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A skull lies half buried in earth
Photograph: Shutterstock

Six of the most amazing archeological discoveries found beneath Sydney

Contrary to popular belief, our city is built on a whole lot of secrets

Written by
Maya Skidmore
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Sydney isn't known for archeological finds like ruined 16th-century castles, ancient Egyptian tombs or caches of glistening Viking treasure. But with a living history that dates back at least 11,000 years, the Harbour City boasts archeology that reaches far into the deep past.

Despite Sydney's relatively new city construction, fascinating relics continue to exist quietly beneath our feet, with history sometimes coming back to meet us in truly remarkable and unexpected ways. Whether it be unearthing a 4000-year-old skeleton beneath a bus stop, or discovering a mystery from 2000 years ago in plain sight, this is a look at six wild and wonderful historical discoveries that have been found beneath this city's streets.  

Narrabeen Lagoon
Photograph: Maurice van Creij

The Narrabeen Man 

This list should start off with a bang, which is exactly what (almost) happened in 2005 when a couple of contractors digging a gas pipeline on the Northern Beaches discovered a six-foot-tall human skeleton beneath a bus shelter. They were terrified, thinking that they had inadvertently stumbled across a recent murder victim – but it was only after the police were called and an examination had taken place that the real truth was revealed. 

The skeleton was 4000 years old. 

Radiocarbon dating and isotope chemistry analysis of the bones revealed that they belonged to an uncommonly tall Indigenous man, aged between 30 and 40 years old, who had survived on a diet of seaweed, seabirds, fish and shellfish. 

The thing that marked the Narrabeen Man apart however, was the grisly way in which he died. He had an axe wound through his head, two spear wounds through his back, one in his left hip, and, to cap it off, he still had the tip of a stone spear barb embedded in his spine. The way his body was positioned, with his arm over his face, suggested that he was possibly a victim of a ritual killing. Also, it is speculated that he did not belong to the local Sydney coastal community, due to the fact that he still had his front teeth, with a ritualistic ‘tooth evulsion’ practice in this region dating back 8000 years.

The Narrabeen Man’s violently preserved death is the first archeological evidence of death by spearing in Australia and is just one of the many examples of the enduring culture and history of the Eora Nation. 

Eddy Avenue and Central Station
Photograph: Creative Commons

A 182-year-old burial vault beneath Central Station

In 2021, while construction workers were excavating the earth around Central Station to build the new metro platforms, they came across a rather gruesome surprise. In the thick mud around Platform 13 (spooky) they found a series of strange blocks, which, upon archaeological examination proved to be a 182-year-old family burial crypt. There were 11 graves in total down there, along with eight existing skeletons, with the grave’s nameplates mostly still legible. Dating back to 1840, these graves belonged exclusively to the Perry and Ham families, with their internment marking the lingering residue of the massive cemetery that once dominated the land on and around Central Station throughout the 1800s. (Side note: you might well be surprised by the number of places in Sydney that used to be cemeteries)

This 2021 find was just one instance of construction workers finding human remains beneath Central Station, with these discoveries revealing the life and burial practices of Sydney’s earliest colonial settlers whilst also showing us all that no matter how bored we may get on our daily public transport commutes, there is a whole hidden world beneath our feet that has more stories to it than we may ever fully know, or understand. 

The L2 Light Rail on George Street
Photograph: Creative Commons

3000-year-old marriage stones beneath the Randwick Light Rail 

During the build of the Randwick light rail line in 2016, a wealth of ancient history was discovered in the middle of a 21st-century construction site. 22,000 Indigenous artifacts were uncovered, with Indigenous heritage experts and Darug elder Uncle Des Dyer revealing that the numerous artifacts found at this site were between 1000 and 3000 years old, with one notable find being twelve ancient ‘marriage stones’, a traditional gift given to a young man when reached marriageable age. This find was the biggest Indigenous archeological haul ever unearthed in Sydney, and revealed the existence of local sacred sites, along with suggesting a possible trade and ceremonial route between the Woonoruah people of the Hunter Valley and the local Darug people, between whom a strong relationship continues to this day.

Tragically, this incredible find was tainted by the refusal of Transport NSW to listen to Bidjigal Indigenous Elders and halt excavations, with them going ahead and destroying the remaining site in order to build the light rail that exists today.

Shangri-La Hotel Love Syd display
Photograph: Supplied/Shangri-La Hotel

An ancient fish barbeque beneath the Shangri-La Hotel

In 1989, while constructing what is now the five-star Shangri-La Hotel on Cumberland Street overlooking Circular Quay, an ancient campfire was discovered beneath one of the city’s busiest streets. Filled with bream and snapper bones, oysters and other seafood residue, this very old fish barbeque feast dated back to 300 years before European arrival at Sydney Cove. 

An image juxtaposing old and new architecture
Photograph: Supplied

80,000 priceless convict artifacts preserved by actual rats

Hyde Park Barracks is known for being a living testament to the grim conditions endured by Sydney's early convicts. While excavating the building in 1979, archeologists discovered something wild beneath the floorboards. Preserved snugly in the mammoth rat nests that lay in the decaying floors and ceilings of the Barracks were over 80,000 organic artifacts that don’t normally survive in archaeological deposits. These included bright coloured and patterned textiles from convict uniforms and women’s clothing, food scraps, playing cards, coins, a leather bound Bible, bandages, and a perfectly preserved single convict shoe.

All of these treasures, that would have normally almost immediately rotted away, were kept safe for over a century by the rats storing them in dry and well-ventilated cavities throughout the building, with their discovery acting as a priceless look in at what convict life in Sydney was like during the 18th and 19th centuries.

The lesson here? You can't always write rodents off. 

The city skyline from Balls Head Reserve.
Photograph: Supplied

A mysterious 2000-year-old young woman

Perhaps one of the strangest archeological finds uncovered in plain sight in Sydney was the discovery of the skeleton of a young Indigenous woman in a midden cave at Balls Head in 1964. Balls Head is a tiny harbourside bush reserve located only 1.5 kilometres from Sydney's CBD, but it is immensely rich with ancient Indigenous history. While digging in a rock shelter at this reserve in the ‘60s, archeologists found an incomplete female skeleton, but her skull and other body parts were mostly intact. She was over 30 years old when she died, and, along with 450 other artifacts found nearby, they uncovered a juvenile kangaroo’s incisor tooth that had traces of vegetable gum on it, indicating that she wore either a necklace or had her hair adorned before she died. 

There was no decay on her teeth, meaning that she lived pre-British arrival, with reports suggesting that she had lived there between 1000 to 2000 years ago. There was a liberal hint of mystery to this discovery, with the woman having been buried face-down in a shallow grave with a lit campfire nearby, a fact that hinted that she had either been abandoned – or that different burial practices were put into place for men and women at that time. 

Very sadly, many of this mystery woman’s remains were mislaid by scientists and researchers over time, with the intact skeleton no longer in existence for appropriate burial proceedings, or further research into the lives of Sydney’s First Nations people long before European settlement. 

In a strange and disturbing twist to this thousand-year-old mystery, in the 1990s police seized artifacts and human remains from Balls Head from the house of convicted killer Michael Guider, who was serving a sentence for the abduction and murder of nine-year-old Samantha Knight from Bondi in 1986. 

When it comes to Sydney and its many ancient mysteries, we may never know the full truth. 

Want to learn more about our city's grisly past? Look at our list of the 8 most fascinating stories from Sydney's horrible history. 

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