Archaeological highlights uncovered at Port Arthur

April 5, 2006

Port Arthur played host to its eighth Archaeology Summer Volunteer Program during January-February 2006.

Fourteen volunteers from across Australia participated in the program. They were supervised by five archaeologists: two PAHSMA staff, two collections’ specialists and a Public Archaeologist.

This year the excavations were located on Settlement Hill; a highly visible area of the site visited by most tourists. Two trenches were opened; one on the location of the original 1833 Chaplain’s quarters, the other over the 1834 Commissariat Officer’s quarters. A building on site, the old Police Station, was converted into a laboratory for the processing of artefacts recovered from this and previous year’s excavations.

The excavation of the Chaplain’s quarters original dolerite verandah wall was undertaken so that PAHSMA could reconstruct collapsed portions. The excavation exposed in-situ dolerite rubble coursing which will form the base of the reconstructed wall. A deposit of ash, charcoal and burnt artefacts was also discovered, which suggests that the building may have fallen victim to the fire of 1897.

An assortment of fascinating artefacts was recovered from the occupation levels: including buttons, sewing pins, writing slate and an 1850s trade token.

In the trench next door, excavators focused on the parlour and nursery of the Commissariat Officer’s quarters. This trench had been positioned using geophysical results from previous years’ work, as well as geo-referenced historical plans.

An alignment of walls was uncovered, as well as a brick chimney base. In the nursery a sequence of sockets for bearers were found in the wall, providing indication of the original flooring height. An intact subfloor deposit was also excavated, yielding artefacts directly relating to the occupants of this building: writing slate and slate pencils, beads, sewing pins, coins, buttons and butchered bones.

A highlight was the recovery of a brass military button, provenanced to the 11th North Devons, who were stationed at Port Arthur between 1847 – 48.

The excavation of the Commissariat Officer’s quarters also doubled as the site of the Public Excavation. Over 450 children were given a first-hand experience of archaeology, the highly visible location of the excavation meaning most visitors to the historic site got to read the signs or talk with the archaeologists. The Public Archaeologist also ran twice-daily tours that encompassed both trenches and the collections work in the laboratory.

The annual Port Arthur summer archaeology program has grown to become quite an attraction, being the nation’s longest running archaeological program and a major highlight of Tasmania’s archaeological calendar. This year it attracted very positive media attention, as well as a visit from Heritage Tasmania staff.