Sinkhole at Fremantle Prison reveals archaeologically significant site

Sinkhole at Fremantle Prison reveals archaeologically significant site
Sinkhole at Fremantle Prison reveals archaeologically significant site
Sinkhole at Fremantle Prison reveals archaeologically significant site

BURIED deep below the ground, under the feet of hundreds of visitors entering Fremantle Prison everyday, are clues to a time and to the people many have forgotten.

When a sinkhole appeared in the earth of the parade ground a month ago, officials hurried to find out how widespread the damage was and whether it posed a risk to the hundreds of people who walked along that stretch of road every day.

What they discovered was the opening to a 1850s convict-era sewer system, a remarkably well constructed structure that stretched from the prison’s main cellblock all the way down to the bottom of the hill around Fremantle Oval.

Found full of rubbish, Fremantle Prison heritage conservation manager Luke Donegan said it was likely workers sometime between the 1930s to 1950s were putting in a new sewage system when they found this original cavity, deciding to dump their rubbish into it before refilling the hole again.

He said to some it was just rubbish, but to them it was one of the most significant archaeological finds at the prison to date.

“This dig is giving us information about the convict era and a more modern era, how they went about things,” he said.

“We knew it was there through plans but we didn’t have any detail or understanding about what it was like or how it was constructed.

“This has given us the opportunity to really investigate that structure so we know more about it and that system than we ever have before.

“It is the most significant sub-surface feature that we’ve uncovered on this site.”

It is not the first, and probably will not be the last, archaeological dig at the Fremantle Prison, with more than 150 years of WA history hidden within its walls and under its soil.

In one dig, a large pit of mutton bones was found in a hole on the parade grounds, giving deeper insight into prisoners’ diets, while another uncovered the foundations of the original convict bathhouse.

There was also as many as 2000 artefacts, mainly broken toys and household items, uncovered during the excavation of a pit toilet in the chief warden’s residence.

While just a few weeks into work on this new discovery, Mr Donegan said its location meant it would probably never become one of the prison’s drawcards.

“It goes under the road and we have traffic on the road so the first question is that we need to make sure it’s safe and that it’s not going to collapse,” he said.

“The archaeology team in the meantime have documented that space, recorded it, photographed it and will write a report which will have all the information about that feature and what we’ve discovered and we’ll have a copy of that in our resource library.

“In an ideal world you would like to be able to show it to visitors and if it wasn’t on the road we’d maybe talk about leaving it uncovered and maybe we cover it with plate glass so that people can actually see it.

“That would be fantastic but it’s probably not something that can happen because of where it’s actually located.”