Penitentiary Precinct Archaeological Excavation

24 May 2016

Project archaeologist Dr Richard Tuffin recently spoke with Paul McIntyre from 936 ABC Radio about what’s been discovered through the Penitentiary Precinct Archaeological Excavation.  It’s a great background on what’s been happening with the dig, and why the dig is happening.  For anyone who missed it, it’s rather interesting and worth a listen.  You’ll find the interview here.

Dr Richard Tuffin

There’s also an article accompanying the interview, on the ABC Radio website.



5 April 2016

The first phase of excavations of the Penitentiary Ablutions area has just been wound up. Over the course of three months we shifted a huge amount of spoil, uncovering features from the convict period that have not seen the light of day for over 140 years.

Getting down to the finer details

It has been an intriguing exercise comparing the historical record with the archaeological results, with many features encountered which were never detailed in written or illustrative records. We have also discovered a whole phase of occupation that we never knew about in the west yard, during which the yard was surfaced with a very compact gravel. Over 1000 diagnostic artefacts have been plotted across the site, meaning that we can really come to grips with how these spaces were used by convicts and guards alike. Thousands more artefacts were recovered from the area, all of which are being catalogued and analysed by the artefacts expert in preparation for reporting.

Recording the finer details by way of illustration.

Work in the Day Room has largely been completed, with all the subfloor deposits relating to the ablutions period of occupation excavated. This has revealed a layer of redeposited clay, into which has been cut a footing and a drain – neither of which were historically recorded. These features, in combination with the high amount of broken brick rubble scattered across the surface of the clay, suggests that deposits associated with the 1840s construction and occupation of the flour mill and granary lie directly below the later ablutions yard layers.

The archaeology team.

However, that is not the end. Starting April 26th and running through to early June we will be back excavating for another six weeks. During this time we will concentrate on investigating the eastern and western yards, in particular the unknown intermediate phase we discovered in the west yard. With the weather having turned mild, we are looking forward to a stint of rewarding and uninterrupted digging.

7 March 2016

Over the previous two weeks we have been painstakingly removing the gravels relating to the second phase of the ablutions yard (1860s-70s). In the process we have exposed a new series of surfaces across both the western and eastern yards, as well as the sandstone footings which ran diagonally through both the yard spaces during the area’s first phase of occupation in the 1850s. Interestingly, in the west yard we have found evidence of an intermediary phase, where it looks like the yard was surfaced with a very compact and hard-wearing crushed brick and sandstone gravel. Such a phase of use went undocumented, so this finding is really adding to the construction history of the precinct.


Excavation in the Day Room is winding up, with the crew having meticulously made their way through layers of fine subfloor silts to expose the underlying pre-construction clay below. Over 500 spot finds (artefacts we consider to be diagnostic in nature) were recorded, the positioning of which will tell us more about how the space was used and evolved over time. Some puzzling features have turned up below the Day Room levels, which we intend to investigate more fully.

A few splendid artefacts have turned up, including two lead off cuts stamped with the broad arrow. You can’t get much more convict than that! The broad arrow signifies government property and we are postulating that maybe they had originally been stamped on rolls of lead which were subsequently pilfered by the convicts and converted into gaming tokens – a neat subversion of the government symbol.





18 February 2016

The surfaces and structures of the 2nd phase of the ablutions yard are uncovered.

The surfaces and structures of the 2nd phase of the ablutions yard are uncovered.

The site was successfully recorded using photogrammetric technique (a combination of survey and photography) a week ago and we have since been busy recording the surfaces and structures of the second phase (1860s-70s) ablutions yard in preparation for their excavation.

Recording the details of an early drain feature

Recording the details of an early drain feature

Whilst this has been going on we have started excavation of the central ‘Day Room’, finally getting into the deposits below the demolition debris. These comprise the artefact-rich silts which accumulated below the timber flooring of the building and which have great potential to provide us with information about the convicts who used this space. So far we have found over 150 diagnostic finds, including clay pipes (stems and bowls) and wooden buttons from their uniforms. Some of the clay pipes have been very interesting, including one with the profiles of Napoleon and Wellington on either sides of the bowl, which might have been designed to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo.

The remnants of a clay pipe featuring the profile of Napolean.

The remnants of a clay pipe featuring the profile of Napolean.

This clay pipe remnant features the profile of the Duke of Wellington

This clay pipe remnant features the profile of the Duke of Wellington

We are now at week seven, with five weeks left to go. In this time we hope to get down to the first phase (1850s-60s) of the ablutions yard in order to see how the yard’s arrangement differed from its later incarnation. Test slots in the east and west yards have found that the pre-construction clay is just below the present layer of gravel, so it looks like the two phases of occupation are very close together.

29 January 2016

Rain temporarily stops dig

Rain stops play!

The archaeological investigation has hit a bit of a speed bump due to the recent rain. An unintentional outcome of this has been that we have been able to see how water collected upon and moved across the original surfaces. “How unexciting”, you may say. However, we now know that water collects in the north eastern corner of the area, right where they had purposefully placed a sump during the convict period. They knew what they were doing. We will have a busy few days when it clears getting the site ready for photogrammetry next week. The crew are in the lab keeping busy cleaning and all the artefacts recovered so far – not a moment is lost.


Over the previous week we have been busy excavating the demolition deposits in the ‘day room’ at the centre of the yard. These layers have comprised layers of mortar and brick rubble that were deposited when the building was salvaged during the 1880s. These cover what is termed the ‘subfloor interface’ – the silt and clay layers that were present below the original floorboards. These layers are often full of interesting diagnostic artefacts – in this case: wooden buttons, clay pipes, window glass and (so far) a solitary gaming token. We will begin carefully excavating these in the next couple of weeks.



19 January 2016

Trench-side talks detail the progress of the Penitentiary dig

Trench-side talks detail the progress of the Penitentiary dig

Here we are only 12 days into the excavation and things are already looking pretty exciting. As of today, the last of the topsoil has been removed, revealing the 1860s/70s ablutions yard in all its glory. The area is divided into three main sections: the west yard, east yard and the ‘day room’ space between them. Both yards have a hard-wearing surface made from compact crushed sandstone, mudstone and brick, laid on top of a layer of hand-broken dolerite chips. The brick footings of sheds are present in both yards, with the shed in the west yard floored with a brick surface – potentially indicating that it was used as a wet area. Over 15 sandstone sockets have been found running parallel with the line of Champ Street wall, marking the former locations of the lavatories, water closets and urinals. The day room is delineated by sandstone foundations and is currently covered by layers of material – broken brick, sandstone and mortar – which were deposited when the structure was demolished in the 1880s/90s.

The archaeologists uncover what was once, illicit contraband: hand-crafted gaming tokens.

The archaeologists uncover what was once, illicit contraband: hand-crafted gaming tokens.

Although we have only just finished excavating the topsoil, we have already found some very interesting artefacts. The highlight would have to be a number of gaming tokens. Crafted from offcuts of lead and ceramic, no doubt pilfered by the convicts during their daily work, these tokens are an indisputable sign that the convicts were engaged in illicit gaming and potentially gambling activities. This is exciting, as we know that the authorities strove hard to eradicate such behaviour. In the day room the demolition deposits have begun to yield clay smoking pipes (bowls and stems), metal and wooden buttons, nails, window and bottle glass. All these were likely dropped or deliberately deposited by the convicts during their occupation of the building and were jumbled-up amongst all the broken building material when it was demolished.

Archaeologists gently uncover convict hand-crafted gaming tokens.

Archaeologists gently uncover convict hand-crafted gaming tokens.

Over the next few days we are going to be excavating these demolition layers to see what lies beneath. Stay tuned!

Scroll below for  earlier updates on the project…

9 December 2015

Trench ablutions block Penitentiary

When the original 1840s granary and mill building was converted into the settlement’s main penitentiary building between 1853 and 1858, the area at the rear of the building became the ablutions and exercise yard. This was where, according to the historic plans, there were sheltered seats, fireplaces, wash basins and toilets. The plans suggest that the area went through at least two different layouts, although we don’t know why this occurred, or even if the alterations were carried out as planned. Earlier archaeological work in the yard has shown that the area offered the convicts some privacy, as we found lead gaming tokens that were almost certainly contraband objects probably used for gambling. Fragments of clay pipes were also found, used by the convicts to smoke their daily tobacco ration.

Penitentiary ablutions block

The archaeological excavations that we will be carrying out between January-March 2016 will be – at nearly 500 m2 – the largest we have ever undertaken.  We are stripping the whole area to ensure we collect as much information as possible about the lives of the convicts who were housed here, something that the artefacts will be able to tell us.  We also want to know more about the history of the buildings and yard spaces, in particular how and why their layout was changed.  We are also interested in what lies beneath the yard surfaces, such as the complex drainage systems needed by the ablutions buildings and any deposits or features relating to earlier 1830s and 1840s waterfront buildings.

When the excavations are finished, we will use the new information to help visitors understand better the lives of the convicts who lived and worked here.

A short time lapse video depicting the preliminary preparations of the ablutions yard.