The Evidence

In 2002 a salvage program was completed on the site of 180 George Street, Parramatta. This was undertaken as a collaboration between archaeologists and representatives of the local Aboriginal Land Council and two additional First Nations groups.

Pre 1820s

George Street was the pre-eminent thoroughfare in the original town plan of 1790; it was the street on which allotments were formed to establish huts for the accommodation of convicts. Several of these hut sites have been excavated in the last twenty years. The first town survey shows the project area to encompass three full allotments and potions of two others. Each of the allotments had buildings, one had at least three. The earliest known occupant was Thomas Halfpenny, possibly in occupation by 1802. Sale notices for the property in 1810 refer to it as having a valuable house.

1820s – 1840s

In 1823, to bring some order to the chaotic nature of land transactions in the town existing leases and occupancies were reassigned and new town leases issued for the properties throughout Parramatta. The town survey undertaken in that year to accompany the registration process shows that the project area by that date had been subdivided to encompass six allotments and portions of two others. Each allotment had multiple buildings but not all these buildings were encompassed in the project area. The improvements to the various allotments were diverse. A survey of 1844 records even more buildings on the several properties than is shown in 1823.

1850s – 1900

By the mid-1850s all of the allotments had been consolidated into one title owned by William Byrnes. This family retained ownership of the properties until the 1950s. Surveys and other primary archival evidence demonstrate that by the later years of the nineteenth century the property included substantial buildings along George Street. There was a substantial house and out-buildings constructed earlier in the 1830s, the former brewery, a small shop and residence. The latter was leased to a Chinese tenant who used part of the site as a market garden.

1900 –1960s

Most of the buildings that were present in the mid-later part of the nineteenth century survived into the twentieth century. A large part of the property was devoted to market gardens and rate assessments from the early 1920s describe the huts and garden of the Chinese tenants, the large house that also had a detached stable, coach house, kitchen, laundry, staff room, storeroom, fuel shed and pump house. Some of these buildings were still present in the 1960s. The current configuration of the property was made in 1962 with some of the land on the river taken for open space and some along Charles Street to allow for the widening of that thoroughfare. The date of demolition of these structures is not identified in the assessment but certainly occurred in the 1960s.

1960s – 2002

The nineteenth century improvements were all removed in the 1960s when the site was redeveloped. From the 1960s to 2002 the site was occupied by three warehouses. The site was assessed in the Parramatta Historical and Archaeological Land Management Study as one of exceptional archaeological research value, a conclusion confirmed in the 2002 assessment. The three warehouses were removed when the site was redeveloped for the present buildings.


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The Parramatta Sand Sheet

180 George Street is located on the Parramatta Sand Sheet, an item of state significance in its own right. This site, along with the property at 109-113 George Street, made a major contribution to the recognition of this feature. The Parramatta Sand Sheet is listed on the State Heritage Register (SHR No 01863) for its values as “an ancient Aboriginal and early colonial landscape” although the focus of that listing is at Robin Thomas Reserve and environs on George Street, east of the project area. It is of importance because of its environmental evidence and because it preserves evidence of Aboriginal occupation dating back many thousands of years. In respect of environmental issues the following have been defined:

  • it can provide information into the patterns of river flow and flood events
  • it can help to define changing sea levels in the ancient past
  • it helps to define the pre-settlement environment of Parramatta CBD particularly a greater diversity than is evident in written accounts particularly through the preservation of pollen

The sand sheet was formed thousands of years ago during a period of high seal levels in the Pleistocene period between 120-130,000 years BP. It is thought to have formed as the result of ancient flood events from the river where silt (fine and medium grained quartz sand) in suspension in the water was left behind on the banks as the water receded.

The result was the creation of an alluvial terrace between four and six metres above the normal water level between Charles and Alfred Streets and with similar depths within Parramatta Park and here it can be up to eight metres in depth. The height of this feature, created by layers and layers of sand being deposited by water indicates the great antiquity of its formation. Away from the river less and finer sand was deposited; heavier deposits were left closer to the river4. The sand levee on the southern side of the river was recorded within many early nineteenth century images.

The process

The four salvage areas and the test pits (Source: Jo McDonald Cultural Heritage Management (2004); Archaeological Salvage Excavations at Site CG1; 22)

Location of test trenches excavated during the 2002 test programme (Source: Casey and Lowe Pty Ltd (2002); Archaeological Assessment and Testing Report 180-180A George Street and 30-32 Charles Street Parramatta; Appendix)

More than 6500 artefacts were recovered from the site. The assemblage included serval quite rare types of tools and ranged in date from between 2000 to 20,000 years BP.

In addition, a small programme of testing was completed to confirm the results for the assessment for historical archaeology. Twelve trenches were excavated across the site and revealed a mixture of features such as post-holes from timber buildings and stone foundations.

View of the archaeological excavation as completed 2022. (Source: J. Cincunegui)

The excavations revealed that several substantial structural elements were found including what appeared to be drains and floors. The site was also particularly informative concerning the early twentieth century occupation by Chinese market gardeners and an extensive collection of artefacts associated with this occupation is stored at the Parramatta Heritage Centre.

The rest of the site revealed mainly post-holes associated with timber buildings.

A brick floor excavated on the site; location unknown (Source: J. Cincunegui)

The Artefact Assemblage

More than 6500 artefacts were recovered from the site, and these were from stone largely imported from beyond Parramatta. The assemblage included several quite rare types of tools and other artefacts. The characteristics of the assemblage included:

  • The use of a variety of stone and the frequency of different stone usage varies with depth and represents a change in materials preference and technology
  • Stones from both local and distance sources were used
  • Tool types varied and included hammerstones and/or anvils, cores, flaked tools, some backed tools and debitage
  • A number of rare artefacts were recovered including several axes dated to 3000 years BP and a hair ornament made from a shark’s tooth
  • Some of the stones were likely used for pigments such as red ironstone
  • There was a large collection of worked glass artefacts of the contact period

The artefact assemblage from this site was highly significant. It was the first systematically collected assemblage of prehistoric evidence from the Parramatta River generally and for Parramatta CBD. It provided considerable evidence for occupation and technology in this region. The report for this work concluded that,

“Site CG1 (NPWS #45-6-2648) has high archaeological significance. It represents a relatively intact archaeological landscape, containing evidence of the types of artefacts and material remains present in a landscape with significant permanent water and in relatively close proximity to a number of identifiable resources. Much of this evidence would appear to have derived from early in the indigenous occupation of the Sydney region” (Jo McDonald Cultural Heritage Management Pty Ltd (2004)).

A stone axe found on the site by Chris Tobin (2009).

Present Location of Assemblage

Jo McDonald, the excavation director for this work, confirmed that the First Nation’s assemblage from 180 George Street was sent to and is stored at the Australian Museum, Sydney. Jo also confirmed that at the time no Care and Control agreement was made between the Aboriginal community and this repository. None of these artefacts from the site were used in the original interpretation presentation.

Other Evidence of Aboriginal Occupation in Parramatta

The evidence recovered from 180 George Street was not an isolated incidence. Parramatta has revealed significant deposits in many places including some in close proximity to 180 George Street. They are part of a much larger landscape of occupation across the Cumberland Plain. Those in Parramatta have largely been associated with open scatters and encompass a large range of stone tool types including flakes, backed artefacts, points, cores and axe heads. The stone used was largely silcrete but chert, quartz, tuff and various types of volcanic stones were used.
The arrival of the Europeans brought new materials and local people adapted some for their own uses. Close by in Barrack Lane some artefacts were found that appear to have been European glass objects modified using traditional methods to create tools for Aboriginal uses (Jo McDonald Cultural Heritage Management Pty Ltd (2005)).

The Importance of the 180 George Street Site

The archaeology of this site and others in close proximity identified the sand sheet and revealed its importance in terms of it being a time capsule of many thousands of years of Aboriginal occupation of this place. The place has great importance for the contemporary Aboriginal community.

One of the Dharug representatives working on the site later wrote that “to be involved in the recovery of our people’s ancient artefacts is an exciting and sacred task for me….To be the first person to pick up an artefact that hasn’t seen the light of sun for over a thousand years can touch deeply. It is like receiving a gift from the Old Ones… I remember a dig in Parramatta near Charles Street one time where we uncovered layers of history in the sands along that ancient river. There walking among the sand corridors towering above one could literally see and follow the history of the country presented through the artefacts of our ancestors. Aboriginal tools and necklaces speaking of countless generation of sustainable living overlaid by relatively recent European pottery and pipes and even the burial of a horse. All telling important stories of those who went before us and their relationship with this land” (Chris Tobin (2019)).

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