ARTEFACT OF THE MONTH: Pentridge Prison Fork

Author:   Published: Monday, May 01, 2017

Catherine Tucker

This cutlery fork that was recovered from excavations of a large rubbish pit at Pentridge Prison, located to the north of Melbourne. The assemblage is thought to date to the mid-nineteenth century and this particular artefact was chosen as a representative example of the many cutlery items recovered during the excavations. It is a utilitarian object that has been modified for use specifically at the prison and was probably used by the inmates.

The metal is now heavily corroded but it has a shaft that extends all the way to the end of the handle. Over the metal handle there are two identically shaped bone lengths that are attached to each side of the fork shaft by three small evenly spaced nails. The bone handle is 14mm wide at the fork end and 20mm at the handle end and is 84mm in length. These dimensions are the same for all of the forks in the assemblage indicating that the cutlery was most likely mass produced in specialist factories rather than made in one of the prison workshops.

On one side of the fork there are roughly carved roman numerals – XXV (25) and numbers such as these were found on all bone handled cutlery in the assemblage. The highest number recovered was LVIII (58), meaning that there were at least 58 objects in the original set. The numerals are deeply incised on the handles and the roughness and variability in style indicate that these marks were probably made at the prison.

These numbered utensils are particularly identifiable as prison or institutional artefacts, places where it was important to keep track of sharp objects, and they reflect the processes involved in managing inmates in nineteenth century prisons.

Catherine Tucker is a part-time PHD student at LaTrobe University who also works as a consultant archaeologist, mostly in Victoria.