Culture and heritage


Uncovering the life of Sydney's poorest

What is it like working on Sydney's largest archaeological dig? Heritage Office archaeologist, Caitlin Allen, put down her pen and picked up a trowel to join an international team of archaeologists excavating the Broadway site in Glebe. Covering two entire city blocks, the site holds evidence of the ordinary lives of Sydneysiders from the early days of settlement.

Over 200 years ago Blackwattle Creek was a tidal watercourse flowing through a valley thick with the wattle that gave the area its name. There was abundant fresh water, wildlife, alluvial soil and a swamp. The Cadigal people fished and collected shell fish in the area which was part of their traditional lands.

By the beginning of the 19th century Blackwattle Creek was on the edge of the fledgling town of Sydney. Market gardeners had exploited the rich alluvial flats at the headwaters of the creek. When the area was subdivided in the 1820s, publican and wheelwright Thomas May bought land and built a number of slaughter houses. From this time the character of the area was to be distinctly urban.

Today the site is adjacent to Broadway and is being developed by Australand for inner city apartments. With important remnants of Sydney's early years buried beneath the ground surface, the Heritage Council recommended that an archaeological excavation be undertaken before the evidence was destroyed. In recognition of the historical significance of the site, the developers, Australand, undertook an extensive historical survey and archaeological dig.

Blackwattle Creek was not an exclusive address. The very poorest lived here in what was described as slum housing. By the 1850s the area was tightly packed with houses and industry. Blood and offal from the slaughter houses drained into the creek, as well as raw sewage. Noises and smells from the butchers, dairies, stables and industries such as the sugar works would have been constant companions.

By the end of the 19th century many houses were old and dilapidated, others demolished and not rebuilt. After a case of bubonic plague and endemic outbreaks of scarlet fever, typhoid and smallpox, the area was resumed by the Sydney City Council. Today's archaeological dig is helping to uncover evidence of these layers of history and to discover what life was like for the urban working class of the 19th century.

Archaeologists digging underfloor deposits from a series of 19th century terraces at the Quadrant site at Broadway. Photograph by Scott Wajon. Image courtesy of Australand.

Archaeologists digging underfloor deposits from a series of 19th century terraces at the Quadrant site at Broadway. Photograph by Scott Wajon. Image courtesy of Australand.

Heritage Office historical archaeologist Caitlin Allen took four months leave to work on the dig as part of her professional development.

"After working from an office for the last five years, this was a wonderful opportunity for me to refresh my field skills. At the Heritage Office we look at overall strategies for archaeology and deal with a large number of projects seeking approval for excavation, so it was good to be involved in the detail of a major excavation."

Dana Mider, historical archaeologist, led the research project team which included students from Sydney University's Archaeology Department, the local Aboriginal community and volunteers. With a team of 48 plus five specialist consultants, it was the largest archaeological team ever to work on a site in Australia. The dig team included archaeologists from all over the world who brought with them new field skills and techniques.

Early stages of the excavation of the Quadrant site at Broadway. The remains of small terraces can be seen in the foreground, with Howard Street running up the centre of the site. Photograph by Scott Wajon. Image courtesy of Australand.

Aerial photograph of archaeological site at Broadway.

Among the finds unearthed during the five-month dig were house footings, a roughly built ford across Blackwattle Creek, bones and off-cuts from the slaughter yards and planks that people had used to walk from the stables to the laneway.

Caitlin worked on the excavation of a series of terraces dating from the 1830s-80s which ran along Howard Street though the middle of the site.

"The tiny terraces in the row were all very similar: they had a front room, a back room, a little add-on kitchen, front verandahs and privies down the back yard."

These remains enabled the archaeologists to gain an insight into the lives of the 19th inhabitants. As they dug the site, they looked at the sequence the rooms were built in, how the building was constructed, evidence of underfloor deposits and artefacts - piecing together an understanding of the lives of the people and the neighbourhood.

"There were huge numbers of artefacts - all the day-to-day stuff - personal items, jewellery, coins, little dolls, tea-sets, shoes and belts, ceramics, glass and figurines. All those little details of people's lives that you don't normally get. We talk about this being slum housing but people did take some pride in their homes. Most of the ceramics and glass we found were fairly poor quality but there were some items that were really nice," said Caitlin.

The enormous volume of evidence amassed during the excavation will be analysed by Dana Mider. One of the interesting offshoots is that it will enable her to compare the results with work being done in London on an area with similar housing conditions and to contrast the lives of working class Sydneysiders and Londoners. Ms Mider's report and a virtual 3-D construction of the site will eventually be placed on the Heritage Office website.

Back at the Heritage Office, Caitlin is already incorporating the experience gained in the field into her work.

Photograph by Scott Wajon. Image courtesy of Australand

Photograph by Scott Wajon. Image courtesy of Australand

"Being a part of this major project has made me think about how the Heritage Office directs resources into the way archaeological sites are dug. It has made me much more aware of the kind of methodologies people are using and how we might be able to better direct resources. It has raised issues about the way we excavate and analyse archaeological sites and public participation in archaeology. For me, the experience provided a hands-on dimension to the policy work that we do at the Heritage Office."


Page last updated: 01 September 2012