kids encyclopedia robot

Cumberland Street Archaeological Site facts for kids

Kids Encyclopedia Facts
Quick facts for kids
Cumberland Street Archaeological Site
Cumberland Street (Numbers 120-130), The Rocks (NSW) (Rocks Resumption photographic survey) (16135974514).jpg
Numbers 120–130 Cumberland Street, The Rocks, part of the archaeological site, pictured in October 1901.
Location 106-128 Cumberland Street, The Rocks, City of Sydney, New South Wales, Australia
Built 1795–
Owner Property NSW
Official name: Cumberland Street Archaeological Site; The Big Dig Site; Sydney YHA; Big Dig Education Centre
Type State heritage (archaeological-terrestrial)
Designated 17 December 2010
Reference no. 1845
Type Townscape
Category Urban Area
Lua error in Module:Location_map at line 420: attempt to index field 'wikibase' (a nil value).

The Cumberland Street Archaeological Site is a heritage-listed archaeological site located at 106–128 Cumberland Street in the inner city Sydney suburb of The Rocks in the City of Sydney local government are of New South Wales, Australia. The site includes the remains of early convict-era housing dating as far back as 1795, and a modern youth hostel has been built elevated over the remnants. It is also known as The Big Dig Site; Sydney YHA; Big Dig Education Centre. The property is owned by Property NSW, an agency of the Government of New South Wales. It was added to the New South Wales State Heritage Register on 17 December 2010.


Earliest known occupants George Legg and Ann Armsden in 1795. Byrne family on site in 1805, George Cribb's butchery and hotel occupied over half the site from 1811–1829. Much of Section 74 sold by William Murrell, Edward Sandwell and William Perks in December 1827. Subdivided January 1834. Numerous allotment holders who receive grants. Section 75: Lot 8 granted to William Williams, 19 July 1838; Lot 9 granted to Margaret Byrne, 5 August 1835; Lot 10 granted to W. H. Chapman, 6 June 1836; Lot 11 granted to ?, 15 April 1840; Lot 12 granted to J. T. Hughes, 30 November 1840. Site resumed in 1900–1902 and 30 buildings demolished by 1915. Engineering works here from 1917–c. 1934. Vacant till 1994.

Historical summary

The archaeological site comprises sections of two city blocks originally granted in the 1830s and 1840s as Sections 74 and 75 of the town of Sydney. Historical research indicates that the site has been occupied by Europeans from at least as early as c.1795. During the 1790s and the early part of the nineteenth century it became a focus for settlement for convicts and ex-convicts. It had a rich subsequent history characterised by progressive intensification of occupation during the nineteenth century. Following large scale resumption and clearing by the government between 1902 and 1915, the site has also been used for various light industrial and public utility purposes. It has remained undeveloped since the 1950s, when a concrete slab was laid as the pavement for a bus depot. Since 1972, the site has been in the property of the Sydney Cove Redevelopment Authority and its successor the Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority. The site was subject to archaeological excavation in 1994.

Thematic history

Aboriginal cultures and interactions with other cultures

The Rocks area, including the archaeological site, was witness to some of the very first encounters between the traditional owners, the Cadigal people, and the newly arrived settlers of the first and later second fleets. There was likely a period of a number of years, a transition, when both cultures lived close by each other and continued to occupy the same locale. Physical evidence collected during the large excavation of the site in 1994 included at least one piece of post-1790 porcelain which had been expertly flaked by Aboriginal people, presumably for use as a useful tool.

Convicts, migrants and housing

The Rocks area was within the town site most often associated with the early convict history of Sydney. Many convicts and emancipists lived in and around The Rocks, including on the subject site. The place was home and work for many convicts and their presence was indelibly marked on the neighbourhood. The convict butcher George Cribb, who arrived in 1808 on board the transport Admiral Gambier lived on the subject site until the later 1820s and is remembered by the naming of the lane joining Cumberland and Gloucester Streets which bordered his pub, house and butcher shop, Cribbs Lane. Other convict families, such as Ann Armsden and her First Fleet husband George Legg lived across the lane from Cribb in a large stone house, built on top of and partially into the natural sandstone that gave the area its name. Some of these earliest European residents remained living in the neighbourhood well into the mid nineteenth century, and their descendants for longer.

Alongside the convicts were also free settlers. Some, like Daniel King, who arrived free in 1817, had married convict women. From the 1830s and onwards more families that were arriving free were settling in the area, especially as more tenements were constructed and tenant occupancy on the site increased.

The archaeological site remained a vibrant, occupied neighbourhood throughout the nineteenth century until it was marked for demolition during the plague clearances of the early twentieth century. Evidence of all the levels of occupation from 1788 until the 1900s were to be found on the site and in the historical and archaeological resource.

Commerce and trade

Convict and free alike were involved in a variety of trades in the archaeological site from the early 1800s, right through until the area's resumption and demolition. George Cribb operated his butchery and a pub from the corner of Gloucester Street and Cribbs Lane from 1808. During the 1860s Owen Caraher, who like Cribb is remembered in the naming of Carahers Lane that ran north to south across the site, was making candles and soap in Gloucester Street. A bakery was operated by Thomas and James Share on the corner of Cumberland and Cribbs Lane from the 1830s, and later by Robert Berry. Berry's ovens were utilised by the local residents to cook their Sunday dinners, as ovens in private homes were a rare thing. By 1889 the Dig Site was occupied by approximately 33 houses, shops and hotels.

Township - suburb and community

The archaeological site existed as part of the wider Rocks community, from its earliest phase through to the beginnings of the twentieth century. The Rocks was Sydney's, and Australia's first suburb. The community on the site represented a broad cross section of the people living in The Rocks through the later eighteenth and nineteenth century; bond and free, rich and poor. The community bonds were often strong amongst the families living there. The historical record shows that the sons and daughters of the residents often lived close by when they left home. A number of mariner's wives are reported to have moved back to their parents' homes when their husbands were away at sea. There were a number of families who lived on the site over successive generations. Reports also exist of local families taking in orphans of their parents' friends rather than allowing them to be sent to the Destitute Asylum or other institution.

As with any community however, there were less altruistic members of the Cumberland/Gloucester Streets community as well. Exploitation, crime and violence were also present on the site. Hotels operated alongside the bakeries and corner shops. Houses were often small and conditions cramped which added to the tensions of poverty that were experienced by some residents, as well as strengthening the feeling of community that existed within the site. The combination of these factors, the crowded streets, back lanes and hotels gave the outside world the impression that the area was an urban slum, a reputation that stayed with The Rocks and subject site for much of its history.

Government and administration

For much of the history of the archaeological site, it was perceived to lay just outside the boundaries of the official government and administrative reach. However, in 1900 following the outbreak of the plague in Sydney, The Rocks area was resumed by the Government. The Government became the landlord for approximately 900 properties in The Rocks area, including all of the subject site. With a view to cleaning up the worst areas of The Rocks and imposing some order on the remnant colonial landscape, parts of The Rocks were marked for demolition and redevelopment. The subject site was demolished entirely between 1902 and 1915. Houses, shops and hotels were all cleared away and the residents either relocated in The Rocks area or moved away entirely. The work brought to a decisive end the residential history of the subject site.

For the remainder of the twentieth century the archaeological site was leased to a variety of users including machinery and joinery workshops, the City Railway Workshops, motor garages, the NRMA and Department of Motor Transport and Tramways as a bus parking station, and later as a Sydney Cove Redevelopment Authority commissioning the archaeological excavation and historical research that was undertaken on the site in the early- and mid-1990s. This work led to the rediscovery of the residential community that had once occupied the subject site.


Big Dig Archaeological Site 01
A modern sculpture located in The Big Dig Archaeological Site, underneath the foundations of the YHA Sydney Harbour, pictured in 2019.

Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority's panel selected the winning proposal for the site by Youth Hostels Australia for a state-of-the-art, energy-efficient hostel with an additional twin classroom education centre. YHA Ltd is a not-for-profit organisation that returns profits from earnings back into its capital assets. Construction of Sydney Harbour YHA and The Big Dig Archaeology Education Centre took place between September 2008 and October 2009. During construction the archaeological remnants on site were carefully covered by a protective layer of sandbags and scaffolding, removed when the construction work was completed. The buildings are supported by structural-steel trusses spanning over the archaeological remains, allowing over 85% of the site to be visible at ground level. The physical impact on the site is restricted to 52 metres (171 ft), in areas carefully chosen in consultation with the archaeologists.

The 106-room Sydney Harbour YHA hostel and The Big Dig Archaeology Education Centre were officially opened in April 2010. It is the largest archaeological urban development completed in Australia of its time. This carefully incorporated retention and display of the archaeological resource including elevating the building above ground level, reconstructing the original laneways as thoroughfares through the building and site, open voids in the building to view the archaeology, and construction of a Big Dig building for education about the dig site. Ongoing resources were also committed for funding further interpretation of the early history of the site.


Cumberland Street Archaeological Site 1
Site remnants with The Big Dig Archaeology Education Centre surrounding the archeological site, pictured in 2019.
Cumberland Street Archaeological Site 2
Remnants and building foundations below some of the YHA Sydney buildings, pictured in 2019.
Big Dig Archaeological Site 03
Looking across Cumberland Street towards the YHA showing the void at ground level that provides access to the archaeological site; with the YHA administration and accommodation in the upper levels.

Archaeological site containing remnant structural features and deposits. The archaeological site is located on the western side of Sydney Cove between Cumberland Street and Gloucester Street, between the Australian Hotel to the north and the Jobbins Buildings (and other structures) adjacent to the Cahill Expressway to the south.

A Youth Hostel (YHA) is elevated over the excavated archaeological site including an archaeology education centre and integrated interpretation. The new light-weight building is suspended above the archaeology, supported by a minimal number of pillars as the result of an innovative use of structural steel. The building not only has minimal impact upon the relics, but also provides increased visual and physical access through interior building voids, two reconstructed historic laneways (Cribbs and Carahers Lanes), interpretative works and artefact displays in the new building.


As at 27 July 2007, Assessment Condition: Minor Disturbance, Archaeological Excavation of c.70% of resource, 1994. Assessment Basis: Excavations in 1994 revealed an exceptionally well preserved resource with over 750,000 artefacts recovered. Site preserves approximately 60% of its pre-1830 resource and 100% of remains of eight terraces built in the 1840s–1850s and demolished c. 1905. Investigation: Full scale excavation, 1994. Other smaller scale excavations have been carried out by the University of Sydney Summer School in 2005 & 2006.

The site was subject to archaeological investigation in 1994. The excavated site itself stands as testimony to the extent of excavation work completed and the array of historic structures and features revealed. The investigation uncovered substantial masonry remains of at least 46 buildings, post holes and more ephemeral remains of other timber structures, two major lane ways, ancillary paths, stone lined cesspits, tanks or wells carved into living rock and a wide variety of other landscape features. The remains have been retained in situ and generally survive intact.

Excavation of the archaeological site required the removal of approximately 1500 contexts or deposits ranging from concrete and bitumen pavements through dumps of building rubble, or demolition and occupation accumulation. These features have been removed form the site; however, where relevant, samples have been retained for future analysis. A number of areas of the archaeological site remain unexcavated or partially excavated. These unexcavated areas generally remain intact. Some deposits and other material have been introduced to the site since the completion of the 1994 investigation, to protect or stabilise the exposed remains (e.g. wells and cesspits were lined with Bidum and backfilled). Gravel/pebbles and other materials have also been introduced by the Authority for interpretative purposes.

Approximately 750,000 individual artefacts were recovered from the archaeological site during the course of the excavation. They are now stored off site.

A youth hostel was constructed on the site, completed in 2009. This carefully incorporated retention and display of the archaeological resource, including elevating the building above ground level, reconstructing the original laneways as thoroughfares through the building and site, and construction of a Big Dig building for education about the dig site. Ongoing resources were also committed for funding further interpretation of the early history of the site.

Modifications and dates

  • c. 1795-1901 – various residential and commercial uses, demolition of some buildings as a result of the Darling Harbour resumptions in response to the bubonic plague outbreak in 1900.
  • 1917 – Norton Griffiths machinery and joinery works.
  • 1918 – City Railway Workshops.
  • 1921-1924 – Department of Repatriation Vocational Training Trade School.
  • 1925-1931 – motor garages.
  • 1951-1972 – Department of Road Transport and Tramways bus depot.
  • 1972-1994 – Storage Area
  • 1994 – Archaeological Excavation
  • 2009 – Youth Hostel building construction complete

Heritage listing

As at 15 October 2010, dating from 1795, the archaeological site has outstanding cultural significance as rare surviving evidence of the mostly convict and ex-convict community established on The Rocks at the time of Australia's first European settlement. The site contains identified relics of 46 historic houses, two lanes, and other features on two early Sydney town lots. It is one of few surviving places in The Rocks where a substantial physical connection exists to the time of first settlement, including the huts and scattered houses built on and carved into the sandstone outcrops that gave The Rocks its name.

The site has strong historic associations, providing physical evidence of nineteenth-century events, processes and people. Through this association and the extraordinary level of public involvement in the 1994 excavation, the site has high social and public value as a "historic site". Located within a historic precinct, the substantial physical evidence of the site has distinctive visual qualities and evocative capacity.

The archaeological significance of the site continues through both the information being revealed by analysis of excavated material and continuing in situ presence of substantial structural elements and deposits. The in situ relics also have potential to yield further information relating to substantive historical research questions. The site has a unique ability to provide "hands on" experience of important phases of Sydney's history and development and has high interpretative and educational potential.

The 2004–2010 archaeological investigation and redevelopment of the site is an outstanding example of best practice archaeological management and interpretation in Australia. The sensitive construction of a Youth Hostel (YHA) over the archaeological site and integrated interpretation of this archaeological site has received multiple awards in design and heritage. The YHA development has been described as arguably one of the best contemporary examples of in-situ conservation of archaeological remains in an urban context anywhere in the world.

Cumberland Street archaeological site was listed on the New South Wales State Heritage Register on 17 December 2010 having satisfied the following criteria.

The place is important in demonstrating the course, or pattern, of cultural or natural history in New South Wales.

The occupation of The Rocks during the first decades of the settlement at Sydney Cove represented a significant phase and important activity in the early life and development of the Sydney community and the City of Sydney itself. It was the quarter of the town built, shaped and occupied mostly by convicts and ex-convicts. The physical elements at the site provide a material dimension to this part of early Sydney history and evidence of the convict/ex-convict lifestyle. The latter is particularly significant as the organic growth of The Rocks settlement and lack of government regulation evident in the remains of houses contrasts the popular perceptions of convict life.

The Rocks was important as both domicile and workplace for the lower orders of Sydney society in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. Its history and development stands in stark contrast to that recorded for other sections of society in official documentation. Features directly connected with early occupation of The Rocks, particularly the evidence of material culture and buildings which have been revealed through archaeological investigation, reflect the taste habits and means, and hence the sociocultural characteristics of the sites inhabitants. The collection of artefacts provides evidence that leads to questions about the traditional view of this area during the late nineteenth century as a "blighted slum". The surviving structural elements in their size, construction and format evoke the living conditions of a vanished community.

Through both historic records and surviving physical evidence that site is associated with many major phases of Sydney's history and processes that have shaped the development of the growing colony. The subject site witnessed sporadic occupation, consolidation through permissive occupancy and leases, the introduction of land grants, varying phases of intensification and construction, wholesale resumption and clearing and, eventually, low key industrial and later government usage. It provides, in microcosm, a typical slice through the evolution and history of one of the most vital, lively and infamous communities in urban Australia.

The place has a strong or special association with a person, or group of persons, of importance of cultural or natural history of New South Wales's history.

The archaeological site represents, in microcosm, a slice of The Rocks life and community covering more than a century. It has strong links and association with a major Sydney community and a section of New South Wales society. The historical research already undertaken provides a depth and richness to our understanding of the individuals who lived there, none of whom is currently recognised as a "historic" figure in the traditional sense, but all of whom (certainly before the 1830s) might be characterised as pioneers of Sydney. The associational links are particularly strong because of the presence of actual building remains (and artefacts) that relate to known individuals, families and households.

The place is important in demonstrating aesthetic characteristics and/or a high degree of creative or technical achievement in New South Wales.

As an excavated historical archaeological site, the site has well defined visual quality. Within the physical context of The Rocks, and the setting of surrounding historic buildings, the site currently contributes to a rich amalgam of historical layering. This layering is particularly evident within the site itself, where historical events, phases and occupations are reflected in the fine grained texture of intersecting topography and structural remains. The place is instantly recognisable as a historic site.

The 2004–2010 excavation, interpretation and redevelopment of the site is an outstanding example of best practice archaeological management for Australia. The sensitive construction of a Youth Hostel (YHA) above the archaeological site and integrated interpretation of this archaeological site has received multiple awards in design and heritage. The YHA development has been described as arguably one of the best contemporary examples of in situ conservation of archaeological remains in an urban context anywhere in the world.

The new youth hostel building reconstructs the original laneways intersecting the site, providing important views to most parts of the site's archaeology as well as vistas from within and outside of the site. These allow an appreciation of the early 19th century layout of the buildings and lanes in this segment of the Rocks. The recreated view corridors and vistas created by the open lanes correspond to early historical photographs before the 19th century buildings were cleared at the turn of the century.

The place has a strong or special association with a particular community or cultural group in New South Wales for social, cultural or spiritual reasons.

The Rocks is now widely recognised as one of the key components of Australia's birthplace. As a focus of early convict settlement, the site occupies a particular conceptual niche. Furthermore, through the green bans of the 1970s, the resurgence in conservations programs of the 1980s and, via a continuing community spirit and pride in its community, The Rocks has already been established as a special place of particular importance to residents and visitors alike.

The archaeological site is one of few surviving places within The Rocks where a substantial physical connection exists with the time of first settlement and the huts and scattered houses on the rocky crags that gave "The Rocks" its name. The thousands of people who visited the archaeological site and participated in the 1994 excavation program at varying levels demonstrate its value to the contemporary community. Ongoing access to physical evidence and interpretation has potential to realise and enhance the social value of the place.

The place has potential to yield information that will contribute to an understanding of the cultural or natural history of New South Wales.

Archaeological deposits and features, particularly when considered in conjunction with documentary evidence can provide evidence of material culture that yields information which may by unavailable from documentary sources alone. This site and the collection of excavated material form a resource which contributes to a better understanding of social, economic and cultural history of Sydney and The Rocks community in particular.

Archaeological excavation at the site has already realised a substantial part of its archaeological potential. Many site specific research questions have been answered. Analysis of the data gathered has addressed major historical questions, including the impact of the industrial revolution, the rise of class, women's occupation and lives, the ongoing debate on the standard of living for working-class people in urban areas, the social and cultural role of The Rocks within the larger city, and the changing impact of Government over the historical period.

Some areas of the site remain unexcavated and have potential available for future investigation. While the excavation to date has produced a complete picture of the activities undertaken on the site, should it be decided in the future to excavate the remaining areas, it is expected that this new information would complement the information already gathered.

The physical remains at the site and the associated artefact collection provide major ongoing research opportunities in fields such as convictism, colonial settlement and working class communities, which are major themes in Australian history.

The place possesses uncommon, rare or endangered aspects of the cultural or natural history of New South Wales.

The archaeological site is believed to be the only substantial residential site (i.e. one containing an entire neighbourhood), remaining in Sydney's Rocks, that contains physical evidence of structures and material culture from the period of first settlement. The 1994 archaeological investigation recovered enormous quantities of artefacts and the remains of many structures - all of which survived here because of later twentieth century activity had not impinged greatly on the surviving features. In this respect, the archaeological site contrasts with many other places in urban Australia where the extent of building activity undertaken during the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s has removed structures and stratified deposits. Any area with potential for in situ preservation of relics from nineteenth century Sydney, and particularly the early part of the century or prior to 1800, represent a finite, rare and endangered resource.

The place is important in demonstrating the principal characteristics of a class of cultural or natural places/environments in New South Wales.

The continuous occupation of the archaeological site from the late eighteenth century throughout the nineteenth century provides the opportunity to experience and examine changes and development in society and particularly changes in home life and the use of domestic space. The evidence at the archaeological site demonstrates characteristics of both individual residences and a residential/Rocks community (including hotels, shops and other workplaces) during this period, providing a physical demonstration and important "hands on" opportunity to understand how earlier lifestyles and living conditions differed from those of today.

kids search engine
Cumberland Street Archaeological Site Facts for Kids. Kiddle Encyclopedia.