A short visit to Z Ward

It was a cold and wintry afternoon in Adelaide today. What better time to visit an old lunatic asylum?

For nearly 90 years, Z Ward was home to the ‘criminally insane’ patients of South Australia’s health system. Opened in the late 1880s, it was at the rear of the Parkside Lunatic Asylum complex, and was built to house the state’s criminal and refractory patients.

The approach to Z Ward.

The approach to Z Ward.

It is now open occasionally for visitors, and you can see from the pictures below that the inside is largely intact. It’s very plain and looks like a prison. Not that I’ve been to prison. But I did watch Porridge in the seventies.


Ground floor hall, with open cell doors.

First floor hall, with open cell doors.

First floor hall, with open cell doors.

And why is it called Z Ward? I’m glad you asked. Originally it was called L Ward, but when telephones started being used, people phoning up heard it as Hell Ward. Not really a comfort for anybody. So it was renamed Z Ward, because by adding a straight line to an L you make a Z, which was easier for re-marking all the ward’s laundry!

Outside, there is a Ha Ha Wall,  designed to give the illusion of a low wall surrounding the building. On the patients’ side, however, a deep ditch makes it too high to climb over. The ditch is now overgrown with small trees, but there would have been no such climbing aids when it was in use.


On the southeastern and northeastern corners of the rear yard, there are grooves in the sandstone bricks, allegedly made by patients dragging their fingers along the bricks. Dates and initials have also been gouged into the sandstone, including a date from 1886 and one from 1971. Z Ward wasn’t closed until 1973.

Some carvings that I particularly noticed were the hexafoil patterns in several of the bricks. Hexafoils have been used as a type of protective magic in many places, including Britain, Scandinavia and Australia. They are designed to ward off evil and protect people from witches and other dangers. The photo below on the left shows a rough hexafoil in a brick next to a window – like doors, windows are vulnerable entry points and need protection. The other photo shows a rudimentary hexafoil beside a date on the south-eastern corner.  They could have been carved either as a protective aid or just to alleviate boredom. Or maybe both.


Posted in Folk traditions, South Australia | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

St Dymphna’s, Booborowie

At the weekend, it was my great privilege to drive to Booborowie for the decommissioning of St Dymphna’s Catholic Church. It’s not every day one gets to go to the deconsecration of a church, and in fact, this was my first.

Booborowie is a small place, about three hours drive north of Adelaide, and as we drove up, it got drier and drier. It was 34 degrees Celsius, hot for April. There was dust in the air, and the paddocks and hills were brown. We’re all waiting for rain, in the city and the country. But the sky was clear blue and it was beautiful.

The church is a small stone building, built in 1903 in place of the Booborowie Station Wool Shed which had been used for Mass for some years. The Irish played a key role in building and sustaining this ‘humble’ church that was built ‘in keeping with the requirements of the congregation’. Irish names dominate – Finlay, Kelly, Hogan, Cousins, Quinn, Murphy, O’Dea, Byrne, Farrelly, Ryan. As the bishop said, tongue firmly in his cheek, a pluralist multicultural society up here in the mid-north of South Australia!

The church was packed. The bishop and six priests celebrated Mass, and then, one by one, several parishioners carried out the key artefacts from the church. These included: a purple stole used when hearing confession; the lectionary used for the readings at Mass; the church missal carried out by a descendant of the donors; the baptismal register carried by the last child to be baptised in the church; the record of funerals; the baptismal font; the thurible used at the last funeral; the tabernacle; the altar stone; and finally, the crucifix. As the last of the congregation left the church, the bishop and priests processed down the aisle, and the door was closed.

Afterwards, everybody gathered outside the church for a group photo, a tradition at every momentous event in the church’s history over the last 115 years.

And then we repaired to the Booborowie District Soldiers Memorial Hall where we enjoyed strong cups of tea, sandwiches and savoury muffins, and the best cream sponge cake I’ve had in a long time.

And who was St Dymphna? Well, I’m glad you asked. Dymphna was born in the 7th century. Her father was a king and pagan, her mother a devout Christian. After her mother died, things fell apart for Dymphna, particularly after her father proposed marriage to her. Dymphna, who had taken a vow of chastity and piety, was horrified at this incestuous proposal, with her father appearing to have taken leave of his senses. She fled to Belgium but eventually, her father found her in Geel and beheaded her with his sword, making her a Christian martyr at the age of fifteen. Dymphna became the patron saint of people with a mental illness or neurological disorder, those who are nervous or emotionally disturbed, and those who are the victims of incest.

Note that when she was on her way to Belgium, it is believed she took refuge for a night in the Abbey of Kildalkey, Co. Meath, which happens to be just a few kilometres from my home town of Trim. This ancient abbey was later dedicated to St Dymphna, as was the holy well close by. The well, known as St Dymphna’s Well, has the cure for headaches, and a sign nearby says that a headache is cured when a ribbon is dipped in the water and tied around the sufferer’s head. For many years, the well was closed, but twenty years ago some of the local community rebuilt and re-opened it. As luck would have it, I visited a few years back and took lots of photos. You can see that the well is still in use, with many devotional items at the walls, a name picked out in white pebbles, and coins in a watery plate mimicking a well. The ruined abbey is just behind the wall in the graveyard.

Posted in Around the world, Folk traditions, Ireland, South Australia | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Christmas jigsaw puzzle of the ceramic variety

Christmas is an excellent time for jigsaw puzzles. One of my longtime favourite novelists, Margaret Drabble, asserts that ‘jigsaws are a joy at Christmas, the ideal gift, the perfect employment’. Further, she says, they ‘give you an illusion of order and progress when all around is chaos’. What could be better? Part of the jigsaw’s appeal is the challenge, and that you can do them either on your own or with others. Apparently, they’re also good for the brain.

I was very fond of jigsaws as a child, they were often a birthday or Christmas present. My Aunty Pat in America once sent me a jigsaw of a field of sunflowers. It wasn’t terribly big, but its key feature was a table on the side of the box that listed times to completion (30 minutes, 20, 15, 10, 7) and assigned a label to those times (average, good, very good, excellent, genius). Naturally, nothing would do me until I reached genius level. This took me many days one summer, on the dining room table, completing the jigsaw over and over and over again.

Fast forward many years, and a harmless childhood diversion is reaping rewards. For I am cataloguing artefacts from the excavations at Baker’s Flat. And some of the ceramic shards could well be from one original artefact. In the picture below you can see how I’ve spent some of the Christmas break. There are 53 ceramic fragments, all potentially from the same Rhine pattern plate (intact example pictured on the right). Each fragment has been catalogued, labelled and photographed in the Flinders University Archaeology Lab. They are all from Trench A, but from two different contexts and four different squares. Armed with low residue masking tape (thanks to the tech officers in the lab), the challenge was on.

53 ceramic shards, all potentially from the same plate.

53 ceramic shards, all potentially from the same plate.

It didn’t take too long to fit the first pieces together – ranking myself at genius level here.

The easy bits, completed fast.

The easy bits, completed fast.

But the last ones took ages – possibly even below average level, if I’m being honest. Part of the challenge was that a plate is three dimensional, so various supports had to be contrived using kneadable erasers and Blu Tack. And my masking tape skills are clearly not expert. However, here is where I’ve ended up. Of the 53 fragments, 52 conjoin with at least one other piece. It is now as complete as it can be.

As complete as it can be.


Posted in Baker's Flat, Cataloguing, Material culture, Research, hmmm | Tagged , , , ,

Tales from the trenches – Philomena the digging doll

Recently, I was reading The Archaeology of Time Travel. And I was reflecting on the idea that people who visit historic sites experience them in a more ‘real’ way when they’re presented as living history or re-enactments or historical role play. A bit like Bunratty Castle in Ireland or Land of Legends in Denmark. This opening of windows to the past is rather like time travel.

Now the closest I can get to a re-enactment right now is the sudden and unexpected appearance of an Irish doll in the trench at Baker’s Flat when we were excavating in April. Baker’s Flat, of course, was the long-standing Irish settlement in nineteenth century South Australia that is the focus of my PhD research. And note that I’ve been known myself to engage in a bit of re-enactment (tiny budget, limited talent).

We called this Irish doll Philomena (or Fill-o-mena), because when she appeared, we were working our way through a lot of fill. But she hunkered down, and did her best to help. Not so handy with a trowel really – she was hampered by her ceramic arms which were difficult to move. But she did carefully adhere to the work health and safety requirements of wearing long sleeves, a head covering, and closed-in shoes.

Philomena tries her hand with a trowel

Philomena tries her hand with a trowel

She came into her own, however, with the brush, especially in the hearth. All those years of sweeping out fireplaces in the early morning, perhaps.

Philomena brushes out the hearth

Philomena brushes out the hearth

Philomena was ephemeral, a fleeting look into the past. She appeared for a week or so in the trench. Now she lives with a small local girl. If I hadn’t recorded her with photos, nobody would even know she’d been there. Especially, I guess, because most people on the site found her fairly creepy. Perhaps it was her intense nature, she had a very fixed stare.

Petersson, B. and C. Holtorf (eds) 2017 The Archaeology of Time Travel: Experiencing the Past in the 21st Century. Oxford: Archaeopress Archaeology.

Posted in Baker's Flat, Excavation, Field work, Irishness, Museums | Tagged , , , , , ,

Tales from the trenches – the wee tree

The image below records, from a bird’s eye view, the excavation at Baker’s Flat in April this year. Look to the top left and you can see our four work vehicles lined up. To their right the trench – Trench F – with a large spoil heap beside it. In the context of the overall site, it looks tiny and insignificant!

Below the trench is the blue marquee where we bagged and labelled artefacts, right beside our favourite pepper tree where we had lunch and breaks. You can see the plough lines where the wheat was sown, and so yellow because the wheat stubble was still knee height when we were there.

Toilet Walk

Bird’s eye view of Baker’s Flat. Image: Ian Moffat, Jarrad Kowlessar

At the bottom right of the picture is our other favourite pepper tree, colloquially known as the wee tree. We used its facilities regularly over the course of the fortnight. And look, you can see a line through the stubble, where we walked up and down to the wee tree. See the fork in the road near the top where people were either going under the pepper tree or back to the trench; the line is not so defined here as the rest of the walk, where we clearly followed each other like sheep along the path of least resistance. We didn’t even know we were doing this.

After we left, a flock of sheep was put into the paddock to clear the wheat stubble. So the toilet walk would have lasted for maybe a month. But it was captured using a drone by Ian Moffat, stitched together by Jarrad Kowlessar, and recognised by me and Jarrad. Is this an archaeological example of an archaeologist’s work? It’s certainly the remains of human activity, although ephemeral, and we’ve recorded it, even if we didn’t know we were doing so.

Posted in Baker's Flat, Excavation, Field work, Research, hmmm, South Australia | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments