While you were sweeping: retelling stories of colonial WA

Did you ever hide special treasures in a secret spot when you were a kid? Imagine if someone found your stash 200 years later – what would they make of it?
Marlo Rae
Marlo Rae
While you were sweeping: retelling stories of colonial WA
Image credit: Getty Images

For historical archaeologist Sean Winter, looking at the things that people leave behind reveals a whole new side to the history of buildings.

“Putting together a picture of the past is like taking a 1000 piece jigsaw puzzle, throwing away 800 pieces and then putting what’s left together and trying to understand what the picture’s actually showing you,” Sean says.

Surprisingly, one can find a treasure trove of figurative jigsaw pieces beneath house floors.

“As humans, we spend about 70% of our time inside, so it makes sense that we’d leave an imprint behind,” says Sean.

“As soon as you realise how many items survive underneath buildings – items that wouldn’t in typical outdoors archaeology – suddenly you can find out a whole heap of things about how people lived.”

Underfloor exploration

After working closely with National Trust archaeologist Leanne Brass, Sean started thinking about WA’s colonial buildings as archaeological sites instead of pieces of architecture.

Sean investigates these sites using scientific techniques to better understand human behaviour (aka experimental archaeology).

Remains of a 19th century hob nailed boot recovered from the Artillery Drill Hall in Fremantle, WA
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Exploring under the floorboards of Fremantle’s historic Artillery Drill Hall showed the many sides to the building’s history. Sean’s team found this 19th century hob nailed boot, as well as sequins that fell from dresses at dances in the 1950s, and Emu Export cans from patrons of the Fly By Night Club.

Image credit: S. Winter
Exploring under the floorboards of Fremantle’s historic Artillery Drill Hall showed the many sides to the building’s history. Sean’s team found this 19th century hob nailed boot, as well as sequins that fell from dresses at dances in the 1950s, and Emu Export cans from patrons of the Fly By Night Club.

In 2017 and 2018, Sean and his team excavated under-floor at the Residency Museum in York and the Ellensbrook Homestead in Margaret River. As they started analysing what had been uncovered, they had some questions.

“First, we had to refine what ‘big’ and ‘small’ actually means,” laughs Sean.


Knowing this, there was room to reassess whether an item found under the floorboards was simply lost or had been deliberately placed there – and if so, why?

Keeping culture on the down low

Sean and his team were a little bit floored by what they found underneath Ellensbrook Homestead at Mokidup (Margaret River).

Built in the 1850s, the homestead once operated as a ‘Farm Home for Aboriginal Children’. Between 1898 and 1917, Indigenous children were sent there to learn domestic and farming skills.

Hidden beneath the floors were delicate materials like cotton embroidery, paper and animal fur – items that don’t often survive the elements. This was partly due to the installation of lino in 1920, which helped to seal the area.

But they also found items that were deliberately hidden. Shells, shards of glass and pieces of quartz were all found under the floorboards in certain rooms of the house.

Comparison of one large shell and many smaller shells or shell fragments recovered from under floors at Ellensbrook
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Image credit: J. Green

It was a secret collection saved by children who were denied toys or trinkets – or cultural identity.

“You see this in institutional mission sites all across Australia,” says Sean. “These artefacts show that people were trying to preserve links to their Aboriginal culture.”

Pairing these discoveries with detailed institutional records and photo collections, a clearer picture of the life at Ellensbrook started to emerge.

“The traditional picture of life at the Missions is one of helplessness, but here we see clear evidence of human agency in resisting the efforts to control and shape these children’s lives.”

“As archaeologists, we use historical documents as a supplementary material to the material people leave behind,” says Sean.

“And so you go through the established history and then turn it sideways.”

(Un)sweeping generalisations

Sean also realised that they needed to tease out ‘accidental depositions’ from what people were purposefully putting under the floors.

To further understand the forces at play, the team ran sweeping experiments on butt-boarded floors using hard-bristled broom brushes.

Diagram showing the conceptual sweep zone from underfloor archeology experiements - the linear sweep path is straight, but the possible travel area arcs triangularly into an 'actual sweep zone'
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Conceptual sweep zone

Image credit: S. Winter, J. Green, K. Benfield-Constable, B. Romano & M. Drummond-Wilson
Conceptual sweep zone

They saw how larger objects like shards of glass or ceramics often fell straight down when swept onto a vertical position. Gaps underneath skirting boards also allow larger items to skip straight through and fall into the underfloor space.

“We realised that we all had assumptions about how deposits developed underneath floor boards but without really understanding how it happened,” says Sean.

With all these new puzzle pieces coming to the surface, who knows what kind of details will be added to the history books?

It all builds up to a rich history – if you know where to look.

Marlo Rae
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Marlo Rae
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