The discovery of more than 22,000 Indigenous artefacts on a construction site for Sydney’s Light Rail is the largest ever find of Indigenous artefacts in Sydney. Indigenous heritage museum curator Matt Poll explains its significance and what we should do about it.
1 Apr 2016 - 11:22 AM  UPDATED 1 Apr 2016 - 1:21 PM

How significant is this find?

Sydney being one of the most intensely urbanised parts of the country has very few traces of its at least 11,000 year occupation on the surface anymore. But just beneath the surface there are incredible assemblages of the tool types and technologies that sustained hundreds of generations of men women and children.

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Even with modern technology we are only just beginning to be able to interpret the different types of tools and what they were used for, where the material to make them is sourced from or even what they can teach us about cultural and ecological landscapes of the past.

This site shows evidence of trade routes into the hunter valley; other tool sites in greater Sydney have shown material that is sourced from as far south as Kiama.

The movements of people, their language, their trade networks and kinship affiliations were so willfully evicted by colonial Sydney that anything we can find that helps modern community members reconstruct the pre-contact landscape should be a priority for many institutions.

Properly telling this story is also important for the non-Aboriginal community, not only as an atonement for mistakes of the past, but as an opportunity to celebrate the resourcefulness and ingenuity of the first nations people who nurtured the landscape for millennial and created the foundations that modern Australian society were built on.

'What's most disappointing is the way these finds are reported as problematic when they should be cause for celebration.'

What laws and policies are in place to protect and maintain sites likes these?

Heritage legislation rules are complex and have different interpretations that apply to different locations and what they are potentially used for. What's most disappointing is the way these finds are reported as problematic when they should be cause for celebration – it would be an incredible tourism and education opportunity to reconstruct an occupation site of a pre-contact landscape right in the heart of the city.

What should happen with the site?

The benefits of reconstructing and interpreting Sydney's ancient past presents incredible opportunities for tourism, history and education industries. In Great Britain, many examples of profitable industries around archaeology have existed for decades such as those seen on the 'time team' television program. Australia seems to be scared of what these sites might mean!

If the site where the artefacts are found was properly funded to be excavated further it would provide an incredibly valuable resource for education and contemplation of Sydney's deep past. The location of the find is right on the edge of Centennial Parkland. Surely there is an option that can accommodate both the light rail extension and the stone tool site – even feature the stone tool site as one of the stops on the light rail network.

Is there other significant sites that have not been recognised?

That's the thing we just don't know – we have traces of where things might have existed exist but to accurately locate the why and where people were living in particular places is an ongoing task.

Stone tools are only one piece of the puzzle. There are so many surface sites such as Aboriginal rock engravings in the northern part of Sydney that have been damaged or destroyed over the years. Stone tool sites are evidence of occupation, of sustainable sourcing food, knowledge of seasonal variation and plant biodiversity, the list is endless.

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Why is important for Indigenous youth to study archaeology?

As more sites like this one are properly excavated the potential to create employment in heritage and archaeology services for Aboriginal people becomes even more important. For most of the history of archaeology in Australia it was done by in many cases well-meaning non-Aboriginal people. But the opportunity to create and support Aboriginal-led archaeology and to have Aboriginal people proactively asking questions and then testing their ideas in archaeological digs, would take our knowledge of the deeper history of place that Sydney and many other places around the country sorely needs to move ideas about the land that we all live on forward into the future.

Matt Poll is a curator of the Macleay Museum's Indigenous heritage collection at the University of Sydney. The museum's current exhibition is Written in Stone.


This article was originally published on INDIGI LAB. You can read the original here