A Day in the Trenches

(by Simon Munt)

Trowel..check. Soil testing kit..check. Scale card, context sheets, magnifying glass..check. Now I am ready for my second day in the trenches. My team is excavating a historical site south of the city of Adelaide, South Australia. The entire day yesterday was spent clearing the rubble that had accumulated on and
around this nineteenth century miner’s cottage, all that remains of which are 1 metre high sandstone exterior walls plus two internal walls that appeared to divide a kitchen and living area.

My trench, one of five, is in the middle, internal section of the cottage. Primarily, we are attempting to understand the internal living arrangements. The structure of the cottage, according to our background research, appears unusual for the late 1830s. Dwellings of this kind normally had only two rooms plus a verandah. Post-holes that may indicate a verandah, are, however, so far not present, and our team suspects that another internal wall may lay just beneath the surface, making three rooms. Establishing such rarity of design may help to have the site registered as a heritage site—which affords it protection against development or other destruction.

So we start digging! In fact, before a trowel can be raised, many photographs are taken and scaled
sketches completed. GPS points are recorded, the top layer of soil is tested, and meticulous, detailed notes are taken in field journals. After all, excavation is a destructive process. Once this is done, it can never be repeated.

After seven hours of hand excavation by three people crammed in our 2 m x 1 m trench, we have cleared close to a metre of soil. So far we have found isolated nails, buttons, bottle glass and a scattering of ceramics—typical of a historical site of this nature. A nearby group has found, unexpectedly, a skeleton! The disarticulated vertebrae demonstrated that this was a halved horse! Although the means by which halving was done was not apparent, no signs of cooking were evident from the bones. Perhaps this was a domesticated horse, buried as it was because of the close confines of the area.

Late into the day and a further 30 cm beneath the surface, our group has come upon a finely arranged brick floor (Figure 1). Approximately 1 m x 0.5 m with 27 bricks, this was clearly a fireplace. Hundreds of tiny fragments of charcoal further attested to this. Meanwhile, the group alongside us had unearthed the anticipated additional internal stone wall. So this was a three-roomed cottage. Was there any significance in our fireplace being in the middle room? Ten minutes later, a group adjacent to us unearthed an almost identical brick floor! Was one room a living area and the other a kitchen? Which was which?

Figure 1 Our trench, with brick floor visible.

Figure 1 Our trench, with brick floor visible.


With night drawing in, the evening would be spent further researching the archives of early South Australian dwellings. Any indications of particular items commonly used in different sections of like dwellings may help to show just how people lived in this cottage. We’re getting closer to understanding this site, but, of course, we will need more evidence tomorrow.