Academic journal article Archaeology in Oceania

The Convict System of New South Wales: A Review of Archaeological Research since 2001

Academic journal article Archaeology in Oceania

The Convict System of New South Wales: A Review of Archaeological Research since 2001

Article excerpt


The last ten years of archaeological research on convict sites in NSW has seen a wealth of new discoveries thanks to unprecedented access to urban settings as a result of the development boom in the greater Sydney area. Not surprisingly, the direction of research has therefore largely been dictated by the nature of these mitigation projects and consequently favors greater understanding of convict urban landscapes. However, the pressure to complete successive large scale projects, limited funding for post-excavation analysis and interpretation, a growing body of incomplete reports, and the lack of an overall framework for NSW convict archaeological studies has seen an uneven advance in our knowledge of convict life since the last review by Denis Gojak in 2001. This paper reports on some of the main discoveries and describes efforts by academic and professional archaeologists to collaborate and facilitate further convict research in NSW, especially further analysis and syntheses of material, through the Archaeology of Sydney Research Group, the NSW Archaeology Online grey literature project and targeted student research.

Keywords: convict, historical archaeology, urban archaeology, emancipist, convict industry


The operation and consequences of the convict system remains one of the most enduring and powerful themes within Australian historical archaeology, embracing a diverse range of possible research trajectories and interpretive stances. Approaches to the archaeology of convictism have been subject to shifting interests, sometimes as a result of dialogues taking place within allied disciplines, but also as a result of opportunities to access relevant sites which have emerged as a result of commercial archaeological mitigation work.

In 2001 Denis Gojak reviewed the state of convict archaeology in New South Wales and proposed several directions for future research (Gojak 2001). This paper updates the status of convict research until 2011 and considers some of the emergent problems from the last decade, especially the glut of data resulting from archaeological investigations arising as a consequence of the development boom. It also reports on collaborative efforts between university and professional archaeologists to advance the convict research agenda including some of the recent projects undertaken by students as part of the Archaeology of Sydney Research Group's convict sub-project.

History of convicts in NSW

Convicts formed a significant proportion of the founding European population of Australia, with transportation of criminals from the United Kingdom continuing until 1868. The convicts and their descendants played a significant economic and social role in the development of the country although the nature of these contributions and the transformations from penal colony to free settlement continues to be a subject for historical and archaeological exploration (Smith 2008; Karskens 2009). In NSW the system operated from 1788 to 1840 at which time transportation ended, although in the following decades there were still convicts completing their sentences. The historical background of transportation and the convict system in NSW is available from many other sources, with a brief outline of its operation provided here as context for considering the potential for archaeological research (see Kerr 1984, 1988; Hughes 1987).

The convict system operated on the basis of a graduated hierarchy, where through good behavior in various forms of gang, assigned, or largely self-managed labour a convict could progressively enjoy increasing levels of freedom within the colony and ultimately receive a full pardon (Kerr 1984). Conversely, poor behavior would see the removal of these privileges, various forms of restriction, confinement to prison, corporal punishment and in extreme cases capital punishment. While the major establishments and nodes for convict administration were present in the main settlements, mostly the NSW convict system was dispersed through the various urban and rural settled areas. …

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