This morning on 2SER Breakfast, Dr Tim Owen from GML Heritage talked to Tess about his work as an archaeologist in Sydney.
Archaeologists in Sydney work across many different fields. Historical archaeology looks at the period from 1788 until today but I also study Aboriginal archaeology across Sydney, looking at the evidence of the 50,000 years or so of Aboriginal occupation here.
Archaeologists work on different kinds of sites too, some of high cultural significance, or those in a commercial setting that are going to be developed or need to be conserved. One site with high significance, the archaeological site on Bridge Road of first Government House on Bridge Road in the city, is nationally heritage listed and is important to colonial history in many ways, including as a site of first contact between the British colonisers and the Gadigal people. Arabanoo, Bennelong & Colebee were all incarcerated here after they were kidnapped, and held in chains in the yards. There’s also an archaeological record of Aboriginal people being inside Government House through the materials they brought in and produced here and that have produced tangible evidence of Aboriginal people of their presence.
Archaeologists are often called in to provide an assessment of a site that is less obvious in its significance. Prior to its development for something like a new housing estate or factory, a site will have been subject to investigation and possibly excavation before construction starts. As the city grows, quite a lot of this work takes place in western Sydney.
Western Sydney is just full of Aboriginal archaeology, Aboriginal heritage, Aboriginal places and Aboriginal meaning. It’s a massive cultural landscape, with tangible and intangible values. Intangible values relate to stories, creation, travelling routes, geographical features, trees, plants, animals – all the things that are part of Aboriginal tradition. It’s what is referred to as Country, underpinned by spirituality. Material evidence that comes as a consequence of Aboriginal people having lived here for 40,000 – 50,000 years is absolutely everywhere. You’ll often find stone artefacts in western Sydney, and art sites and shell middens around the harbour and rivers. There’s an extensive range of evidence that helps us to understand the very, very long term occupation of this ancient country by Aboriginal people.
Archaeology in western Sydney is often buried rather than being on the surface, and it’s the knowledge of the local Aboriginal people that inform the archaeologists and identify sites for excavations and allow us to understand the places that Aboriginal people have occupied for thousands of years.
One such site is in East Leppington in south western Sydney where we undertook several months of archaeological research and excavations before construction began on a new residential development. We knew it was an historic landscape when we began as it was the site at of an early colonial land grant, and we could see the old homestead sitting on the hills.
When we began to talk to local Aboriginal people however, they told us about a view corridor through the hills. When you went up one of the hills and faced one way, you could see the Blue Mountains. Face the other way and you could see the three CBDs, Parramatta, North Sydney and the city CBD with the Harbour Bridge in the distance. This was an amazing view now, but it was also, importantly, connected to a long Aboriginal tradition. From here you could see where everyone was across the Cumberland Plains, which had significance for community, travelling routes and corroborees. This was a strong intangible connection and although there was not a lot of archaeology at the top, when we began investigating lower down these hills, we found particular places in the landscape with lots of archaeological evidence showing Aboriginal people had come back to the same location over thousands and thousands of years. We were able to prove this through stratigraphic excavation, a kind of three dimensional puzzle, that allowed us to date the evidence we found. With OSL (Optical Stimulated Luminescence) dating of grains of sand in the alluvium that had been deposited by flooding and buried the older archaeology, we found that it had been set down over 10,000 years or so. We also applied carbon dating to hearth and cooking residues. We had also identified changes and developments over time in the artefacts left behind as materials and different methods of production allowed for much more refined tools, and these dating tools helped us to work out when these developments had taken place.
History Week 2019 will be launched on Friday, and Tim Owen will be speaking at a special History Week event, ‘Unearthing Memory and Myth‘, at GML Heritage in Surry Hills next Thursday at 6pm. Join historians and archaeologists from GML Heritage for an evening of lightning talks exploring cultural landscapes, archaeology, forgotten ruins, memory and mythology. Tim Owen will present on concepts of memory and use of place through the lens of Aboriginal people’s connection to land over thousands of years. What are some of the places we forget? As part of her 2018 NSW History Fellowship, Minna Muhlen-Schulte has been researching the ruins and memorials of Second World War internment camps in Victoria. Archaeologist Brian Shanahan has worked in Ireland, Victoria and New South Wales for twenty years and will discuss myth, memory and material in the Irish landscape. Angela So has over 10 years’ experience in archaeology, historical research and interpretation planning and she will explore the ways in which we can interpret memory landscapes for wide range of audiences and formats.
Find out more and book your tickets online here: https://www.eventbrite.com.au/e/unearthing-memory-and-myth-tickets-62831339227
There are too many great talks, tours, exhibitions and events being presented across Sydney to list here, so head to the History Council of NSW website and check the calendar and downloadable program for other great History Week events so you can plan your week: https://historycouncilnsw.org.au/
Some of our highlights include:
- The 2019 NSW Premier’s History Awards are being held this coming Friday night at the State Library of New South Wales, and we’re very excited! Click on the link here for the shortlists in each category.
- On Tuesday 3 September, Professor John Maynard is presenting the Annual History Lecture, ‘Counter Currents – Aboriginal men and Women at the Heart of Empire’. Bookings through the History Council website here.
- Historian and regular Dictionary of Sydney presenter Dr Lisa Murray is giving an illustrated talk on the Block Plans of Sydney at Customs House on 1 September (book HERE) and another on the Devonshire Street cemetery on 4 September (book HERE). The City of Sydney’s history team are also holding some special events for History Week and the final weekend of Cartographica – Sydney on the map, a great free exhibition at Customs House that examines the history of maps of the City of Sydney. Check their program here.
Happy History Week!
Tim Owen, An Archaeology of absence (or the archaeology of nothing), Historic Environment, Volume 27 Number 2 (2015)
Val Attenbrow, Archaeological evidence of Aboriginal life in Sydney, Dictionary of Sydney, 2012
Dr Tim Owen, GML Heritage Principal, has 19 years’ experience working as a professional archaeologist; he has extensive experience in directing both Aboriginal and historical projects and excavations throughout Australia. He specialises in complex large-scale cultural landscape assessments, heritage management, bioarchaeological analysis and Aboriginal community, client and government liaison.Tim’s expertise lies in resolving complex strategic planning issues associated with large-scale projects, which include Aboriginal community consultation, Aboriginal and historical archaeological field survey, assessment, excavation, management and reporting. He has conceived and directed numerous public archaeology projects, and received the Martin Davies Award in 2007 for his long-term work at the Port Arthur Historic Site, Tasmania.Tim is a senior research fellow at Flinders University, with active research projects in Sydney and Adelaide. He is appearing for the Dictionary today in a voluntary capacity. Thanks Tim!