21 April 2010

building over archaeological remains

Two weeks ago, I was delighted to attend the official opening of the Sydney Harbour YHA and the Big Dig Archaeology Education Centre by the Patron of YHA Australia, Her Excellency the Governor General of the Commonwealth of Australia Ms Quentin Bryce AC.

View of The Big Dig Archaeology Education Centre from the Sydney Harbour YHA, looking over some of the archaeological remains exposed on the site.

Located between Cumberland Street and Gloucester Street in The Rocks, Sydney, this development over one of Australia's largest urban archaeological sites is the result of over fifteen years of work by the Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority, land managers for the site, and over six years of work by YHA.

Archaeological excavation of this site was commenced in 1994 by Godden Mackay (now Godden Mackay Logan), and we first provided conservation advice on the archaeological remains at that time.

The remains excavated on the site revealed over thirty dwellings along two streets and two laneways, dating from 1795 to the late 19th Century.  Somewhere between 750,000 and 1.2 million artefacts were excavated (the number depends on who you talk to!).  The research associated with the archaeological excavation led to a wonderful book about the site by Grace Karskens, entitled "Inside the Rocks: the Archaeology of a Neighbourhood".

But enough background.  The real highlight of the official opening was the opportunity to see this new building designed by Tzannes Associates in operation.  Built over the archaeological remains, we provided input during the concept design stage to minimise the impact of the building on the exposed remains.  We also developed options for the protection of the remains during construction, and in conjunction with Built, the builders, we monitored the protection system throughout construction.  We also documented all necessary conservation works to the archaeological remains.

Cumberland Street entry to the Sydney Harbour YHA:
the interpretive screens echo the original terrace houses on the site.

Whilst one of the key marketing pitches for the Sydney Harbour YHA has been the wonderful view of the Sydney Opera House and Circular Quay from the rooftop terrace, light rain in the morning meant that the official opening was relocated into the Anne Armsden Room on Level 1.  This meant that we walked through the reception area, and the main common room, at around 10.30am on a wet morning.  Guests were checking out, using the internet, reading books, having coffee - and the coffee tables are wonderful glass cases containing selections of artefacts from the site!  There was a fantastic energy about the building.

During her official opening speech, Her Excellency shared with us her experiences immediately prior to the official ceremony - she too was captivated by the opportunities for children to learn about history and archaeology at the Big Dig, as well as by the experience for international visitors to live over such a key part of Australia's early history.

After the official opening, we wandered off to inspect some guest rooms, to admire the view from the rooftop terrace, and then most importantly, to head downstairs to walk along the public laneways and view the in situ archaeological remains.  Of course, we paused to look at the variety of interpretive panels located on walls and handrails around the building.

We also popped into the Big Dig Archaeology Education Centre which is located on the site.  Two classrooms, and a dedicated space for some hands-on simulated archaeological excavation activities for children.  We watched delightedly as a group of children listened intently to a costumed coal lumper from the wharves talk about the house he lived in, and introduce a couple of his (also costumed) neighbours to the group.  When we left the site half an hour later, the kids were still clustered around these characters, actively engaging with their stories of the past.

Sydney Harbour YHA is a wonderful new development that provides an innovative way of experiencing part of the history of The Rocks - you can stay in the heart of Sydney at very reasonable rates - consider it for your next visit to Sydney or weekend away!

David West
International Conservation Services

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