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Book review: Recovering Convict Lives

The World Heritage-listed Port Arthur penitentiary is one of Australia’s most visited historical sites, attracting more than 400,000 visitors each year. Designed to incarcerate nearly 500 men, in just a 21-year span between 1856 and 1877, thousands of convicts passed through its walls.

In 2016, archaeologists began one of the largest ever excavations of an Australian convict site, and this book, Recovering Convict Lives: Historical Archaeology of the Port Arthur Penitentiary makes their findings available to general readers for the first time. Featuring extensive illustrations, it shows the inner workings of the penal system and the day-to-day lives of Port Arthur convicts like never before.

Book explains prison-within-a-prison feature

Based on archaeological findings and excavations over the last decade, this book is part of a series published by the Australasian Society for Historical Archaeology. Collaboratively done with the University of New England, it features the Port Arthur Historic Site, one of Australia’s most visited historical sites.

Between 1830 and 1877, the prison’s very name sparked images of the lash. Its famous “Penitentiary,” a prison-within-a-prison, held 480 convicts. Archaeological work began on the prison in 2013, and this book recounts the findings to the reading public for the first time.

Included in the book are the tales of the Colonial administrators, who used the Penitentiary to experiment in prison design, punishment, and confinement.

According to co-author Richard Tuffin, the researchers used discarded finds to gain insight into the previously unknown histories of the site, including its social, economic, and political contexts.

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