Port Arthur’s penitentiary still yielding secrets

April 18, 2013

Archaeologists have been excavating in the foundations of Port Arthur’s penitentiary in preparation for major conservation works. In the process, the building, arguably one of the most recognisable images of Tasmania through countless reproductions in postcards, books, film and TV and tourism brochures, is revealing some of its long-held secrets.

They have uncovered the pit of the waterwheel, a major but largely forgotten feature of the building’s original incarnation as a flour mill and granary.

“The conversion of the granary and mill into a modern prison all but obliterated any obvious marks of the building’s original function,” said Port Arthur Archaeology Manager Dr David Roe.

“The archaeological excavations have, however, recovered the last fragments of the pit in which the massive waterwheel turned and confirmed that the granary and mill were, in fact, two separate buildings.”

“Investigations continue in an effort to understand the date and function of some previously unknown structures in the eastern end of the building”

To verify the discovery and find out more about the construction of the building, archaeologists invited the grandson of Alexander Clark, the engineer responsible for the construction of the penitentiary, to visit Port Arthur this week.

“Dr Alex McLaren viewed the excavations at the penitentiary and discussed the work of his ancestor. This has been an opportunity to make a connection with Clark and could provide some valuable information that will help us to interpret what we are finding in the penitentiary,” said Dr Roe.

“Dr McClaren also brought his research materials and some original Clark documents for us to have a look at, which will add enormously to our knowledge of this key historic figure, who was also responsible for the installation of steam power at the Coal Mines and the first private leaseholder at that site.”

The excavation work is being undertaken in preparation for a major conservation project that aims to keep the penitentiary standing for at least another 150 years.

ABC News coverage of the excavation

The penitentiary at Port Arthur was originally constructed as a flour mill and granary.

The penitentiary at Port Arthur was originally constructed as a flour mill and granary.