Friday, November 1, 2013

Revisiting the Past- the Archaeology of Blackboy Hill

 In my previous post, I mentioned that I'd be expanding on the Blackboy Hill story with a little detail on the archaeology work currently being done in the area. As an archaeologist myself, I tend to see landscapes in many layers- present and past- and Blackboy Hill is no exception, though there's not a great deal left to see above the ground.

Beneath the ground, there's not a great deal left either, but there is enough to provide some new information. Historical archaeologist Dr. Shane Burke, Senior Lecturer in Archaeology at the University of Notre Dame, was kind enough to answer some questions for me about the results of his investigations in the wider area.

 1. Can you tell me a little about your work at Blackboy Hill? What are your aims for the project?

The project has many aims – the first to determine if any archaeology of the 1914 to 1918 camp exists. Today it is mostly a school and residential area, but careful survey discovered a few areas containing artefacts with distinct early 20th century characteristics. The main aim is to test the identity of the Australia soldier portrayed in numerous sources with the archaeological record.
2. What was the extent of the original site, and how much of it remains today? Were there any significant features in the preserved area?

The project is on-going. The original site was large but larger than the original maps and photographs show. Areas now occupied by houses had trenches as late as the 1980s; the site of the hospital is now fancy homes built in the 1990s. When I went to school in the area during the 1970s, mates of mine who lived nearby often brought objects to school like rising sun hat badges. The ‘site’ is extensive if one includes the Helena Vale racecourse grandstand where troops practised rappelling down the structure’s wall.

However, for the project, we are keeping to the map from the Commonwealth showing tents, parade ground and hospital. Much of this area is under the nearby school, but the area of excavation provided an extensive range of artefacts. Maps showed buildings, but they often do not show the rubbish pits, and it is these features we discovered during the excavations in 2011. Nearby are most likely brick hearths for the kitchen, but we intend testing this hypothesis in the near future.

The area near the memorial has a row of trees planted in 1914.

3. How has the landscape changed, and how has it stayed the same? What, if anything, would be familiar now to the soldiers who first marched into camp in 1914?

The general feel of the place is unaltered, while the topography of the Darling Range has remained the same. The railway line has gone, but the highway retains a similar route. The hills are the hills, whether 1914 or 2014.

4. What kind of results have you seen from your excavations? What types of material culture are you finding? Have you encountered any surprises?

Much of the material unearthed has passed through cultural and natural filters. Beer bottles of bottle green colour were very common, which was surprising because the camp went through both ‘wet’ and ‘dry’ phases – but we did not expect to find so much. There were a number of personal objects, like harmonica reed bases. The soles of army issue boots, with their distinct copper studding, were also found. Very surprising was the discovery of a few French perfume bottles. Blank .303 ammunition was also common.

5. What conclusions have you drawn from your results so far?

The interpretation of life at the camp is altering as more material comes to hand. The perfume bottles could mean women at the camp contrary to army regulations, or it could mean that the men were attempting to overcome body odour. This was the first time many of the men at the camp had ‘roughed it’, and some may not have appreciated certain aspects of army life. The alcohol could be a site-specific find, for officers were permitted to drink while general ranks were not, but it could also mean an obvious flouting of camp regulations.

The ammunition is contrary to secondary sources that state that firearm’s practice was never done at the site.

One must remember that the camp was used in the 1930s during the depression and the 1940s during the second war. However, the green beer bottle glass dates to pre-1922 when the king-brown was introduced, while the .303 cartridges are date stamped to 1908.


A huge thank you to Shane for taking time out from his busy research schedule to share those fascinating details.

And to finish, a sadly necessary reminder: to anyone who goes out to have a look at the Commemoration Site at Greenmount, please remember that Western Australia's heritage laws forbid the removal of culturally significant material from sites like Blackboy Hill. Not to mention, the story can only be told if the material remains where it fell. So, as I tell my kids- look with your eyes, not with your hands, and please respect our ANZAC history.

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