Tag Archives: Field School

Sleeping History

By Alan O’Callaghan, Graduate Certificate in Archaeology and Cultural Heritage Management student

I recently visited a historic site, Willow Court, located in New Norfolk, a town near Hobart.


Willow Court’s Regional Position Compared with Hobart. Google Maps

I will be brief on Willow Court, as others have already covered its background and modern context in other posts. As far as this blog is concerned, Willow Court is the longest serving, purpose built psychiatric facility in Australia.


Sketch of Willow Court c1833. Courtesy

While cataloguing artefacts we observed many artefacts that related to patient-practitioner relations, a topic not well recorded outside their respective fields. We recorded 15 complete (or almost complete) beds, and many bed-related items. From these beds we deduced a rough typology, starting with these iron beds: 

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These iron beds are often described as the ‘Port Arthur’ pattern and were ordered for the Barracks by the medical superintendant, Dr Officer, at the end of 1830. An order for 200 iron beds originally went to England, but was refused on the grounds that they could be ‘procured on the spot’ (Gowlland 1981:14), causing delays. He ordered several smaller batches of military issue iron beds in 1830, 1831 and 1833 from New South Wales (Gowlland 1981:13), but needed more. In 1833 he finally succeeded in finding a way to make them locally:

Mr Turnbull, the Supt of Public Works here, informs me that if furnished with the materials he could make a sufficient number of bedsteads, either of wood with canvas bottoms, or of iron similar to those now in use. The latter are of course in every point of view preferable to the former, and I would therefore recommend that the materials necessary for their manufacture  … be forwarded as soon as possible. (Robert Officer to Colonial Surgeon J. Scott, cited in Gowlland 1981:14).

The three remaining folding iron beds that are part of the Willow Court collection are typical 19th century British military beds and were designed to take up the minimum of space and to do double duty as a chair, if required. An identical example can be seen in the Port Macquarie Museum.

Folding beds

British Army folding iron bed (http://www.cmhg.gc.ca/cmh/image-451-eng.asp?page_id=517)

The differing batches and points of origin for the iron beds could explain the presence of a similar iron frame bed with a rigid frame like the one below (Bed 4), as well as some of the variation in other details.

Iron Bed 4, Rigid iron frame

Beds are rather unassuming to most people, but this is what makes them so important to our work. To begin with, these bed frames directly relate to the number of complete ‘Beds’. Beds, for their part, are most frequently used to measure a hospital’s success or failure. Not only have bed shortages affected all parts of the world, they have also occurred throughout time. To that effect, the beds above reflect a bed shortage at Willow Court in the 1830s and show that bed shortages in hospitals go back two centuries in Australia! 

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 Not only did these beds survive, they were adapted: check out the different fasteners above which show the development of the humble nut! Over time their continued existence showed technological and economical change in the Derwent Valley on the peripheries of Hobart.

The original iron beds were added to in following years with newly designed beds utilising technology such as welding, while some traits, like foldability, as seen in Bed 5, continued.

Iron Bed 5, Mid-Twentieth Century, foldable galvanized bed

Later on in our typological timeline, Bed 6, Bed 7 and Bed 8  show the transition to beds with wheels and an adjustable mechanism. So, while previously fold up beds were needed to accommodate both sleeping and other activities patients in large wards, as they stow away after sleep, now the focus was on more flexible and personal treatment. This shows that patients were being treated with greater and more specialised care.

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So, while being deceptively unimportant, beds tell important, lost histories. Because of their ‘basic-ness’, they are often kept for a long time, dramatically prolonging our ability to understand patient conditions both now and in the future.

So even the beds of this collection, which can easily be overlooked, can stir lost stories of the past at Willow Court.

Gowlland R.W. 1981 Troubled Asylum: The History of the Invalid Barracks, New Norfolk, Colonial Hospital, New Norfolk, Madhouse, New Norfolk, Her Majesties Lunatic Asylum, New Norfolk, Mental Diseases Hospital, New Norfolk, Lachlan Park, New Norfolk and Derwent Hospital. Self Published.

Screaming Willows: Confinement in Ward C at Willow Court, New Norfolk

By Darren Watton, Graduate Diploma in Archaeology and Heritage Management student

1962 was an “unhappy year” at Lachlan Park Hospital in New Norfolk (Gowlland 1981:167). A fire in the Male Hostel building had ‘sparked’ allegations that hospital administration was involved in “drunken, parties, assaults etc” and that men were living in “disgusting and deplorable conditions” (Gowlland 1981:167-169). This fueled political wrangling and public outcry that something must be done. Part of the problem was that there were reports that patients were escaping from the old ward A building and many of these were people with a history of crimes ranging from “car theft to sexual perversion with some of the most ‘abusive and aggressive’ being mental defectives and alcoholics” (The Plummer Report October 1962:172). This was not new, Willow Court had always had a chequered history and it raised questions of how to deal with and house those in society who at that time were considered as having a psychiatric disorder.

Ward C from the secure yard

Ward C from the secure yard

The image above is cast in light, but it seems there would have been little light for those who were housed here. The renovations and additions to Ward C as a “male security ward” followed the Cunnungham-Dax report in September, 1962 and these were part of a general overhaul of the facilities (Gowlland, 1981:173). Over the coming years Lachlan Park became a political ‘football’ and place of public debate. What is most visible today is a result of years of spending “very large sums of money” to make it into a maximum security ward.

As an archaeology student visiting Willow Court, Ward C represents part of the evolution and history of the site. Housing of society’s ‘others’ (Davies, Crook and Murray 2013) began here in 1827 and Ward C was the pinnacle of development when it closed in 2000. It is a stark reminder of life in a mental institution over time. The thick wooden security doors with the tiny windows, the shower cubicles that offer very little privacy, the small rooms, crude writings offering snippets of information about room functions or patients names and the 10mm security glass windows that are punctuated with vandals attempts to breach the building all relate to how mental institutions have changed. Willow Court is a rare opportunity to see the complete history of an Australian site from colonial times to the present.

large thick door with small window

Large thick wooden door with small window

a shower for those who do not need privacy

A shower cubicle in Ward C

a room in Ward C

A room in Ward C

10mm thick security glass panes

10mm thick security glass panes

the room where the records of the deceased and discharged where kept

The room where the records of the deceased and discharged where kept

A patient in Ward C?

A patient in Ward C?

The links below testify to how complex perceptions and experiences of mental institutions can be. However, it is important for us to separate the social issues from the reality. As an archaeologist, the history and evolution of Willow Court is important in understanding the archaeology of confinement and the social values that surround this small community in rural Tasmania.

Closing the door on Ward C – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EmBdyc8YLTg&feature=youtu.be







Gowlland R.W., 1981, Troubled Asylum: The History of the Invalid Barracks, New Norfolk, Colonial Hospital, New Norfolk, Madhouse, New Norfolk, Her Majesties Lunatic Asylum, New Norfolk, Mental Diseases Hospital, New Norfolk, Lachlan Park, New Norfolk and Derwent Hospital, Self Published.

Davies P., P. Crook, and T. Murray, 2013, An Archaeology of Institutional Confinement: The Hyde Park Barracks, 1848-1886, Sydney, Sydney University Press.

Love Lives On In A Time-Worn Letter

By Vanessa Kidd, Graduate Diploma in Archaeology and Heritage Management Student

It is said that love transcends all barriers, and, for the most part, this is true. For many people in a 19th century asylum, however, this was often not the case. Unlike today, where mental health issues are acknowledged and treated openly within the wider community, once upon a time, having a mental health issue (or presenting with behaviours deemed to indicate one) could have you denounced by your family and community and put away in an asylum for life.

This was certainly the situation for many people in New Norfolk, Tasmania, where what would become the first hospital for the mentally ill was established in 1827. Built by convicts as an invalid hospital, as time progressed and the population of convicts grew, so too did the number of people  classed as ‘insane’. Consequently, new buildings were gradually added and over time demolished, until the whole establishment was finally shut down in 2000. By this stage there was little left of the original complex, but certainly enough to offer insight into its history. The most notable of these structures is Willow Court.


Willow Court, New Norfolk

Indeed, it did not take much to be admitted to a mental asylum. Reasons for admission to New Norfolk Asylum itself  included epilepsy, infirmity, childbirth, melancholia and religious purposes to name just a few (Piddock 2007). While valuable in its historical qualities, there is a tangible atmosphere of sadness and isolation at Willow Court that is hard to escape.

That is why it was so refreshing to come across a love letter from a man to his lover, who was a patient in the New Norfolk Insane Hospital, specifically The Ladies Cottage. The Ladies Cottage was established in 1869 for paying patients, and it is still located in the north angle of the Hospital grounds. The four pages of letter were located amongst a collection of other artefacts under the floorboards of the verandah.

Unfortunately due to its age, the letter is not in great condition and only parts of it are legible. However, of these parts, much can be told.

The letter is addressed to “My Darling Girl” and while a date cannot be sourced apart from “Sunday Morning” written at the top, there are clues throughout which point to an approximate time. One of the most obvious of these clues is in his mention of his brother’s car, which he refers to as a “Baby Austin”. Baby Austin was a nickname given to the Austin 7, which was produced between 1922 and 1939 by Austin (A7CA 2015). Therefore, the letter must have been written between those dates.

This timeline is supported with the words ‘bonza’ and ‘chap’, which the writer uses consistently to describe things that excite or please him. This was a word that was used commonly throughout Australia in the early 20th century (ANU 2016).

However, the true beauty of this letter is in the words written. One of the most romantic passages reads “… of course I ought to look pleased with myself knowing that I have a girl like you for myself to think of and write toI guess that little cupid fellow must have shot his arrows into us pretty hard. But as long as nothing comes along and parts us, everything in the garden will be beautiful”.

A section of the letter

A section of the letter

Later he appears to refer compassionately to her mental illness when he says “So you have been in the wars again, you poor (illegible). You have to look after yourself” He also refers to a sore heart and says that they will be together again “for all the kisses and cuddles“. The following sentence talks about the precious minutes that he’s lost through being away from her and that the only thing he is worrying about is that she may fall in love with someone else and he’d lose “all those nice things then”.

The final legible page suggests she “write on Thursday and Sunday of each week and then I’ll have a letter by Saturday mornings mail and one by Tuesday mornings mail”. Throughout all of these romantic sentiments, he discusses his day to day life; his brother and sister-in-law who he likes very much, his affinity for skiing, a work assignment building a motor garage, their  home and his fernery, of which he is very proud.

It is clear that he wants his love to be part of his everyday life, even though they are physically apart. He seems to understand that in the normalcy and simplicity of the day to day, there is so much comfort. Through his words he offers her hope in a future that isn’t clouded with the unknown. She has a place to call home, and a loved one waiting to receive her.

Reading this letter possibly 94 years on, I feel content in the knowledge that amongst the stories of loss and tragedy at New Norfolk, there were stories of compassion and hope; and whatever became of the woman who received the letter, one thing is certain: she was loved.


Australian National University 2016 Meanings and origins of Australian words and idioms. Retrieved 24 February 2016 from

A7CA 2015 Austin Seven Clubs’ Association: Models. Retrieved 24 February 2016 from

Piddock, S 2007 A Space Of Their Own: The Archaeology Of Nineteenth Century Lunatic Asylums In Britain, South Australia and Tasmania. New York: Springer Science and Business Media.

Ceiling the Barracks: The pressed metal designs of a mental institution

By Kathleen Gorey, Master of Archaeology and Heritage Management student

The Barracks building at Willow Court (1827–2000), a former mental institution in New Norfolk, Tasmania, was built from 1830–1833 and is recognised architecturally for its Old Georgian Colonial design with Palladian influences. Contextually, this translates into a symmetrical U-shaped building with a pavilion at each point, a larger central pavilion, and lines of single-storey wards that create the U-shape. The purpose of the Barracks grew over time as a place to hold the “insane,” and it was thought that the symmetry would add to the physical affect of the building and help maximise potential capacity.

A floor plan of the Barracks with the location of pressed metal ceilings shown using red rectangles. All rooms excluding the five pavilions (central and four corners) are considered wards. (Source: Godden 1992:39)

A floor plan of the Barracks with the location of pressed metal ceilings shown using red rectangles. All rooms excluding the five pavilions (central and four corners) were originally used as wards (source: Godden 1992:39).

Despite these symmetrical intentions, however, an interesting source of internal variation is provided by the seemingly sporadic use of pressed metal ceiling patterns within five of the ten rooms. These five rooms are not commonly united in any way other than their built function, they all sport a different floral ceiling pattern, and one of them (Room 7) has been painted pink. As a design, this doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, so what can we gain from the use of pressed metal in this context?

Pressed metal ceiling patterns observed in the Barracks (source: http://from.ph/403256).

Pressed metal ceiling patterns observed in the Barracks (source: http://from.ph/403256).

Firstly, it points to the reach of the manufacturer, Wunderlich (1885–1950s), while also aligning with the company’s goal to target public institutions, including hospitals and asylums. By 1899, for example, Wunderlich was already listing five asylums and eight hospitals under its list of accomplishments.

Secondly, because the installation of the pressed metal was not in the original design of the Barracks, it must correspond to later renovations. These renovations probably occurred between 1900 and 1910, a decade that saw the relevant patterns advertised in the Wunderlich product catalogues as well as the opening of the company’s Tasmanian branch.

Finally, while the painting of pressed metal ceilings was something that Wunderlich promoted as an additional design element, it’s never a good idea to paint a ceiling pink. It is unclear as to why this occurred, but in this instance it is definitely the unknowns that add to the complexity of the Barracks’ history.

Godden, M. 1992 Willow Court Barracks Building, Royal Derwent Hospital, New Norfolk: Conservation Plan. Unpublished report prepared for the Department of Construction, Tasmania.

Getting to the bottom of things

This is about how a group of archaeologists dug some trenches. It began with a Flinders University field trip to Magpie Creek ruin, Sturt Gorge, South Australia and the aim of excavating the site to see what we could learn about it. We needed to dig six trenches. Digging a trench might sound easy; however, you need to know where to dig, how wide to dig, how deep to dig, and when to stop digging. First we consulted with Bob, our expert on where to dig holes. Bob selected six places within and outside the ruin where we were likely to uncover artefacts. Our trench sizes ranged from 1 x 1.5 metres to roughly 2 x 2 metres. That was a manageable size for a small team of three or four of us to dig, sieve, and record the changes in context, and the artefacts uncovered. First, we moved away the loose rocks on the surface, then we measured our trench and ran a string along the perimeter so we knew the boundary of the trench.


Excavation trench position marked out with string

Then came the digging. It started with a trowel. We poked with point, dragged and scraped along with the side of the trowel to remove the deposit. The idea is to remove the material quickly, but not to break up any artefacts, and to notice changes in the deposit, or context. These changes included changes to the composition, density and colour of the deposit that were indications that a change happened at that point.


The team from trench E busy excavating with trowel and shovel

Each time the context changed the details of the size, composition, PH and colour were recorded, together with details of any artefacts uncovered. Levels and the surface area of the new context were measured and recorded, and then this new context was excavated. This continued until the original, undisturbed soil surface or other structure was reached.


A new structure and context is reached. This image shows a brick floor uncovered by the excavation

Once the undisturbed natural soil, or a new feature, was reached we had hit the bottom. At square ‘A’ shown in the image above, most of the excavation involved removing a built up deposit that had resulted from the collapse of the walls. Once the deposit was removed a brick floor was uncovered inside the building, together with an adjoining floor composed of plaster and soil. This was the only area of the building that had a brick floor. The use of this substantial floor material is an indication that it was an important area within the building. Below this it was a very short distance to the natural soil. When the excavation was completed the site records were updated, and then we back filled the trenches and tidied up the site.

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.