The proposed excavation of a services basement in the western half of the Peace Hall led to the archaeological investigation of this area beneath the Town Hall in 2007/2008. Archaeological excavation was undertaken in January 2008 and a total of 66 graves were recorded, with some areas being excavated in late 2009 as they were inaccessible at that time.
The Town Hall was built on the Old Sydney Burial Ground, Sydney’s first permanent cemetery, set out by Governor Phillip and Reverend Cowper in September 1792. The burial ground remained in use until January 1820. During the 28 years the cemetery operated some 2240 burials were added. City of Sydney historians have compiled a list of the names of people interred in the cemetery. See the link below.
The majority of graves were found to have been exhumed at the time of the construction of the Peace Hall in the 1880s. The original ground levels had been cut down at that time, in most cases to coffin depth. Nearly all the graves had evidence of coffins. The assumption that the original ground level would slope abruptly down to the west was not borne out by the graves which were cut to a uniform depth from east to west, although they were deeper to the north.
It had also been assumed that the area was likely to contain several brick vaults, remains of one had been found in the southern section of the study area during monitoring of drainage works in 1991. No other vaults were found in the area. The main result of the archaeological program was the finding that nearly all the graves had been either exhumed or substantially disturbed in the 1880s.
Summary of Results
- 66 graves were identified
- 28 graves contained remnant human bone
- 1 grave was unexhumed
- All graves except 2 contained evidence of coffins
- All coffins were the ‘shouldered’ type except 2 adult and 2 children in rectangular ‘boxes’.
- Where orientation of the coffins could be determined, 27 coffins were orientated with head in the west and 25 with the head in the east. This is unusual as most Christian burials have the head at the western end oriented to the east.
- The condition of the human bone recovered from the graves is quite poor.
- Burials include 8 juveniles but no bone survived in these graves.
- No evidence for buttons or other clothing was found, so probably everyone was buried in shrouds.
- Some evidence for family or other groupings exists, in that some graves were immediately adjacent to one or more other graves.
- Evidence for coffin manufacture including nails, screws and tacks which were the main artefacts recovered from the excavation.
- The timber from most of the coffins had completely decayed.
- Analysis of soil samples will shed light on the poor condition of the bone recovered from the site.
- An Open Day held during the excavation attracted over 3000 people and garnered widespread media attention.