By Penny Mules, Graduate Diploma in Archaeology and Heritage Management student
My first foray as an archaeology student was a field school at Willow Court, New Norfolk, in Tasmania. Willow Court began housing mentally ill convicts in 1829 and remained open until 2000.
Those with typical preconceived notions about what archaeology entails may have been surprised that this field school involved sitting inside, re-cataloguing a collection of (occasionally possum-poo encrusted) objects gathered from the many and varied present and former buildings of the site – including looming towers of filing boxes containing relatively recent hospital records.
But it is surprising how much you can learn from such administrivia. The sheer volume of order forms, policy documents and memoranda paint a real picture of a place, revealing the inner life of even such a complex institution as a mental hospital. And even the worst dullness of bureaucracy eventually succumbs to the drama of an asylum. This was evinced by memos for nursing staff regarding the frequent outbreaks of fires in bedding, and the oversupply of dead bodies for the mortuary during the “hot weather spell”:
One would think this so self-evident that you wouldn’t need to issue a memo about it. It also makes you wonder just how many random bodies were turning up – and what exactly they did with them while waiting for police authority.
Perhaps the most relevant memo from the many boxes of files was the second of the three “Physician Superintendent’s Niggles” from 1971, as it makes the case so eloquently for the need of good filing (and cataloguing) when dealing with large bureaucracies (and archaeological collections):