Brisbane may seem like a young city compared with London, Rome and other European and or even Asian cities dating back as far as 5,000 BC. As it turns out, Brisbane has quite a history of its own and some of it lies underground.
Long before Europeans settled along the river city, this continent had been home to over 100,000 Aboriginal Australians. During the convict era of the Moreton Bay Penal Settlement, between 1824 and 1842, some of the earliest foundations of our built environment were laid.
Queen’s Wharf Road and William Street are two of the oldest streets in Brisbane, as are George, Charlotte, Margaret, Alice and Elizabeth Streets. One of the reasons we have some knowledge of the history surrounding the early streets of Brisbane is due to these particular streets yielding items of archaeological significance.
The original street survey plans provide a clear identification of the early settlement structures. New construction has revealed a deposition and build-up of layers of habitation rather than removal, preserving pieces that fit into the puzzle that is the archaeological record. This process is an archaeologist’s dream as this provides a relatively accurate dating method and allows archaeologists to put historical events into a direct sequence.
With construction of the Riverside Expressway in the 1970s, archaeological evidence of the early constructs of Queen’s Wharf and Pettigrew’s Wharf along the river was lost. However, work on the site of the former Government Printing Office, in conjunction with the construction of the adjacent Executive Building in the 1980s, revealed the footprint of the convict settlement Commandant’s Cottage and kitchen.
Construction sites around the city have revealed tantalising glimpses of early life in Brisbane. During the refurbishment of the Brisbane City Hall, a culvert from the 1880s was found. In 2011 a broken water main in William Street damaged the Commissariat Stores but provided an opportunity for archaeologists to investigate the mound of dirt and rubble that slid towards and into the building. Here they found more than 8,500 individual artefacts from the 1800s. These included bones, bottles, ceramic ware and shell that gave an interesting insight to the diet and lifestyle of Brisbane people at this time.
Until 2016, the historical streets of the Queen’s Wharf precinct remained the least disturbed in the central business district, with a high potential for exposing cultural artefacts and remains. Archaeological work undertaken in conjunction with the Queen’s Wharf Integrated Casino Development may reveal more.