South West Arm – Port Hacking

The Underwater Research Group commenced this project in September 2005 with the support of Cosmos Coroneos, the then President of the Australasian Institute for Maritime Archaeology, (AIMA) and Jim Wheeler, Archaeological & Heritage Management Solutions Pty Ltd (AHMS). The following information is from Cosmos Coroneos;

“The study of submerged terrestrial sites in Australia is with no exaggeration the last archaeological frontier in this country. By submerged terrestrial sites I mean Aboriginal sites that were inundated around 8-10,000 B.P. Some sites, or potential sites, have been located but lack of resources and their situation have not led to further investigation. The importance of studying such sites can be expressed in a number of pages but put simply they would allow archaeologists to better understand the evolution of Aboriginal society over time and to contribute to the debate of the earliest human occupation of the Continent. As mentioned previously there have been fits and starts with regards this topic. Most land archaeologists don’t understand the underwater environment and so have unrealistic expectation of what they will find. As a result they give up after a few goes. Most maritime guys boof around on the seabed not knowing what to look for and also not realising the significance of what they find. There haven’t been many occasions where both maritime and land guys have worked together on this matter. Jim and I have been talking about doing something about this for a while David Nutley has been taking a vocal and official interest on submerged terrestrial sites via the Heritage Office.

Jim and I think that SW Arm at Port Hacking would be a great place to undertake an investigation, for the following reasons:

  • It is in Sydney and close to boat ramps
  • There has been bugger all development in the area, therefore cultural impacts on sites should be minimal.
  • Jim did his Honours thesis on rock shelters in SW Arm.
  • There are rock shelters above sea level at SW Arm and it stands to reason that there would have been rock shelters under the present sea level
  • The eastern side of SW Arm is steep – down to 19 m, making the likelihood of rock outcrops and overhangs (potential rock shelters) to be visible above the sediments (I had a quick, unsystematic, dive at the southern end and there were a series of rock ledges and shallow caves down to around 6 m before the marine sediments took over. There should be more of such formations exposed further to the north east).
  • SW arm is well protected from wind generated waves, thereby providing an environment for the minimal disturbance of archaeological deposits.
  • Of the various types of Aboriginal sites, open camp sites, middens, etc, archaeological deposits inside rock shelters are recognised as being most likely to remain reasonably well defined in a marine environment.

The objectives of the project are as follows:

  1. Locate PADs (Potential archaeological deposits) within the study area. A PAD in this context would be a rock overhang or cave that would be sufficiently large enough to accommodate people.
  2. Excavate a submerged archaeological deposit inside a rock shelter

Objective 1 is what we are looking at right now. To do 2 would require permits, extra money and a lot of planning.”

(extract from an email to Colin Piper from Cosmos Coroneos)

It is the first objective on which the URG has been concentrating during (so far) 2 exploratory dives in September and November 2005. The second objective, that of excavation, is far beyond the scope of the URG at this stage.

Jim Wheeler, who is not a diver, but an expert in the field of these rock shelters has participated in both days, as has David Nutley, ******** from the NSW Heritage Office. In September 2005, before we started searching underwater, Jim took us to a rock shelter, high above the upper reaches of South West Arm in Port Hacking. This experience made it easier for us all to appreciate just what it was we were to be looking for underwater. The dives we conducted that day, in very good visibility, were fruitful, and a potential site was identified on only our second dive.


URG Boat; upper reaches of South West Arm September 25th 2005 / Photo by Colin Piper


Rock Shelter South West Arm September 25th 2005. l-r: Dave Neal, Tony Wright) / Photo by Colin Piper

Rock Shelter South West Arm September 25th 2005 / Photo by Colin Piper

Rock Shelter South West Arm September 25th 2005 / Photo by Colin Piper

We returned in November to record that site, both with video and still cameras, but unfortunately the water was not so clear, as the accompanying photo shows. We were however able to measure this overhang, and having streamlined our search techniques, also able to identify several other potential sites.

So far we have identified 7 targets for further investigation.


David Nutley videoing in overhang (T-2a) November 20th 2005 / Photo by Aengus Moran


Wayne Hack in T-2A February 19th 2006 / Photo by Aengus Moran

This is an on-going project, insofar as identifying further sites is concerned. We hope to cover the shoreline in South West Arm more or less completely by the end of 2006, and at that stage, the URG's task will be completed. It has been extremely gratifying for the URG members to be among the first divers to find these submerged shelters in South West Arm, something that the archaeologists hypothesized would be present, given the cultural history of the region. Credit for the first find is awarded to Tony Wright, who, while a couple of us were looking at a small overhang, swam on about 10 metres and came upon the large overhang which is in the photograph.

I hope to up date this web page after every day we spend in South west Arm.

Colin J Piper

Thanks to URG members; Wayne Hack, Aengus Moran, Dave Neal, and Tony Wright

Thanks to the Archaeologists; Cosmos Coroneos, Jim Wheeler, David Nutley, James Beringer-Pooley, Jennifer Craig and Caroline Wilby.

Profile measurements taken Nov 20th 2005

Profile measurements taken Nov 20th 2005

David Nutley (l) James Wheeler (r) / photo by Colin Piper

David Nutley (l) James Wheeler (r) / Photo by Colin Piper

Colin Piper (l) Cosmos Coroneos (r) / Photo by Wayne Hack

Colin Piper (l) Cosmos Coroneos (r) / Photo by Wayne Hack