X-rays of convict artefacts reveal ‘really neat stuff’ with stories to tell


Posted

August 12, 2018 08:32:05

Archaeologists at Tasmania’s famous Port Arthur Historic Site have used x-rays to reveal artefacts that could not previously be identified by the naked eye.

The x-rays — of metal objects hidden within concrete — have provided what was once unrecoverable information about the type, size and manufacturing methods of artefacts that have been underground since the area was a 19th century penal settlement.

More than 6,000 objects were excavated in 2016 from around the laundry area of the convict site’s penitentiary building.

Conservation project officer at Port Arthur Historic Site Management Authority (PAHSMA), Sylvana Szydzik, said more than 3,000 metal objects had now been x-rayed.

“A lot of the objects that we pulled out of the laundry excavation were concreted metal objects that you couldn’t really tell what was in there,” she said.

“The x-ray was able to break this down and look at all of the different nails and whatever else might be in there.”

Ms Szydzik said the x-rays showed some unexpected results.

“We found a drafting compass amidst that, which wasn’t able to be recognised through visual analysis alone,” she said.

“The other really great thing that we were able to identify through the x-ray process was a bone-handled tool, which we actually followed up with a CT scan and then the materials conservator de-concreted the object and we were able to see the object in person.

“One of the main things that we found was we were able to tell the difference between a metal button and a large nailhead, which has implications in terms of how the spaces were used by people in the past.”

Archaeology manager at PAHSMA, David Roe, said different objects were found in various areas of the penitentiary during the 2016 excavation.

“The ablutions yard is where the men were relaxing, so there’s smoking paraphernalia and there’s also some contraband objects like gaming tokens and things they weren’t supposed to have,” he said.

“The laundry area is a workspace, so we weren’t expecting very much in the way of artefacts beyond architectural fittings and things to do with laundering clothes and mending clothes, so buttons and needles and that kind of thing.

“In 1897 there was a major bushfire and the building burned for two days so all of the wooden superstructure, the roof, completely disappeared, but then you get all of the fittings that held the building together drop to the ground and they’ve just lain there for more than 100 years.”

Mr Roe said the x-rays told a story about objects that had rusted and were concreted in the ground.

“We get a lot of data about objects which generally you can’t get at, like the nails because they are so corroded,” he said.

“We also get to see objects which you wouldn’t normally get to see because they’re concreted, so things like drawing compasses, nails, tools, knives and heel plates off of boots.”

Mr Roe said x-raying objects was cheaper and less time consuming than removing them from concrete.

“I think it’d be easy to say that we found some really neat stuff, because we did. From my perspective though, I think getting lots of information about the different kinds of nails was the really important thing,” he said.

“We tend to forget that a lot of these objects, although they’re really, really common, they’ve got as much a story to tell as the neat stuff.”

Topics:

history,

human-interest,

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