Archaeology in action: Hyde Park Barracks
It’s not only the small treasures, possessions and daily refuse left behind by these people that interests us, it’s the standing buildings themselves and the marks and layers of time that have been left behind by those who used their spaces.
In 1979 a major restoration of Hyde Park Barracks was begun, and by September 1980 the Barracks became the subject of the first publicly-funded archaeological excavation in New South Wales. Test trenches were opened by archaeologist Wendy Thorp, and then for 14 weeks throughout 1981 the site was under excavation by a team of 11 archaeologists, a conservator, a photographer and 250 volunteers, led by archaeologist Patricia Burritt.
Many smaller excavations, and a courtyard clearance of surface finds have also been conducted since, and a geophysical survey of the northern courtyard was conducted by students of the University of Sydney in 2013.
During these excavations archaeologists discovered over 120,000 artefacts around the site, including over 80,000 recovered from beneath the floors of the upper levels of the dormitory building, where objects had been trapped for up to 160 years. An estimated 80 per cent were left behind by women of the Female Immigration Depot, the Hyde Park Asylum for aged and destitute women and courts and government offices, and the remaining 20 per cent survived the installation of new ceilings in 1848, and date from the convict period.
The dry underfloor cavities preserved a surprising variety of fragile materials including paper, textiles and organic objects that don’t usually survive at archaeological sites.
It’s this material that makes the assemblage from Hyde Park Barracks of international importance, as a rare archive of 19th century institutional life. Between 2000 and 2010, a study of the women’s artefacts by La Trobe University revealed intricate details of everyday life in the Immigration Depot and Hyde Park Asylum including smoking, the distribution of religious texts, medical care, meagre possessions, recycled clothing and sewing activities.
More recently a study of the convict artefacts by curator Fiona Starr has revealed how barracks convicts made their lives more comfortable through improvisation and creativity, resistance to authority and through an extensive illicit trade network.
Today, large areas of the courtyard remain unexcavated, and Hyde Park Barracks still has much to reveal about its turbulent past.
Excavation director Patricia Burritt doing a television interview on the ground floor of Hyde Park Barracks, 1981.
Archaeologists monitoring the backhoe excavation of service trenches in the courtyard, Hyde Park Barracks, 1981.
Underfloor excavation of the level 2 stair landing, Hyde Park Barracks, 1981.
Archaeologists and volunteers photographed near the end of the dig at HPB and the Mint, 1981.
Standing from left: Rob Morris, Wendy Thorp, Elspeth Wishart, (volunteer), Grahame Wilson, Robert Varman, (volunteer), Andrew Wilson, (volunteer - Maree Brown?). Seated from left: Ted Higginbotham, Elizabeth Pinder, Patricia Burritt, Afonso Duque Portugal, Danny Petocz, Lisa Newell, (volunteer), (volunteer).
Archaeologist Robert Varman and three volunteers excavating a room on the ground floor at Hyde Park Barracks, 1981.
Archaeologist recovering small finds after sieving, Hyde Park Barracks, 1981.
Archaeologist Robert Varman and two volunteers excavating the north-east room of the ground floor of Hyde Park Barracks, 1981.
A well-earned rest against pipes and convict-made sandstock bricks, Hyde Park Barracks, 1981.
Archaeologist Wendy Thorp looking for small finds after sieving, Hyde Park Barracks, 1981.
North-east ground floor room of Hyde Park Barracks during excavation, looking west, 1980-81.
North-east ground floor room of Hyde Park Barracks during excavation, looking east, 1980-81. An archaeological grid is overlaid on a rat burrow in the foreground.
Removing the floorboards from the north-east ground floor room of Hyde Park Barracks, prior to excavation, 1980.
Some of the first floorboards removed before the underfloor excavation of Hyde Park Barracks began, 1980.
Archaeologists excavating a trench outside the eastern door of Hyde Park Barracks, 1981. From left: Wendy Thorp, Grahame Wilson, Robert Varman.
North-east ground floor room of Hyde Park Barracks after excavation, looking east, 1981.
Recovering finds from a trench behind Hyde Park Barracks, 1981. From left: Danny Petocz, Wendy Thorp, two volunteers.
Stacks of convict-made sandstock bricks, recovered during underground excavations, Hyde Park Barracks, 1981.
Finds in situ before excavation, ground floor of Hyde Park Barracks, 1981.
Archaeological excavation in the north-east ground floor room of Hyde Park Barracks, 1981. Robert Varman looking at Elizabeth Pinder, with three volunteers
Underground of the south-east room before excavation, Hyde Park Barracks, 1980.
Removing the floor joists in the south-east room, ground floor before excavation, Hyde Park Barracks, 1980.
Archaeologist with dust mask removing decades of accumulated deposit from beneath the floorboards, Hyde Park Barracks, 1980.
Level 3 south eastern dormitory, Hyde Park Barracks, during PWD restoration, showing the first floorboards removed and sub-floor deposits, c1979-80
Recently added stories
Heritage in the City’s Future
No one wants a city that is indistinct from other global cities. The specific identity of a city, its sense of character and place stems from its heritage—places, buildings, whole streets and quarters of the city that embody past eras and encourage people to consider their place in time.
Story of country: our beginning
When visiting Sydney Living Museums it can be difficult to see beyond the European colonial narrative of our past and picture these sites before the bricks and mortar were laid. But peeling back the layers of time we find ourselves immersed in a truly different landscape.