Although many believe Sydney to be a young city without much of a history, anyone reading this blog would know that we think otherwise.  Not only is it full of stories, characters, incidents and events, but it is also built physically on its own history.

Sydney city and its surrounding suburbs sit on the remains of earlier incarnations of themselves, and the excavation of these earlier forms have shed new light on the city’s past over the last 30 years or so.

Archaeology is one of the many ways we can learn about our past, and contrary to popular belief, it is not all confined to Roman ruins in Europe or ancient wonders in the Middle East.  Sydney has a surprisingly rich vein of archaeological remains running under its urban skin considering the gusto with which we seem to pull down and put up new buildings.

So with this in mind, follow me now around some of the places in Sydney where you can see the city beneath.

The first and easiest to see is the site of Old Government House (OGH), now under the Museum of Sydney.  OGH was one of the first permanent European structures erected in Australia and the home of the colonial Governors until the 1840s when it was demolished. 

In 1983, despite 140 years underground, an excavation as part of building works uncovered many of the drains, foundation walls and privies of the old house as well as many thousands of artefacts from crockery and glassware, to clay pipes, animal bones and even the letters from the Government printing press.  The rich collection is now housed in the Museum of Sydney which was built on site and many of the archaeological features can be seen through the transparent glass floor of the museum.

The second site is in the Rocks.  In 1994 the largest urban dig in Australia was undertaken at a site in the Rocks, known as the Cumberland Gloucester Street Site (CUGL).  Like the Old Government House site, the CUGL site had buildings dating from the first phase of European occupation in Sydney, but unlike the former, there were many different buildings and many different periods, from the 1790s right up to the 1890s. 

Demolished between 1900 and 1914, CUGL had been used as a carpark and workshops preserving the remains of the entire neighbourhood under the bitumen.   The Big Dig uncovered pubs, bakers, butchers, houses, cottages, stables, yards and millions of artefacts, including Aboriginal.  The dig and the historical research that went with it painted a new picture of the Rocks, as not a degraded slum but as a rich and vibrant community from the earliest days of colonial Australia.  Now the site of a YHA, the archaeology can still be seen throughout the building and the site.

Many of the artefacts are on display at the Rocks Discovery Museum, as well as bits and pieces from other digs in the Rocks and Millers Point.

A third site close by is under the old GPO in Martin Place.  Here in the basement the Tank Stream, stream that kept the colony alive, can be viewed (well, the brick barrel drain it runs through at least).  There are also things to see at the Conservatorium of Music from Governor Macquarie’s stables on site.

Further west, Parramatta is also rich in archaeological resources.  One site that has been opened and remains on public display is that of the old Parramatta Hospital.  Part of the Parramatta Justice Precinct now, the site had been used as a hospital since the first settlement at Parramatta.  Again, excavations exposed foundations and artefacts including those of the third colonial hospital (1818-1848).  This site is one of nine in Parramatta that can be visited.

These are just some of the sites around Sydney that you can visit and see another one of the ways we can scratch Sydney’s surface.

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