Tag Archives: Frescati House

Nothing But Dirt

By Renee Smith, Graduate Certificate in Archaeology student

I recently participated in the ARCH8806 Historical Archaeology field school at Willow Court in New Norfolk, Tasmania. We were split into two groups at the start of the week: half remained in Willow Court and excavated under the floorboards of ward 12; the other half, including me, went across the road to Frescati House, which had been built for Colonial Secretary, John Burnett, as a convenient summer retreat. It was later sold to the hospital and housed the Medical Superintendents and their families for many years.

Aerial view of Frescati house in 1930

The goal for our group was to find evidence of a courtyard located at the back of the house. We went in suspecting there wouldn’t be a lot, perhaps some buttons or clay pipes, possibly even some sandstone pavers. However, after the first day of excavating we had no such luck: in a 3×3 metre trench all we found were some rusty modern nails. We weren’t discouraged! After all, the trench was only about 10cm from the surface.

We returned the next day hopeful that we might find something, but we had more than just the lack of artefacts to discourage us. The ground was so hard and compact a trowel made little impact, which was when our trusty supervisor suggested we use mattocks to get through the hard surface. MATTOCKS! Surely not—we’re archaeologists, we can’t use such a destructive and imprecise tool. To be clear, we were asked to use a long-handled mattock and if mattocks are used as an excavation tool they are only used to loosen the top few centimetres and a flat surface and straight trench walls are still aimed for.

But even with the mattock and six archaeologists slaving over the trench we only found more modern nails, glass and a child’s marble. What made matters worse were the stories of the other group finding bones and various other artefacts.

Using a Mattock in trench F1: photo by Ian Edmondson

It was at this point that the group could have become sour; we were all tired and disheartened remembering our childhood dreams of archaeology and realising the hard truth that not every trench contains treasures of times past. Instead the ‘banter’ began and inter-trench warfare broke out as it became a challenge between the ‘boys’ and the ‘girls’ to find the next artefact, whatever that may be. It was on the third day that we found sherds of willow patterned ceramic and nails matching the date of the building. That was also when we accidentally came across an old lead pipe (we may have put our mattock through it) and a ferrous item we can only assume was a saw—it lay halfway through the trench wall so we could not excavate it. We also found the natural surface, so had to stop.

This experience really showed the importance of ‘trench morale’ when you’re finding nothing but dirt. It makes the difference between what could be a nightmare dig and an enjoyable week with new friends.