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RPS excavates Sydney’s historical Tank Stream

12 September 2014 | 2 min read

“Why is Sydney where it is today? Because of the Tank Stream. The permanent water it supplied determined where the First Fleet set up camp at Sydney Cove.”
Heritage Council of New South Wales.

The RPS Cultural Heritage team in Australia was recently engaged by the Council of the City of Sydney to undertake archaeological excavations adjacent to the historical Tank Stream in Sydney’s CBD.

RPS was commissioned to work alongside civil contractors involved in Council’s laneways revitalisation program, which involved substantial amenity improvements to Tank Stream Way and Bridge Lane. Tank Stream was the impetus for the original siting of Sydney, as the first consistent fresh water source discovered in the lower Harbour. The Stream became grossly contaminated by the city’s early inhabitants and was enclosed during the 1850s, eventually becoming a vast stormwater drain for the city. Tank Stream is now buried under at least two metres of fill and runs right through the CBD, before emptying into the harbour at Circular Quay.

Excavations during the Early Works revealed 187 artefacts in a disturbed context, representing an historical snapshot, albeit blurry, of nineteenth century Sydney. Of considerable interest was the discovery of a modified bottle base, which has been interpreted as an improvised opium lamp. The push up (pontil) had been chipped away to make a small hole in the base, and the base broken from the bottle. The resultant bases were apparently used over a tin of fuel with the wick poking through the hole as a crude opium lamp (see picture).

Opium smoking was by no means uncommon in nineteenth century Sydney, and The Rocks, only a few hundred metres from our site, was notoriously full of brothels, sly grog shops, opium dens, and haunted by prostitutes and larrikins. Opium dens were frequented by all levels of society, and their opulence reflected the financial means of the patrons. Regardless of status, the dens tended to keep a supply of opium paraphernalia including the specialised lamps necessary to smoke the drug. As a working class area, it was not at all surprising to encounter evidence of simple lamps, rather than the distinctive Cloisonné adorned metal lamps so characteristic of dens.

A full report on the findings will be prepared following the Main Works excavations shortly.

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