Aboriginal Prehistory, Historical and Contemporary Archaeology in the Sydney Basin

By Clarke, Anne; Colley, Sarah et al. | Archaeology in Oceania, July 2012 | Go to article overview

Aboriginal Prehistory, Historical and Contemporary Archaeology in the Sydney Basin


Clarke, Anne, Colley, Sarah, Gibbs, Martin, Archaeology in Oceania


The six papers in this volume were written by staff, students and research affiliates of the Department of Archaeology, University of Sydney and present new research on the archaeology of the Sydney region including aspects of Aboriginal prehistory before British colonisation in AD1788, historical archaeology, and heritage and contemporary archaeology of the recent past.

In January AD1788 British colonists arrived in Port Jackson (now part of Sydney Harbour) on the First Fleet under the command of Arthur Phillip to establish a penal settlement. This event and what came before and after, is central to the history of the place we now call Sydney. In 2012 Sydney is the capital of the state of New South Wales and a global city with a population of over 4.5 million people. The Sydney Metropolitan Area covers 12,428 square kilometres with a great diversity of land use, coasts and waterways and a wealth of places with archaeological and historical significance (e.g. Hinkson 2001; City of Sydney 2012; NSW OEH 2012). So much archaeology has been conducted in and around Sydney that presenting a comprehensive history of previous research has become a large and complicated task. Here we briefly explain key background to the diverse research presented in this volume and refer to some literature.

Interest in studying physical evidence for the culture and history of Sydney's Aboriginal people started from AD 1788 with officers of the First Fleet (Attenbrow 2010:5). In the mid 1930s Fred McCarthy excavated at the Lapstone Creek Aboriginal rock shelter at the foot of the Blue Mountains on the edge of the greater Sydney region (McCarthy 1948). This project is often described as one of the first proper archaeological excavations in Australia and as a foundational study for the discipline. Attenbrow (2010:5-8) discusses the history of regional Aboriginal prehistory to the present time and provides references and further information about McCarthy's other work and subsequent important research by Eugene Stockton, Vincent Megaw, Jim Kohen and others. Publications by Clegg and Stanbury (e.g. 1990) and McDonald (2007) report some of their significant research contribution to Sydney Aboriginal rock art studies. Attenbrow's (2010) book Sydney's Aboriginal Past. Investigating the archaeological and historical records is a key synthesis of regional Aboriginal prehistory based on her extensive research and the work of other archaeologists. She also provides a rich account of Aboriginal life in and around Sydney in the early years of the colony using material and documentary evidence. Research into historical and maritime archaeology of the Sydney region developed slightly later than Aboriginal prehistory and the contributions of Judy Birmingham, Ian Jack and other staff at the University of Sydney have been instrumental in terms of establishing historical archaeology as a major component of the archaeological discipline both nationally and locally (e.g. Ireland and Casey 2006). The first broad ranging overview of Sydney historical archaeology was Stanbury's (1979) 10,000 Years of Sydney Life followed in the 1990s by several considerations of the then current status and trajectory of historical archaeology in Sydney (e.g. Birmingham 1991; Karskens and Thorpe 1992; Connah 1992). More recent thematic overviews and important research publications about or directly relevant to Sydney archaeology and heritage include Hunt (1995), McBryde (2000), Gojak (2001), Mayne and Murray (2001), Johnson (2003), Murray (2003), Karskens (2009) and the online Dictionary of Sydney (2012). These works are a small sample of a much larger available literature.

Heritage legislation to govern planning and development processes was introduced in New South Wales from the 1960s onwards and has strongly influenced the nature of archaeological projects. More archaeologists now work as consultants or in heritage-related positions in government departments and agencies than are employed to conduct research in Australian universities (Ulm et al. …

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