Archaeology in action: Hyde Park Barracks

Occupied continuously by government institutions throughout its history and with over 100,000 individuals passing through, Hyde Park Barracks has a rich archaeological record.

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.

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