by Doreen Kosak, Bachelor of Archaeology student
Excavations at The Barracks, Willow Court in New Norfolk, Tasmania, during the recent Flinders University Historical Archaeology Field School revealed that findings in an archaeological dig can sometimes be unexpected.
Originally built between 1830-1833 as an invalid hospital for convicts, the Barracks at Willow Court became part of Australia’s first asylum catering for the needs of people with mental illness or disabilities. Changing requirements saw building additions and name changes that spanned more than 170 years and the asylum ran continuously until its closure in late 2000 (Willow Court History Group nd.).
Our task was to excavate and interpret the artefacts recovered from under the floor of two rooms in the Barracks. Partial removal of the floorboards had occurred for this purpose. Unlike modern timber floors which are joined ‘tongue and groove’ then nailed, the method of construction of early timber floorboards was ‘butt-joined’, that is, straight-edged planks laid and nailed alongside each other. Over time these timbers shrink, thus widening the gaps between the planks and allowing small items such as buttons or coins to fall (or be deliberately pushed) through the gaps. The floorboards in our working area, although butt-joined, were newer and had smaller gaps, so only small items could fall through.
Left: Example of butt-joined floors with wide gaps
Right: Our working area in Room 12, note narrow gaps between floorboards
We were surprised to find that the Room 12 assemblage not only contained a small selection of buttons made of shell, bone and metal, a coin, clay pipe bowls and fragments of stems, but also an unexpectedly large quantity of animal bones. After washing and examining, the bones were identified as mainly sheep forequarters and beef bones. Some bones showed signs of saw marks. Food for the inmates perhaps?
Left: Bones recovered from Room 12 in the Barracks
At the Community Open Day a chance conversation with a former Willow Court staff member revealed that a butcher may have worked in that corner of The Barracks, re-enforcing our belief that the bones were the remnants of butchering and the newer Room 12 floor was laid over them.
Another conversation with a former gardener assisted us to understand the previous uses of the grounds around Frescati House (the former residence of the Asylum’s Superintendent), enabling a better interpretation of the trenches (left). These contacts indicate the value of local knowledge and the importance of community involvement. Community members may also be the custodians of diaries, letters and other memorabilia that they are willing to share. Their memories and personal experiences can add great value to the archaeological interpretation of a site and should be actively encouraged (Robertson 2000:3).
Photos by author
Robertson, B.M. 2000 Oral History Handbook: Fourth Edition. Adelaide: Oral History Association of Australia (South Australian Branch) Inc.
Willow Court History Group nd. About Us. Retrieved 18 February 2017 from