Coins stash uncovered during archaeological excavations in Port Arthur provides rare insight into the illicit life of convicts

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Prisoners in the historic town of Port Arthur were not allowed to carry cash. So how did a pile of silver shillings worth about a week’s salary for one of the prison colony overseers end up being buried under the convict’s workshop?

“It’s such an evocative find, it’s so out of place,” said Sylvana Szydzik, conservation project manager for the Port Arthur Historic Site Management Authority.

“We know convicts sometimes had coins, but it was quite a large amount of money back then.”

The pieces were found during a 10-month archaeological dig of the foundry and blacksmith site conducted by Richard Tuffin and Ms. Szydzik, postdoctoral researcher at the University of New England.

The find joins other finds such as hand-crafted gaming tokens as well as skillfully crafted tobacco pipes and metal products.

The coins would have represented about a week’s salary for a prison guard.(Provided: Richard Tuffin)

Dr Tuffin said the coins were found in the clay floor of the workshop where the copper casting allegedly took place.

The convicts were punished for possession of money, and it is suspected that a cunning inmate stole an officer’s parts and hid them.

“Someone with access to the workshop was able to go to a relatively hidden part of the workshop and put it in the clay and could not come back and retrieve it,” he said. .

“It could have been because they were suspected and denied access to the workshop, or because they were sent to Hobart to be released.”

A very old brick building and an unearthed site
The excavation of the foundry and blacksmith site in Port Arthur. (Provided: Richard Tuffin)

A coin expert, known as a numismatist, will be hired to analyze the shillings, which date between 1814 and 1844.

Dr Tuffin said it was likely the coins were stolen in the 1850s.

Who had access to the workshops?

About 10 percent of the prison population, which at its peak was 1,200 men, worked in the workshops at all times.

Given that they had access to sharp tools and fire, it wouldn’t have been a job for the most hardened criminals in the colony.

“You find the people who behave better work in the shop and they are men with skills,” Dr. Tuffin said.

“You generally want men you can trust who work in these spaces.”

Old nails and bolts
Nails and bolts found at the Port Arthur smelter and blacksmith site.(Provided: Richard Tuffin)

Many of the convicts were skilled craftsmen before being transported, which is shown in the work, he said.

“The work that’s going on in this place is incredibly skilled, in the 1840s they founded the Port Arthur Bell Chime, which is an incredibly complex process to do,” he said.

The search found hundreds of kilograms of metalworking waste and was even able to determine where the men were believed to have been standing.

“We also found the anvil itself, which was quite interesting,” he said.

“You get a nice connection to the past when you find items like this. “

an old piece of metal sitting in a hole in the ground
The anvil of the metal workshop has been found and will be analyzed.(Provided: Richard Tuffin)

Port Arthur Black Market

Just like in a modern prison, there was a black market in Port Arthur.

“Back then it was tobacco and gambling,” said Dr. Tuffin.

“We know they made their own currency.”

He said possession of prohibited items such as homemade gambling tokens discovered in a previous search at the penitentiary would have created a hierarchy among convicts.

Port Arthur Penal Station, Tasmania, showing workers convicted in 1843. Color lithograph signed 'RNN' (or 'KNN')
Archaeologists have investigated forced labor at the Port Arthur penal colony.(State Library of New South Wales, public domain)

Dr Tuffin said it was assumed that convicts would not have been allowed to smoke tobacco while working.

But tobacco pipe remains were found throughout the workshop.

“The fact that we find fragments tells us that they are still allowed to smoke at work,” he said.

He said the pipe finds helped to evoke the daily experience of convicts working as blacksmiths while smoking tobacco.

The excavation was the third and final step in a series of excavations spanning nearly a decade and was part of a larger investigation into the forced labor at the site and its evolution over the 47 years of operation. from prison.

A man and a woman stand near the walls of the ruins of the historic Port Arthur penal colony.
Richard Tuffin and Sylvana Szydzik led the 10-month search.(ABC News: Maren Preuss)

A delicate search

The site of the excavation was chosen to help fill in the story of the convict and learn more about the forced labor that the convicts were forced to do.

The workshops were occupied from the 1830s, when transportation began, and were in use until 1877.

They went through several phases, including that of being used for making shoes, as well as for copper and iron work.

An archaeological dig with a woman wearing overalls and a hat on her knees working on the brown earth
Sylvana Szydzik, Conservation Project Officer with the Port Arthur Historic Site Management Authority, working at the blacksmith’s site.(Provided: Richard Tuffin)

To tourists visiting the Port Arthur site, it appears to be just grass among other ruins – but what lies below tells an important story in the history of Australian convicts.

“It was a center of activity, it gives us the opportunity to share this with our visitors,” said Ms. Szydzik.

She said the excavation was a particularly delicate dig as the site was damaged by bushfires in the 1890s.

“It was very difficult technically,” she said.

Port Arthur Historic Site
History even lives on under the grass in Port Arthur.(ABC News)

The finds will now be part of the interpretation of the site for tourists.

Ms Szydzik said experts are always discovering new things about Port Arthur.

“Everyone is always learning more about the history of the place and what happened here,” she said.

The remains of an old building showing only the foundations
The site of the 2021 excavations at the Port Arthur Historic Site.(Provided: Richard Tuffin)


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