Dinner is Served: Bones and Butchery at Willow Court Asylum

by Annabelle Brealey, short course student

Recently, I travelled to a little town in Tasmania called New Norfolk to participate in the Historical Archaeology field school run by Flinders University. The object of our research – Willow Court Asylum, the longest running mental hospital in Australian history. This year the focus of our excavations was on the two oldest remaining buildings: The Barracks, constructed between 1830-1833 and Frescati House, built 1834.

During excavations at The Barracks in Room 12 (circled below) a sizable cache of butchered animal bones was uncovered underneath the floorboards. Due to my experience in the analysis of historical animal remains I was tasked to lead the classification of the recovered bones for cataloguing and analysis purposes.

The location of Room 12 in the Barracks, Willow Court

We identified an overwhelming amount of sheep bones, but some cow, pig and bird remains were also recovered. During the 1800s in early Australia, sheep were the most common stock to hold as they thrived in the harsh Australian climate and could also be exploited for their wool. This abundance meant mutton was very cheap in comparison to beef and pork. The fact that such a large amount of sheep remains were found at Willow Court is not surprising given the funding challenges the institution often faced during its operation.

There were obvious signs of butchery on the bones in the form of saw (Figure 2A), hack (Figure 2B) and cut marks (Figure 2C). There were some reports of a butcher working out of that corner of the Barracks, but unfortunately these accounts are yet to be confirmed through historical documentation and records.

Butchery marks visible on the bones from the Barracks, Willow Court

One thing I  noticed about the butchered remains was that very few of the hind leg bones were recovered, even though there were plenty of bones from forelimbs. The meat taken from the hind limb is of a higher quality than the fore limb cuts, therefore we can assume the patients staying in and around the Barracks were often fed low quality mutton and the better quality cuts were sent elsewhere. I would be very interested in exploring the buildings occupied by high status patients to see if the remains of these better quality meals have been left behind.

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