The Big Dig Sydney Harbour YHA

The Big Dig – A Rat in the Cellar

There’s a rat slinking away in the corner of the cellar. Shaped from metal wire, it’s one of the few modern additions to archaeological discoveries found at The Big Dig in Sydney’s Rocks area. The cellar, carved from the sandstone that gave The Rocks its name, is all that remains of a pub that stood here in the 1800s

A Guided Tour of The Big Dig

I listen intently as Alison Frappell, Education and Interpretation Officer for The Big Dig explains how regularly turning beer barrels resulted in a circle being worn in the cellar floor.

Sydney Harbour YHA

Last night I slept in the Sydney Harbour YHA, a building carefully constructed to ensure minimal impact on the archaeological site beneath the three-storey building. Built on stilts, the frame is bolted rather than welded together.

Sydney Harbour YHA built on stilts
YHA is Built on Stilts

The Big Dig with accommodation above it in the Sydney Harbour YHA
Archaeology and Accommodation

On each level, rooms lead off a corridor enclosing a central ‘atrium’.  Interpretation signs enable guests to make sense of the maze of foundations on the ground below when they look down over the low wall into the open space.  

Making sense of The Big Dig

With Frappell’s descriptions, the archaeological site comes alive. She points to the foundations of a small cottage. Irish-born Richard Byrne built a tiny home here for his wife and seven children. Over time he added a couple of rooms onto the back of the house. His descendants still live in the area, and Frappell tells me “I’ve met many relatives.”

The Byrne house was a weatherboard cottage with a casuarina shingle roof. When built in the early 1800s, there were few houses in the area, and Margaret Byrne tended a kitchen garden behind their cottage.

Self-guided tour of the Big Dig in Sydney during daylight hours
Explanatory Signage

Artefacts found on The Big Dig Sydney
Display Case of Artefacts

As more Europeans arrived, pressure on land grew and by the end of the 1800s, people lived in very close quarters with over 300 people living on this small site. 

Finding out How People Lived

Learning how the physical evidence, oral history and historical records all contribute the picture of life here in the Rocks and how the area developed from 1795 to 1901 is fascinating.  

Besides the foundations of many homes, archaeological excavations in 1994, known as The Big Dig, and subsequent excavations in 2005, 2006 and 2008 revealed hotels, a bakery and an abattoir. Over a million artefacts were also uncovered, having either slipped through gaps in the floorboards or been placed under the floor as rubbish.

Pins, Marbles and foreign coins found on archeological site in Sydney
Pins and Marbles

Artefacts found on archeological sites help to make sense of how people lived.
Cut Glass and Foreign Coins

Not a Slum

When I use the word ‘slum’ to describe the area at that time, Frappell looks frustrated. She tells me how found items reveal that people who lived here in the 1800s actually had a better lifestyle and were more prosperous than first thought.

Found Items

Children played with the colourful marbles, miniature tea set and toy soldiers which are carefully laid out in clear display cabinets. Buttons and pins attest to home sewing and meals were eaten off fine china as evidenced by pieces of crockery found on the site.

In 19 January 1900, Arthur Paine was the first person in Sydney to contract the bubonic plague. He was a delivery man working at Central Wharf, formerly at Walsh Bay, where a ship carrying infected rats would have docked.

George Cribb an identity in The Rocks Sydney
George Cribb had a Stable Here

Bubonic Plague in Sydney
A Plague brought by Rats

The Rats Return

We are in the early days of COVID-19 restrictions easing in NSW and Frappell ruefully comments how “history repeats itself”. She’s referring euphemistically not only to “a recent ship arrival” in Circular Quay but also to reports of increased numbers of rats sighted in cities around the world during lockdowns.

As a result of the bubonic plague, many houses in The Rocks were demolished in 1901. Since then, the archaeological site has variously supported large engineering sheds, a bus depot and a car park all of which served to protect the archaeological remains below.

The Tour Ends with More Rats

Fittingly my tour of The Big Dig, which began with sighting a rat, ends at photograph showing a group of Professional Ratcatchers standing with buckets in hand behind a pile of rats.

Cribbs Lane in the Rocks and The Big Dig
Cribbs Lane Now and Then

Carahers Lane in The Rocks and The Big Dig
Carahers Lane and Big Dig Site

A Tour well worth doing

The weekly Monday morning tour of this open-air museum is offered free to guests of the Sydney Harbour YHA. Interested guests may be able to arrange tours on other days.

While a tour of the site would be my first choice, early photographs, explanatory signs and display cases filled with artefacts make a self-guided tour of The Big Dig quite doable during daylight hours.

I stayed at the Sydney Harbour YHA as their guest.


  1. One day, when Covid’s taken a further back seat than currently, I’d so like to experience this interesting historical tour; meanwhile, thanks for the always well said presentation! Keep well…

    1. Author

      Hopefully it won’t be too long before you feel comfortable getting out and about. This tour is well worth it.

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