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Archaeology in action at Port Arthur Penitentiary


The Penitentiary is located in the heart of the Port Arthur Historic Site. As a ruin it evokes an aesthetic attraction to our visitors that has endured for many decades. The ruin was conserved in the late 1980’s with a major installation of a central walkway and viewing platform.

During the last two years, the Port Arthur Historic Site Management Authority (PAHSMA) has commenced a large scale conservation project which focuses on the iconic Penitentiary ruin. The aim of this project is to conserve and present the structure, replacing the existing walkway which is now redundant, with tall steel columns strategically located around its perimeter to support the high masonry walls.

Dr David Roe explains, “The installation of this support system will require sizeable foundations to be prepared however, disturbing the soil deposits of such a significant site and building simply cannot be done without first conducting an archaeological investigation. The view beneath the surface will help us to understand the earlier uses of the Penitentiary structure and also, the land upon which it sits.”

While the Penitentiary is Port Arthur’s largest and most recognisable building, its earlier history as a granary has never been fully investigated.

“It was originally constructed during the early 1840’s as a flourmill and granary complex which housed both a water wheel and a convict-powered tread wheel to drive the large grind stones. It wasn’t until 1853 that the conversion to the Penitentiary commenced and some four years later, the building was equipped to house 484 convicts; 136 of those convicts were in the two stories of solitary cells. The building also featured a large mess room, Catholic Chapel and a library.”

Although it is certain that the granary/mill and associated infrastructure existed prior to the conversion, details around the design of the water wheel and the size and scale of the surrounding pit are unknown.   

Dr Roe said, “Unfortunately for us, despite the building plans being very clear on design, they do not match the descriptions of the building given by those who were here after the structure was built. Discrepancies such as this are quite common and were a result of architects or designers not being involved in the actual construction of the building.”

It is hoped that some of these questions will be answered during the excavation and some insight into the previous operation will be provided. Should the archaeological project be successful and produce the sought after answers, this missing piece of the Port Arthur puzzle will likely be built into the onsite interpretation. 

Archaeology in action at Port Arthur Penitentiary

Excavation Director Ashley Matic and Volunteering Archaeologist Fiona Shannahan discussing the site stratigraphy (layered deposits).

Archaeology in action at Port Arthur Penitentiary

Volunteering Archaeologists Najat Skeate and Steve Hall excavating what is believed to be the granary floor surface.

Archaeology in action at Port Arthur Penitentiary

Volunteering Archaeologists (l-r) Adelia Tan, Chelsea Morgan & Leah Ralph excavating in the cell corridor area - investigating the possible location of the water wheel pit.