The second stop on my Global Archaeology tour was Tasmania, where I spent two very intense weeks on what was no ordinary dig…
People generally assume that archaeology means excavating very ancient artefacts, but archaeology also has plenty to tell us about the much more recent past, and it doesn’t always involve digging. In fact, without even sticking a trowel in the ground, we archaeologists can uncover snippets of unwritten history and the stories of the people not ‘important’ enough to be officially recorded.
It was exactly this type of story that I was here to help reveal at Willow Court in Tasmania, with the Flinder’s University Historic Archaeology field school.
Willow Court is right in the heart of the town of New Norfolk, where it served as Tasmania’s main mental health facility from 1829-2000. Originally named the New Norfolk Insane Asylum, it was built to care for both free people and convicts transported to Tasmania (then known as Van Diemens Land) by the British Government. Over the many years it was open the site grew, with buildings constructed and demolished, leaving a long and complex timeline to investigate.
Today, the site is currently in limbo, but as you can imagine the local community is still grappling with the legacy of having such an institution operating in their midst for 170 years, which has resulted in a great deal of stigma. The future of Willow Court is a therefore a sensitive and contested issue, and it is important to understand its place in Tasmanian history, and to give a voice to the experiences of both patients and employees before moving on. Archaeology can help the community appreciate the current state of the site, the artefacts associated with it, and inform a productive plan for Willow Court’s future.
The main goal for this year was to prepare for the excavations which are due to take place next season. Specifically, we were using a total station (a popular surveying tool among archaeologists) to create a detailed digital map of the site, doing geophysical surveys to identify sub-soil features and cataloguing artefacts in storage.
For my first two days on site I was put to work on the total station mapping the complex, which gave me a keen insight into its spatial organisation. The Willow Court complex is made up of a series of buildings (wards) and exercise yards that vary from fairly open to high security, and you can really feel the difference between them when you spend a few hours in one to complete a map. The high security exercise yards have high concrete walls and few points of entry or exit – they felt really oppressive and made me uneasy.
Next, I spent a day doing a geophysical survey of the gardens surrounding Frescati House – the asylum Superintendent’s cottage (c. 1832). Even in its current state of disrepair the hedge lined gardens surrounding Frescati House were a stark contrast to the bare exercise wards across the road at the asylum. Getting good geophys results on such recent sites can be difficult because there is so much metal in the ground, but our work should still help the team target areas to excavate next season.
Long lost underground features and architectural remains weren’t the only things we surveyed. One of the most intimate tasks I was asked to carry out was a full survey of the graffiti that marked the interior and exterior walls of the original Willow Court Barracks building (c. 1834). The graffiti was a mix of modern vandalism and the handiwork of patients. It was fascinating to search for the early writing on walls and window sills, photograph it and make notes on its location, condition and context. Some examples were simple names and dates and others were sequences of numbers or letters that my mind could not decipher.
I spent my final day on site cataloguing archaeological materials from the earliest decades of the institution, which included everything from furniture and 1930’s women’s magazines to patients’ clothing. The catalogue is a colossal endeavour that most team members were focused on for the entirety of the fieldschool. Documenting and cataloguing each artefact is of the utmost importance: without this it’s impossible to develop a proper and sensitive plan for moving forward with the future of Willow Court.
Tasmania’s Convict Era is very complex and I wanted to expand my understanding by visiting two of the eleven Australian Convict Sites listed as UNESCO World Heritage sites, Port Arthur and Cascades Female Factory. I got the inside scoop from Port Arthur’s Heritage Program Manager, Dr. Jody Steele, who also kindly opened the doors of the site’s artefact storage to us.
The stories told by the structures and artefacts from Willow Court, Cascades Female Factory, and Port Arthur are horrific, but fascinating. Even so, despite their experiences many of the convicts served their sentences and then moved forward with their lives as free citizens of the colony. These men and women persevered through transportation, hard labour and foul, disease ridden, heavily over-populated prisons to become the foundations of modern Tasmania.
My next stop is beautiful Fiji where I will be helping the archaeological team from the Fiji Museum in the aftermath of Cyclone Winston. Stay tuned!
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