. The last hole was situated at the base of the alley and the ground level had been raised to link up with the buildings beyond. At the base of this hole were the foundations of an earlier building, constructed of slate slabs and a yellow mud mortar. As the holes were only 1m x 1m, it was decided not to excavate any further, as the foundations would provide sufficient support for the new foundation for the steel roof support.

The third hole, the one we could excavate, proved to be a lot more exciting than we had imagined!

Vast amounts of animal bone was recovered - for the most part chopped in regular size portions, as if for stews. Ute Seeman (1993 Forts and Fortifications at the Cape Peninsula 1781-1829) found a similar pattern in the bone assemblage at the Hout Bay forts. Meat was portioned into equal sizes to facilitating cooking for large numbers of soldiers. 

Bone molds and manufacture debris (blanks) represented the next significant artefact assemblage. Although commonly found in archaeological sites in and around the Cape, this type of artefact has not enjoyed much coverage in our local archaeological fraternity. Most of the published material available suggests that these bone molds were used as buttons: covered by material and attached by means of a thread/string.

Another interesting find is a copper (brass or bronze) button of the 60th Regiment of the French Republic army. We are still looking for images of similar buttons on the internet, but little luck so far. The SA Military Society and folk from the Military Museum at the Castle have been very helpful and hopefully we'll be able to say more about this button in the near future.

Bone molds (bone discs with a single, central hole, used as backing or molds for buttons) as well as the manufacture debris for making the molds are well represented in this site. Although bone molds and buttons are commonly found on archaeological sites in Cape Town, very little material has been published locally about the significance of these artefacts. Reports from elsewhere in the world, suggest that these single hole bone ‘buttons’ are often found on sites associated with the military i.e. forts, encampments and prisoner of war camps. In this rescue excavation, only 19 actual molds were recovered in comparison to over 250 fragments of bone from which the molds had been extracted.

Fragments of glass, with a distinctive concave wear suggesting that they were used as tools. Based on the wear pattern, it seems as if these fragments of glass were used in the smoothing/shaping of handles (probably for spoons).

Other unusual artefacts...

Other artefacts from this site, suggesting that the material originated from the Great Barracks situated across the street...

Button molds and manufacture debris. These blanks would have been covered by fabric or metal and used as buttons on shirts, jackets or coats. The size would indicate the garment type: large buttons on coats, small buttons for shirts.

Republique Francaise 60th Regiment.

Modified glass. Several pieces show the distinctive concave wear with striations visible to the naked eye.