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Buried treasure discovered under Penitentiary Chapel


Convict era artefacts undisturbed for 140 years have been uncovered at Hobart’s Penitentiary Chapel Historic Site.

The discovery was made during restoration work and there is a chance that a subsequent archaeological dig may reveal even more material.

 Mattress straw, clay pipes, gaming tokens and a knife handle marked with the broad arrow were revealed when boards were lifted to inspect decaying floor joists.

Penitentiary Chapel site curator Brian Rieusset said the chance discovery was sparked by a generous donation of an iron-framed convict bed and plans to display it in an underground cell.

“At first glance there appeared to be the usual rubble under the cell floorboards but on closer inspection a remarkable assortment of archaeological artefacts was revealed,” Mr Rieusset said.

“There were at least three clay pipes, two hand-carved wooden betting or gambling pieces, a buckle from a belt or braces, an ebony knife handle and a large assortment of bones, presumably from prisoners’ meals.

Port Arthur Historic Site Management Authority (PAHSMA) archaeology manager David Roe said the items helped to tell a very personal story about the experiences and lives of convicts.

 “It will be very interesting to compare these objects to similar materials from Port Arthur and other Tasmanian convict-era sites,” Dr Roe said.

“We will be able to compare the Penitentiary Chapel convict experience with places such as Port Arthur and Sydney’s Hyde Park Barracks.

”An archaeological investigation, survey and dig currently underway could reveal that the original 1831 cell floor material may still be still be intact under the surface spoil and many more artefacts are likely to be revealed.”

The excavations are the first major archaeological dig on the site and are being conducted as a joint project between the Penitentiary Chapel Historic Site and PAHSMA.

Dr Roe has been joined by PAHSMA colleague Annita Waghorn and visiting archaeologist Dr Martin Gibbs from the University of Sydney.

He said it was uncommon to find items belonging to convicts.

“It is very exciting to find personal items, particularly those made by the convicts themselves such as the gaming tokens,” Dr Roe said.

“These untouched sites are as rare as hens’ teeth and there is enormous potential for more work here.”

PAHSMA chief executive officer Stephen Large said PAHSMA was extremely pleased its heritage conservation team had had the opportunity to assist with the joint project.

“It will contribute to our understanding of the convict experience and allow us to tell the Tasmanian convict story more accurately,” Mr Large said.

The recovered artefacts will be identified, dated and conserved before being displayed at the Penitentiary Chapel museum.


Associated story

Convict Past Unearthed - ABC News Online

Buried treasure discovered under Penitentiary Chapel

Archaeologists David Roe, left, Annita Waghorn and Martin Gibbs at work in the convict cell

Buried treasure discovered under Penitentiary Chapel

The artefact-rich soil from the cell is sieved to reveal more treasures

Buried treasure discovered under Penitentiary Chapel

Site curator Brian Rieusset with an 1806 farthing found under the cell floor

Buried treasure discovered under Penitentiary Chapel

A clay pipe was among the finds

Buried treasure discovered under Penitentiary Chapel

Convict gaming tokens fashioned from wood