Like a boat on land – musings of a maritime archaeologist on the Barangaroo Boat (terrestrial) dig

‘Want to come along and check out this boat they found at Barangaroo?’
Little did I know where my answer would eventually lead!

Visting Barangaroo

A clear sunny morning in October 2019, promising a sweaty sort of day, saw us meeting up with our colleagues at the Australian National Maritime Musem (ANMM) for a saunter around Darling Harbour to Barangaroo.

Barangaroo is named after an aboriginal woman of the Cammeraygal clan, part of the Eora language group. Her second husband was Bennelong, after whom Bennelong Point is named, the site upon which the Sydney Opera House sits. Barangaroo was a proud defender of aboriginal Australian culture and the land to which she was deeply connected. You can learn more about this fascinating personality of the early colonial period here.

The excavation director Cos Coroneos, of Cosmos Archaeology, met us at the gate to the Sydney Metro Barangaroo Station construction site to grant us entry and be our guide.

Close up shot of trowels resting on the timbers of the Barangaroo Boat during excavation. Image: Renee Malliaros/Silentworld Foundation for Sydney Metro, 2018.

Clapping eyes on the excavation site for the first time revealed the hull of a boat, slick with water and mud as the excavating archaeologists buzzed around it, revealing more and more of its form with every scoop of sediment they lifted and tossed into their bucket.

Cos recounted the events of its discovery and the excavation process to date, as well as the preliminary observations and results of timber analysis (for more information see here). The boat was constructed of timber from only Australian tree species. Its context and construction seemed to point to an early date (c. early 1800s), perhaps making it the earliest European Australian boat to be found and excavated!

While on-site (and still to this day), it often crossed my mind what the builders of this boat and those who used it throughout its life might think and say when they saw us treating their little ‘run-about’ with such reverence?

Trowel time

Handed a trowel, we were permitted to have a bit of a scrape at some of the edges – for maritime archaeologists who spend most of their time floating around underwater, this was quite a different experience. Before we cleared out of the area to allow the archaeologists to get on with their day excavating the (potentially) oldest colonial boat, Cos casually asked: ‘Do you think you might want to join and help us on site?’

This was met with a resounding yes by the entire visitor team – especially after that incredible and hands-on introduction to what was looking to be a very special find.

At the kind and official invitation from Casey & Lowe and Cosmos Archaeology, and the correct certification and clearance for working on the construction site, we spent several surreal weeks on the dig. Slotting into the daily routine, I was able to assist with:

• digging
• sediment sifting
• timber recording
• photography
• packing

Once the executive decision was made that the safest option of removal from site was to disassemble the boat, the processing line took shape. Slowly, this rare little boat was carefully taken apart and, under the instruction of conservators from ICS, its individual timbers were wrapped, secured in place within wooden boxes using custom brackets to preserve their ‘as found’ shape and put into refrigeration at 4°C.

An unassuming boat, with many questions to explore

While on-site (and still to this day), it often crossed my mind what the builders of this boat and those who used it throughout its life might think and say when they saw us treating their little ‘run-about’ with such reverence?

Painstakingly excavating it, packing it and carrying its pieces across the construction site to a refrigerated refuge under the hot sun, with the dust clinging to our clothes and the mud staining our hands. Would they have laughed?

Would they have comprehended the great cultural significance it carries? Never in their life could they have guessed how important their little vessel would have been so many years later.

I look forward to all that we can learn from this unassuming boat – we intend to make the most of our chance meeting with it and ask as many questions of it as we can.

Stay on board and hold on to your hats – this is the first European Australian built boat, made with all Australian timber to ever be excavated, recorded in such high detail and fully conserved. It is going to be an exciting sort of ride.