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At the end of last week and beginning of this week, we had been working hard in the southwest corner of the trench. Our excavation overlaps with some of Brian Hope-Taylor’s trenches, and perhaps the biggest shared area is that of the mortar mixer. We’ve checked on it a bit over the course of this trench’s lifetime, but mostly it has remained covered in eerie slumber as we toil elsewhere. Lately, however, we have been tidying up the section wall adjacent to the BHT trench and cutting back the section just above the mortar mixer. This work involves a little bit of the archaeology of archaeology, in that we are encountering a disturbed context that BHT created in his backfill. We know of some of his site protocol, much of which was common in the 1960s-1970s, and we know of his less common whiskey-bottle-as-grid-peg practice. But we weren’t quite prepared for one thing we pulled out of the backfill:
It’s a small aluminum cylinder in two nested halves, reminiscent of old shoe polish tins, but much lighter and thinner metal. It’s slightly crushed, the whole thing being between 1.75 digestive biscuits in thickness. For those of you who don’t use food-based units of measure, it’s about 1.5 centimetres. The top half says:
SPACE FOR NAME
GREAT WEST ROAD
PAT NO 458867
In small letters arcing around the left and right side of the main text, it also says “British made.”
So we have a start: a company name, a place, and a patent. The only references to Macleans Ltd as a still-existing company is a customer service page by the pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline…whose office is in on Great West Road in Brentford (Middlesex). We sent them a quick email explaining who we are and what we found, along with a picture, and asked if a company archivist or historian could get back to us with any information. Unfortunately, there is presently no such archive, but they offered to put us in touch with the branding department that might have some idea about earlier industrial design for the company’s products. Not quite a dead end, but we weren’t satisfied with this alone.
Next, we searched various digitised patent databases to see if we could learn more about the product itself. We got a hit on the World Intellectual Property Organization’s “Patentscope” which gives us the information that would have made searching all those other databases much easier: the application number and date as well as the publication number and date. Here’s that summary info if you’d like to nose around yourself, while the full description is here:
Screencap of the summary page for Patent 458867.
The patent isn’t for the substance in the aluminum petri dish, but rather the container itself! The abstract also provides an answer to a question we Americans on staff had (since we couldn’t immediately recognise the name “Macleans”), but the Brits knew all along: it’s a toothpaste company! The word “dentifrice” in the above screenshot is basically a slightly archaic technical term for powders and pastes used to clean teeth.
Macleans was founded in 1919 by a man named Alex C. Maclean, who produced a peroxide-based toothpaste for whitening in 1927. Beecham, a British pharma group, purchased the company in 1938. Combining this with our patent date, it’s possible that the container we have is from as early as 1935/1936, but we can’t be sure that the product name didn’t retain Macleans after the acquisition by Beecham (Beecham merged with SmithKline and later they all merged with Glaxo Wellcome, thus giving the world GlaxoSmithKline). “Beecham’s Macleans” is not an uncommon phrase as we scoured the internet for its history. But according to the National Archives database, the phrase “Macleans Ltd.” is still in use at least until 1960. So we have a time period of no earlier than 1935, but likely the object was of more recent manufacture since we know BHT had his trench open in the 1960s.
From top left: 1930s via GlaxoSmithKline; 1946, 1951, 1953 from History World Advert Museum; Feb, July, August, September 1954 from Grace’s Guide.
This YouTube video is the advert that is perhaps the closest in time to BHT’s trench shenanigans.
None of this information tells us for sure that BHT was particularly interested in white teeth, but one of our archive rooms tells another story. When we mentioned the curious toothpaste tin to the environmental archaeology supervisor Alice, she remembered seeing them in BHT’s archival material. We went on a field trip to our archive store and discovered cache of all sorts of tins of different sizes but all roughly comparable to a digestive biscuit or two. Poking around, we discovered that Hope-Taylor used tins just like them for flot, which are the light charred seeds and other buoyant material that are skimmed off the surface when doing flotation of environmental samples. Our tin, however, was empty this time.
Mystery solved? Maybe. But you never know what else may turn up in the backfill…