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'Rebecca will you marry me? Tim': inscriptions as objects of biography at the North Head Quarantine Station, Manly, New South Wales.


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


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. As the archaeologists that initially record its existence, the life of 'Rebecca and Tim' becomes inevitably linked to us and ultimately, through the communication of archaeological research, to the reader. In short, the inscriptions have one sort of life history within which we, as archaeologists, become entangled.

In a second instance the focus is on the inscription as a biography, a material entry point through which the life histories of individuals, families, crew and even the ships as non-human actors may be explored and unpacked. In this iteration of inscription as biography the life histories of the inscriptions actually begin with the journey, the people embarking on a new life, the places left behind, the ports of origin, and the shipping lines and ships that travelled to, from and within Australia. This approach may be extended to the archaeological assemblage, as a whole, and used to create social histories of migration and quarantine at local and highly personal scales. At the same time the inscriptions may be read in light of the broader archaeological record as an archive of people, place and passage in a globally connected landscape of maritime culture and quarantine.

Clearly there are several ways in which the inscriptions at the Quarantine Station may be read as objects of biography. What previous archaeological studies have demonstrated is that a definitive reading of an artefact's life-history is difficult to render. As Thomas points out 'What an object means depends upon the context in which we encounter it, and also upon the social conditions attending the reader' (Thomas 2000: 361). In the case study outlined below we focus on the interplay between the materiality of the inscriptions, their form, content and something of their symbolic meaning and the historical information contained in the archives about the conditions of the voyage, where people came from, what they did, and who survived. The inscriptions thus have a life history in the sense of object biographies (Joy 2009) but they also acquire a history of life through the entanglement of the archaeological and historical records.

The North Head Quarantine Station: background

The North Head Quarantine Station is one of a suite of twelve quarantine stations located around Australia established and administered firstly by British colonial authorities and later by the Australian Federal Government (Honey 2006: 26). Despite the fact that North Head was part of a network of Australian quarantine stations, little is known about the comparative historical archaeology of these facilities. The North Head Quarantine Station is the oldest quarantine facility in Australia. It was established in 1828 and operated until 1984 when it was transferred from the Federal Government to the NSW State Government to be managed as part of the Sydney Harbour National Park. In 2000 a major portion of the site and infrastructure was leased to the Mawland Group to be run as the Q Station, a hotel and cultural tourism facility which opened in 2006 (Thompson Berrill Landscape Design 2006).

People arriving in Australia who had become ill on the journey to Australia or who were under suspicion of carrying infectious diseases, were taken from their ships and aeroplanes and kept in isolation from the general population in a dedicated quarantine facility (Foley 1995:10). In addition to those arriving from overseas, the Station also occasionally housed Australians travelling interstate and Sydney residents suspected of plague (Queanbeyan Age 1900; The Queenslander 1900). People were held in quarantine for periods of up to 30 days or more (Foley 1995: 9, 22; Peter Freeman et al. 2000:95-97). Over the 157 years of operation passengers and crew from around 580 ships and more than 13,000 people were quarantined at North Head (Foley 1995:11). Five hundred and seventy two people died and were buried in one of three cemeteries (Foley 1995:11). Headstones from these cemeteries remain to be analysed, as does the 1970s period graffiti, drawn by people held in detention as illegal immigrants, located on the walls inside Building A20 (Peter Freeman et al. 2000:95).


The inscriptions at the Quarantine Station

There are two spatially distinct assemblages of inscriptions within the Quarantine Station boundaries (Figure 1). The best known and most visited inscriptions are those located in and around the main Quarantine Station infrastructure, especially around the Wharf facilities at Spring Cove. These inscriptions were recorded by Wendy Thorp as part of a major inventory project in 1983 (Clarke et al. 2010; Thorp 1983). She recorded a total of 854 inscriptions, sub-divided into 11 distinct precincts spread in and around the Quarantine Station infrastructure.

The second assemblage of inscriptions is located some 500m to the south of the main Quarantine Station on the cliffs and rock ledges of an area called Old Man's Hat (Figure 1). Although a survey and recording project of the inscriptions in the Old Man's Hat area was carried out in the late 1980s by NSW National Parks and Wildlife staff (Peter Freeman et al. 2000, Appendix D; C. Snelgrove pers. comm, R. Aitken pers comm.) the records from this survey have not been re-located at the time of writing. In 2007 a limited GPS survey and condition assessment of the main clusters of the Old Man's Hat inscriptions was conducted by NPWS staff (Lattin and Elliott 2007) and in 2010 two weeks of detailed field recording at Old Man's Hat was undertaken by the authors. We recorded 207 inscriptions and estimate that there are approximately 50 inscriptions along the cliff edges and on narrow ledges still to be recorded. To date these have not been examined as they require safety harnessing equipment to be accessed and that was beyond the scope of the 2010 fieldwork.


Many of the inscriptions incorporate a date. Figure 2 compares the numbers of inscriptions produced in 10 year increments from 1835-1983 in the two assemblages. In the Quarantine Station assemblage 22% of the engravings have an identifiable date associated with them and a further 2% have an ambiguous date such as Jul. 14 or 28.8.41 (Thorp 1983: 14-15). At Old Man's Hat the figures are similar with 20% of inscriptions having a clear date and a slightly higher percentage (8%) with an ambiguous date. The earliest inscription identified at Old Man's Hat is 1885, while at the Quarantine Station it is 1835. Figure 2 compares the two assemblages and shows that the Old Man's Hat assemblage is much more temporally restricted with 48% of the dated inscriptions occurring between 1910 and 1919. This period encompasses outbreaks of Spanish influenza from 1918-19, smallpox from 1913-1917 (Wotherspoon 2008) and tuberculosis associated with soldiers returning from Europe during the First World War (Peter Freeman et al. 2000:65-66). At the Quarantine Station proper, the inscriptions are more temporally spread with dates ranging from 1835-1983 (Figure 4). There are two peaks in the dated inscriptions here, the first occurs from 1910-1929 when 26% of the dated assemblage was created and then much later from 1960-1979 when 23% of the dated assemblage occurs. The later period of dated inscriptions is interesting because it post-dates the main period of maritime quarantine from 1828-1920 and coincides with the period of decline in use of the Station facilities (Foley 1995:127). Only three ships were quarantined between 1950 and 1975 (Peter Freeman et al. 2000:65). 1960-1979 encompasses the later aeroplane-based period when people arriving without appropriate vaccination certificates were quarantined (Peter Freeman et al. 2000: 68). Evacuees from Cyclone Tracy (December 1974) and refugees escaping from the war in Vietnam (1962-1972) were also housed at the Quarantine Station (Peter Freeman et al. 2000: 68). Further research will enable the temporal variation in inscription production to be examined in association with the peaks and troughs in migration patterns, changes in health policy, and major and minor disease outbreaks.

Table 1 sets out data from the two assemblages that contains elements of biographical information (initials and names). At present these data only include those written in English. Translation of non-English initials, names and ships has not yet been undertaken. However, non-English inscriptions make up 7% (n=77) of the total assemblage of 1061 inscriptions. The assemblage of inscriptions includes formal and informal inscriptions. For the purposes of this analysis formal inscriptions are defined by the use of framing devices to delineate and demarcate different combinations of ships' names, company names, lists of crew and passengers, together with maritime motifs, company names, insignia, and flags. Informal inscriptions include single occurrences of initials, names, dates and motifs.

Single letters, presumably initials, together with full initials, are markers of presence but will not be easily traced to individuals and their stories. Collectively, they form 34% of the total assemblage of 1061 recorded inscriptions. Single names, groups (what Thorp called registers of two or more people) and ships can be accessed via archives and the detailed example provided in the following section illustrates the kind of narrative that can be constructed from the archaeological and archival evidence. 52% (n=555) of all the inscriptions contain biographical data. The Quarantine Station and Old Man's Hat assemblages contain similar percentages of biographical inscriptions with 54% and 47% respectively. This data strongly suggests that the majority of people who took the time to create an inscription did so with the intention of marking their presence and often their specific identities. Table 1 also highlights the Spring Cove (Thorp 1983: 19-44) or Wharf assemblage as a point of comparison. The Wharf area is where people disembarked from their ships to go through a structured and official process of medical assessment and disinfection before being assigned to either the hospital precinct or into quarantine accommodation. The Spring Cove assemblage contains 44% of all the biographical inscriptions. Most occur along the sandstone cliff that runs alongside the access road from the Wharf. These inscriptions would have been highly visible to all those disembarking and the presence of existing inscriptions may well have prompted others to follow suit and mark their own presence in the sandstone. The cliff works today as a form of welcome wall, detailing and documenting many of those who found themselves in quarantine (Frederick and Clarke in press). The Spring Cove assemblage also contains the majority (85%) of the more formal inscriptions. The fact that the majority of formal inscriptions are located in Spring Cove lends the assemblage an aura of official and sanctioned authorship. To a certain degree this formal and structured group of inscriptions echoes the formal and structured process of medical governance experienced by the passengers and crew on disembarkation.

The Samuel Plimsoll, John Howie and the inscriptions as objects of biography

One particular inscription heralds the arrival of the Samuel Plimsoll (Figure 3). It is located on a rock face approximately three metres above the ground and has a vertical orientation. The rock has been dressed and hewn away to produce a rectangular plaque with a curvilinear top in bas-relief. The shape of the inscription resembles a headstone and its vertical position resembles a wall plaque. A star motif and the word SHIP has been engraved at the top. Below it there are a series of names framed within an ornate triangular pattern. The name of the ship 'SAMUEL PLIMSOLL' appears at the very top and in a descending hierarchical order appears the name of the captain, the first and second officers, the purser, and the matron. The remaining people on board are recorded as 'EMIGRANTS' and number '462' and below this the date of 'ARRIVED JUNE 11TH 1879' is noted. The words have been evenly spaced and centred and the letters themselves are of a consistent size, case and font. At the bottom of the list, and unusually aligned to the right there appears the name 'JOHN HOWIE'.


The inscription reveals a professional craftsmanship and the mark of the chisel is evident in the rock that surrounds the bas-relief. Aside from the information it reveals about people associated with the ship, it shows different conventions of naming and ordering which may tell us something about the social conventions of the day. For example, both the captain and the matron are accorded formal address (CAPT. R. BOADEN, MISS JONES), whereas the crew members are listed with initials and surname but without a title. John Howie is the only name that appears in full, and just as it is set a part from the other names compositionally, no title or position is assigned to it.

Historical archives both supplement and complicate our reading of this inscription. The regular announcements of shipping arrivals published in The Sydney Morning Herald states the following,

'The ship Samuel Plimsoll, 1444 tons. Captain Boaden, chartered by the Agent-General for New South Wales, sailed from Plymouth for Sydney on March 21 with 465 emigrants under the supervision of Mr. Pringle Hughes as surgeon-superintendent, with Miss Jones in charge of the single women' (The Sydney Morning Herald, 1879, May 13).

Although twelve of those travelling died on the journey, another three were born at sea (State Records Authority of New South Wales 1838-1896). One of those who did not survive the journey was William Howie, the infant son of Agnes and John Howie, a stonemason from Scotland. The archives note that in total 456 emigrants landed while the Quarantine Station inscription lists 462. These numbers concur if we include the named individuals in the inscription to the total in the archives. The inclusion of these additional surviving passengers in the inscription may suggest a desire to communicate the sense of community amongst those who made safe passage.

What is most remarkable, if we read this inscription and the historical text alongside each other is the extent to which 'absence' plays a part in the inscription's materiality. In the first instance we may surmise that John Howie was the mason who was either commissioned or took it upon himself to undertake the engraving. It is hard to know how difficult his task may have been but we might imagine. Howie may well have exerted himself physically because the rock in which the inscription is located is at an awkward angle and at a height that would have required some climbing or scaffolding. But how difficult must it have been to work on an inscription in which he could not include his own son? This particular inscription is, after all, a commemoration of those who survived the journey. In carving those three numbers 4, 6, and 2 Howie must have felt acutely aware of their significance. In knowing a little more of the inscription's back story we too become aware of the loss that this act of remembrance enfolds within it. And as such the lines in the rock that make up these simple characters take on a greater poignancy.

There is another striking absence within the carving, which occurs in the list of the noted individuals. The name of the ship's surgeon--Pringle Hughes--is a glaring omission. As the surgeon-superintendent Hughes had the important role of supervising and maintaining the health of the ship's passengers. We might well ponder the circumstances for his exception when we consider that the ship's matron--Mary Jones--does appear.


A final loss that is made evident is the time that the passengers of the Samuel Plimsoll spent waiting to reach their final destination. Their liminal state is encoded in the interval between the 11th of June recorded in the inscription and the 30th of June listed as their arrival in the official records (State Records Authority of New South Wales, 1838-1896).

Interestingly, a second inscription from the Wharf also bears the name JOHN HOWIE (Figure 4). It is located on the same cliff as the other inscription, though not the same rock face. It is much closer to the ground and although plainer by design, it shares similarities with the Samuel Plimsoll inscription. The technique of the inscription combines bas-relief and engraving so that a shield-like shape is raised above the parent rock and encloses a register of five names. The letters are rendered as capitals in a consistent size and spacing and arranged as five lines from top to bottom as follows:






Despite the parallels in technique, craftsmanship and font style, when we compare this content against the Samuel Plimsoll inscription, there is relatively little historical information. There is no indication of the date, the ship, or the place from which these five people came. We have no sense of their occupation and other than the shared surname amongst three of those listed there is no indication of the nature of their group association. While this inscription is intriguing in its own right, its biography becomes all the more compelling when it is considered in light of the Samuel Plimsoll.

John Howie is the lexical link between the two inscriptions, both in name and action. We might infer from our reading of the Samuel Plimsoll inscription where the mason carved his name last, that he might have done so also in this one. But unlike the larger group inscription in this instance John Howie is not set apart from the other names, but is 'in line' with them. This along with the shared surname and the lack of titles or positions is suggestive of a more intimate association than the hierarchical register on the Samuel Plimsoll. Aside from John, only one other name--Mary--is listed in full. It may be that Mary and John's names were sufficiently short to fit within the boundaries of the inscription's framework, whereas the others were too long. Presumably the letters WM stand for William, and ANDW stand for Andrew. However, this raises an interesting question. If the constraints of the design dictated these abbreviations then why, when there is ample space for abbreviation again, is A. HOWIE listed with only the initial A?

This is where the historical archives offer some insight. As noted previously, John Howie left Plymouth with his wife Agnes and son William. The same shipping records list a 16-year-old servant from Lanark, Mary Howie, travelling as a single female. Amongst the single male emigrants was 25-year-old stone mason Archd Howie, also from Lanark. Given their shared occupation and nationality we might assume that Archd and John were brothers and Mary their younger sister. Because neither Archibald (Archd) or Agnes are listed in the inscription we can imagine that the A. stands in for both of them. In short this register incorporates six individuals under five names. But who are Fairfoull and Reid and what is their relationship to the others?

The ship's register indicates that Andrew Reid was a 33-year-old labourer travelling from Scotland with his wife Christina and children John and Margaret. There is no William Fairfoull listed on board the ship, but we may assume that Fairfoull was incorrectly listed variously as William Farefood and Farefoot (State Records Authority of New South Wales 1838-1896) a 24-year-old labourer from Scotland travelling with his wife Amelia. Like the Howies, both the Fairfoulls and the Reids were Presbyterian Scots of the working classes originating from the same general part of Scotland, 30 km to the east of Glasgow. One further indication of the link between the Fairfoull and Howie families is once again found in the names that are absent. While William and John are both common names, it is perhaps no coincidence that William Fairfoull named his first son John and John Howie named his first child William. While this is evident from the shipping lists, in the inscriptions the children are unaccounted for. The wives of William and Andrew are not listed either, so perhaps the A. in A. Howie stands for Archibald not Agnes after all. Perhaps as the head of the household the man's name was seen to be all that was required to signify the family. Mary's name is an exception because she is the only 'Single Female'. If this were the case, what appears as a list of five names becomes a register of 10. Furthermore, the inscription and the shipping list align in conveying the distinctions of gender and the customary affiliations of a patrilineal society where women are represented by their husband's identity. In the end, this inscription acts to unite these individuals, as a clan of friend and family ties, under a heraldic crest of sorts. The second Howie inscription is thus a more intimate gesture of inscription, marking alliances felt rather than the group association the quarantine circumstance forced.

Material narratives of people and passage

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 material properties of the inscriptions such as location, size, font types, the use of framing devices, motifs, insignia and decorative borders work together to create a sense of commemoration and memorialisation in a landscape of uncertainty as people waited under conditions of quarantine and isolation to begin their lives in a new country. 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. Presence and absence, both archaeological and archival, reveals some of the associations that the emigrants themselves felt the need to express in commemorative form. 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.


We would like to thank The University of Sydney, Faculty of Arts Research Support Scheme for funding the fieldwork in 2010, Cath Snelgrove and Sian Waythe from the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage for assistance with access to Old Man's Hat and accommodation at Middle Head and the Mawland Group for access to the Quarantine Station. Rebecca Andrews, Ceili Roberts, Peta Longhurst and Adele Anderson all volunteered as fieldwork assistants and we thank them for their hard work recording the inscriptions in hot and windy conditions.


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Clarke, A. Frederick, U. and A. Williams 2010. 'Wish You Were Here': Historic Inscriptions from the North Head Quarantine Station, Manly, NSW, Australasian Historical Archaeology, 28: 77-84.

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Frederick, U. and A. Clarke in press 2012. 'In Loving Memory': Inscriptions, images and imagination at the Quarantine Station, Sydney, Australia. In Ing-Marie Back-Danielsson, Fredrik Fahlander & Ylva Sjostrand (eds) The Materiality of the Perceptible, Stockholm Studies in Archaeology no 56, Stockholm University Press, Stockholm.

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Peter Freeman Pty Ltd., Donald Ellsmore Pty Ltd., Robert Boden & Associates, Haglund & Associates, and Guppy & Associates 2000. Sydney Harbour National Park, North Head Quarantine Station Conservation Management Plan. Volume 1 The Plan. Prepared for NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service.

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AC: Department of Archaeology, University of Sydney, NSW 2006.; UF: School of Art, The Australian National University, ACT 2601
Table 1. Biographical inscriptions at the Quarantine Station
and Old Man's Hat (Spring Cove is separated out as a sub
set of the Quarantine Station assemblage to illustrate the
concentration of biographical and formalized inscriptions
at that location).

Inscription            QS        %    OMH       %    Spring    %
Type                   (n=854)        (n=207)        Cove

Single initial         65        8    5         2    39        5
Initials               248       29   42        20   135       16
Name                   356       42   77        37   164       19
  (2 or more people)   52        6    11        5    51        6
Ship name
  (no people)          49        6    10        5    31        4
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Author:Clarke, Anne; Frederick, Ursula
Publication:Archaeology in Oceania
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Jul 1, 2012
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