Category Archives: Archaeology and heritage news

Searching for a Saint’s Stables (a tale of one site, two trenches, seven days of excavation, 16 archaeologists, 100 primary school students and hundreds of domestic artefacts)

Sarah Nahabedian excavating in Trench A

Mary MacKillop may be Australia’s first saint, but a core part of her story revolves around her passion for providing schooling for all children.  At Penola she and her two sisters began teaching the Catholic children of the district in their own cottage, then the church, and finally a disused stables owned by William McDonald on an allotment at the corner of Queen and Bowden Streets.  The stables were only used as a school for one year between 1866 and May 1867 until a purpose-built school was ready, but it was on the 19th March 1866 that Mary is generally acknowledged to have begun to lead a religious life.  This is the date that the Sisters of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart is officially recognised as being founded (, giving the site of the stables a critical role to play in the Mary MacKillop story.  The property remained in the McDonald family until 1925 when it was transferred to The Congregation of the Sisters of Saint Joseph of the Sacred Heart, South Australia Inc.  The stables were demolished sometime between 1909 and 1925 and the site is now known as MacKillop Memorial Park.

How many archaeologists does it take to survey a site ...?

We excavated one trench at the front of the block (where a previous electromag survey had identified a ‘hot spot’.  In the end this turned out to be the limestone bedrock that gives the Limestone Coast its name and nothing to do with archaeological artefact signatures) and two at the rear, hoping to intersect the site of the stables.  Trench A at the front turned out to be the photogenic trench and contained the majority of artefacts, but Trench B kept the classes from the Mary MacKillop Memorial School enthused for days by giving them the chance to excavate a real site.  We now know that it’s possible to fit at least a dozen kids in a 2 x 2m trench, along with four archaeologists, without crowding.

Black glass ‘whistle’ button recovered from Trench A

Hardly a day went by without visitors to the excavation, almost all of whom had watched Time Team and were excited just to see the process of archaeology in action.  Some were driving through Penola en route to Melbourne or Adelaide (one couple had come from Perth, heard about it on the radio and decided to drop in on their way), others were locals who remembered the site.  One visitor was the great grandson of William McDonald, who originally owned the allotment and allowed Mary MacKillop to use the stables as a temporary school, another was a council worker who helped landscape it into a park in 1971; two others had played on the block as children in the 1920s and 30s.  All of them were curious to know more about what we were doing and what we’d found.

Kerosene lamp base in situ in Trench A

Despite the rain (and the cold) everyone persevered and worked to excavate a wide range of domestic items, including ceramic and glass fragments, black facetted glass buttons, glass and ceramic beads, shell buttons, copper alloy hooks and eyes, thimbles, pins, a lamp base and coins dating variously from 1839, 1860 and the 1870s.  Because the artefact bearing layers were mainly clay, we wet sieved most of Trench A’s deposits, recovering many (many) tiny glass beads, some so small that they lodged in the 2mm mesh of the smallest sieves.

A carved bone artefact from ... you guessed it ... Trench A. Is it part of a tambour hook, a crochet hook, a lace making bobbin, or something else?

Some of the most interesting items in terms of our original goal were the 20 or so slate pencils, most of which were recovered from Trench A (the single one that was recovered from Trench B towards the very end of the excavations prompted cheering), along with small fragments of possible writing slate.

We didn’t find the location of the stables building (the concensus by the end of the week was that it was most likely located in the one third of the block that we didn’t excavate), but the high number of slate pencils does suggest a schooling function for the site.  Slate fragments, slate pencils (sometimes wax, graphite and steatite pencils as well), buttons, pins, marbles and stoneware ink bottles are all common finds on school house sites in the US (see papers in Beisaw and Gibb 2009 The Archaeology of Institutional Life), as well as Australia.  They are also found on ordinary domestic (house) sites as well, although in fewer numbers.  William McDonald also ran a school at Penola, however, so we can’t be certain yet whether these items relate to Mary MacKillop’s time there or not.

Shaun Adams being interviewed by James Wakelin from TEN News

The Team:  Shaun Adams, Rhiannon Agutter, Susan Arthure, Angeline Buckler, Cherrie Delieuen, Samantha Fidge, Rikke Hammer, Mark Hoey, Sarah Hutchinson, Scott Jacob, Clare Leevers, Sarah Nahabedian, Vanessa Orange, Rachel Power, Hayley Prentice and Chantal Wight.

You can see the TEN and Nine network television news coverage of the excavations (including interviews with Clare, Shaun and Sister Chris) here.

Sister Chris in action in Trench A (hat courtesy of Shaun Adams)

We would like to thank the wonderful Penola community for their support of the project (especially Tony for loaning us his shed and Sisters Chris and Mary from the Sisters of St Joseph for their wonderful hand-made morning teas and lunches) and for visiting us on site.  The ladies at the Mary MacKillop Interpretive Centre gave us a fabulous dinner on Thursday night, complete with entertainment and a tour of the St Joseph’s school house and centre.  Andy, Darren and Bear at Whiskas Woolshed gave us a four course farewell dinner on the last night.  Thanks also to Andy for organising the impromptu tour of Yallum Park so that we could meet his dad and marvel at his magnificent house.

Inside the British Museum…

This is guest post by Oliver Spiers, Trainee Curator- British Museum who graduated from our program early in 2011. You can read Olly’s thesis here [pdf].

Having recently completed a Masters in Cultural Heritage Management at Flinders there comes a point where you finally submit, take a sigh of relief and then think ‘what the hell am I going to do now?’ I was lucky enough to come across a traineeship at the British Museum called the Future Curators project.

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Last attempt to save the Glenelg Cinema

by Natalie Bittner.

We offer you the public of South Australia a centre of entertainment unique in this state. Every luxury, every thought, every care that 27 years of experience dictates, that modern science knows, is here for your comfort, your convenience, your service. We present the showplace of Australia, the Ozone Theatre Glenelg

(From the program distributed at the Gala opening night of the Ozone Theatre, Glenelg November 5th 1937)

Glenelg Cinema. Corner Jetty Road and Rose Street. Photo: Natalie Bittner. 26/05/2011

In the next few weeks, the fate of the Glenelg Cinema complex will be decided. The cinema has been closed since the end of January 2009 with no development on the site and a drop in visitor numbers to the Eastern end of the Jetty Road precinct noticed by nearby traders. In the week following its closure, the Wallis cinema company put up most of the interior fixtures for sale, including the seats and doors.

Having been designed by architect Kenneth Milne in 1936, the Glenelg Ozone Theatre (as it was then known) consisted of a single cinema screen, and had twin marble grand staircases and tartan carpeting throughout. Known for his impeccable detailing, the façade of the building includes stone from Basket Range in the Adelaide Hills, horizontal fins and the current vertical signage is the same element used in the original construction. Advertising material from 1938 says that the Ozone Theatre had air-conditioning throughout, a ladies smoking lounge, and a baby-friendly viewing area where mothers with screaming children ‘will not be embarrassed’ (The Advertiser Saturday October 9, 1937). On the 5th of November 1937 Glenelg Ozone Theatre’s gala opening night consisted of a technicolour screening of A Star is Born with shorts including How to Vote. (The Mail Saturday November 6th, 1937).

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Anthropological Society of South Australia launches “Grave Concerns”

A crowd of enthusiasts gathered at the Royal Society Room at the South Australian Museum on Wednesday 15th December to enjoy a glass of champagne and hear Dr Kathryn Powell talk about her new book, Grave Concerns:  Locating and Unearthing Human Bodies (2010, Australian Academic Press).

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Book launch: Dr Kathryn Powell, “Grave concerns: locating and unearthing human burials”

The Anthropological Society of South Australia

is pleased to announce the launch of member Dr Kathryn Powell’s new book

Grave Concerns: Locating and Unearthing Human Bodies

at 6.30 pm, Wednesday 15th December, at the Royal Society Room, South Australian Museum.

More about the book:

Constructing graves is a uniquely human activity. When the grave is hidden it is most likely done so to conceal a murder or the wrongful disposal of a body. Finding these buried bodies is vital for both a successful legal prosecution as well as the emotional closure required for family and friends of the victim. This unique text provides a compact reference for those who find themselves called upon to search for missing persons who have met a tragic fate. Other readers will find a greater understanding of the science and culture that lies behind clandestine graves, so often a key component of both real life and fiction. Hidden bodies deserve to be found and this book outlines techniques that increase the likelihood of success with professional patience, persistence and a knowledge-based approach.

More about the author:
Dr Kathryn Powell obtained her PhD from the University of Adelaide in 2006 after pioneering work  at Australia’s first “body farm” designed to research detection of hidden graves in Australia’s unique dry and uncompacted soil. She currently works as a consultant forensic anthropologist on both hidden graves as well as the anthropology of Aboriginal sites of significance