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Hyde Park Barracks archaeology collection



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The main archaeological collection of the Hyde Park Barracks, comprising approximately 95,000 artefacts, was retrieved during the first major, public-funded excavation in Sydney in 1980–1981. The excavation was undertaken prior to the restoration of the site as a museum. The excavation explored the construction and occupation of the Francis Greenway designed convict barracks building (1817–1848), which was later used as an Immigration Depot (1848–1886), Government Asylum for Aged, Infirm & Destitute Women (1862–1886) and then numerous judicial courts and offices (1886–1979). Smaller excavations were carried out for minor maintenance projects from 1982 to 1997.

This collection is one of the largest, most comprehensive, and best-preserved archaeological assemblages recovered from a 19th-century institution anywhere in the world. More than half of the assemblage came from underfloor spaces of the main building and date to the period of the Immigration Depot (1848–1886) and Destitute Asylum (1862–1886). The dry conditions of the underfloor spaces preserved an array of perishable textile and paper artefacts rarely available to archaeologists. Though a small number of these deposits relate to the convict period (1819), the majority date from 1848 (when ceiling boards were installed). Therefore, the underfloor collection is predominately associated with the building’s female, and subsequent, phases of occupation. This component of the assemblage represents a vast array of material culture related to ordinary, institutionalised women or in some cases children. Among the detritus of everyday life there are rosaries and religious medals, skirt lengths, sewing equipment, costume jewellery, children’s toys and clothing, medicine bottles (sometimes with the names of the patients still on the labels), pieces of mending, paper scraps from letters, newspapers, improving works and religious tracts. The collection has the capacity to tell us much about the history of ordinary women in the 19th century and the operation of institutions such as destitute asylums and their English counterparts, the workhouses and, to a lesser extent, the experience of female immigration in the mid 19th century.

Approximately one third of the assemblage was recovered from construction trench fills, refuse pits and accumulated occupation deposits in and around the main dormitory building, along the northern range, and in the north guardhouse (the ‘underground’ collection). Artefacts recovered from these areas provide compelling clues to the use of rooms and buildings (such as the printing type in northern range), and the alterations made to accommodate these changes over time. While the capacity for large-scale assemblage analysis is limited by the small number of artefacts recovered from most areas, individual items in the collection present high research potential for material culture studies and all artefacts from deposits pre-dating 1848 may be considered rare physical links with the daily operations of colonial government agencies in the early decades of the colony. The collection also contains rare individual items of exceptional national significance, including a Board of Ordnance convict shirt and shoes, a set of braces with yellow woollen, ‘Parramatta’ cloth, bonnets and aprons made at the Barracks Asylum and medicine bottles bearing the names of some inmates at the Asylum.


Archaeology; Asylums; Barracks; Convicts; Early colony; Government; Immigration; Social history; Women

Coverage Spatial

Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Coverage Temporal




2012-05-30 23:41

2011-03-16 11:38