WALK AROUND THE Sydney city block bounded by Kent, Sussex, Napoleon and Erskine Streets and you are on top of a cultural ground zero. Below your feet is one of the first places where Australia's Stone Age ended and the Industrial Revolution began.
And ironically, that very spot is one of the most recent places the nation's prehistoric heritage has been uncovered. Dig deep enough and you will not reach the apocryphal China but rather Australia as it was for tens of thousands of years.
Underneath your shoes, past the asphalt, concrete and ruins of buried colonial and twentieth century buildings, lies a place called Weerong. It is the name that the Cadigal people had for the shoreline at the modern location of Circular Quay.
The popular wisdom, until recently, was that two centuries of construction, demolition, landscaping, filling and draining had obliterated the archaeological evidence of Weerong's original inhabitants.
Just as the natural, chaotic, sandstone-covered low-lying ridge, carpeted in Angophoras and other woodland species, is now all but lost except to the most vivid of imaginations, so too are the easily visible signs of Weerong's people.
The uncomfortable truth that the place was once someone else's can no longer be ignored.
While Weerong has been wrought into Sydney – a place of hard surfaces, geometric shapes, grids and gridlock, the transformation is far from complete.
Dominic Steele owns an archaeological consulting firm and was recently called on to work on Leighton Properties' KENS Project (an acronym based on Kent, Erskine, Napoleon and Sussex Streets). After the original multi-storey carpark on the site was removed and the site cleared, teams of archaeologists searched for both European and Aboriginal cultural heritage. The fact that the demolition involved the removal of mountains of concrete combined with the knowledge that the carpark was only the latest incarnation of twentieth century ingenuity created low archaeological expectations. How could anything survive underneath such a series of architectural abominations?
But every now and then, says Steele, who has worked extensively on Sydney's archaeology, something amazing turns up.
‘You have this city landscape that has been developed since 1788, with multiple levels of change and occasionally you go, "wow, look what we have just found underneath this massive footprint".'
In the case of KENS, a number of small trenches were opened up in the brief window of time available between the demolition of the carpark and the construction of the office tower.
Nearly one thousand Aboriginal artefacts were found, says Steele. These included stone flakes, stone tools and some raw materials that were not sourced from the immediate Sydney area and may indicate trading networks.
To the untrained eye, these pieces of worked stone may look like ‘a bag of rocks', he says. But in fact they tell a story of a not-so-distant time when Sydney was an unimaginably different place. ‘It is the city's hidden history,' Steele says. ‘This place had a rich and vast set of resources.' To an open mind, it is revealing. ‘All I was ever made to read at school was European history.'
Think of it for a few moments. No buses, no Sussex Street, no peak-hour snarl across the Anzac Bridge, no politicians in Macquarie Street, no Protestant work ethic, only a small band of people using stone technology living on what was immediately around them and what they could barter with their neighbours.
From a few holes under one building have come a thousand stone artefacts. The implication is that under the whole of the central business district it is likely that a treasure trove of Sydney's prehistory is entombed. ‘It's not a dead and dark archaeological landscape,' Steele says. ‘There's the potential for the survivorship of a lot of archaeology.'
Backing up Steele's statement is the fact that more and more archaeological sites have turned up under demolished city buildings since the early 1990s, when it was realised that even the most subtle of remains can survive against the odds of massive disturbance.
THE AUSTRALIAN MUSEUM'S Dr Val Attenbrow studied one of the city's most poignant archaeological finds. Under some nineteenth century terrace houses at Cumberland Street in The Rocks, an historical archaeologist engaged by developers noticed what appeared to be a small shell midden and contacted Attenbrow, an eminent archaeologist and pre-hstorian. It was two-thirds of a metre in diameter and only six centimetres deep. As she relates in a paper on the find, it was a difficult and quick dig, and reading her report I think of someone rescuing a tortoise from a busy four-lane expressway. ‘The developer had begun excavating the sandstone bedrock for the development when I undertook my archaeological work and heavy trucks were moving in and out of the building site within five metres of the face where the shell was exposed. I therefore excavated the deposit as quickly and expeditiously as possible!'
Within the tiny midden, Attenbrow found eighty-two fragments of fish bone and eighteen species of shellfish. The small midden would have been about thirty metres above high tide mark, and some 450 metres from the Tank Stream – probably the closest source of fresh water. Material in the midden was dated to 1448 AD – more than three hundred years before European settlement.
In the early 1990s, when it was uncovered, it was only the second Aboriginal site that had been found in the city in recent times. ‘Its small size and contents, comprising only shell fishbone and charcoal, suggest it is the result of only a brief period of activity, perhaps a single event – a single meal or snack for a small group of people.'
The fact that the event of a single meal can be preserved under Sydney alone speaks loudly of the gap between Weerong and the city. It is almost absolutely certain that, even though there are now millions of us and spectacular feasts are held every day, archaeologists in the future are unlikely to ever find evidence of a single meal. Attenbrow's mini-midden speaks of a simpler and less crowded time. The date of 1448 suggests an era ending, a clashing of cultures about to happen and a late glimpse into a people about to meet forces which would lead to irrevocable change.
IN HER BOOK Sydney's Aboriginal Past (UNSW Press, 2002), Attenbrow says the high end of the estimates for the region's pre-European population is eight thousand people. ‘Although estimates can be made based on historical descriptions and archaeological evidence, we shall never know the actual size of the population that lived in the Sydney region when the British arrived,' she says.
By all accounts, those who called the harbour home led a rich cultural life based on an almost endless supply of seafood, supplemented by terrestrial animals like kangaroos. While it is amazing that material is vaulted away under skyscrapers, what is even more incredible is that Sydneysiders do not have to go very far from George Street to find places where Weerong is not under the carpet but rather on view for anyone to see.
There is no need to go to Kakadu to see spectacular cave paintings – in fact, although most Sydneysiders don't realise it, their closest rock art is probably within a few hundred metres of their front door. There are close to 4,500 registered Aboriginal sites in Sydney and some of these are masterworks of exquisite beauty. There are virtually no other major international cities riddled with as much prehistory as Sydney. There are middens, hand stencils, stone tool scatters, trees whose trunks have been scarred by the removal of bark for the construction of canoes and coolamons, burial sites and, most famously, an ever-growing body of engraving sites. ‘Sydney is the rock art capital of the world,' Attenbrow says.
IT IS A recent weekday lunchtime in Sydney and I am close to the shores of the harbour with Val Attenbrow. We are perched on a giant weathered log off to one side of the grass-covered spit that joins Berry Island with mainland Sydney. Berry Island is only a few minutes from the high-rises of North Sydney, and in the water at our backs is the great bulk of the crude oil freighter Leonis, disgorging its load.
My head is spinning at what Attenbrow has just shown me: a rock engraving of an ancestral spirit figure and grinding grooves made by the North Shore's original inhabitants, the Cammeraygal people.
The grinding grooves were formed by these people sharpening stone axes in this place in the millennia before Governor Phillip arrived. A little circular waterhole, which would have been used to lubricate the grooves, is there and filled with clear but tannin-stained water. The enormous spirit figure was created with motivations that will never be fully understood. Yet, considering the engraving is the size of a mini-bus and draped over an entire rock platform, its significance was probably as mind-blowing as the fact that it has survived at all. And who knows what the half-boomerang at the foot of the figure could possibly signify?
How is it that, on the edge of one of the most modern cities in the world, there is an unspoilt place where potent symbols of Australia's Stone Age survive so proudly and perfectly?
As all these thoughts rush through my mind, a strange gathering begins quickly before our eyes – a group of nine men and women appears, apparently out of nowhere. They stroll purposefully towards a neatly-mowed patch of grass. They roll out their mats and begin their yoga asanas. We joke that the group is doing ‘midden yoga'.
Before we sat on the log, Attenbrow and I had examined the same spot where the contortions were now taking place and studied some of the thousands, probably millions, of bleached and leached shells – mostly oysters – grudgingly being yielded by the earth. There is a huge shell midden there, the remains of hundreds and maybe thousands of years of feasting. It is a surreal moment but for me it captures the disconnect that exists between Sydneysiders and the truth of the city's past. Almost certainly, none of the yoga devotees would have a clue about what was underneath their mats. Most Sydneysiders are aware that the city is overlaid on an Aboriginal history but are oblivious to its extent. Only a very small handful see the city through the prism of past ownership, but those lucky few see prehistory almost everywhere they look.
Sydneysiders have their equivalent of the Egyptian pyramids or the Lascaux Caves, only we don't look or understand what we are seeing when we do.
And the prehistory is in some very strange places in very odd contexts.
At Balls Head, near HMAS Waterhen in North Sydney, is one of the best-preserved rock engravings in the city. It is just three or four metres outside the front door of an environmental and earth sciences building and bounded on one side by a carpark. As Attenbrow and I arrive at the site, we can hear the hum of the city and the thump of jackhammers nearby. Again the engraving is remarkable – a whale with a man inside it. The artwork is perfectly clear and undamaged by graffiti.
Some decades ago, a decision was made to fence off the engraving and holes were augured into the sandstone slab for posts and a framing of four-by-four timber, painted white. Time travelling with the engraving is a small triangle of remnant vegetation, Old Man Banksias and Lomandra. There is a sense that this little outcrop of rugged Sydney sandstone, with its unkempt native plants, has only survived because no one could build a house, a road or a lawn on it. To me it looks like a last little island of wild Sydney surrounded by the rising tide of city sprawl. What do the people in the building right next to the artwork think each morning when they come to work? What would the original artist think of the new context of their whale engraving? Again, though, the biggest question is what this giant picture of a whale really meant. What a story it must have been, this tale of a whale that swallowed a man! Where else in the world would there be an original ancient piece of rock art where cars park just a few centimetres away? Why isn't this spot on the tourist trail like the Harbour Bridge, which is visible through the trees?
Attenbrow and I drive another few hundred metres to another site on Balls Head she wants to show me. This time we pass tourists, and then we sneak off the track, push through undergrowth, scramble down a steep slope until we come to a surprisingly clean and undamaged rock shelter. We can see the water of the harbour sparkling just in front of us, and through a light filter of trees we see a vast cargo ship, nudged by a tug just passing beneath the deck of the Harbour Bridge. Again there is a midden under our feet on the floor of the overhang. Attenbrow shows me the spot where an archaeological trench was dug and stone tools and human remains excavated – an incisor was associated with the body, possibly from a necklace. Then we turn around and look at the wall of the tiny sandstone overhang. Even in the gloom, the stencils of two small hands – either children's or a small woman's – stand out clearly. They make me gasp with surprise. I have walked in the wildest places with archaeologists to find similar rock art and here it is, a ferry blast from Circular Quay. Only the hardest of hearts could not be touched by the existence of such a statement of humanity. There before us were two hands sprayed with a sentiment that has spoken to everyone who came after those palms were pressed against the sandstone. ‘I was here, I am still here, I will be here long after you are gone.'
We walk down the slope towards the water.
The rocks in the tidal zone are covered in a stucco of oysters, and I realise that none of the things that we have found are prehistoric. They are here today and are part of the fabric of our city. Even those who never see this art subconsciously know it is there. We know this because of the strange names of our suburbs that still survive – names bestowed by these original people: Parramatta, Kirribilli, Coogee, Bondi and Maroubra.
Not only do stones and words survive, but so do the people – it is the Metropolitan Land Council which helps guide the archaeology undertaken in the CBD. Sydney is an art gallery turned inside out, where the creative spirit is literally manifest in our dirt, on our rocks and our trees. Our skyscrapers are built on foundations of stone tools, our parks are filled with rock art, we do yoga on middens, we park cars beside giant whales and little hands from long ago wave at us from stone walls. The original culture drifts over, under and through the city like a mist – acknowledged or ignored, it has not gone away. It will not go away.