Port Arthur Fieldwork Illuminates Australia's Convict Past

4 September 2012

Maureen Byrne
Rising archaeology star Maureen Byrne tragically died in 1977 aged 24 after unearthing the rare artefacts in Port Arthur.

After nearly four decades on the shelf, the collection of pioneering University of Sydney archaeology student Maureen Byrne has finally been analysed, opening an extraordinary window into the daily lives of Australia's most hardened convicts.

Byrne unearthed the rare artefacts from Australia's first prisoners' barracks at Port Arthur 35 years ago, but her untimely death at the age of twenty-four from a severe asthma attack left her findings unexamined in storage.

Now, following a new collaboration between the Port Arthur Historic Site Management Authority (PAHSMA) and the Department of Archaeology, eight current University of Sydney students recently analysed Byrne's collection at the Port Arthur Historic site.

Through meticulously re-bagging and cataloguing Byrne's artefacts, an unprecedented insight into the lives of Australia's convict forebears emerged, with surprisingly incongruous items like lace-making bobbins and dollies tea sets appearing in the collection.

Researchers were able to conclude that the infamous Port Arthur site may have been the unlikely home of some of the region's first military families, according to Senior Archaeology Lecturer and leader of the University of Sydney practicum, Dr Martin Gibbs.

"My current feeling is that there was a period of time when the barracks were occupied by military families, as there are also military buttons and even a toy brass cannon in those particular deposits," Gibbs said.

brass cannon
A toy brass cannon found in Byrne's collection suggests the Port Arthur barracks was the unlikely home of military families. Photo courtesy of Port Arthur Historic Site Management Authority (PAHSMA)

"This makes for a very different take on Port Arthur as a 'convict prison' when you have women and kids living in the heart of the settlement. It really highlighted the value of us re-examining these old collections, proving that you can make significant discoveries on what is often thought of as a very well researched site."

Archaeology Manager of PAHSMA, Dr David Roe, agreed that the long overdue investigation into Byrne's collection marks a significant turning point in contemporary understandings of the historically important convict site.

"While there may be a limited amount of material culture that survives from the convicts themselves what does survive can inform us about how individuals and groups responded to the challenges of the strictly controlled convict lifestyle and the changes to those responses over time," Roe said.

Among the raft of fresh insights into convict life at the barracks was the discovery of slate fragments in Byrne's collection, suggesting the illiterate prisoners started a school for themselves. Other clues into the complexities of these prisoner's lives were gleaned from remnants of clay pipes and animal bones, illuminating their diets and butchering techniques.

The World Heritage-listed Port Arthur historic site remains a key fixture in Australia's colonial history, established as a secondary place of punishment for convicts who had reoffended upon their arrival in Australia from the 1830s. The infamously brutal prison earned a reputation for terror 'worse than death' among inmates, who were subject to both hard labour and cruel punishment.

Dr Martin Gibbs was hopeful that the Department's recent examinations at Port Arthur could lead to further projects as researchers continue to piece together knowledge of this archaeologically rich site.

"PAHSMA and The University of Sydney consider this fieldwork as the start of a series of collaborations of this type, working out new research trajectories for the World Heritage properties under their control," he said.

Former Dean of the Faculty of Arts, Associate Professor Ian Jack, who was also engaged to Maureen Byrne at the time of her death, was thrilled at the renewed interest in her work at the site.

"I felt I was trustee for these things for many years and I rather despaired of anything ever happening at Port Arthur that would allow the collection to be used in the way that Maureen would have wanted," Jack said.

He believed the belated analysis of Byrne's collection helps combat some of the touristic misnomers surrounding popular perceptions of Port Arthur.

"Nobody doubts the transcendent importance of Port Arthur but there has been a sort of convictism, which is rather more spectacular and sensational than true," Jack said. "Archaeology is very good at giving information about people who are not individually very well documented. This comes a little bit closer to seeing them as people and humanising them."

University of Sydney archaeology students
The newest generation of University of Sydney archaeology students to visit the Port Arthur site found the practicum provided invaluable experience into archaeological analysis methods.

Caitlin Dircks, one of the newest generations of University of Sydney archaeology students to visit the Port Arthur site, noted the poignancy of completing the work of her predecessor.

"Opening boxes of beautiful or unidentified artefacts from over 30 years ago was so exciting," said Dircks, who plans to embark on an archaeological career of her own by starting an Honours degree on the convict era of Port Arthur.

"But it was also quite sad to see this collection; to read Maureen's notes and see the artefacts that would have been just as exciting for her, who was a similar age to us when she excavated the site in 1977," she said.

"These would have been her interests and research if she hadn't passed away. It was nice to know we could follow on from what she started so long ago."

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Contact: Emily Jones

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