Conservatorium of Music

  • Conservatorium of Music in August 1916 (image courtesy State Library of NSW - Government Printing Office 1 - 31633)

  • Government House Stables, 1842, painted by Conrad Martens (image courtesy Dixson Galleries, State Library of NSW - DG 51)

Location: Conservatorium of Music

Author: Paul Irish and Tamika Goward

In 1998, some Aboriginal stone artefacts were found during archaeological excavations ahead of the redevelopment of the Sydney Conservatorium of Music on Macquarie Street. The excavations were being undertaken to investigate an area of early colonial remains around the site, which was the former stables for nearby Government House. During the excavations, archaeologists found an Aboriginal stone artefact in soil that appeared to date from before the arrival of Europeans. The artefact was a piece of ancient river cobble which had been used as a stone ‘core’ to make other stone artefacts. Based on this discovery, further excavations were undertaken to see if other archaeological remains of the Aboriginal use of the area had survived.

In a few of the pits that were excavated, a further 15 Aboriginal stone artefacts were found. Most of them were ‘flakes’ (pieces of stone) that had been expertly struck from stone cores by Aboriginal people using another stone (the hammerstone). Several different types of stone were represented by the flakes, none of which are found nearby. The cores used to make these flakes were probably sourced from ancient river cobbles found tens of kilometres away to the west or south. It is not clear how Aboriginal people used the flakes from the Conservatorium, if they did so at all. We know from other studies that some flakes were used as tools, some were further modified into specialised implements, and others were simply waste material from the production of tools.

One of the flakes found at the Conservatorium was waste generated from the modification of another flake into a specialised tool. Although the tool itself was not found, archaeologists could tell from the waste flake that a small ‘backed artefact’ was being produced. Backed artefacts are so-called because the side opposite its sharp cutting edge has been blunted or ‘backed’ to allow it to be hafted or perhaps even held. It was during this blunting process that the waste flake at the Conservatorium was produced. Studies have shown that backed artefacts had many uses, including cutting, incising and drilling.

The archaeologists discovered that the artefacts found at the Conservatorium had been brought to the site in the early colonial period as part of ‘fill’ (historically deposited material such as gravel and rubble) transported from somewhere else. It probably came from relatively close by, but without knowing the exact location, there is not much more that the artefacts can tell us about how Aboriginal people used this specific area.


V Attenbrow, 2010. Sydney’s Aboriginal Past. Investigating the Archaeological and Historical Records (Sydney, UNSW Press).

Jo McDonald Cultural Heritage Management Pty Ltd. Archaeological Survey for an Aboriginal Heritage Assessment. University of Sydney (Report to Capital Insight Pty Ltd).