Dig a little deeper

Fruit seeds, fragile fragments and family history – archaeologist and curator Dr Fiona Starr shares her discoveries.

I’ve been interested in archaeology since I was young. My grandmother had several shelves of National Geographic magazines that she had been collecting since the 1940s, and I’d often flip through them to find the archaeology articles about World Heritage sites such as Pompeii.

I now work as the curator of the World Heritage listed Hyde Park Barracks Museum and The Mint, where no two days are the same. I’m usually working on at least one special project – at the moment it’s the experiential exhibition about the female Immigration Depot, which was housed at the barracks between 1848 and 1886. We estimate that at least 40,000 young women, newly arrived off the ships, passed through the depot.

We’re inviting visitors to discover some of the fascinating stories of the depot – they can lift the lids of trunks filled with artefacts, read the personal profiles of the women and experience what it feels like to nap on an iron dormitory bed. The exhibition is for all our visitors to enjoy, but we also want to connect with the descendants of the women who once stayed at the barracks – we know they’re out there.

Thousands of fragments

During excavations of Hyde Park Barracks’ underfloor cavities in 1979–81, archaeologists uncovered over 100,000 artefacts, many of which were left behind by the women of the Immigration Depot. These included incredibly personal items such as clothes, keepsakes, thimbles, jewellery, medicine bottles, toothbrushes and even soap. You find yourself wondering which of these were hidden and which just fell through the floorboards. Curiously, rats and mice saved many of the artefacts, pulling them under the boards for their nests – the barracks was infested with rodents throughout most of its history.

A lot of the artefacts are obviously fragmented and dirty, so it’s important to look at where they were found and what they were found with. That’s what gives them meaning and reveals the personal stories that lie beneath.

Rewriting history

For me, the fascination of historical archaeology is seeing how the artefacts correspond with documentation we have about the era. Official ration records say the depot women were given beef, vegetables and bread, but there were also plenty of fruit seeds found in the underfloor spaces. Records are unclear on the location of the depot’s dining hall, but there was a high concentration of fruit seeds, tableware and animal bones found under the southern room on level 2 of the building, so it’s likely the women ate there at some time.

Family threads

Our properties are such rich sources of stories that it can be hard to know what to explore next. If I had the chance to meet someone from the history of our places, it would be Governor Lachlan Macquarie, whose plan to civilise Sydney resulted in the construction of Hyde Park Barracks and the Rum Hospital (The Mint). More personally though, it would be my great-great-great-grandfather James Gough.

He was a convict builder who was overseer of carpenters at the lumberyard and worked on the re-roofing of the Supreme Courthouse and extensions to Old Government House, Parramatta. He was sent to Cockatoo Island in 1841 – suspected of stealing a cow – but was let off and transferred to Hyde Park Barracks. He received his absolute pardon on 8 March 1842.

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Dr Fiona Starr

Dr Fiona Starr

Former curator

Fiona claims her love of history is hereditary – passed on by her mother and grandmother, each interested in Australian history, genealogy and world history, with a passion for visiting and learning about heritage sites around the world. Her interest took root with degrees in historical archaeology and museum studies, and through internships at the Museum of London and the UNESCO World Heritage Centre, Paris. Work on archaeological digs, with museum collections and on numerous exhibition and site interpretation projects inspired her PhD research into encouraging the private sector to help conserve cultural heritage sites. As curator of the Hyde Park Barracks Museum and The Mint (Macquarie Street Portfolio), Fiona combines her curiosity for colonial and convict history with expertise in managing and interpreting archaeology to help bring the fascinating stories of these sites to life for visitors.

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Government Printing Office; NRS 4481, Glass negatives. NRS-4481-4-44-[AF00194836] Immigration Barracks Sydney, August 1871 [Department of Public Works]

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