'Rebecca Will You Marry Me? Tim': Inscriptions as Objects of Biography at the North Head Quarantine Station, Manly, New South Wales

Article excerpt

Abstract

In this paper we explore the historical inscriptions at the North Head Quarantine Station, Manly through the lens of biography to examine what the archaeological record can tell us about some of the people who found themselves in quarantine and who chose to mark their presence in the landscape. In particular we focus on two inscriptions located in the Wharf area of the Quarantine Station to illustrate how the archaeological record in this instance provides a mechanism for investigating and exploring the personal and social histories of migration and quarantine. Half of all the inscriptions at the Quarantine Station contain some biographical information about people, place and passage. They provide a material portal through which we can access something of the stories of the ordinary men, women and children who migrated to Australia. The archaeological record of names and lists of passengers and crew does not simply map onto the shipping registers in the archives, as the Samuel Plimsoll and John Howie examples illustrate. The material characteristics of the inscriptions set up a discursive interaction between the archaeological and historical records that allows us to interrogate them as objects with a biography and as objects as biography.

Keywords: North Head Quarantine Station, historical inscriptions, object biography

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Rebecca Will You Marry Me? Tim is carved in large letters across the face of a boulder at Old Man's Hat, North Head, Manly. It appears to have been made relatively recently as the inscription is fresh and unpatinated. Although we do not know who Rebecca is, or indeed whether she agreed to marry Tim, her declarative suitor, this intimate glimpse into a private and personal moment is just one example, amongst many, of an individual instance of mark making and identity assertion at the North Head Quarantine Station. Even if Tim thought his handwritten marriage proposal might remain hidden from view to be seen by Rebecca alone, it nevertheless remains as a mark of presence long past the immediacy and impulse of that one romantic moment. Tim's proposal which sits on the sandstone outcrop amongst a suite of other inscriptions, many dating to the late nineteenth century, has now become part of the larger material record of marks. We are left to wonder not only about Rebecca and Tim and their potential life together but also about what North Head meant to them as a place. The effect of both this individual inscription and those surrounding it is to pull us, the viewer, into an engagement with person and place, both historically and in the present (Frederick and Clarke in press).

Inscription and biography

When Appadurai (1986) and others raised the 'biographical possibilities' of things (Kopytoff 1986: 66), they mobilised a turning point in the study of object-human relations that resonated with archaeology. Janet Spector's (1993) groundbreaking study of a Lakota awl is a notable example of what is now referred to as the study of artefact life histories (Holtorf 2002; Joy 2009). At the heart of such archaeological investigations is the notion that, 'as people and objects gather time, movement and change, they are constantly transformed, and these transformations of person and object are tied up with each other' (Gosden and Marshall 1999:169).

By taking this approach, an individual inscription may be regarded as an artefact with a biography. In one sense the life of the inscription begins when it is carved into the sandstone. In another sense its biography as an archaeological signature only begins when we make note of its presence as a site or artefact. From that point on 'Rebecca and Tim' are no longer simply tied to each other, they acquire a new history in which they are assigned a number, a description, a GPS coordinate, a technique, an aspect and so on. The biography of the inscription inevitably becomes entwined in a larger network of biographies that make up the archaeological assemblage as a whole. …