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Tarkine Drive visitor facility upgrades


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Sarah Island yields its more of its secrets


Graffiti might be seen as a modern day urban scourge, but a recent archaeological excavation at Sarah Island has revealed that leaving one’s tag on walls is an activity which hasn’t lost its appeal through the centuries.

Bricks with graffiti – presumed to be convict names scratched into the limewashed surface -  were among the fascinating items discovered by an international team of archaeologists that spent three weeks in late March and early April excavating two sites at the historic convict ruins at Sarah and nearby Grummet islands in Macquarie Harbour.

The nine-member time team included keen Tasmanian archaeologists Jody Steele (Parks and Wildlife Service) who was a co-director of the project, Angela McGowan (Heritage Tasmania), Belinda Bauer and Kirsten Brett (Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery), Richard Tuffin (Austral Tasmania), Heather Bice (freelance archaeologist) and Michelle Berry (freelance conservator).Archaeologist and senior lecturer from the University of Manchester, Eleanor Casella, was co-director of the project and she was joined by Kat Fennelly, Irish Phd candidate at the University of Manchester.

Dr Casella is one of many captivated by Tasmania’s intriguing convict history and managed a similar excavation at the Ross Female Factory two years ago. She described Sarah Island as a ‘giant convict relic’ and was looking forward to exploring two key buildings; the goal at Sarah Island and the foundations of a building on the much smaller Grummet Island.

On Sarah Island, work focused on the gaol, one of the island’s more substantial ruins. The brick building consisted of a 16feet by 14 feet guard room and six 7 feet by 3 feet cells for solitiary confinement. TJ Lempriere, Commissariat Officer on the island, described the goal and surrounding buildings in less than flattering terms: ‘The remainder of the buildings in the row consisted of the bakehouse, the tan yard and the goal. The latter is a miserable, small place…’. This ‘miserable, small place’ however has survived in a more intact condition than many other buildings, thanks to its 50 cm thick brick walls.

At the goal the team excavated two separate trenches, one in the guard room at the front of the building and across two of the solitary cells at the back of the building.

“In the guard room, we were interested in finding out what the military officers were doing in this space or if they were using it at all,” Jody said.

“The historical records talk about it being used as a large cell, so it was holding five or six men before they were sentenced and being sent to Hobart for their crimes.

“What was interesting was that in the first convict era, all of the sketches of the buildings don’t show any chimneys in the building but when we excavated down to we found the first cell had a hole punched through the wall and had a fireplace built into it. It appears that this happened after the convict settlement closed in 1833, when they came back in 1846 and modified the building. At that time most of the prisoners would have been ‘pass holders’ on their way out of the system, so they’ve changed the building to make it warmer and improve living conditions.”

The team found a similar situation at the back of the gaol where the solitary cells were. Originally, there were six solitary cells, but excavations revealed that a wall had been cut out between two of the cells, to make that space larger as well. They were also hoping to uncover relics from everyday life that would have fallen through the original pine floor boards but what they found instead was that brick floors had replaced the timber floors. It was on those limewashed bricks that the scratched names were found. Among thousands of artefacts recovered were from the dig were clay pipes, buttons, clasps from uniforms, rusty nails and small fragments of ceramics.

The tiny, nearby Grummet Island once housed as many as 60 of the more troublesome prisoners. On Grummet, the archaeologists focused their attention on the location of a structure thought to have been a cookhouse, however their efforts were not nearly as fruitful as at the goal.

Two trenches were established and sandstone flagstones and a lot of burnt bone confirmed the use of the building as a cookhouse, but apart from some clay pipes, there was nothing else across the site. The team could only surmise that either all of the building’s materials were completely removed for re-use elsewhere, pilfered over time or washed away in bad weather – a possibility presented by historical documents that described waves crashing over the island in the fierce West Coast weather.

The artefacts recovered at the site have gone to the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery to be prepared for shipping to the University of Manchester where they will be painstakingly catalogued and analysed. Eventually they will come back to TMAG as part of its archaeological collection.

 Photos courtesy of Simon DeSalis.

Sarah Island yields its more of its secrets

The team on Sarah Island: (standing, left to right) Angela McGowan, Eleanor Casella, Richard Tuffin, Belinda Bauer, Jody Steele, Kirsten Brett. Sitting (l to r) Heather Bice, Kat Fennelly and Michelle Berry.

Sarah Island yields its more of its secrets

Jody Steele (back left) and two archaeologists from the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, Belinda Bauer (left) and and Kirsten Brett excavating two separate cells in the rear of the goal building.

Sarah Island yields its more of its secrets

Co-directors of the archaeolgical investigation on Sarah and Grummet islands, Jody Steele (left) and Eleanor Casella with bricks excavated from the site. The bricks will be re-used in conservation works on the island.

Sarah Island yields its more of its secrets

Among the bricks unearthed were numerous ones with names scratched into the limewashed surface.

Sarah Island yields its more of its secrets

A selection of the artefacts recovered include (from top left) a copper cog, hand-carved animal bone, possibly a swan bone, opalized glass grament, metal Civil Staff button, metal, possibly pewter cutlery handle and animal bone - a sheep rib.

Sarah Island yields its more of its secrets

Conservator Michelle Berry in the temporary field artefact lab.

Sarah Island yields its more of its secrets

Ricahrd Tuffin works on a sketched record of the site as it's being excavated.