Penitentiary Precinct Archaeological Excavation

May 2017

In April this year the Archaeology Team at Port Arthur presented a paper on the recording techniques used during the excavation of the Penitentiary ablutions and laundry area. The paper was written by Port Arthur Historic Site Management Authority (PAHSMA) employees Richard Tuffin, David Roe and Jody Steele, as well as by Peter Rigozzi, Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife service. This paper and accompanying presentation discuss the changes that have taken place in the recording of archaeological sites and how photogrammetry is used for the highly accurate recording and interpretation at the historic site.

Both the paper and presentation are available as a pdf for download here.


Everybody is familiar with the traditional image of the field archaeologist: posed in a muddy hole, 6H pencil in hand, painstakingly measuring and drawing a pile of stones. Whilst the mud and the painstaking nature of the occupation will never change, over the last few years there has been a slow evolution in the way in which archaeologists have recorded their sites. We are leaving behind the simple drawing board in favour of highly accurate photogrammetric and survey processes. Recent advances in technology have brought the attainment and processing of this precise 3D surface data into the realm of everyday field collection methodology. This paper will illustrate how it has been used in a recent excavation of the 1856-77 Penitentiary Ablutions area, at the Port Arthur Historic Site.

At 500m2, the excavation was the biggest ever undertaken at Port Arthur and therefore necessitated the deployment of an efficient and accurate approach to recording. Over the course of the excavation we used photogrammetric recording to capture the site in its entirety at three key stages, reflecting the area’s historical evolution. Photogrammetry was also deployed on a day-to-day basis to record smaller aspects of the site. In addition to this, was the capture of the site’s salient details through the use of real-time surveying.

This paper will discuss the process of data acquisition, processing and its multiple end-uses. For the process to work and there to be confidence in the results, a systematic and rigorous approach must be taken to data acquisition. Once this workflow has been achieved, the data quality means that opportunities for meaningful post-fieldwork data interrogation is greatly enhanced. Not only are formerly obscured spatial relationships reconstructed through this medium, but its melding with other forms of data means that research and interpretation opportunities can be greatly enhanced.

30 January 2017

During 2016 the Archaeology Team at Port Arthur completed the largest archaeological excavation ever carried out on site.  The excavation occurred behind the Penitentiary and focused on the Ablutions area (comprising wash and toilet blocks, shelter sheds, a day room and exercise yards) and Laundry (housing the laundry, stores, bath house and boiler).  The team spent 7 months investigating features and deposits associated with the full swathe of Port Arthur’s history (1830-77).

Photogrammetry was a vital recording tool during the process, essentially replacing the traditional forms of hand-drawn recording. The digital recording process provides us with the ability to model the area at different stages throughout the excavation.  These models – as well as others generated – will be used for archaeological illustration and site interpretation. Two models have been provided for each area, illustrating the excavations at major points in the process. Annotations have been made on each model, explaining key aspects of the sites. Click on the models below to have a closer look or click here to go to our Sketchfab profile.

Pen Model 1

Penitentiary Laundry 1854-1877 (1)

Port Arthur Penitentiary Laundry 1854-77 (2)

Port Arthur Penitentiary Laundry 1854-77 (2)

Port Arthur Penitentiary Ablutions Yard Phase I c.1854-1863

Port Arthur Penitentiary Ablutions Yard Phase I c.1854-1863

The Penitentiary Ablutions Area excavation of 2016

Penitentiary Ablutions Yard Phase II c.1863-1877

23 November 2016

We have just closed out our fourth week of excavation of the Penitentiary Laundry. The foundations of the 1856-1877 buildings have been fully uncovered and the surfaces and deposits associated with this period of occupation investigated. The archaeological results are broadly supportive of the historical evidence suggesting that the area progressed through two major phases of building configuration. – However, we are finding that the phasing and makeup of the physical structures is more nuanced than we thought.

Laundry excavation 1


We can now confirm that the laundry space was paved with a hard-wearing sandstone surface, directing water runoff into a well-built box drain. The laundry was flanked by linen stores, wood stores, bathhouses and wash stations – all of the things required for the washing of clothing and bedding. Toward the eastern end of the structure there is evidence of the two main phases of occupation, which saw the building extended to the east over the existing ablutions yard. We have found hard-wearing surfaces, drains and even seating brackets associated with the ablutions yard – all of which were covered over when the laundry was extended.

Laundry excavation 2

Over the final three weeks we will be excavating down through the laundry deposits (layers of occupation) in an effort to locate and define  workshops structures that predate the laundry (1830s-1840s). At the western end of the site we have hit bedrock, indicating the shallow nature of the site close to what was the original waterfront. There’s also a few interesting features coming through, which we plan to investigate over the coming weeks in the hope that they might be from Port Arthur’s first days of settlement.

This week we were honoured trench-side with a visit from Her Excellency Professor the Honourable Kate Warner AM and Mr Richard Warner, their ongoing interest in Tasmania’s heritage was warmly received by the crew.


3 November 2016

During November and December 2016 we are conducting an archaeological investigation of the area behind the Penitentiary Bakehouse, extending excavations completed earlier this year. A team of professional archaeologists will be painstakingly peeling back layers of soil to uncover, examine and record artefacts, deposits and features associated with the site’s convict period.

Between 1856 to the end of settlement in 1877, the area contained the laundry for the Penitentiary, as well as storerooms and a bathing area for the convicts. Before 1856 the area contained early waterfront workshops and we hope that through the excavation we can gather information about both periods of use.

Catch up with what’s happening at one of our 15 minute trench-side talks with the Project Archaeologist between 14th Nov and 14th Dec at 2pm (weekdays only).


Work gets underway – stripping out turf and topsoil from the laundry area

31 August 2016

The Port Arthur Historic Site Management Authority is seeking 7 experienced field archaeologists for a new season of research excavations to be conducted November 1st and December 23rd, 2016 as part of its Penitentiary Precinct Conservation Project.

The new research will extend and complement the work conducted in early 2016 and will investigate the area adjacent to the ablutions yard. It will seek to better understand the structural sequences and functions of the laundry/bakehouse and adjacent areas. This is an exciting opportunity to work on Port Arthur’s largest-ever excavation project and to contribute to the better understanding and interpretation of one of the eleven sites that comprise the Australian Convict Sites World Heritage property.

A job application form and an information sheet with details about the project, the positions being offered, employment conditions and logistics are available at the base of this page.


6 July 2016

The excavation has finally wrapped up and the results are starting to generate some interesting information. Most excitingly, the photogrammetry (extremely high resolution photo stitching) has come together to give us images of the whole excavation showing the stratigraphy (or historical layers) of the three main phases of the areas occupation: Phase I (1856 – ca.1859), Intermediate (ca.1859 – ca.1863) and Phase II (ca.1863 – 1877). The two photographs below, showing Phase I and II demonstrate the changes that the ablutions yard underwent during the convict period.


Phase 1 (1856 - ca. 1859)

Phase 1 (1856 – ca. 1859)


Phase II (ca.1863-1877)

Phase II (ca.1863-1877)

Even though it is very early stages, the results of Port Arthur’s largest archaeological excavation are coming together and offering new and exciting insights into the history of the Penitentiary. This excavation has highlighted how stark the prison yard was behind the building. Where before there was just a flat, grassed area that meant little to our visitors, now we can show that there was a complex space containing buildings, walls, shelters, sheds and fireplaces. Its various iterations can be linked to wider changes in the convict system in Australia and Britain and, as such, help us understand how the Port Arthur authorities sought to implement Imperial penal policy in a far-flung colony.

The locations of over 1400 diagnostic artefacts were recorded during the excavation and as we begin to study them we will be able to piece together patterns of behaviour in the yards and the day room.

Fascinating artefacts uncovered

Fascinating artefacts uncovered

We have also been able to investigate the pre-Penitentiary period, excavating portions of the historical layers that correspond to the time before and during the construction of the flour mill and granary (1843 – 1845). Evidence was found across the area, suggesting that the original waterfront space had been a scene of activity from the earliest period of settlement. A heavily damaged footing encountered at the base of the day room may have related to a barn structure known to have been sited at the rear of the flour mill during the 1840s. Excavation also showed that layers of clay and stone had been imported to the site, building up the level of the ground prior to the construction of the ablutions yard.


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.