Albany: archaeological find of Collet Barker’s quarters could rewrite WA history books

Kent AcottThe West Australian
Notre Dame University's senior lecturer in archaeology Dr Shane Burke at the Parade Street site.
Camera IconNotre Dame University's senior lecturer in archaeology Dr Shane Burke at the Parade Street site. Credit: Laurie Benson Albany Advertiser

Archaeologists have found what they believe are the foundations of WA’s oldest colonial building — a discovery with the potential to rewrite the State’s history books.

Using old survey books and ground-penetrating radar, Notre Dame University senior archaeology and history lecturer Shane Burke and his team are confident they have found the remains of the 190-year-old commandant’s quarters in Albany.

They are about 1.2m under Foundation Park, a dog and recreation park on Parade Street.

The quarters were built a year before Fremantle’s Round House, which is considered the oldest building standing in WA.

“In the context of the history of WA and the history of Albany, this is an important find,” Dr Burke said. “It has the potential to unlock some valuable insights into early colonial life.”

Dr Burke now hopes to work with the City of Albany to excavate the site.

A panoramic view of King George Sound, painted by Lieut. Robert Dale in 1833. The headquarters (commandant’s quarters) is on the far right near the cross roads.
Camera IconA panoramic view of King George Sound, painted by Lieut. Robert Dale in 1833. The headquarters (commandant’s quarters) is on the far right near the cross roads. Credit: supplied

The quarters, seen in the drawing below, were one of several buildings built when Albany was a military outpost of NSW between 1826 and 1831.

Measuring 10m by 6m and with four rooms and a chimney, it was built between May and July 1829.

The quarters are of special significance because they were the home of Capt. Collet Barker.

His diary is one of Australia’s best historical documents describing the early interaction between Europeans and Aboriginal people.

Because the outpost had no plans for expansion, Capt. Barker was able to build a friendly relationship with local Aboriginals, including clan leader Mokare.

Dr Burke and his team used survey data recorded by colonial surveyor and explorer Alfred Hillman to mark out a likely location of the walls and hearth of the commandant’s quarters.

They used ground-penetrating radar to match underground “anomalies” with the likely locations of the walls.

“It is a quirk of history that the site has never been built on over the last 190 years,” Dr Burke said.

“It means that the building’s foundations have not been disturbed. And they have survived because they were most likely largely built of rock and stone.

“It will be fascinating to see what we discover ... imagine the significance if we found the nib from the pen used by Capt. Barker to write his diaries?”

Dr Burke said the find would not have happened without the support and permission of the City of Albany.

A search for a second nearby building, the barracks, was unsuccessful, probably because it was made of rammed earth and had disintegrated back into the soil.

Capt. Barker was in Albany for two years. The Napoleonic War veteran returned to Sydney in March 1831. He was killed the following month by Aboriginals.

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