Unearthing a midden

The Cooks River south of the Sydney CBD is named after Captain Cook and it is now Australia’s most polluted waterway. Despite ongoing regeneration efforts the Cooks is still unsafe for secondary human contact (swimming etc).

Professor Ian Tyrrell from UNSW has written an Environmental History of the Cooks, this is one of his images. Click on the image to go to his site.

When digging around in our yard, which overlooks the river, we unearthed an inordinate amount of cockle shells that looked old and a bit worn away. We’d noticed similar shells scattered around the yard, but we had never seen them in such quantities until were digging up the grass to make a garden bed.



After setting some of the shells aside, we proceeded to plant a garden in the old patch of grass. While planting we started to think about why the shells were there. An aboriginal midden emerged as the obvious, however surprising, answer.

A midden is effectively a rubbish dump for food scraps of shell and bone, and wherever there was an aboriginal campsite there was usually both a campfire for cooking and a midden for scraps. We knew there were cave paintings in rocks out the back of our place, but we called the National Parks and Wildlife Service to see if they had any record of this midden. They had no record of the shells and Kaiya from the La Perouse NPWS came out and inspected the site.

Kaiya and Craig looking at the patch of ground where we found the shells.

Kaiya and Craig looking at the patch of ground where we found the shells.

She determined, based on the look of the shells in comparison to other finds around the Sydney regions and also a range of geographical information, that it was almost certainly a midden. The Cooks was once a food basket for the Darug people. Middens like this one were probably once everywhere along the river, but years of redevelopment of the area for housing, roads, golf courses and shops, as well as the significant redesign of the waterway itself eliminated the bulk of the evidence showing Aboriginal custodianship of this land.

What the midden brings to mind for us is that this patch of land we now call home was a likely campsite. It is perched nicely on a hill up from the river with a nice rocky outcrop to survey the land, to light fires and to cook and eat food; it comes complete with a rocky cave for shelter. What’s more is that the shells remind us that all this was not really very long ago at all. The shells were not broken down so much they were not recognisable. These shells may have been collected on the day white people landed on these shores, eaten as passengers on the First Fleet disembarked. This little patch of ground is alive with this history of colonisation and our rental of the property is itself a continuation of the violent legacy.¬†We can’t live without this knowledge being part of our daily imagination. In unearthing these shells, we can’t forget the violence of colonisation.

What can we do now? For now we are continuing to grow things in this patch of ground and awaiting further instructions from the NPWS. We hope that one day the midden and this site becomes part of a bigger Aboriginal history of Australia and that it contributes in future to the return of some of the land to its indigenous custodians.

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