Prehistoric History: Dugong Remains at Alexandria Canal

Alexandra Canal was named after Princess Alexandra, who married Edward, Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) in 1863. The suburb of Alexandria is also named after Princess Alexandra.

Alexandra Canal was once a salt marsh known as Shea’s Creek. Excavation began in 1887 to transform the marshland into a canal capable of carrying barges to transport goods from the nearby brickworks, woollen mills, tanneries and foundries.

During the excavation of Shea’s Creek in 1896, the remains of a dugong were found in the estuarine clay. Examination by the then curator of the Australian Museum Robert Etheridge, revealed the animal had been butchered by a blunt-edged cutting or chopping instrument. Two stone hatchet heads were found nearby.

The artifacts provide evidence of the Indigenous Australians who lived in the area prior to European settlement.

Dugong bones showing cut marks, from ‘Journal and proceedings of the Royal Society of New South Wales’, Vol 30, 1896, Plate XI, p 456
Source: Internet Archive [mobot31753002624135_0456.jpg]

The following is an extract from one of the National Archaeology Week posters displayed by AMBS in Search & Discover, Level 2 at the Australian Museum in 2013.

Archaeology and the Australian Museum
Since the colonial settlement of Sydney layers of buildings have been constructed over historic (since 1788) and Aboriginal archaeological sites. These have to be assessed and excavated prior to any building proposal, as part of the urban planning and environmental assessment process.
Modern planning laws protecting archaeological sites in NSW were introduced in the 1970s. Before this, Australian Museum scientists were often called out on an ad hoc basis to investigate sites that were going to be impacted by a development. One of these early excavations took place at Shea’s Creek.

Nineteenth century salvage excavations at Shea’s Creek

During construction in the late 1880s of a navigational canal floodplain to connect Botany Bay with Alexandria along the Shea’s Creek, a large marine mammal skeleton was uncovered in silty deposits below the low water mark. It was located over one kilometre from the Cooks River, the closest source of deep water.

Such was the importance of this discovery that Robert Etheridge, the director of the Australian Museum, T. W. Edgworth David, geology professor at the University of Sydney, and J.W. Grimshaw were called to investigate the archaeological site at Shea’s Creek. The large skeleton was found to be that of a Dugong (Dugong dugon), a large marine mammal which inhabits the tropical and subtropical waters of northern Australia, but is not known to commonly inhabit the colder waters adjacent to the current NSW coast.

New insights
Recently, the Dugong bones from this site were radiocarbon dated and found to be about 6,000 years old. The presence of the bones suggests that water temperatures in the Sydney region were once warmer. Another intriguing aspect to this site is the presence of cut marks on the bones of the Dugong skeleton. Stone axe heads were found in the archaeological deposits, above and below the Dugong skeleton, suggesting that Aboriginal people inhabited the area of Shea’s Creek at this time and butchered the Dugong for food.



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