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University students unearth historic Tasmanian treasures

Convict archaeology

Aspiring archaeologists have spent two weeks of their summer holidays focusing on the State’s 19th-century convict history.

Aspiring archaeologists have spent two weeks of their summer holidays focusing on the State’s 19th-century convict history.

The University of Tasmania’s School of Humanities has been running a Convict Archaeology Field School (20 January – 3 February) in partnership with the Southern Midlands Council.

Ten students have unearthed historical artefacts and made discoveries during an excavation of the former Picton road station in Kempton.

The site was a base for 150 convicts between 1839 and 1847 as they built the highway connecting Hobart and Launceston.

Dr Eleanor Casella, Adjunct Professor with the University’s School of Humanities, said the field school had enabled students to experience real-world learning.

“This unique, place-based offering has provided students with a fascinating hands-on opportunity, allowing them to broaden their knowledge of archaeology and Tasmanian heritage,” Dr Casella said. 

“They’ve been running through all stages of how professional fieldwork occurs, putting skills such as excavation, surveying, architectural analysis, artefact management, field conservation and site illustration into practical application.

“We have a wonderful mix of local and interstate students undertaking the course, which has been rich in work-integrated professional learning experiences.

“Archaeology is both a remarkable and rewarding profession, and this field school is a fantastic example of where studying history with the University of Tasmania can take our students.” 

Students and staff concentrated their excavation work in three trenches in the vicinity of the original convict quadrangle.

Structural discoveries include what is believed to be the hospital’s hearth, the station’s storehouse, and the dormitories, in addition to mysterious walls that don’t properly correlate with the station’s existing historic plan.

Fragments of glass beer bottles, imported British ceramics and Dutch gin case bottles have also been unearthed, as well as an iron skeleton key, clay tobacco pipe stems, and two parts of an iron hand-forged convict road gang hammer, providing insight into the convicts’ lives and routines.

Brad Williams, Manager Heritage Projects at the Southern Midlands Council, said it was exciting to engage students with a site of immense historical significance. 

“The partnership is helping guide decisions about how we further investigate and preserve the Picton site into the future, with the bonus of training outcomes for students,” Mr Williams said. 

“Convict sites give us a great opportunity to explore our past. We’re keen to continue investigating and promoting the municipality’s network of such sites, and promoting these to local visitors and tourists.”

The Picton road station was inhabited by minor-offence convicts who were subjected to extremely harsh living and working conditions.

Road gangs worked six days a week between sunrise to sunset with at least 80 per cent tasked with crushing large stones using little more than a pair of handheld tools. 

Half of the present-day Midland Highway still follows the original convict-built route, with town bypasses only introduced from the 1970s onwards. 

A short course for professional development of secondary school teachers allowed for another University archaeology field school to take place in Oatlands. This excavation was also in partnership with the Southern Midlands Council and led by the School of Education.

Five secondary teachers investigated the remains of the Oatlands Guard House which was built between 1827-1828 by convict labour for the military.  

Held 20 - 25 January, the short course was a rare opportunity for practising history teachers to have an authentic experience of field archaeology to support the development of innovative and engaging learning activities for their students.

Published on: 04 Feb 2019 11:36am