Excavation of dugong remains at Sheas Creek 1896 , Courtesy Australian Museum Archives (AMS351/V9817)

Excavation of dugong remains at Sheas Creek 1896 , Courtesy Australian Museum Archives (AMS351/V9817)

It’s strange to think about what might be entombed in dirt beneath the pavements we walk on in Sydney. But the discoveries around 1900 of two particular creatures catapults us back into the prehistory and the Deep Time dimensions of our city.

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For 80 million years, starting 270 million years ago, a huge amount of sediment was deposited in the Sydney Basin, burying the remains of animals and plants that had lived long ago.

One such creature caught in the sediments of time was the Paracyclotosaurus davidi or a giant salamander-like amphibian. The remains of the 2.75m creature resurfaced at the St Peters Brickyards (today’s Sydney Park) in 1910.

Found as a complete fossil skeleton, it dated from the Triassic period some 250-205 million years ago where it lurked in the lakes of the Sydney basin.[i] Sadly it travelled onward and now lives in the Natural History Museum in London.

Cast of full skeleton of Paracyclotosaurus davidi at the Natural History Museum 2011, Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London (CC BY 4.0)

Cast of full skeleton of Paracyclotosaurus davidi at the Natural History Museum 2011, Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London (CC BY 4.0)

Just down the road at Shea’s Creek in Alexandria another curious beast was unearthed during the construction of the Alexandra Canal in 1896.

Workers found large bones which were identified by Government Palaeontologist William Dun as dugong bones. It was especially odd to find a warm-water tropical marine mammal so far south. The ribs had distinct cuts across them while nearby in another deposit, dating from another era, Aboriginal stone axes were found.

Suddenly whole new perspectives opened up on our history. The find suggested not only that at some point the climate was warmer, sea levels higher but that Aboriginal occupation was far longer than colonists had acknowledged.

Skeleton of the Dugong found at Shea's Creek 1896, Plate XIa, 'On the occurrence of a submerged forest, with remains of the Dugong, at Shea's Creek near Sydney' by R Etheridge, Junr, Professor TW Edgeworth David, BA, FGS, and HW Grimshaw, M Inst CE, Journal and proceedings of the Royal Society of New South Wales, Vol 30, 1896, p 158 via the Internet Archive

Skeleton of the Dugong found at Shea’s Creek 1896, Plate XIa, ‘On the occurrence of a submerged forest, with remains of the Dugong, at Shea’s Creek near Sydney’ by R Etheridge, Junr, Professor TW Edgeworth David, BA, FGS, and HW Grimshaw, M Inst CE, Journal and proceedings of the Royal Society of New South Wales, Vol 30, 1896, p 158 via the Internet Archive

It also showed that Aboriginal people were using this part of Botany Bay hundreds of generations ago, benefitting from harvesting creatures like Dugong but also adapting to a rapidly changing climate.[ii]

Subsequent radiocarbon dating of some of the dugong bones has demonstrated that they are around 6,000 years old. Nearby Aboriginal campsites at Wolli Creek have been dated to 10,000 years old; but the dugong bones remain the earliest recorded excavation of an Aboriginal archaeological site in Sydney

We can only imagine that there may be many more creatures in that there dirt too!

 

Further Reading:

Paul Irish, First People of the Cooks River, Dictionary of Sydney, https://dictionaryofsydney.org/entry/first_people_of_the_cooks_river
Ron Ringer, From Sheas Creek to Alexandra Canal, Dictionary of Sydney, https://dictionaryofsydney.org/entry/from_sheas_creek_to_alexandra_canal
Laila Ellmoos, Sydney Park: Kangaroo ground to brickpits, https://dictionaryofsydney.org/entry/sydney_park_kangaroo_ground_to_brickpits
Common Fossils of the Sydney Basin, Australian Museum website https://australian.museum/learn/australia-over-time/fossils/sites/common-fossils-of-the-sydney-basin/

 

Cross section and longitudinal section of Shea's Creek Canal shewing position of submerged forest, remains of dugong, stone tomahawks etc 1896, Plate IX, 'On the occurrence of a submerged forest, with remains of the Dugong, at Shea's Creek near Sydney' by R Etheridge, Junr, Professor TW Edgeworth David, BA, FGS, and HW Grimshaw, M Inst CE, Journal and proceedings of the Royal Society of New South Wales, Vol 30, 1896, p 158 via the Internet Archive

Cross section and longitudinal section of Shea’s Creek Canal shewing position of submerged forest, remains of dugong, stone tomahawks etc 1896, Plate IX, ‘On the occurrence of a submerged forest, with remains of the Dugong, at Shea’s Creek near Sydney’ by R Etheridge, Junr, Professor TW Edgeworth David, BA, FGS, and HW Grimshaw, M Inst CE, Journal and proceedings of the Royal Society of New South Wales, Vol 30, 1896, p 158 via the Internet Archive

 

Minna Muhlen-Schulte is a professional historian and Senior Heritage Consultant at GML Heritage. She was the recipient of the Berry Family Fellowship at the State Library of Victoria and has worked on a range of history projects for community organisations, local and state government including the Third Quarantine Cemetery, Woodford Academy and Middle and Georges Head . In 2014, Minna developed a program on the life and work of Clarice Beckett for ABC Radio National’s Hindsight Program and in 2017 produced Crossing Enemy Lines for ABC Radio National’s Earshot Program. You can hear her most recent production, Carving Up the Country, on ABC Radio National’s The History Listen here. She’s appearing for the Dictionary today in a voluntary capacity. Thanks Minna!

For more Dictionary of Sydney, listen to the podcast with Minna & Alex here, and tune in to 2SER Breakfast with Alex James on 107.3 every Wednesday morning to hear more stories from the Dictionary of Sydney. 

 

 

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