The history's in the digging - archaeologists dig for the truth about Ned

The history's in the digging - archaeologists dig for the truth about Ned

09 May 2008

His skull was stolen and the rest of his skeleton went missing, but the authorities are gradually rehabilitating Australia's most infamous and revered outlaw, Ned Kelly.

While forensic scientists in Melbourne are examining unidentified remains recovered from a mass grave in Melbourne's Pentridge Gaol, seeking to establish the hanged bushranger's final resting place, the site of Kelly's last stand in Glenrowan, Victoria, is itself under siege - this time from archaeologists.

Armed with hand mattocks and trowels, and a finely-calibrated sense of place, 40 student archaeologists from La Trobe University's Archaeology Program are descending in relays of 10 on this tiny township in north-eastern Victoria - in quest of burnt or buried relics and other artefacts from the time of the 1880 Glenrowan Siege.

The site is being excavated as a collaboration between Adam Ford, of Dig International Pty Ltd and Professor Tim Murray, Head of the Archaeology Program at La Trobe University, for the Rural City of Wangaratta. The first tranche of student archaeologists arrived on-site this week (May 5).

For the next four weeks the archaeologists will excavate, scrape and investigate by hand every square centimetre of earth over and around the most significant siege sites, including the Ann Jones Inn, where police and the Kelly gang faced off in a 10-hour shoot-out.

(Kelly was captured outside the Inn, and the rest of his gang - brother Dan, Steve Hart and best mate Joe Byrne - died during the gunfire before the Inn went up in flames.)

With the help of local volunteers, the team will use such state-of-the-art technology as 3D laser imagery, geophysics and photogrammetry to fully record the site and its contents.

Under Victorian Heritage law all of the historic artefacts will become the property of the State, catalogued on site and forensically analysed in the laboratories of the Archaeology Program at La Trobe University. These artefacts will later be conserved and stored by Heritage Victoria.

Although enthusiastic tourists are believed to have scavenged any likely surface artefacts, Site archaeologist Adam Ford has previously found a bullet cartridge case on site believed to date from the time of the siege.

Professor Murray says the dig is as much about re-examining the drama and historiography of Australia's Ned Kelly story as it is about the archaeology.

"We don't know of course what we might find, but what we're really pursuing is new information about the place that can be integrated with more traditional historical sources to enhance our understanding of what happened during the siege. Its also important to remember that the Inn existed both before and after Kelly and we are really hoping to get quality information about such places during the course of the excavation".


Project historian, author and Kelly specialist Alex McDermott, who is writing his PhD thesis at La Trobe on Melbourne's founding myths, says whatever the archaeologists find at Glenrowan will help give Australians a better understanding of themselves, through differentiating truth from legend in the critical events of history.

"If we find out irrevocably what happened to Steve Hart and Dan Kelly, for instance – and there's been a shroud of mystery around this ever since they died in that hotel – we can at least put to rest the enduring myth that Steve Hart and Dan Kelly escaped the fire and lived out their lives as drovers or whatever in Queensland," he said.

"The Kelly saga is intriguing in that it's a living tradition, it's something people still feel concerned with, and that's something quite rare for Australians. If you said you were going to dig up the explorers or the founding fathers most Australians wouldn't see any relevance, but as soon as you mention Ned Kelly…!!!

The Rural City of Wangaratta Council is managing the project in collaboration with Heritage Victoria as part of the Council's Glenrowan Revitalisation Project.

Media inquiries


Alex McDermott, Latrobe University & Film Australia
T: 0413 462 766


Professor Tim Murray, Head of Archaeology Program,
School of Historical and European Studies
La Trobe University
T: +61 3 9479 2418
F: +61 3 9479 2879




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