Tag Archives: New Norfolk

The artful process of cleaning animal bones

By Taryn Feldmann, Graduate Certificate in Archaeology student

In February, this year, eight Archaeology students, including myself, had a chance to apply our knowledge at the field school ARCH8806 – Historical Archaeology Field School at Willow Court (Australia’s oldest asylum, 1826-2000) in New Norfolk, Tasmania.

Among us we had different tasks to complete, such as setting up a trench, photographing trenches and artefacts, recording notes about the site and artefacts, excavating and, yes, cleaning bones.

For about two days, I had the task of cleaning bones with a fellow student. There were trays of animal bones covered in dirt and I was really excited to begin with, as I’d never done it before, but that feeling soon wore off as more kept coming.

There is a technique, for instance you can either use a brush and dental tool (dental scaler) or water and a toothbrush. The scaler is used to remove the soil from any cavities, which can be a daunting job, as it’s important not to scratch the surface of the bone.

In our case, though, we had to use water and a toothbrush, as the soil was sticking to the surface. When using this method, we had to ensure that the water was clean and not hot.

When removing soil from bones, briefly rinse the bone, but don’t soak it. The toothbrush makes it easier to remove stubborn soil, such as clay, but it must be used gently.

The next step is drying. Bone can be air dried but the process should be slow. We turned the bones regularly for even drying and once they were dry, bagged them ready for analysis.

It can become tedious work, especially when bones are plentiful, but archaeologists need to do it as part of the cataloguing process.

Trays of bones drying after being cleaned. Photo credit: Taryn Feldmann


Beisaw, A.M. 2013 Identifying and Interpreting Animal Bones: a Manual. Texas: A&M University Press.

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.

Buttons and Bones and the Value of Community

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 .

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.

The Willow Court Archaeo-Prank or ‘Mysterious Happenings at Willow Court’

By Sasha Jessop, History and Humanities Teacher Educator, Australian Catholic University

It was really exciting to be a participant at the UTas Archaeology for Teachers ‘Dirty Weekend’. I’m glad to be able to share one of the more memorable experiences from the weekend.

We learned a great deal, and some of the learning was rather unexpected, such as the importance of humour on a dig.

Day one, after deliberation and measuring, we got stuck into pegging out the trench. It was a high stakes event, testing all of our mathematical skills and ancient memory of Pythagoras’ theorem in action. Still, not a bad effort for beginners – a 3×3 metre trench pegged out in under an hour.

So when we arrived in the morning we were excited to see the pristine square ready and waiting to be dug. But, what’s that?… what’s happened to the builder’s line?
The square is there: check
Pegs in place: check
Spool, and the remainder of the line next to the trench: No!
The line from the last peg continued beyond the trench, up off the ground and towards the hedge. My first thought was that the wind had picked up the spool and run it along the ground and out into the space beyond. And my next thought was … Or was it some clever Archeo-Prank? (I think this is my own term but I’m not sure, as I get the feeling pranks might be a ‘thing’ with archaeology.)

Expecting to see the spool in a knotty mess beyond the hedge, I was surprised to see, as I emerged from the gap into the dazzling early morning light, the line continuing neatly along the hedgerow. Argument for Archeo-Prank gathers momentum. When I noticed it had actually been wrapped around the nearest tree, and then around another several metres beyond, I started to laugh: the line continued. Calling Mel over to share the giggle, we decided a well meaning wag had definitely decided to pull some witty gag on us. Vandals surely would have kicked out our pegs or stuffed up the lines. The next several minutes were spent in tracing the line around three more trees, across a road and around an electrical box before terminating at a large tree near the main road. They had taken great care to loop each junction neatly and zigzag around a range of obstacles.

At the final tree I found the spool, neatly placed near the base, with a lovely, neat bowline knot to finish, meaning the line didn’t even need to be cut. Effort had been made.

Archaeo-Prankster leaves the spool behind

But by whom??
We quizzed our colleagues – what time did you leave the pub last night? Did you go straight home? No, wasn’t them. Stories corroborated. It must have been the Flinders archaeologists, having a gentle joke with us Baby Archaeological Rookies. I asked Heather Burke, but no, not her or any of her crew. I think she was quite amused at the suggestion she was involved, or maybe she just wished she had been. I was really sure Sarah L and Sasha Seal had been involved, but after some intense interrogations they, too, were cleared.

So, the mystery persists. Who dunnit? Who would have had the brains and the time to perform such a non-destructive, archeologically hilarious joke? New Norfolk must have some local jokester who roams around looking for easy targets.

Or was it some benevolent spirit of place who used to inhabit the site we were excavating? We will have to ask the ghost tour operators to keep and eye out for a spectre, carrying a spool of orange builder’s line, marking off trees under the moonlight.

Respect, Archaeo-Prankster

Trench F05 on completion of excavation

Morbid Fascination: The Dark Tourism of Willow Court

By Meg Haas, Master of Archaeology and Heritage Management student

There is a long standing fascination with the darker and more macabre aspects of human history. People who engage in dark tourism, a kind of pilgrimage to places associated either with death or acute human suffering, do so for many reasons. Some feel it necessary to visit such places to atone for the actions of people in the past, while others simply enjoy the thrill of visiting somewhere ‘creepy’.

Willow Court in New Norfolk, Tasmania, is a prime candidate for dark tourism. The oldest continuously used mental asylum in Australia, Willow Court has an unhappy history, and a lot of suffering and stigma is attached to memories of the place and its patients.

(Here Carla Paul, a former patient at Willow Court, speaks about her experience)

Walking around the grounds and through the abandoned and decaying wards, you get a real feel for the grim history of the place, and begin to wonder why anyone could have thought it could be a therapeutic environment. This is especially helped by the current state of the wards and buildings of the complex, which for the large part are in a state of extreme disrepair and give off a distinctly ‘creepy’ feeling.

willow court 1

(Enclosed walkway of women’s ward A. Photo credit Meg Haas)

Some members of the New Norfolk community see Willow Court as an opportunity to bring more visitors to the town and, while they don’t necessarily wish to celebrate the suffering or the stigma afforded to inmates at the asylum, they recognise its potential as a tourist destination.

For some, dark tourism helps promote awareness of a site in a way that ensures that the events of the past will not be allowed to happen again. Others see it as a kind of perverse commendation of these events that should be avoided. To this end, in New Norfolk, there are dissenting opinions in the community over how the buildings associated with Willow Court should be used or re-used. One major concern is that if the asylum is promoted as a tourist destination, it will serve only to remind people of the bad stories, and in a way, celebrate them.

Whatever the future holds for Willow Court, its dark legacy will remain, and I suspect that, even without its explicit promotion as a tourist destination, many people will still travel to New Norfolk to experience for themselves the conditions in which patients at the asylum lived.

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.