The Sydney Harbour Youth Hostel Association (YHA) has been constructed on the site of one of Australia’s major archaeological excavations. For years the land was used as a bus and car park – a concreted slab of land in the heart of The Rocks. A little up the road, where the Shangri-La now sits, archaeological artefacts were found. It was anticipated that the old car-park slab would likely also have artefacts hidden beneath and so, in 1994, the site was excavated and centuries of history were uncovered.
Relaying this information to me off the cuff is Sydney Harbour YHA’s manager, Ross Lardner, whose passion for the site is enthralling. Ross has worked with YHA for 14 years and with the Sydney Harbour YHA for eight of those, being a Project Manager over the two years the hostel was built. Of the initial excavation, Ross tells me, “They removed 168 skips of fill and they uncovered what was pretty much a time-capsuled neighbourhood from the 1800s, with houses actually dating back to the First Fleet. That gave them a dilemma because they found more than what they were probably bargaining for.” The excavation was undertaken with an archaeology team, but they had an historian working with them side by side, which was a fairly new concept in those days.
The land was then considered to be such a significant site that the government didn’t really know what to do with it. “For almost ten years it sat here fenced off, with weeds growing all over it. There were various proposals for developments, but none of them really got off the ground. In 2004 they decided, ‘Let’s put this out to the public to see how they would develop the site, with strict guidelines of what they can and cannot do’”. YHA were one of the companies that put in a tender. The company worked with a heritage architect and a structural engineer to come up with the design – a building raised on pillars. The design was for the building to only impact in 53 square metres. “We were notified in 2006 that we were successful, we started building in late 2008 and opened on 31st October 2009.”
Presently, there are only 53 pillars supporting the three buildings, which is less than 2% of the site. Ross tells me that since then, “the project has been held up by the Getty Conservation Institute as World’s Best Practice for readapting an archaeology site, the consultant we engaged to develop our education programs was given a Churchill Fellowship based on what she had done here and we also won a UNESCO award for conservation heritage. The first time a backpackers hostel has ever done that.”
Walking into the building is literally stepping into the archaeological site – on a raised platform, of course. As you walk in the door, you can see five layers of the site’s history in one spot. With Ross guiding me through, he explains the layers. There’s bedrock (the rocks that make up The Rocks), a crumbling line of rocks which tell us of a house built between 1805- 1807 by Richard Byrne, an Irish exile. Bigger cut stones show where in the 1860s, bigger terraces were built on top. There was the bus and car park, and then you’ve got the current YHA. “On the site are the remnants of about forty buildings dating back to the late 18th century. They were houses, shops and hotels.” The foyer we stand on is actually above the cellar of the former Australian Hotel. “There are clues to it being a cellar. You can see where the barrels were spun.” Clues dot the site in every corner. Axe marks on what was a former abattoir, holes where the horse stalls in the stables once stood.
Photographs line the walls of the YHA, through various stages of the site’s history, dating back to the late 1900s in the lead up to the demolition and redevelopment of the buildings. The images help to tell a visual story, and in many instances you can identify in these photos where the buildings once stood through clues in the excavated floor. There are also animal sculptures on the site to animate it, especially for younger audiences, helping to relate to how areas were used. A horse stands in a stable of the former Whalers Arms Hotel looking very ghostly. “We wanted to make sure guests of the hostel were engaged with the history.” Coffee tables are and cabinets are filled with artefacts. Ross explains many people are inspired to come for the outstanding views of the Opera House or Harbour Bridge. “Only 25% of people come knowing about the archaeology but 75% of the guests leave having read the information around the site, which means we’re educating hundreds of thousands of people.”
Even Sydney-locals such as myself are being educated. In the late 19th century the plague broke out in Sydney at Millers Point. The Rocks is commonly known as being a key area of Sydney’s plague outbreak. “There were actually only three victims of the plague in The Rocks. There were more victims in Vaucluse. One of The Rocks’ victims was living on this site, but they inspected his house and found no evidence of rats or fleas from his house. He was a paper boy working on the wharves, so it was more likely he came in contact with the rats and the fleas down at the wharves.” “The government had already identified The Rocks as an area they would like to develop, it was full of run-down houses. They were looking for a reason in a way to start that removal process and the plague gave them the trigger they needed.” “One thing that came out of the archaeological process is that The Rocks had been perceived as a slum and that these were slum dwellers, but in terms of the artefacts and the people that lived here and the quality of life indicated – these people weren’t slumdogs.”
The knowledge Ross has of the site is endless. “In some ways it’s more like an Australian version of Pompeii, except we know a lot more about the people who lived here as their history is much more recent and we have historical records for most of these people dating back to what ship they arrived on.” The people who lived here sometimes swept their rubbish under their floorboards. All of the artefacts found have been from beneath the buildings, or left in unused wells and cesspits. It’s really quite fortunate that they did sweep their rubbish under their floorboards as over 1 million artefacts have been uncovered.
Sitting outside, around the original laneways is the Education Centre where programs run. YHA partners with Sydney Learning Adventures who deliver programs, a lot of the time to Primary School kids whose favourite part is often the simulated archaeology dig. The YHA’s aim was to strike a balance between being an active site, an educational tool (without giving too much information about the artefacts away before the kids learn about them), but also explaining to people what goes on.
Over 600,000 people have stayed in the hotel since 2009 and 40,000 kids have participated in the education programs. Best of all, a portion of everybody’s overnight stay goes into a fund used for things such as managing the conservation of the site and updating the education programs. “To me it’s like we’re a sustainable loop. They come here, partly because of the archaeology, but they’re also contributing to making it stay here, which then brings more people. Much of the site is better conserved now than when it was opened.”
The YHA were obligated to build the hostel to a 5 green star equivalent and the whole centre is sustainable. There is an endless list of sustainable actions the hostel takes, such as solar hot water and toilets flushed with rainwater. Shade louvers on windows will cool your room by 5 degrees if shut. “Here you can open the windows but if you do, your air conditioning won’t work.” Of course a lot of actions by guests are uncontrollable. “While we can do the best we can, we can’t go around the hostel every night and make sure everyone’s lights are turned off.”
While the Sydney Harbour YHA is unique in its approach, it’s not the only YHA involved in an historic site. The company recently opened up a hostel in the heritage listed Fremantle Prison. “You can stay in cells. We have hostels around the world that are in castles. There’s one in Israel that has an aqueduct running through it.”
While running an in-demand hostel comes with its challenges, Ross says, “The thing that keeps most people working for YHA is that every day is different. We’ve been open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and 365 days a year. We haven’t been closed for even one second in six years.”
I ask for Ross’ funniest story since his time at YHA. A staff member overhears and yells something out. Ross laughs. “Yes, we’ve had a staff member get married here. One of our roles is an Activity Coordinator, to help guests meet each other. I’ve lost two of them because they’ve met their partners through that role. There is sort of an in-joke that YHA stands for ‘Your Husband Assured’. Didn’t work for me!”
Not all of the site at The Rocks has been excavated and that’s intentional. “Archaeological techniques are constantly changing and there might be different questions that could be answered in 50 years’ time.” There is only ever work done on the site if there’s a particular reason, and an excavation permit is granted. For instance, Tony Robinson from Time Team came out to do a project and uncovered new information relating to where the convict George Cribb butchered animals on site. However, usually even the surface of the site cannot be disturbed . Ross explains, “We can’t even pull out any weeds! They need to be snipped off just above the soil and the roots poisoned – you never know what might be underneath.”
Words by Jayne Cheeseman