Hands-on learning: Digging up WA’s past

Fragments of a pearlware plate
A pair of scissors and a key that have corroded and adhered to each other over time

1st October 2015

Recent discoveries by academics and Archaeology students from The University of Notre Dame Australia’s School of Arts & Sciences, Fremantle, are providing a glimpse into WA’s colonial past and the first settlers’ stories of hope and survival.

The dig took place at Peel Town, a 60 hectare site now covered by a swathe of forest as part of the Beeliar Regional Park, and roughly 15km south of Notre Dame’s Fremantle Campus. A small portion of this site, known as Hooghly Town for its settlers who arrived on a ship called Hooghly, was the main focus of the dig.

Discoveries of charcoal, small fragments of glass and ceramic, and English flint all suggested that the material gathered from the family household was deposited five or six metres away in a rubbish disposal area. The unearthing of semi-complete ceramic plates with English transfer patterns suggest that some colonists bought new items before heading abroad.

Ultimately, these artefacts, and others, paint a larger picture of family life in Hooghly Town during 1830 – especially regarding food preparation, consumption and disposal.

“Archaeology students at Notre Dame are extraordinarily lucky in that Western Australia’s premier early colonial site is 25 minutes south of the Fremantle Campus,” Dr Shane Burke, Coordinator of the Archaeology program in the School of Arts & Sciences, Fremantle, said.

“It is a site that contains a rich archaeological record that almost ensures the discovery of objects during fieldwork. This is incorporated into many archaeology units offered.

“One can read about techniques, methods and theories, but getting into the field enacts a learning experience that cannot be transferred and absorbed through books.”

Emphasising the importance of hands-on learning, the University’s Archaeology program takes students out of the classroom and into the field. Underpinned by comprehensive archaeological training in method and theory, field survey and excavation, Notre Dame students are able to contribute meaningfully to the study of human behaviour over the last 200 years of Western Australia’s history.

Rebecca Cuddihy, a Study Abroad student from the University of Portland, said having practical learning experiences as part of her studies will be of great importance to her future career.

“Understanding the stories of Thomas Peel, the early Western Australian settlers and their experiences in their new home provided me with great insight to the development of humanity over the past two centuries,” Rebecca said.

“Hands-on learning makes each experience more exciting and real. We even found objects exotic to a British settlement, such as French cognac bottles and Chinese and Japanese ceramics. These highlight that some of WA’s early colonists had experienced life outside of their motherland.

“I am truly grateful to Notre Dame and its Archaeology program for having the opportunity to contribute meaningfully to the history of Western Australia through my studies.”

Graduates of Notre Dame’s Archaeology program have gained employment in a number of state and federal government departments and mining companies, such as the Department of Indigenous Affairs, the Department of Environment and Conservation, the Native Title Tribunal, Rio Tinto and BHP. Postgraduate research opportunities are also available in Archaeology.

“Students see the physical results of people living in the past – their successes and their failures, and behaviours not often discussed or alluded to in the historical record. Archaeology has always made those that study the discipline more aware of the present,” Dr Burke said.

Applications are now open to study in 2016. For course listings and admissions information, please visit notredame.edu.au.

Leigh Dawson: Tel (08) 9433 0569; Mob 0405 441 093; leigh.dawson@nd.edu.au