Tag Archives: Historical Archaeology

The Perils of Trench B

As an undergraduate student I have never been on a field school before and I had no idea what to expect or what I was in for. Little did I know, when I was assigned to the A-team who (foolishly) put our hands up to excavate Trench B at Magpie Creek Ruin, that it sealed our collective fate for the rest of the week. In this case ‘B’ definitely did not stand for ‘best’. As we were later to find out, if any trench is to encounter difficulties during an excavation it will likely be Trench B (or so the cynics told me).

The starting point

The starting point

Trench B was covered in rocks. Not small rocks, but large ones which had to be moved before we could start excavating. In fact, as we progressed from removing the top layer of rock fall to beginning to remove the soil, it became clear that most of Trench B was rock and rubble, most likely as a result of a collapsed interior wall. There was so much of it in Trench B that it took us three days to remove Context 0001 – our first layer. A little daunting when our neighbours in Trench A had hit their seventh context and our friends in Trench E had finished their trench and made a start on Trench F. And we hadn’t even touched a trowel: it was still all mattocks over in Trench B.

It was not until day four that we finally succeeded in removing our first context and were greeted with three shiny new contexts! Actually, they were not shiny and they were definitely not new. But to our team, after three days of rubble, it was akin to finding gold. While the weather turned nasty, it was sunshine and smiles in our trench as we sieved what we believe to be the occupation layer which contained more finds than any other we had removed. It was also what would turn out to be our final layer before we hit the natural soil. Well, it was good while it lasted.

For all that Trench B presented us with a physical challenge for the week that we spent in it, it also revealed some interesting information. As the rubble was removed the structure of the exterior and interior walls was revealed to show that the walls shared common stones, indicating that the entire structure was most likely built in one stage, rather than having the interior walls added once the exterior was completed.

The finished product

The finished product

So, as we covered up all our hard work on the final day and reflected on our progress, it was clear that this Trench B had done its best to live up to the standards of those that had come before it. And while I may never again put my hand up when I hear the words “Trench B”, this particular Trench B has a special place in my memory.

Time Makes Fools Of Us All

Time has always been a major problem for humankind and its constraints can severely hinder progress or developments when you have a specific time period to work in. Whether this is an issue in the office or out in the field, time is a consistent enemy that can stop us in our tracks. The recent historical archaeology field school undertaken at the Magpie Creek Ruin gave me first hand experience of this issue, but left my team more confused about the evidence we were finding of human behaviour as time progressed.

A rocky  start to get through.

We already had a rocky start to get through.

As part of the excavation procedure at this site, my teammates and I were instructed to excavate part of a mid-19th century cottage and find any evidence of a wall that may have separated the largest of the two rooms in the building. The wall was indeed found within the five days that we spent on site, but what we uncovered led to more questions than answers. We managed to uncover a secondary collapsed wall that we didn’t expect to find and which left us puzzled as to its placement.

An unexpected surprise.

An unexpected surprise.

The rocks above this wall were lying horizontally with their sides facing upwards and must have fallen over from the section of the wall we had found, but the dimensions and length of the wall seemed different when compared to the rest of the building. With the amount of time we had in the field, we could not continue to focus on finding out how long it was or what purpose it really served. All we knew was that it must have been longer, as we could see other rocks on the surface that lined up with what we had already uncovered. Sadly, this will remain a mystery until another excavation starts back up but just goes to prove that uncovering the past can lead to more questions than answers.

The mystery continues...

The mystery continues…

The Magpie Creek Ruin: An Unexpected discovery

By Daniel Hartwell, Master of Archaeology and Heritage Management student

In April 2015, the Flinders University archaeology department ran a field school at the Magpie Creek Ruin in the Sturt Gorge Recreation Park. During that field school a group of students (including the author) were asked to excavate a feature that was thought to be a well. What those students discovered as they dug was totally unexpected …


The feature prior to excavation, square and with two distinct walls. It seemed likely to be a well.

The excavation started as expected, lots of broken ceramics were found within the feature and surrounding it. However, mid-way through the field school the group noted a strange smell as they went down and the soil got darker and more organic. Shards of bone began to show up in the trench, which prompted the group to switch to some finer tools so as not to accidentally destroy anything interesting. Soon enough an articulated spine, complete with ribs, was uncovered.


Part of a butchered carcass that the residents ate for lunch one day perhaps?

It was decided to excavate the remains to find out if was part of a butchered carcass that the residents had eaten then disposed of. However, the more the group excavated the more bones they found, in fact the skeleton filled the entire trench. One member of the group with a background in the archaeology of animal bones concluded that the legs and ribs were too long and robust to belong to a sheep or cow. The most likely candidate was a small horse but … The animal appeared to have been chopped in half, with the two halves thrown into a pit on top of each other. Further investigation led the group to conclude that the chopping was done to get the animal to fit in the pit and that rubble had been placed on top. Given how shallow the feature turned out to be (less than 60cm) this was unlikely to have been done by anyone living in the cottage, as the smell would have been overwhelming!


The excavated skeleton at the end of the dig, note the articulation of the bones but why are there two spines with two sets of ribs?

Who buried the animal and when? Was the animal buried after the cottage went out of use and the feature was used for convenience sake? Or did the animal belong to those living in the cottage and they just buried it in the feature and simply put up with the smell? These mysteries may be solved through a second excavation at a later time.

Alas, the rain on the fourth day and the lack of time remaining meant the group was unable to find and excavate the skull, which would have conclusively identified the species of animal. But the experience of excavating something so unusual and unexpected was very instructive and a lot of fun.

Terrifying Training

By Hannah D. Martin-Brown, Graduate Diploma of Archaeology and Heritage Management Student

 When dealing with a site like a Mental Institution, one would expect to find items that are, shall we say, different, even slightly scary. But who would have thought the most terrifying items would be simply used for training purposes?

From the late 1800s and well into the 1900s nurses were trained at hospitals in an apprenticeship-style of learning. This meant that hospitals had to develop their own libraries and training equipment to ensure the best training for their nurses.

The first item we spotted took a moment to identify its purpose,


The mouth and nose both have holes in them and a tube that led to a balloon under a wooden panel. That’s when we realised: it was for practicing mouth to mouth resuscitation. Simple.

Next we found a severed arm!!!

At least that’s what it looked like.

Blood Arm

It had tubes that ran to a bottle, with a balloon attached to it. It became clear that this was for blood drawing practice. They would pump the “blood” from the bottle, through the arm then draw it with a needle. The truly terrifying thing about this device was the fact that for at least 14 years the liquid in the bottle and arm had been sitting there growing mold. The veins were green. And don’t get me started on what was in the bottle.  Oh, the horror!

But perhaps the most terrifying of all was found lying behind some boxes.

Hidden Dummy

At first we thought it was just a mannequin, but once we got it out we realised it was yet another training device.

Sitting Dummy

We believe the red dots were for procedures, though we weren’t sure what kind, but we could also see bandages with stitches in them, which, as a purpose, was a bit more obvious—after all stitching practice is very important for nurses and of course patients.

Despite the disturbing appearance of these objects, they played an important role in training nurses, making them very valuable finds.


What’s so creepy about an Abandoned Mental Hospital?

A case study in fearing the unknown at Tasmania’s Willow Court

Jacob Gwiazdzinski – Graduate Diploma of Archaeology and Heritage Management.

Few things can elicit the anxiety of the superstitious like being told about travelling to an infamous, derelict  mental institution. The patients are gone, and so too is their exclusive world. All that remains are the buildings which sit in silent testimony to the ideas, regulations and experiences of a different era. But it’s perhaps the walls themselves, and what lingers within, that continues to make such a place so tantalisingly creepy.

For a start, the site remains just as exclusionary. Where the large brick walls have crumbled, they are replaced with modern steel gating, just as intent on keeping  the outside world out. Of course, the reasons have changed, but the sense of the forbidden, the concealed and the unknown  have not. Once inside, the feeling remains inescapable; the eeriness of utilitarian architecture and un-inviting locked doors somehow accentuated by the fancily-rendered false windows. A stoic façade hinting at a more emotional past.

Perhaps spookier than the place  are the things that still inhabit it, the strange equipment and sundries; a wheelchair so intrinsically linked to its past owner that their shape can still be seen in its form.


Wheelchair, C Ward.

And so long after the light was turned  off, and as it stands to face  an uncertain future, this place  continues to haunt  its society. A symbol of a very controversial yet incompletely understood aspect of the past; a point which itself contributes to the creepiness of this place.

Fake window, Barracks.

Fake window, Barracks.