WHAT LIES BE­NEATH

Barry Oliver en­joys an arche­o­log­i­cal walk­ing tour of Syd­ney’s his­toric Rocks precinct

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel The Colonial History Test -

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.

Check­list

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

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