Historic Archaeology in Tasmania: Willow Court

G’day!

My second port of call on this Global Archaeology journey was Tasmania where I have been delving into the Historic Archaeology of Australia’s convict era. I joined the archaeological team and fieldschool run by Dr. Heather Burke of Flinder’s University at the now empty institution, Willow Court. The main goal for this season was to prepare for the excavations due to take place next year. Specifically we were mapping the complex with a total station, doing geophysical surveys to identify sub-soil features and cataloguing artefacts in storage. Each fieldschool participant had the opportunity to experience all aspects of the work being done and I was especially keen to try out the geophysical equipment!

Willow Court Barracks building. Completed in 1834
Willow Court Barracks building. Completed in 1834

Willow Court is a large complex of buildings that functioned as a mental health institution from 1827 to 2000. It was originally named the New Norfolk Insane Asylum and was built (with convict labour) to care for convicts transported to Tasmania by the British Government (then known as Van Diemens Land). Over the many years it was open the site grew, with buildings constructed and demolished, leaving a variety of structures to investigate.
As you can imagine the local community has to grapple with stigmatization due to the legacy of this type of institution operating for 170 years. Its future is therefore a sensitive and contested issue. On a positive note, the archaeological investigations being conducted here should help all the stakeholders to understand the current state of the site and the artefacts associated with it. With that information hopefully a productive solution that suits all parties can be developed.

Dental chair. Inside the Willow Court Barracks building
Dental chair. Inside the Willow Court Barracks building

The first day of the fieldschool we had a tour of the Willow Court complex and the contemporary Superintendents cottage (Frascati House) across the road. The fieldschool focused mainly on the exercise yard outside of Ward C, the original Barracks building and Frascati House, so this was the only opportunity we had to see the interior of all the buildings to develop an understanding of the institution and how it had evolved since the first inmates were admitted in 1829. I have to admit that many of the structures and rooms gave me an uneasy feeling. Not only were they in a state of disrepair, with vandalism and possum disturbance everywhere, but they painted a vivid picture of the lives of the inmates. In particular the men’s high security ward was not a place I would like to spend an extended amount of time.

Male high security ward
Male high security ward

A typical day began with having breakfast in the common area of the Carinya Education Park (kindly supplied by the Derwent Valley Council) and finding out where we were each stationed that day. We then made our way to the Willow Court complex to start work. The first two days I had a turn on the total station helping to map Carleton Yard (adjacent to Ward C), the yard adjacent to the Bronte building and another high security yard with garden beds. You use a total station as a team: one on the machine itself and the other moving through the area deciding what points will be added to the map. This process really gives you a novel perspective on a landscape and how the archaeology is situated within it.

Setting up the total station in a high security yard
Setting up the total station in a high security yard

Next I spent a day with Dr. Kelsey Lowe doing a geophysical survey of the gardens surrounding Frascati House, the Superintendent’s cottage built in 1832. Because of the close connection between Frascati and Willow Court the archaeological team is keen to develop a full understanding of the site and what structures may be hidden underneath the current ground surface. We used three types of geophysical equipment: ground penetrating radar, an electrical resistivity device and a magnetic gradiometer. It is hoped that the results of the geophys will help the team target areas to excavate next season.

GPR at Frascati House
GPR at Frascati House

I also had the opportunity to do a full survey of the graffiti that littered the inside and outside of the original Willow Court Barracks, whose construction was completed in 1834. The graffiti is a overlapping mix of modern vandalism and the handiwork of inmates. It was enthralling to search for the early writing on walls and window sills, photograph it and make notes on its location, condition and context. The next day with my teammate I continued to do a further graffiti survey of the wall of the B Ward building (also known as Bronte) and helped out a bit with the final geophysical survey at the back of the original Barracks building. In that area a full building once stood and hopefully the footprint of this will be evident on the survey results.

Inmate graffiti on the Bronte building
Inmate graffiti on the Bronte building

The final day of the fieldschool we all helped to catalogue archaeological materials that date to the early decades of the institution. The women’s clothing and handwritten letters really caught my attention and highlighted the real people whose stories helped shape the history of Willow Court. The catalogue is a colossal endeavour that most team members were focused on for the entirety of the fieldschool. Even with so much work having been done there is more waiting to be tackled next season! Without cataloguing the known material no plan can be developed to move forward with the future of Willow Court, so it was of the utmost importance that each object be catalogued and documented properly.

Cataloguing a woman's blouse
Cataloguing a woman’s blouse

It has to be kept in mind that Willow Court was not an isolated institution. It was situated within a network of institutions that developed because of the transportation of convicts to Tasmania. If you are interested in this aspect of Tasmania’s past have a look at the links below. My next post will discuss my visit to two prisons that were in operation when Willow Court was first opened. These stories are difficult to hear and discuss, but they are a key part of what shaped Australia and its resilient people.

Willow Court History Group

Flinder’s University: Willow Court Project

Derwent Valley Gazette: Geophysics at Willow Court, Feb. 17, 2016

Willow Court, c.1835 (willowcourttasmania.org)
Willow Court, c.1835 (willowcourttasmania.org)