If we had the chance to look deep beneath the surface our city, what would we find? Sandstone! And a lot of it.

Sydney is sited atop a deep sandstone shelf, dating back over two hundred million years. The stone has defined and shaped the city: think about the monumental cliffs that flank the entrance to the harbour or the rocky topography that gave Sydney’s first suburbs its name: The Rocks.

A rock engraving at Allambie, 1991: Warringah Image Library WAR46829

The sandstone also provided a tabula rasa for  local Aboriginal people: Sydney is one of three sites in NSW where there are petroglyphs or rock engravings.

Sydney’s sandstone, which would become  a valuable building material by the mid nineteenth century, was initially a frustration for the early European settlers, who found it difficult to cultivate the land to grow food.

Sydney’s characteristic ‘yellow block’ sandstone was first discovered at Pyrmont in the 1850s. Rich yellow in colour and fine of texture, one of its prized qualities is that it can be worked freely in any direction.

A quarry at Paddington in 1967: City of Sydney NSCA CRS 48/6002

Within a few years, a number of quarries had been established in Pyrmont to extract the valuable deposits, soon followed by others at nearby Ultimo and Darling Harbour.

Additional quarries were later established in the eastern suburbs of Sydney including at Paddington and Maroubra, although the qualities of the stone here were different.

The discovery of the city’s extensive sandstone deposits coincided with the arrival of skilled masons to the Colony as part of an influx of free settlers following the cessation of the transportation system to NSW from the 1840s onwards.

Carving on above one of the entrances to the Chief Secretary's Building

From this time, Sydney’s major public buildings began to be built using ‘yellowblock’ sandstone.

These include the General Post Office, Chief Secretary’s Building and central wing of the Sydney Hospital, which are still standing today.

A range of sculptures and carvings adorn many of these mid to late nineteenth century buildings. Some are figurative, while others are allegorical.

But together, they tell a story about Sydney, for those who take the time to look skyward.