Thursday, June 30, 2011

A Report from the Ross Female Factory

From November 1995 through January 1996, Eleanor Casella directed excavations at a mid-nineteenth century female convict site in Tasmania, Australia. This preliminary field season was funded by research grants from the University of California at Berkeley, and heavily supported by the University of Tasmania, the State Parks and Wildlife Service, and the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery (Laucheston, Tasmania). Community volunteers, regional archaeologists, local school teachers, Aboriginal Heritage Officers, and students from both Tasmanian and Australian mainland universities actively participated in this field work project. Resulting data included a topographic survey of a "Female Factory" convict site at the Ross township, and excavation of a test pit within the prison to determine the archaeological integrity of subsurface remains. This preliminary season was the first international research project to be conducted on an historic-era site in Australia.

The transportation of convicts to Australia was the largest involuntary migration of western people in modern history. Over 500,000 people were processed through a vast network of probation stations, hiring depots, hard labor camps, and model prisons across the continent. Although the majority of these convicts were from the British Isles, historical studies have shown that a significant number of Canadians, Polynesians, and Americans who committed crimes in British territories were also incarcerated within the Australian Convict System.

After the American Revolution prevented further transportation of convicts to Georgia, the British Parliament authorized removal of the criminal underclasses to the remote colony of New South Wales. A Second penal colony was soon required to accommodate the increasing convict population, and in 1803 Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania) was established for that purpose. This distant island soon became the primary Australian penal colony. It quickly developed an extensive bureaucratic and institutional prison system designed to punish and reform the convicts. Over twelve thousand women were transported to Tasmania from 1803 until 1853, when economic and social forces of the expanding Industrial Revolution caused Britain to cease transportation, The vast majority of these women convicts were incarcerated in the Female Factory System, a network of prisons scattered across the island. These penal institutions were designed as probation stations where "immoral" female convicts would be reformed through prayer and forced training in acceptable feminine industries, such as sewing, laundry and cooking. Once they successfully served their probation period, the "reconstituted" women were to be released into the free community where they would gain moral livelihoods as domestic servants.

The lived histories of these Factories probably diverged from this ideal model. Despite the program of reform designed by the Convict Department, popular Australian history has mythologized these women as an unrepentant, violent, incorrigible "bunch of damned whores," and celebrates their adventures of resistance. Documentary records also suggest a delicate balance of power within the penal institutions, with riots and underground exchange of "Luxuries" vaguely described in the Superintendants' reports.

Preliminary excavations, funded though a U.C. Berkeley, Department of Anthropology Continuing Student Travel Grant, produced exciting results. Foundations of the original inmate dormitory suggest multiple building sequences, possibly the architectural signature of continued power struggles between prison officials and recalcitrant convicts. Excavations also uncovered the presence of a carefully engineered course of carved sandstone drain, a feature never documented in Factory construction or sanitization records. Recovered underfloor deposits demonstrate the presence of illicit materials such as non-uniform buttons, alcohol bottle fragments, kaolin tobacco pipes, and reworked iron scrap, possibly functioning as makeshift weaponry. Analysis of this artifactual assemblage will yield information on the communication and negotiation of gender identities within the convict prison. Eleanor Casella will be directing more extensive excavations at the Ross Female Factory from December 1996 through February 1997. After analysis, this unique archaeological collection will be curated and displayed at the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery of Laucheston, Tasmania, where efforts are already underway to create a permanent exhibit on Tasmanian female convictism.

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