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Sentiment in the Rubble

It’s hard not to be distracted by old houses, sand-stoned crumbling bridge-foundations and isolated headstones in and around Triabunna.  A cursory interest in these icons of the past in the small coastal hamlet, reveals its deep place in Tasmanian history; so easy to overlook with its present industriousness of modernity that has discovered this unique township. Yesterday it was log-trucks growling to the woodchip mill, now a memory and a promise of an exciting chapter in entrepreneurial things to come.

Today Triabunna is a-bustle with Winnebagos, caravans, back-packers and hire-drive visitors, helping to consolidate its non-industrial rightful place in the big Tassie picture ... tourism. But there’s more to tourism than snapshots and a little central pub with a beer pipeline direct to Antarctica.

And it has much to do with a dedicated group who’ve been bandicooting away for several weeks now at two tall sand-stoned buildings right next to that watering hole, The Spring Bay Hotel.

The twin-buildings, were the barracks that housed the 51st Regiment of Foot, who for eight years from 1839, oversaw the convicts of nearby Maria Island.

Barrow-loads of dirt, sifting and brushing and pauses for consultation; glimpses of triumph, even signs of cautious jubilance. It is a ‘dig’ of course. An archeological visit, at last, has made its way to Triabunna Barracks.

Pub banter has raised the obvious questions…wonder if they found anything? What’s there to be found? It’s in the heart of the town, just two big buildings, surrounded by grass, why take so long?

The three-week dig is coming to an end. Stuff is being packed up and loaded. Was it worthwhile? What brought them here?

“Hi guys, who’s the boss?”

“Ash, he’s the project director, over there.”

Dr D.A. (Ash) Lenton has more letters in his name than I can have beers to drive home legally. He is a Research Fellow in historical archaeology and architecture from the Australian National University. He looks busy, so beyond my introduction, I won’t take up his time. It is a short introduction. That I would like to write a small article on the success or otherwise of the Triabunna project for the Tasmanian Times. We exchange emails. He will send me photos of the dig and answer any questions related to it.

Thanks to the immediacy of the web and the integrity of an old-fashioned handshake, within a week, photos of the spoils of the dig and answers to questions are on my computer.

And it is not as Dr Lenton paraphrases, a study of the inanimate, it is something much more he says and I am whisked away, as must have been his dig students to a time and a place where human sentiment, homesickness, loneliness, duty and isolation have been uncovered in the dirt of Triabunna Barracks.

Who smoked those pipes of clay? Did they sit and puff and reflect on home and their families, their children perhaps? To whom did that little doll belong, its fragments, now rescued and cleansed and recorded for posterity? Was it sent to a daddy a long way from home? Was it brought by a visiting daughter to the barracks? How did it get broken? What is the sentiment behind the little doll? How do the dig students feel when they unearth the memories of the owner of that little doll?

To my emailed questions Dr Lenton sends the answers.

P: When you find fragments as the little doll, does it emphasise the emotion beyond historic importance of such digs? How does your crew react when pieces of a child’s life are uncovered after being buried for so long?

Dr Lenton: “Finding small personal items like toys and dolls is a revelatory experience for students. Pottery and glass is informative but personal items are the way in which we connect to previous generations of people. Archaeology is not about measuring old pots. It is the study of people’s way of life in the past. History tells us what great men (sometimes women) did. Archaeology connects us personally with the ordinary folk - our own people.

P: Given the proximity of the old buildings to a busy location did you expect to find so many fragments of past lives dating back to the mid 19thC?

Dr L: “Given the proximity, it was very likely that we would find an abundance of artefacts. The 19thC buildings were deliberately set up near to the ferry port and the main volume of human traffic.

All manner of people - soldiers, their families, whalers, bakers, farmers, the publican - would have stayed or lived here in the 19th century.

P: Are there many potential projects as this in other Tasmanian locations?

Dr L: “ There is the potential for other similar projects in the future. We will be looking into that in years to come.”

P: Does Tasmania’s smaller population and distribution of heritage dwellings emphasise the importance of ongoing projects as the Triabunna project?

Dr L: “It is vital that Tasmania’s rare heritage is conserved, protected, researched but also kept alive. An unused building is a dead building. It is crucial that modern, appropriate uses are found for our heritage buildings or they will simply disintegrate through lack of maintenance.”

P: What brought the Triabunna project to your attention?

Dr L: “We were brought to the site by the owners John & Kim Samin. They have a keen interest in the historical importance of the site. They plan to reopen the buildings as bed and breakfast accommodation (same as they were in the 1840s) and they are extremely keen to conserve and properly maintain the character of the site. They also wanted to contribute to the training of students in archaeology as there are very few opportunities for students starting out in Australia.”

I am pleased now I crossed the lawn to introduce myself. I have placed material as this on the Tasmanian Times for posterity. I spent years transcribing letters, penciled copies, diaries of the lives of the Hood family, who left post WWI Hobart to settle on Maria Island, to Triabunna and eventually at Orford. Their shanty homes, now gone, lost to the community without lament. I did my own dig, sorting through musty volumes, and prepared a self-published memoir of their sometimes desperately poor lives. The Tasmanian archives now have all four hundred diaries. My little publication is now in the State and National libraries. Their lives not now lost to posterity. They were protected from rats by snakes.

I have taken the title for this essay, from a poem penned to capture the sentiment of that family, as students now sift the rubble of our nation in search of the sentiment of we the human family. What is it about sentiment that doesn’t capture the hearts and minds of our State and Federal Treasurers? More students at more dig sites…especially in sentiment and sediment-rich Tasmania.

Sentiment is not as loud as log-trucks of the past or fish trucks that will soon ferry fish-gut from across the State to a new Triabunna factory. But it is sentiment that brings visitors to the State and locals out of their homes. Not just to Port Arthur, but to little houses falling derelict across the entirety of our landscape, begging the questions: who lived there, what did they do, who worked that rusted plough, how many families sat around that crumbling fire-place; how did they survive the isolation, the loneliness. Thanks to a chance meeting with a dedicated group of students and teachers at the Triabunna Barracks, we can get a glimpse through the rubble to answer some of the questions.

Extract from Sentiment In The Rubble

I have seen it in the litter
Of the ransacked house upon Hood’s Hill
That the value of a hermit are his chattels left behind
Old cupboards, chairs and table, removed with stealth and zeal
As they trampled on the treasures of this darling old man’s mind
The only thing that spared them from the rodents from the barn
Was the Providence of new residents
Serpents gargantuan
The sentiment of a century…
The lonely lives…
“Dear mother, I works from five in the morning
‘Till eleven the same night every day…
And I am so cold…
But they are nice to me here
Like tears upon a letter from The War
The hearts of virgin sisters
Aching to the grave
The unread lines of diaries
One to ninety four
Amix with trampled tatters upon the littered floor
An ode to an old and faithful horse
“Where sleeps a worker strong and brave…”
And more and more and more and more
Our heritage of humble folk
At Mercy of the boor.”
I saw him taking sunlight as I ventured summer high
Asleep, but watching ever
A serpent huge and sly
For as I entered doorway and turned and peeped a bit
I thought I’d entered covertly and saw that too had it!
I felt it watched my labour in my quest to reap Hood years
Yet I braved its omniprescence for folk I saw as seers.
I envied their simplicity
And their struggle with the land
They had essayed with jack-jumper plagues
And poemed their gardens grand
Diaried every single thought
‘Til time had stilled the hand
Personfied perfection
In the path of God’s command
“This house now yours I’m finished here, Mr Fearsome Snake,”
Called I to silent guardian as so much stuff did take
I felt he watched eternally
A spirit sentinel
I’m sure I heard him say ‘thank you’
If he could have talked as well.