Prime Seal Island Dig 1989

Prime Seal Island Dig 1989


In her story, “The Settlement Mark" in the Ancestry (Vol. 27 No 1) Margaret McKenzie asked if anyone had been on an Archaeological dig. This question and Margaret’s interesting story brought back memories of some of the digs I have been on. One in particular comes to mind possibly the hardest digging or camping I have ever encountered.


Since coming to Tasmania in 1960, we have, as a family, camped all over the state, in the heat, rain, wind and snow, as well as spending three years digging at Port Arthur during the summer, as a volunteer. So I was no stranger to the difficult times while camping and working in a trench all day. So when I was asked to go to Prime Seal Island in 1989 I jumped at the chance.


The dig on Prime Seal Island was a follow-up on a previous one a couple of years before.  Being in a cave it was certainly going to be different to digging under the floorboards in the Commandant’s house at Port Arthur.  The cave was thought to have been occupied by aborigines before the land bridge was covered by Bass Strait, and it was hoped we would find some evidence of this.


Our party was made up of eleven people, three archeologists and eight volunteers, three from Flinder’s Island and the rest from Tasmania and the mainland.


We all met at Whitemark on Flinder’s Island, where we spent the night, before leaving the next day for Prime Seal Island. It was the bumpiest sea voyage I have ever had. The boat was a high powered speed boat, that was up in the air more times then on the water, before crashing down with a bang. We had to hold on for our lives for what seemed like hours.


When at last we arrived at our destination we had to first pile into a rubber ducky with all our gear, tents, bedding and personal bags, and row to the rocky outcrop, from where we had to haul our gear up onto the cliff-top. By this time I was wondering if I had been foolish at my age ( I was later to find out I was the oldest) to volunteer. But by the time we had our tents up and viewed the beautiful scenery I had forgotten my worries.


The men were soon busy erecting the cooking tent and Elspeth (the only person I knew) and I started setting up the kitchen.  The set up was very primitive just a canvas top with side poles. The only cooking appliance was a small gas stove with no base. (we cooked for eleven people with it on the ground for the whole ten days) We also had two camp ovens, two eskies of food, two water containers, and that was about it.


Everybody placed their tents where they could have a view of the sea and Flinder’s Island in the distance. All of a sudden the camp was in fits of laughter. One of the women volunteers had brought a large family tent, but had forgotten the pegs. Soon fixed, the men went off and made some wooden ones.


It was a great first night, with something to eat and a glass of wine and interesting people to talk to.  We were all looking forward to our first day of the dig.


The cooking difficulties was not our only problem, as the island is uninhabited there were no facilities such as toilets and water. When we arrive it was decided that we would have to dig trenches for toilets (like we did at guide’s camps, not a very pleasant thought) In the end it was decided to use a shovel instead.  This was embarrassing at first, as we had to wait till the person brought the shovel back to camp. We soon got over that and were yelling for them to get a move on.


The other worries we had was the island was covered with spider holes (like our big trap door spiders in Queensland)  So we had to be very careful where we dug a hole, and watch for snakes, we were warned to keep a look out for them.

(I have since found out that they were wolf spiders, a mainland species not found in Tasmania)


The dig was in a cave at the top of the highest hill on the island, and at 7am the next morning we all set off like the seven dwarfs up the hill to work.  Our first job was to clear the weeds from the front of the cave. I grabbed what I thought was some thistles but what turned out to be stinging nettles. Pain shot up my arm and this was nearly the end of my stay, as it ached all day and made me feel quite sick.


Not wanting to make a fuss I keep on working, not to do so would have meant the other volunteers would have had more to do, besides there was no way of getting me off the island.


Soon we found we were short of water and from then on had to be very careful with it. The hardest was washing ourselves in salt water in our tents. Sitting on my bed with a bowl of salt water was no fun. To have fresh water for our tea and coffee Ron would walk a couple of miles down to an old tank at an abanded house and fill up one of our containers every couple of days.



Our island dig continues and all the inconveniences were forgotten during the day as we took our turn of digging, carrying sand, sifting and cataloging. From our advantage spot on the top of the hill we often watched the dolphins while we had our lunch. I think they knew we were there each day and come to perform for us.


I was very lucky one day while I was in one of the four foot trenches, I found what is believed to be a 30,000 year old complete scallop shell (only because I was in the right hole at the right time, but it was a thrill for all that) Steve, our leader said it was the find of the dig. This find also proved that the aborigines used the cave during the time of the land bridge before the forming of Bass Strait.


Our finds were mainly small animal bones. The team were hopeful that the next part of the project within the inner cave there would be more interesting finds. The inner cave, which you had to crawl into on your hands and knees, was very spooky, dark and full of crickets and no doubt the dreaded spiders.


One day while working in the cave Steve said we only had one lot of meat left and it was silverside, did anyone know how to cook it? Thinking it was a good opportunity to go back to camp, as I still wasn’t feeling too good, I offered, if I could go down early. On arrived at the camp I lit the camp-fire and put the camp oven on with some onions and potatoes and the silverside and covered it with water. After leaving it for a while I went back to see how it was going, and to my horror found the top covered with maggots.  What on earth was I to do? There was nothing else to eat so it had to be the silverside, like it or not. I would have to eat it if I expected them to! I removed the potatoes and onion and replaced the water with some fresh salt water and continued with cooking it.  I kept telling myself our ancestors must have often done the same thing before ice chests and refrigerators.


Everyone was full of praise for my cooking, which made me feel guilty so I called Steve aside and told him what I had done. Steve only laughed saying when he had cleaned the esky out a few days before he had found the bottom full of them and had just emptied them out and put back the meat.  I never told anyone on the team about it.  


So between the nettles, spiders, snakes, blowflies and the blown meat, this was to me my most remembered dig. It’s funny how we remember the hard times in detail but are incline not to remember the good ones so vividly.



Volunteers on Prime Seal Island (last day)


When I arrived back on Flinders my friend put me to bed for a week, and told me I was very lucky as she remembered her mother telling her of a child who died from being stung with what is known on the islands as Man Nettles.


Names of those who were on Prime Seal Island:

Steve Brown, Robbie Sim, Ian Thomas, Tony Walker, Ronnie Summers, Darell West, Tom Rayner, Elsepeth Wishart, Phillis Pitchford, Cathy Lincoln and Irene Schaffer .


A report of this dig can be found on

Irene Schaffer














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