To archaeologists, one man's trash really is another man's treasure. So much can be learned about a person by examining the things they've left behind, even if the original owner didn't think they were particularly important. Read on to discover a story of a 20th century teenager, pieced together from the contents of a rather unconventional rubbish bin.

Blog by Deirdre Harrison, Collection Manager Archaeology. 

Amphorae are one of the most easily recognisable and common vessels of the ancient Mediterranean world. The name derives from the Greek word amphi-phoreus which means 'carried on both sides', referring to the two vertical handles.

Usually in the ancient world, the shape of a vessel is linked to its use, but amphorae have been used for many applications and found to contain a wide range of substances. Smaller vessels typically held fragrant oils and other expensive substances, while large scale vessels, such as this Roman example, were used for the storage or transport of grains, oils, milk, dried fish, water and of course, wine for domestic or trade use. Some of these amphorae may have had ceramic lids or may have been sealed with clay or pitch, and many were stamped with details of their contents, owners, or origins. Without a chemical analysis of the interiors, this is the principal method for identifying their use.

Although this Auckland Museum amphora bears no obvious stamp detailing its contents or owner, and its lid (if it had one) has long been lost, this vessel does tell an interesting story….

Amphora, Pompeii 1999x5.28

Sperrey, Eleanor Katherine 1862-1893 :[Self portrait] 1887 Alexander Turnbull Library More information ›

Eleanor Katherine (Kate) Sperrey, the distinguished New Zealand artist, spent time as a young woman studying art and painting in Italy under Guiseppe Ferrari in the early 1880s. Whilst there, she developed an interest in antiquity and was presented, by the Duke D’Abruzzi, with a pair of amphorae recently excavated from the archaeological site at Pompeii. Kate Sperrey returned to NZ, with the amphorae, and married Captain Gilbert Mair (of a well-known NZ family). Kate continued her artistic practice and produced several significant portraits of New Zealand personalities. Unfortunately, she died at 31 while her children were very young.

Kate’s daughter, Kathleen Irene, (Kitty or Katie) inherited her mother’s artistic talent and her amphorae. She studied art in Auckland and later in London at the Royal College of Art. At the outbreak of war in 1914 in Europe she met the Hon Captain Ralph Vane, son of Lord and Lady Barnard of Raby Castle. They married in 1917 and the couple travelled extensively with Kitty painting and exhibiting. She continued to do this even after her husband’s death, eventually settling back in NZ, where she too became a renowned artist. During her time away from Auckland her father, Gilbert Mair, donated the amphorae to the Museum in 1917 on behalf of his daughter.

Kathleen Airini Vane (1891-1965) 'Pohutukawa at Mahurangi'

Amphorae, being very significant objects in the ancient world, were in demand as museum collection items and around this period and earlier, several amphorae were donated to the Auckland Museum by various collectors and benefactors. Over time, unfortunately, several of these amphorae became separated from their labels, numbers or collection history, and although all were carefully handled and stored, some of the provenance was mislaid.

In 1999, the Whangārei Art Museum asked Auckland Museum for the loan of Kate Sperrey’s amphorae as they were holding an exhibition of her work in 2000. The Archaeology Curator and Collection Manager at the time embarked on some research to establish which of the amphorae in the collection best fitted the (loose) description of those donated by Gilbert Mair. Eventually, they settled on one which they were able to indisputably establish as the correct vessel.

The amphora on display at Whangārei Art Museum, 2000

It is hard to know the exact prominence of these amphorae in the Mair household as young Katie was growing up in Mt Eden, Auckland, but undoubtedly, they contributed to her appreciation of beauty and form.

We do know that they were familiar objects to her in the home and resided in an accessible corner of her bedroom or sitting room or study - because when this amphora was being prepared for loan to the Whangārei Art Museum, various scraps of paper were found in the belly of the vessel indicating that the young Katie Mair had been using it as a wastepaper bin! 

In true archaeological tradition, it was the rubbish that provided a wealth of information:


A letter from Katie's cousin

The wastepapers showed evidence of ownership of the amphora:

  • A discarded letter and envelope addressed to the fifteen-year-old Miss Katie Mair from her cousin in Dunedin, Mahinarangi. (1907)
  • An envelope addressed to Miss Katie Mair, from Wang(arei?) (1906) in different handwriting
  • A discarded telegram form (unsent as the dates and delivery instructions were not filled in) instructing Miss Margery Martin to “come today, if you cannot, come tomorrow” and signed “Katie”

The way the vessel was used:

  • The crumpled and torn nature, and the type of the “documents”, (wrappers, advertisements, old newsletters, ticket stubs and incomplete telegram forms) indicated that these were waste papers, and the vessel was regarded as a wastepaper bin.


The date of use: (thus age of Katie Mair at the time – around 15 years old)

  • Very precise dates can be obtained from the letter (9 October 1906) and the envelopes (9 Oct and 11 Oct).
  • The church newsletter is clearly dated (Dec 1906).

An unsent telegram to a friend

Chocolate wrapper

Together and individually, these clues offer a glimpse into the life of the young Katie Mair:

  • A half ticket stub from the (Auckland?) Ladies’ Benevolent Society Floral Fete (ticket No. 13) which names the category “Decorated Pony (Girls)”. This shows either an interest or a participation in this community fund raising event, which was both a social event for the wealthy and a chance to be charitable to those in need.
  • Sweet papers and the wrapping from Swiss Milk Chocolate tablets for making drinking chocolate. This confirms access to luxury goods - and a sweet tooth.
  • Wrapping from a pack of Goodall & Son’s Fine Commercial visitor cards and the discarded telegraph form. These are evidence of the different methods of social interaction and communication practiced by people of her social standing.
  • Latin vocabulary and lesson notes demonstrate her level of education.
  • The content of the letter from her cousin in Dunedin is perhaps the most informative. It tells of riding parties and social interaction with the visiting Sydney footballers. Activities perhaps not typical for “young ladies” at the time. The activities (riding, tennis, hiking, picnicking) and the number of horses mentioned indicate the wealth and available leisure time of the author. As does the reference to “this season”.


Thus, the rubbish which had been hidden for almost a century confirmed the provenance of this amphora without a doubt. (And suggested yet another use for ancient amphorae).

Ticket stub for a fete

Wrapping for visitor cards set

Latin revision

Amphora in the Volcanoes Gallery at Auckland Museum

After the Kate Sperrey exhibition at the Whangārei Art Museum, this amphora was returned to Auckland Museum and went on to be displayed in the “Wonders of Wine” a “Living Treasures Day” at the Auckland Museum in 2001. Then in 2005, it came to rest in the Pompeii case of the Volcanoes Gallery; quietly representing the doomed city where amphorae had once been abundant and essential to the lifestyle of its residents.