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 (http://www.visitmarymackillop.com.au/where-it-all-began-penola.html), 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.