Illicit contraband uncovered in archaeological dig at Port Arthur Penitentiary

January 19, 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!

For more information on this project please head to portarthur.org.au/heritage/penitentiary-precinct-archaeological-excavation/