Denman Masthead

Unearthing Canberra’s little known past

Natassja Hoogstad Hay

An excavation on Springbank Island is digging up clues to Canberra’s history.

It’s not every day that you hear about an archaeological excavation happening in your own backyard. Usually the realm of Indiana Jones or ancient sites in the Middle East, I wouldn’t have thought that Canberra, just over 100 years young, would be the site of its own dig.

But Springbank Island, which has only been an island since Lake Burley Griffin was filled in 1963, was the site for excavations over the last two weeks, led by the Canberra Archaeological Society (CAS) and archaeology staff and students from The Australian National University (ANU), thanks to funding from ACT Heritage.

So on Saturday, I hopped on a boat and headed to Springbank Island for a public Open day, part of the ACT Heritage Festival. I arrived on the island to find a hive of activity, with nearly 100 other archaeology and history enthusiasts and some impressive looking trenches, some nearly two metres deep. I wanted to find out what was so special about Springbank that’s grabbed the attention of our city’s archaeologists.

We already know a bit about Springbank – that it was the highest point in the area aside from Black Mountain, and right beside the Molonglo River. Long before it was an island, the property was named ‘Springbank’ after a nearby spring at Acton ridge. The property was marked out in 1832, and is the site of one of the first European homesteads in the Canberra region.

Going back even further, Springbank and its surrounds, the floodplain of the Molonglo River, was a key food and hunting ground for Aboriginal groups for around 25,000 years before Europeans came to the area.

It’s relics of both Canberra’s Indigenous and early European history that archaeologists were looking for during the excavation. The project sparked interest from local Indigenous traditional owners, families with a connection to the island and Canberra heritage buffs.

One of the main aims of was to find remains of the homestead, with initial radar surveys showing lots lying underneath the surface (or “anomalies” as archaeologists call them).

So far, the excavation has brought a treasure trove of items to the surface, including dozens of indigenous stone artefacts in various layers of soil.

“It shows there were Aboriginal people all over this country in this area that we think about as a European homestead – and that it’s important to recognise Springbank is an important Aboriginal place too,” explains project leader Dr Duncan Wright from ANU.

And although they haven’t been able to find the homestead itself (Dr Wright suspects the foundations may have been completely bulldozed during the construction of the island), they have found plenty of relics of the island’s European residents, including 19th century pieces of glass and ceramics, a door handle, and even a golf ball and tee (most likely from the 1960s).

Once further analysis has been done in the labs, stories about how people in Springbank lived their lives will begin to emerge more clearly.

Some stories are already coming to light through relatives of some of Canberra’s first residents. During the boat ride, I met Kaye Bridgement whose family, the Kayes, was the second family to take over the Springbank property from the MacPherson family in 1842. She’d driven all the way from Sydney that morning to come to the Open day and connect with her family history.

Many descendants of Springbank’s residents have been out to visit the island during the excavations. This includes Indigenous custodians like Wally Bell, a Ngunnawal man, who welcomed us to the island when we arrived

The support and interest of the Canberra community has been the most rewarding part of the entire project.

“One of the things that’s been eye-opening for me is seeing how Canberrans are really interested in their own cultural heritage, and we’ve had an astounding number of people who have phoned or emailed during this time,” says Dr Wright.

“Some projects just catch people’s imagination, and Springbank is one of those projects.”

And I’ll leave you with one final local tip: if you can get your hands on a boat, Springbank Island is the perfect, secluded picnic spot with a BBQ, picnic tables and plenty of room for a family game of soccer or Frisbee. Find more information on the NCA website.

The Springbank Open Day is part of the 2015 Canberra and Region Heritage Festival which runs until 26 April.


Natassja Hoogstad Hay

Natassja Hoogstad Hay is a communications professional working in Canberra. An unashamed foodie, she loves cooking and going out to eat, and has a special love of coffee and wine. She’s obsessed with social media (handy in her field!) and is working on perfecting her Instagram game. In her spare time you might find her at a yoga class, cosied up on the couch with a book or the TV, or outside taking photos of beautiful Canberra sunsets. More about the Author

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