WHAT LIES BENEATH
Barry Oliver enjoys an archeological walking tour of Sydney’s historic Rocks precinct
FOR Sydney’s most important archeological site, the modest plot of land in Cumberland Street looks less than impressive on this wind-swept, rainy day. Umbrellas are up as we stare across the rough ground, a jumble of broken concrete and bricks with mini craters here and there. Puddles fill as the shower increases. Chain-link fencing keeps out the public.
To the untrained eye it’s a bit of a mess, an apparently abandoned piece of land in the historic Rocks area in urgent need of attention. But we’re with Wayne Johnson, an archeologist who knows through personal experience what sort of treasures almost certainly lie beneath our muddy feet on this seemingly barren small (about 50m x 100m) plot of land. At the nearby Rocks Discovery Museum, which we will visit later, are examples of what previous digs here have yielded: buttons, china, jewellery and toys.
Johnson, who has been involved with the site for 14 years, is a mine of information on the people who used to live here, from early settlement in the 1780s to the early 1900s when everything was demolished during the time of the bubonic plague. Johnson says only three people died in the Rocks from the disease but it was the excuse that was needed to bulldoze the area, which had acquired a reputation for gangs and lawlessness.
He not only names those who lived on this small site — there were 30 to 40 houses squeezed in at one time — but he knows about their personal lives. ‘‘ DesperateHousewives had nothing on this place. You really get a sense of community. History and archeology can work together to tell us what life was like at that time.’’
A 2006 excavation of two Cumberland Street terraces by the Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority and Sydney University unearthed thousands of artefacts, some dating to 1790. They are at present being catalogued. ‘‘ Some 800,000 objects have been found on this site and they all mean something,’’ Johnson says.
He tells us about one resident, butcher George Cribb, who was suspected of having a still and selling illegal alcohol. Nothing was proved . . . until a dig uncovered the small still at the bottom of his well (along with handpainted Chinese bowls and English dinner plates). There won’t be any more digging here for a while, though. There are plans to build a 350-bed youth hostel — it should be finished by 2009 — but the site will still be visible with displays and interpretative signs explaining its significance as one of Sydney’s earliest places of settlement.
I imagine Johnson might not be too happy about the prospect of losing this window to the past — 30 per cent of the site has still to be excavated — but I am wrong. He reasons that in 50 years from now technology will have improved and they will be able to uncover more secrets.
We move on through the rain to Foundation Park, off Argyle Street, where the remains of eight narrow terrace houses give an idea of life in those early days. The rooms are tiny: a reflection of how precious land was in the Rocks, Johnson says. But these residents were lucky: being high up they avoided the sewage that flowed downhill. The interpretive signs are modest but Johnson is unapologetic: ‘‘ We don’t want to create a heritage theme park.’’ we continue, Johnson points out oddities most people would miss. Shells in the early mortar, for instance, are evidence of Aboriginal occupation. A section of wood-block paving shows how George Street, Sydney’s first, would once have looked.
There’s the old coroner’s court, now a craft and hobby shop. Before that was built, pubs were used for inquests (the cellars were the coolest places to keep the bodies).
I do a double-take at the Rocks Discovery Museum in Kendall Lane: Johnson is chatting to us while on a screen over his shoulder he’s busily explaining the history of the Rocks. It’s more interpretive centre than museum with numerous hands-on activities; admission is free.
Some Cumberland Street finds are on show but Johnson is not sure how many of the 2006 discoveries will end up here: the museum’s total display is a few hundred items compared with about a million in storage.
A set of clothes — shawl, corset, night shirt — found hanging in a sealed attic look as if a cough might disintegrate them (fortunately they’re behind glass).
There’s a Roman coin found in a toilet, a set of false teeth, an Egyptian figurine, a Charlie Chaplin badge, an early cinema ticket. Even a very old toothbrush.
Johnson tells us that heritage is not about history, ‘‘ it’s about putting people in the picture’’. People such as Cribb, whose illicit still is also on display: evidence of his guilt for all to see nearly 200 years too late.
HORATIO, the ghost said to wander the Lord Nelson Hotel, is probably under orders not to disrupt pub tours: it’s bad for business. The mischievous spirit is blamed for shutting off kegs (hardly likely to amuse drinkers) and turning lights off and on. But the flow of beer is continuous for our visit (the two-hour tour includes a drink at each stop) and the lighting behaves itself.
With 13 heritage-listed pubs, the Rocks is a perfect location for this sort of tour and, with a bunch of Americans joining us, it’s even more entertaining. To say they don’t know their Toohey’s from their Foster’s is putting it mildly. But why would they? They are also highly amused at our coins.
Guide Neil McRae patiently explains that Victorian Bitter is from . . . Victoria. So far, so good, but the Lord Nelson brews its own beers — Three Sheets is happily fermenting in a copper at the back for all to see — so McRae wisely abandons instruction and tells them to experiment, which they do with gusto.
Through curiosity I go for Quayle Ale, a tasty wheat beer that gets its name from the time Nick Greiner, the former NSW premier, shouted one for Dan Quayle, the former US vice-president who had trouble spelling potato. After a few of these so would I.
Nelson’s Blood, ‘‘ a robust porter’’, sounds tempting, or there’s Trafalgar pale ale, Victory bitter, Old Admiral. This is the Lord Nelson, after all.
The walls are lined with memorabilia, including a newspaper cutting from November 7, 1805, reporting the admiral’s demise. The sandstone bricks carry various marks that McRae says were put there by convicts to prove they had made their quota of bricks (failure meant being lashed).
We traipse between three pubs — these vary from tour to tour — while McRae keeps us entertained with stories of the area. Archeologist Johnson, who’s also tagging along, chips in occasionally to sort fiction from fact. We’re told that at the time of the plague a reward was introduced for people bringing in dead rats. When the rodents became hard to find, the crafty residents starting breeding them at home.
We pass the Hero of Waterloo where, McRae says, there are tunnels that spirited shanghaied sailors to waiting ships. At the Fortune of War, claimed to be the longest continuously licensed pub in Sydney on the same site (the distinctions are important), we learn Circular Quay started life as SemiCircular Quay. Even the Aussies among us are surprised; the Americans aren’t sure if it’s a joke.
We make a loo stop just past the Mercantile at the top of George Street. Not for any reason other than to inspect Sydney’s last remaining, and still functioning, pissoir , an impressively ornate structure worthy of higher intentions. Sydney, our guide informs, is well off when it comes to public toilets. So much so that some have been turned into cafes. This time we all wonder if it’s a joke. Barry Oliver was a guest of the Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority and the Russell Hotel.
For interpretive tours of the area, contact The Rocks Walking Tours; www.rockswalkingtours.com.au; phone (02) 9247 6678. The Rocks Pub Tour departs daily from Cadman’s Cottage, 106 George St; tickets are $34.50, which includes a voucher for three drinks, a dining offer and discounts on merchandise. The Rocks Discovery Museum is open 10am-5pm daily. www.therockspubtour.com www.therocks.com www.rocksdiscoverymuseum.com. www.shfa.nsw.gov.au
Potted histories and secret places: Clockwise from bottom left, The Rocks in 1900; the Hero of Waterloo; Susannah Place; archeologist Wayne Johnson; George Cribb’s illegal still; the Australian Hotel