Student dig explores Tasmanian barracks of colonial regiment

23 January 2017

Student archaeologists are excavating a former British military barracks to learn about Tasmania's convict and military history.

University of Sydney student Mikhaila Chaplin. Image: Carol Rääbus/ABC Hobart

Bachelor of Arts student Mikhaila Chaplin unearthed what is thought to be an ink bottle. Image: Carol Rääbus/ABC Hobart

University of Sydney and ANU students are excavating at Triabunna on Tasmania’s east coast for a second successive year.

The 1840s military barracks is known to have housed a regiment that guarded a convict settlement on nearby Maria Island. However experts are curious to determine if the regiment at Triabunna is the same one known to have been posted to Van Diemen’s land, after playing a role in the defeat of Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo.

Bachelor of Arts student Grace Kane trowels at Triabunna. Image: University of Sydney

Bachelor of Arts student Grace Kane trowelling at Triabunna. Image: University of Sydney

The dig is revealing fascinating knowledge about life in the remote colonial outpost, said Dr James Flexner, a lecturer in historical archaeology and heritage at the University of Sydney.     

“One of the really interesting finds from our 2016 visit was an 1855 token, which was made by a draper in Hobart,” said Dr Flexner.

“What it points to is the idea that early on in the colonial economy in Tasmania, they couldn’t even get enough British currency here to circulate. People were essentially striking their own currency to fill that gap.”

As ABC Hobart reports, University of Sydney archaeology students have been thrilled to delve beyond the military connections at Triabunna, to find further evidence about the lives of the site’s past residents. The barracks site was later used as a tavern, hotel, bakery, and post office.

“We have done a little bit of everything,” said Grace Kane, a third-year BA student majoring in archaeology. “I have carried out digging, trowelling, along with surveying, drawing, and building recording. We have also spent time in the lab, which has been really interesting.”

Ink bottles, slate pencils, and a toy soldier are among the items they have discovered. The universities’ joint initiative gives students a rare opportunity to gain experience on a dig made possible by plans to construct accommodation at the site.

Dr Flexner said: “It’s a realistic opportunity. It is essentially a developer-driven archaeology project, which the majority of archaeological excavations in New South Wales and Australia tend to be.”

“Once you have been on a dig, you learn the methodologies and techniques. And that’s where, as a student, you get on hands-on excavation experience in a professional setting. That then sets you up well to pursue a career in the field.” 

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