Port Arthur Sawpits and Tannery Site: An Examination of Site Formation Processes

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A few years ago I had the opportunity to join an archaeological excavation in Tasmania, Australia. This is an essay that applies formation processes in the archaeological record to the site we excavated.


The importance of identifying formation processes before behavioral or environmental inferences are developed cannot be overemphasized” (Schiffer 1983). This paper examines a systematic process utilized to establish some of the major site formation processes that have likely occurred within a complex historic site to support in the development of inferences towards evidence observed in archaeological context.

Interpretation of archaeological evidence observed within a highly disturbed and/or complex historic site can be quite complicated. Multifunctional sites, such as the Port Arthur Sawpits and Tannery Site, can be partitioned according to each occupational function it served. Specific activities within the life cycle during that function can then be examined in an effort to anticipate some of the major site formation processes likely occurring during that activity.

The framework of this study is based on the written works of Michael B. Schiffer and others who have previously conducted extensive research on site formation processes. It is acknowledged that not all possible site formation processes are examined in this study and that only some of those perceptible to the author during the time this paper was written will be examined. Evidence of unanticipated formation processes may (and usually do) occur during the excavation of a site. This paper simply demonstrates one method to “See the trees through the forest”.


Port Arthur was first established in September 1830 under Assistant Surgeon John Russell. Most convicts in Tasmania were assigned to private interests at this time (Tuffin 2007). Lt. Governor George Arthur ordered the new settlement at Mason’s Cove as a place of punishment for second offenders within the colonies (Brand 2008). The station was originally designed as a timber-getting station and was one of only two penal stations established on the Tasman peninsula intended to extract a natural resource (Jackman 2004). The Port Arthur Sawpits and Tannery Site in 1830 and over the following decade were periodically submerged, being part of Mason’s Cove. Timber structures were first erected along the south shore of the cove but later stone was also utilized in the construction of some buildings. The first three commandants focused efforts primarily on clearing timber from the immediate area and building the structures along the southern shore of Mason’s Cove.

Capt. Chas. O’Hara Booth assumed duty as commandant at Port Arthur in 1833. A painting (Ref. 1326) illustrates the settlement around this time. Booth opened a coal mine at Plunkett Point (Brand 2008) late in 1833 and built dockyards, complete with two sawpits, on the North side of Mason’s Cove the following year (Nash 2004). The last half of the 1830’s witnessed the arrival of Royal Engineers to Tasmania by 1835 (McGowan 1989) and the beginning of the Probation Period in 1839 (Tuffin 2007). Both events would have a significant impact on the Port Arthur Sawpits and Tannery site in the years to come. The British Government had determined, through an investigation and subsequent report on the issue, that the assignment system was not providing adequate punishment, and therefore, not providing rehabilitation for transported convicts or deterrence to the English population (Tuffin 2007).

Indeed, many of the convicts transported to Van Diemen’s Land at that time were better fed and clothed than the lower classes in England (Brand 2008). The Probation System was established to facilitate this perceived problem and Capt. Chas. O’Hara Booth soon began establishing probation stations throughout the Tasman peninsula to accommodate the influx of convicts. In 1841 Booth opened probation stations at Flinders Bay, Slopen Island, Saltwater River, and Impression Bay (Brand 2008). It was proposed in 1841 that a large portion of Mason’s cove be reclaimed and structures built on the reclaimed land (McGowan 1989). The proposals were not carried out at that time although smaller portions along the south shore and in front of the church on the western shore of the cove were reclaimed (Brand 2008, McGowan 1989). Two additional probation stations were opened in 1842, an agricultural station at Wedge Bay and a timber-getting station at Cascades. Although the former was soon closed, Cascades went on to become the “center of timber procurement and processing operations on the peninsula” (Jackman 2004). A steam driven circular saw and a vertical saw were installed at Cascades to assist in production. The Port Arthur Sawpits and Tannery site remained essentially a beachhead (Ref. 2692, Ref. 1352) with Settlement Creek, later known as Radcliff Creek (Waghorn 2008), emptying into the southwest corner of the site throughout the 1840’s. The second half of the 1840’s saw a decline in the probation system. The probation stations were expensive to maintain. The British and Colonial Governments were soon at odds about who was going to foot the bill (Tuffin 2007). Two probation stations were closed in 1844 and one was closed in 1846 (Brand 2008). 1848 ushered in the end of the probation period (Tuffin 2007) and both the dockyards at Port Arthur (Nash 2004) and the coal mines at Plunkett point (Jackman 2004) were closed down. By 1853 the transportation of convicts ceased altogether and James Boyd, the civil commandant at Port Arthur (Brand 2008), was faced with running the establishment utilizing a diminishing labor force.

In 1854 or 1855 efforts commenced to reclaim more of Mason’s cove. McGowan (1989) explains the primary reason for the reclamation was to protect the foundations of the penitentiary from erosion by the sea. A large section of the cove was filled in and by 1856 building began on a 30m x 18m structure to house the Sawpits Complex (Waghorn 2008). During the Post-Probation Period (Tuffin 2007) Commandant Boyd would have been examining all possible means by which the penal settlement could financially maintain operations. Historical evidence (Commandant to Commanding Royal Engineer 26.11.1841, TSA CSO 22/57/501 in McGowan 1989) indicate the reclamation of land in Mason’s Cove and the building of the Sawpits Complex structure may have been a single planned project as opposed to two separate projects where the land was reclaimed and the foundations of the structure were subsequently dug into the reclamation. Archaeological excavations may be able to shed further light on this issue.

The sawpits began operations in 1857 (Waghorn 2008, 2009). Impression Bay was closed down the same year followed by Salt Water River in 1860 in what might have been an attempt to consolidate labour resources as the existing labour force both aged and diminished in population (Brand 2008).

Historical evidence in the form of drawings, paintings, photographs, and documents indicate the Sawpits Complex experienced modifications in labour distribution and function during the total 15 years it was in operation (See Ref. 1356, 1381, 1354, 1518, and HM 1870/1 c. 1870). By 1870 the sawpits were only being used for rough sawing and had closed down completely by 1872 (Owen and Steele 2002). Tanning operations began within the complex about 1870 (Waghorn 2008, 2009). The tanning operations in the Complex lasted about four years, expanding in 1872 under Commandant Adolarius Boyd with the installation of nine new tanning pits (Owen and Steele 2002) and ceased by 1874 (Waghorn 2008, 2009). By 1875, industrial labor was all but nonexistent at the Port Arthur penal settlement (Waghorn 2008).

Port Arthur penal station was closed down in 1877 and the land was subdivided and sold at auction (Waghorn 2008). The building was said to have collapsed during a storm around 1880 (Waghorn 2009), possibly the infamous storm of 1877 (Coroneos and Lewczak 2003), a photograph taken of the area in the 1880’s (Ref. 1044) shows the building is gone by this time. Another photograph (Brand Port Arthur 1830-1977 Pg. 30) was taken of the area sometime before 1895 and shows vegetation growing in a hole where the sawpits and tannery building once stood. Abandoned pits are often filled with culturally generated refuse (Schiffer 1983) and the Sawpits and Tannery site would be no different.

The township of Carnarvon was established in 1898. The Sawpits and Tannery site was utilized as a refuse pit by the people in this town and surrounding areas from at least 1898 to the 1940’s. Secondary refuse deposits may actually have begun soon after abandonment of the site in 1877 adding an additional 20 years to the time this site may have been used for refuse disposal. The Tasmanian Scenic Preservation Board took control of Port Arthur, including the Sawpits and Tannery site, in 1915 but the Sawpits and Tannery site would continue as a possible refuse depot until the 1940’s.

At some point in time during the 1940’s the Port Arthur Sawpits and Tannery site was filled in with relatively clean soil, leveled, and covered with sod (Waghorn 2009).A sports field was created during the 1940’s to the northeast of the site with a cricket pavilion (Owens and Steele 2002), changing rooms, and toilets (Waghorn 2008) constructed at the south end of the site. By 1948 most of Carnarvon was reserved as a historic site. The National Parks and Wildlife Service took over management of Port Arthur in 1971. During the 1980’s and early 1990’s the site was used as an overflow car park (Owen and Steele 2002). In 1997 the Port Arthur Historic Site Management Authority began managing the site and continues to the present.

An Examination of Site Formation Processes

Four occupational variances in site function can readily be identified during an examination of the 182 year period above. The first begins with the establishment of Port Arthur and continues to the reclamation of Mason’s Bay. The reclamation of Mason’s Bay to the abandonment of the Sawpits and Tannery Complex marks the second variance in function.

The third variance in function occurs with the abandonment of the sawpits facility and continues throughout the Carnarvon Refuse Period. The last variance in function occurs when the Sawpits and Tannery Site are included in management as a historic park and this function continues to present. It was necessary to subdivide the first function to observe cultural behavior changes that occurred in the surrounding vicinity tentatively affecting the Sawpits and Tannery Site. The second function was also subdivided, for a total of seven occupational functions profiled to elucidate some of the complex activities that occurred within this function.

Establishing the penal settlement (ca. 1830-1840)

The Sawpits and Tannery Site was essentially a beachhead during the 11 year duration of this life cycle. Sediments should therefore be expected to have been continuously deposited, redistributed, or completely removed within relatively short periods of time. The majority of cultural fabric deposited on the site during this time would have been primary or secondary refuse deposits with occasional loss deposits (Schiffer 1987 pp. 58-64 and 76). Considering the beachhead environment, smaller items would have been more likely to become loss deposits although some larger items may have been lost in the surrounding bay and re-deposited on the site by environmental processes. Reuse processes (Schiffer 1987 pp. 29-32), such as lateral cycling, recycling, secondary use, or conservatory processes, would likely be responsible for the removal of some deposits. Aeolian, alluvial, and coastal processes would have been prominent in depositing, redistributing or completely removing deposits on the beachhead (Nutley 2005).

Expanding the penal settlement (ca. 1841-1853)

The same formation processes working on the site during the previous decade were likely to continue into the 1850’s. An increase in occupational intensity and population in areas adjacent to the site during this period may indicate a subsequent increase in cultural deposit frequency and artifact variability (Schiffer 1972). A wharf was built along the south shore of Mason’s Cove during the 1830’s and continually improved during this life cycle (Coroneos and Lewczak 2001). The wharf, which would have facilitated the transfer of stores, provisions, and trade goods, would likely be a source of some deposits washed onto the beachhead.

Port Arthur Sawpits and Tannery (Manufacture Processes) (ca. 1854-1856)

A shift in occupational function occurred on the site during this period. A different set of site formation processes would now be acting on the fabric in archaeological context and indeed, on the site itself. The most obvious differences are the absence of cultural formation processes acting on the previously existing beachhead, which was effectively buried during the reclamation. A shift in environmental site formation processes from those that act on a beachhead/ tidal zone environment to those that act on a subterranean environment would have occurred and a new occupational surface was created. The land reclamation and construction of the Sawpits and Tannery Complex signify the site as an activity station. Activity stations occur wherever durable elements are manufactured (Schiffer 1987).

Waste streams are created when a durable element is manufactured (see fig. 1). This model may readily be applied to an artifact or an entire site. During the land reclamation in 1854 or 1855 and subsequent erection of the sawpits complex in 1856 major cultural site formation processes affecting the site would include primary sediment deposits as Mason’s Bay was filled in. Sediments culturally deposited within this life cycle should also be considered artifacts (Schiffer 1983). Secondary refuse deposits may have supported the reclamation process. Uncertainty exists as to the sequence in construction during the land reclamation and construction of the Sawpits and Tannery Complex. Was Mason’s Bay filled and then the Complex sunk into the reclamation or was the substrate and foundations of the building constructed during the reclamation process precluding the need to excavate 1280 cubic meters of fill? Excavation of contexts associated with this life cycle in areas where the reclamation process and construction of the foundations merge may shed some light on this issue. Primary refuse would have been produced during the construction of the Sawpits and Tannery Complex but the accrual would eventually hinder construction of the building and therefore would have been removed from the activity area. Evidence of disturbance processes, such as earth-moving processes and trampling (Schiffer 1987) may exist in the archaeological record of the site. Studies have shown that trampling will reduce an artifact in size and, in loose sediments, will also distribute them by size (Schiffer 1983).Although maintenance of the activity station would have occurred during the life cycle, minor primary refuse deposits and loss process deposits would still be expected (Schiffer 1987).

Arthur Sawpits and Tannery (Use and Maintenance Processes) (ca. 1857-1874)

The internal organization of the building would depend heavily on the diversity of elements manufactured and various methods of storage and transport (Reid et al 1975).During the use and maintenance of the Sawpits and Tannery Complex activity stations mark the starting location of various waste streams (Schiffer 1987) (see Appendix B). Examples of activity stations include a sawpit, a tanning pit, places where manufacturing take place such as the manufacture of wheels, carts, or any other durable item. During the activity waste is produced and must be removed after a period of time to allow for the intended activity to continue (Schiffer 1987, Tani 1995). The waste produced at these activity stations would have been deposited in another location as secondary refuse (Schiffer 1975) or may have been retained in systemic context through one of the many processes of reuse, such as recycling the sawdust as mattress filling. Scheduled maintenance would exclude all but the smallest items from remaining in and around the activity areas in the sawpits complex (Schiffer 1983). Maintenance strategy is governed by the diversity of activities being conducted in the area, the intensity of those activities, and perceived duration the activities will be taking place within the area (Tani 1995). Waste streams produced during the operation of the Port Arthur Sawpits and Tannery would have been extensive and warrant further research.

Port Arthur Sawpits and Tannery (Discard Process) (ca. 1875-1877)

Deterioration of the complex would have coincided with abandonment (Di?kaya 2007 p. 8).

The abandonment of the site was planned and happened slowly, therefore, it is likely that defacto refuse would either be very small, unsuited to reuse processes, or too heavy to readily scavenge (Schiffer 1987). The proximity of the road along the west of the site and the presence of nearby communities indicates a high probability of various reuse processes, such as scavenging (Reid et al 1975), although reusable items may still exist in areas of the site that were quickly covered over (Schiffer 1983), such as areas of building collapse. A major storm is noted in the historical documents (Coroneos and Lewczak 2001) to have occurred near the end of 1877 and may have been responsible for the collapse of a section or even the entire structure. This life cycle may also initiate a previously nonexistent process of cultural deposition that is rarely considered, child’s play (Schiffer 1987). Child’s play may be responsible for the deposition, redistribution or removal of some cultural deposits in and around the site and should now be considered a possibility. Maintenance of the site would now be absent allowing the deposition of Aeolian and Alluvial sediments. These primary sediment deposits may have been secondarily distributed by the same forces of wind and water. Weeds and plants growing in the sediments (Floralturbation), burrowing animals (Faunalturbation), and Graviturbation or larger ecofacts and artifacts migrating down through the loose sediments (Schiffer 1987), should now be considered when making inferences on the archaeological record of the site.

Carnarvon Refuse Depot (ca. 1877-1940)

During this life cycle, another variation in occupational function occurred. The Sawpits and Tannery site was used as a refuse depot by the inhabitants of nearby Carnarvon for a period exceeding 64 years. It can be assumed that refuse produced by the vast number of waste streams originating in and around Carnarvon would far exceed the capacity of the Sawpits and Tannery Site over this span of time. This would be of some concern when addressing quantitative analysis. Several methods of refuse management may have occurred to account for this, such as, the site may not have been utilized over the entire span of time, refuse may have been stored and burned in closer proximity to its location of origin and then transported to the site or only a fraction of the refuse generated by this community was transported to the site. Research should be conducted in an attempt to isolate and indentify other refuse management strategies that may have been implemented by the community of Carnarvon. Cultural deposition would likely be expressed in secondary refuse deposits with occasional primary and loss deposits. Sediments would also be deposited and possibly redistributed through Aeolian and alluvial processes. One important point to remember concerning site formation processes during this life cycle is that the fill will not be homogenous. Deposits will appear in lenses of diverse refuse deposits (Rathje et al 1992). Items dumped at the site through cultural site formation processes might exhibit patterns of dumping episodes but they would have no patterned orientation (Schiffer 1983). Artifacts heavily affected by non-cultural processes like wind or flowing water would tend to be more patterned in orientation (Schiffer 1983).Minor occurrences of child’s play may have also occurred.


This life cycle is capable of an extremely high diversity in artifact type due to the prolonged period of time this life cycle was in operation and the high intensity of occupation in the surrounding areas (Schiffer 1983). Extensive redistribution or removal of deposits may have occurred through various reuse processes, such as recycling, conservatory processes and lateral cycling. Scavenging and pot hunting would have most probably also occurred. Deposits that remained would be subjected to such environmental processes as Floralturbation, Faunalturbation, Graviturbation and Pedoturbation. Bushfires that occurred in the area at the turn of the century and storms, such as the one noted in 1918 (Coroneos and Lewczak 2001), must also be considered.

Port Arthur Sawpits and Tannery becomes a Park (ca. 1941-Present)

Over the last 70 years the Sawpits and Tannery Site has been managed through various administrations as a park. Cultural deposits would primarily consist of sediments used to level the terrain and small primary refuse and loss deposits. Maintenance of the site would resume removing all but the smallest of the refuse deposits. Pot hunting would also play a role in removing some deposits and child’s play may be more prevalent during this function than it has in the past. Beneath the occupational surface disturbance processes such as Floralturbation, Faunalturbation, and Pedoturbation would be at work. Grounds maintenance associated with the parks, such as drainage and horticulture should be considered when making inferences concerning this life cycle.


Consideration of formation processes of the archaeological record is essential to sound archaeological inference. Highly disturbed or complex archaeological sites can be addressed systematically to reveal some of the major site formation processes one is likely to encounter during excavation. Partitioning occupational variances of function supports in the clarification of activities conducted during that life cycle and provides for the detection of formation processes likely occurring on the Site.





Brand, Ian

2008 Port Arthur 1830-1877, Regal Publications, Launceston, Tasmania

Coroneos, Cosmos, and Chris Lewczak

2001 Port Arthur Maritime Archaeological Survey

2003 Port Arthur Maritime Archaeological Survey

Di?kaya, Hülya

2007 Damage Assessment of 19th Century Traditional Timber Framed Structures in Istanbul, FromMaterial to Structure - Mechanical Behaviour and Failures of the Timber Structures, ICOMOS IWC - XVI International Symposium, Florence, Venice and Vicenza, 11th -16th November

Jackman, Greg

2004 Foetal Shore: The Sea as a critical medium in the past and future of the Tasman Peninsula convict system, in A Harbour Large Enough to Admit a Whole Fleet, Port Arthur Occasional Papers No. 1, pp. 11-38, Port Arthur Historic Site Authority, Tasmania.

McGowan, Angela

1989 Salvage Excavations on Convict-Built Reclaimed Land, Sarah Island, Australian Historical Archaeology, 7, pp. 10-15,

Nash, Michael

2004 History of the Port Arthur Dockyards, in A Harbour Large Enough to Admit a Whole Fleet, Port Arthur Occasional Papers No. 1, pp. 39-53, Port Arthur Historic Site Authority, Tasmania.

Nutley, David M.

2005 Surviving Inundation: An examination of environmental factors influencing the survival of inundated Indigenous sites in Australia within defined hydrodynamic and geologic settings, Thesis submitted to the department of Archaeology, Flinders University of South Australia.

Owen, Tim and Jody Steele

2002 Sawpit and Tannery Complex Excavation Report Port Arthur 2002, unpublished interim report

Rathje, W.L., W. W. Hughes, D. C. Wilson, M. K. Tani, G. H. Archer, R. G. Hunt, T. W. Jones

1992 The Archaeology of Contemporary Landfills, American Antiquity, Vol. 57, No. 3 (Jul.), pp. 437-447

Reid, J. Jefferson, Michael B. Schiffer, William L. Rathje

1975 Archaeology as Behavioral Science, American Anthropologist, Vol. 77, No. 4. (Dec.), pp. 836-848.

Schiffer, Michael B.

1972Archaeological Context and Systemic Context,American Antiquity, Vol. 37, No. 2. (Apr.), pp. 156-165.

1975 Behavioral Archaeology: Four Strategies, American Anthropologist, Vol. 77, No. 4. (Dec.), pp. 864-869.

1983 Toward the Identification of Formation Processes, American Antiquity, Vol. 48, No. 4. (Oct.), pp. 675-706.

1987 Formation Processes of the Archaeological Record. University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque

Tani, Masakazu

1995 Beyond the Identification of Formation Processes: Behavioral Inference Based on Traces Left by Cultural Formation Processes, Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory, Vol 2, No. 3, pp. 231-252.

Tuffin, Richard

2007 The Evolution of Convict Labour Management in Van Diemen’s Land: Placing the “Penal Peninsula” in a Colonial Context, THRA P&P, 54/2, Paper presented at a meeting of THRA held on 8 August, 2006.

Waghorn, Annita

2008 Research Design for Excavation within the Sawpit and Tannery Complex (Project 09/01) 2009 Port Arthur Summer Public Archaeology Program, unpublished interim report

2009 Historic Archaeology Investigations of the Sawpits and Tannery Complex, Port Arthur Historic Site, Port Arthur, Tasmania, unpublished interim report





Submitted: February 24, 2019

© Copyright 2022 Charles E Alexander Jr. All rights reserved.

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