Convicts' unmarked graves protected

Materials used in a major restoration project on Port Arthur's Isle of the Dead were choppered in.
Materials used in a major restoration project on Port Arthur's Isle of the Dead were choppered in.

The hardened convicts buried at Port Arthur might have felt a little cheated had they been able to see the refurbishment supplies being flown in by helicopter over the past few years.

They were responsible for the hundreds of cubic metres of hand-broken dolerite that made up the foundations of the historic settlement.

They quarried sandstone for plinth courses and windows, sawed timber for reclamation structures and internal fittings, and hand-made "thousands upon thousands" of bricks to construct Port Arthur's granary and mill-turned-penitentiary that still exists today.

All this work would be 'rewarded' with one of 800 or so unmarked graves at the convicts' final resting place adjacent the port, which has become a popular tourist destination known as the Isle of the Dead.

As part of a recently-completed $1.3 million conservation project on the island, building materials were airlifted in, which must have smarted a little, says Conservation Manager Pamela Hubert.

But they were brought there to construct walkways in part to protect the graves of those hard-working convicts, she says.

"Visitor access on the Isle of the Dead was primarily via poorly defined on-ground paths. Some of these paths crossed the area of unmarked convict graves," Ms Hubert told AAP.

"This has cultural sensitivities as well as leading to erosion of the ground surface."

There are hundreds of marked graves for military and civil officers, women and children who died in Port Arthur - alongside those of the nine lucky convicts who died after the policy to leave them unmarked was relaxed in the mid 1800s.

Those gravestones and monuments are a popular visitor attraction but needed protecting, Ms Hubert says.

"It was difficult for guides to ensure that visitors did not wander to have a closer look at the monuments," she said.

"While they are very interesting and attractive for visitors to want to inspect closely, the monuments are now more than 150 years old and the cumulative impacts of people touching the stone need to be considered in order to conserve the monuments for future visitors."

The conservation works - partially government funded - have taken place over five years, largely during the winter months, so as not to affect the many domestic and international visitors to who frequent the island.

No one could have anticipated the impact COVID-19 would also have on their numbers, with international tourism obliterated.

"Domestic visitation has been good but as you can imagine is greatly impacted by border closures and changes to consumer confidence in travel," Ms Hubert said.

"Since reopening to visitors in July 2021, we have been overwhelmed by and thankful for the support of Tasmanians who have been our largest market."

The walkways are now open as part of the Port Arthur Historic Site Isle of the Dead tour, with group sizes capped at 12 instead of 30.

Australian Associated Press