Rachel S. Cubitt
This week’s archaeological object is a three-pronged fork made from a blue-coloured plastic, 132mm long in total. It has a relatively short handle which is of trapezoidal cross section and hollow on the upper face. A single transverse bar, presumably offering increased rigidity, delineates the lower end of the handle. The upper part of the head widens away from the handle, retaining raised edges and a hollow interior. At the widest (23mm), the head bends upwards at around 45⁰, beyond which it tapers towards a three-pronged terminal measuring 15mm in width.
Forks have a long history and are still used for food consumption today so most readers will be able to identify this item. However, the form of this 21st-century example, its material, location of discovery and residues on the prongs indicate it is was used to consume a well-known delicacy of the era – fish and chips.
The hot meal known as fish and chips consisted of battered fish and chipped potatoes. While sometimes eaten in restaurants it was frequently eaten as a ‘takeaway’, conveyed to the diner in a box or tray if for immediate consumption, or wrapped in paper so that it could be easily transported and remain hot. Both parts of the dish were cooked by frying in oil, making them greasy so the consumer needed to use some form of cutlery.
This combination of foodstuffs originated in England, with the earliest known outlets selling fish and chips dated to the 1860s. Earlier forks supplied to consumers were made of wood, with a move to plastic in the late 20th century. They were seen as low-value and disposable. At that time, plastics were often used for single-use items, and this fork is designed to minimise the amount of material required in its manufacture.
Forks such as this are ubiquitous in the archaeological record for the UK at this period, demonstrating the great popularity of the dish. This example was found in excavations at a former coastal resort in the North East of England. It was one of a number apparently discarded as rubbish along what appears to have functioned as a seafront promenade. Although numerous other fork fragments were found, this was one of only two complete examples and the only one for which residue analysis was successful, with strong results for fish proteins.
This object offers a fascinating insight into past eating habits and demonstrates that even seemingly familiar objects which we find in large numbers can have unusual stories to tell and are therefore worthy of our attention. Even so, further facets of 21st-century life remain to be properly understood. Although successful in identifying the fish proteins, the residue analysis was not able to answer all of the questions posed and thus we remain unable to address one of the great debates of the age – mushy peas or curry sauce?