Culture and heritage


Exploring the archaeology of the modern city

A new Sydney-based project, Exploring the Archaeology of the Modern City, is taking a fresh look at the city's major historical-archaeological collections. The Archaeology Program of La Trobe University embarked on the project in February this year, with the support of the NSW Heritage Office. Project Director and Head of the School of Historical and European Studies at La Trobe, Professor Tim Murray, writes of their progress and plans for work over the 2½ years.

Earlier this year when our project archaeologist, Penny Crook, was reviewing the archaeological catalogue of the Hyde Park Barracks Museum she noticed some fragments of broken ceramics stamped 'R.H.' and 'MELBOURNE'.

The fragments had been discovered during Sydney's first major archaeological excavation in 1980-1981. They were recovered from the southeast corner of the third level of the main building of the Hyde Park Barracks in Macquarie Street.

The Barracks was originally constructed between 1817 and 1819 as a dormitory for convicts, but when transportation of convicts to NSW stopped in 1840, other uses had to be found for the building. In 1848 a Female Immigration Depot occupied all three floors, and in 1862 a Government Asylum for Infirm and Destitute Women was established on the third floor.

The ceramic fragments, originally part of at least two bowls and a cup, were manufactured by Ralph Hammersley who operated a pottery in the Staffordshire district in England between 1860 and 1905. The particular mark on these vessels dates to between 1860 and 1883. At this time the mark often contained the registered pattern name, which in this case is 'MELBOURNE'. These dates allow us to argue with some confidence that the vessels were used and lost under the floorboards either during the time of the Asylum or the Judicial Offices, which moved into the Barracks in 1886.

The presence of the maker's mark allows us to treat these fragments as being 'diagnostic', but this is not their only interest. The fact that we have vessels of different function-at least two bowls and a cup-from one area on Level 3 suggests that they may have been part of a larger dinner service. If they were, the service may have been one acquired and used by the Asylum - or on the other hand, may broaden our understanding of what was going on in the Judicial Offices!

These ceramic fragments were discovered at Hyde Park Barracks in Macquarie Street, Sydney. Photograph by Penny Crook

These ceramic fragments were discovered at Hyde Park Barracks in Macquarie Street, Sydney. Photograph by Penny Crook

Our project while exploring larger historical issues will be founded on sorting out very specific questions. The 'Melbourne' crockery raises queries such as: Can we more confidently relate these fragments to the Asylum or the Judicial Offices? How many varieties of dinner services were used in the Barracks Asylum and Depot? Are they plain or fancy? Are they likely to have been 'standard issue' Asylum wares? Does the pattern name suggest that Hammersley, like other potters from the British Isles, was trying to find a way of appealing to the Australian market?

Answering them will require Penny to work closely with Project Historian, Laila Ellmoos. Together they will examine purchasing records of the Asylum and Depot, find out who occupied which areas of Levels 2 and 3 and even look into Hammersley's pottery in Staffordshire.

When you consider that these broken fragments of 'MELBOURNE' crockery are just a handful of the 4,000-odd fragments recovered from the Hyde Park Barracks alone, and a miniscule fraction of the one million or more artefacts recovered from other sites that the EAMC project will be examining, the possibilities for historical-archaeological research seem infinite. Other sites in the project include first Government House, the Mint and sites in the Rocks and Haymarket.

When our project is completed at the end of 2003, the EAMC team will know a little more about the kinds of vessels women from the Depot and Asylum used at the table, whether their clothes were fashionable and what kinds of work they undertook while confined in the Barracks building.

More importantly, we will understand how these facets of daily life compare with the fashions, table manners and work practices of convicts, immigrants, working-class people and government officials who lived or worked at the other sites under study. Together they have left behind an amazing collection of artefacts through which we can explore Sydney's lively past.

The Archaeology of the Modern City (EAMC) is funded by the Australian Research Council Linkage Scheme (formerly SPIRT) and conducted by La Trobe University with the Historic Houses Trust of NSW, Godden Mackay Logan, Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority, NSW Heritage Office, Heritage Victoria and Sydney City Council as industry partners.

Page last updated: 01 September 2012