Telling the whole story: Sydney's slums

What was it like to live in a Sydney slum in the 1840s? How did convicts build their wattle and daub huts? This year members of the public had the opportunity to help find out the answers to these and other questions at two significant archaeological digs in Sydney.

An 1800s decorative hand-made bone toothbrush, a whistle, hand-made cricket bat and mother of pearl broach are just some of the relics of Sydney's urban working class of the 19th century found and preserved on an inner city development site. These artefacts were unearthed by archaeologists working on major digs at Australand sites in Ultimo. They provide a snap shot of the lives of some of Sydney's poorest families - what they drank, what they wore and how their children entertained themselves.

Not all the information we want to know about the past can be found in documents and records. Often it is only by investigating the places where history happened that we can learn about past events, peoples and lifestyles.

Last year archaeologists excavated historic sites to uncover new information about the lives of people in NSW in the 18th and 19th centuries. The public were given the opportunity to join the archaeologists on two sites and see first hand how evidence is discovered and analysed.

Nine hundred people turned up to see the urban archaeologists at work in Ultimo and to hear about the history of the area.

The work undertaken by Australand to encourage public access to the archaeological digs in Ultimo was recognised with the awarding of the State Government's inaugural Heritage Management Award.

"Australand has demonstrated how to be a good corporate citizen by giving the public access to archaeological excavations on major development sites," said Deputy Premier, Dr Refshauge, in presenting the award.

"This is the first time a developer has been awarded a certificate of merit by the State Government for its treatment of heritage in the development of a site - I commend the company for extending the community's understanding of the history of Sydney in this very responsible manner."

The excavation at Ultimo was the largest urban archaeological dig in Sydney. Over a million items were unearthed in the six-month dig. Significant finds will be restored and preserved on site. There are plans by archaeologist Dana Mider and Cox Richardson Architects to create a display that tells the story of the site's history from the original natural environment, through Aboriginal occupation and European settlement to its present inner city setting.

Australia's second settlement

Meanwhile at another early and important Sydney site archaeologists unearthed rare remains associated with the early convict period. At the Meriton redevelopment site on the corner of George and Charles streets in Parramatta the public were invited to see remains associated with the settlement of Parramatta in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

The focus of the work late last year by consultant architects Casey & Lowe was to excavate and record the remains of a post-1788 occupation site along the Parramatta river. The area was part of the early settlement at Rose Hill where Governor Phillip established a military redoubt. Convicts were sent to the area to start farming and their living quarters were located at the river site.

The archaeologists discovered the footings of convict huts dating from 1790, as well as evidence of later use of the site as a brewery and then a large residential house. Other discoveries included evidence of Chinese market gardens, more than six wells dating from the 18th and 19th centuries, aboriginal stone artefacts, a 1794 gold sovereign and two pony burials.

"Parramatta was Australia's second settlement, and as such is very rich in archaeological history," said consultant archaeologist Mary Casey.

In November last year the excavation was opened up to the community so that they could see archaeologists at work and hear about their findings. Six hundred people came along to hear the archaeologists and volunteers talk about their discoveries. This was a very special opportunity for people to have a first hand experience with our convict past.

There are further educational activities planned for the project, with an exhibition of the artefacts being discussed with Parramatta Heritage Centre.

Artefacts discovered on the George Street dig displayed for the recent open day. <i>Photograph by Mary Casey

Artefacts discovered on the George Street dig displayed for the recent open day. Photograph by Mary Casey

For those interested in getting their hands dirty, there are opportunities to volunteer on an archaeological dig. At both the Ultimo and the Parramatta excavations volunteers participated in the work and were an important part of the dig team. They had a unique opportunity to work alongside archaeologists and learn about archaeology - from excavating on a historic site, to analysing artefacts. They were there on site helping to uncover new information on past lives and activities.

Archaeology for the people

These exciting initiatives are part of a Heritage Office strategy to give the general public access to archaeology. While few other disciplines capture the public imagination such as archaeology, it is also one of the most misunderstood. Archaeologists are often seen as "treasure hunters" who travel to exotic locations to dig up priceless artefacts. Paradoxically, information uncovered by archaeological research in Australia is often inaccessible to the public, hidden away in technical and specialized reports.

Heritage Office historical archaeologist, Natalie Vinton, says that the best way to help the community understand archaeology is to give them opportunities to participate in projects and learn about archaeological remains.

"It is by experiencing archaeology themselves and visiting our special sites that people will learn how important archaeology is to understanding our past."


"Interpreting archaeology for the public is the most important thing we can do as an agency to help people appreciate their resources."

Natalie was recently awarded a $6,000 Travelling Fellowship in Public Sector Management. Her project took her to the United States to undertake a study of international best-practice in the interpretation of archaeological resources.

Archaeologists and volunteers excavating at George Street, Parramatta. Photograph by Natalie Vinton

Archaeologists and volunteers excavating at George Street, Parramatta. Photograph by Natalie Vinton

The US is regarded as a world leader in the interpretation of archaeological resources. Authors Ron Thompson and Marilyn Harper sum up the thinking behind the many innovative and creative public archaeology programs to be found in North America.

"Places where history happened are powerful witnesses to the reality of past events, individual achievements, dramatic change and past lifeways… Most of these places do not speak to us directly. Their stories need to be "interpreted" before people can understand them… We have an obligation to communicate the powerful stories these places have to tell to the public… Historic places that are valued will be preserved."

In Australia the trend in public interpretation has been slower to take off. But archaeologists, developers, managers and government agencies have begun to see the benefits. They have started working together to achieve better public outcomes for their archaeological projects.

The Heritage Office plans to continue to look for ways to involve the public in archaeology. Increased public access and participation will allow people to discover and appreciate previously hidden history and communities to develop pride in their archaeological sites and resources.

Page last updated: 01 September 2012