Author: Paul Irish and Tamika Goward
In 2009 archaeologists found an Aboriginal campsite, or ‘midden’, on the eastern side of Cockle Bay (Darling Harbour) in an area known as the Darling Quarter, west of Harbour Street, between Bathurst and Liverpool Streets. They were investigating early colonial archaeological remains on the site when shells were found, the type and formation of which indicated evidence of past Aboriginal use of the area. The areas containing shell were excavated by archaeologists and members of the Metropolitan Local Aboriginal Land Council.
Middens are mounds of discarded food waste (shellfish and the bones of fish and land animals) that have been left by Aboriginal people camping near the coast. They may be the result of a single meal or the continued used of a camp over a long period of time. They can also contain the remains of cooking fires, stone, bone and shell tools, and sometimes human burials. They are important sources of information for archaeologists because the lime-rich shells help preserve bones that would otherwise quickly disintegrate in the soil.
The Darling Walk midden was located on the original shoreline of Cockle Bay, and some of the shells were found in muddy soil from the adjacent mudflats which were never dry land. Because shells occur naturally in mudflats like these, it can sometimes be difficult for archaeologists to tell if the shells they find are Aboriginal campsites or natural accumulations. At this site though, a distinction could be made between the ‘natural’ shells dug from old mudflats, and those found on what was once dry land.
Among the shells found on dry land were ten Aboriginal stone artefacts, showing that these were the remains of an Aboriginal campsite. There were also discarded European artefacts among the shells, and archaeologists concluded that while the shells were from a midden, they had most likely been washed down to the edge of the water through the action of waves. After being redeposited, the midden was substantially disturbed by European activities in the area, including the reclamation of the shoreline.
The midden consisted mainly of the Sydney cockle shells which gave the bay its name, as well as Sydney rock oyster and mud whelks. Chemical traces in the soil suggest that cooking fires were also once present. The stone artefacts were made of several different types of stone, which Aboriginal people probably obtained by trade from the western part of Sydney. No fish or animal bones were found in the midden, so it appears Aboriginal people sat by the bay, cooking and eating shellfish which they had gathered from the adjacent mudflats, and occasionally making or touching up their stone implements.
Comber Consultants Pty Ltd. 2012. Darling Quarter (formerly Darling Walk), Darling Harbour Aboriginal Archaeological Excavation Report (Report to Casey and Lowe on behalf of Lend Lease).