2.3 Fishes considered most useful for studying Sydney archaeology

At least 580 fish species representing over 140 families are known for Sydney Harbour, with more in surrounding waters (Australian Museum 2009). It was impractical and unnecessary to include images of all of these in the archive at this stage. Historical, archaeological and environmental information was used to generate a list of fishes considered most potentially useful for understanding Sydney prehistory and history from c. 3000 years ago to the late 19th century to guide selection of archive content. Currently 117 fishes (Family, genus, species or other archaeologically relevant category) are on this list (Table 1). To be included, a fish had to match one or more of the following criteria:

  1. have already been identified using bones from local archaeological sites
  2. be represented in Sydney Aboriginal rock art
  3. be commonly mentioned in multiple and variable documentary sources because it was common and/or highly abundant, excellent or good eating and/or it had some other specific and strong cultural or historical significance
  4. have a known indigenous name(s)
  5. be strongly indicative of seasonality (i.e. only occurs in warmer or cooler weather)
  6. be highly indicative of location (i.e. only or usually found in specific geographical locations and/or environmental zones)
  7. be highly indicative of a specific fishing method

Some Sydney fishes not yet identified from Sydney sites have been found in archaeological contexts elsewhere in south-eastern Australia (e.g. Colley 1997; Colley and Jones 1987). As there is no obvious reason beyond gaps in reference collections why these fish could not be identified in Sydney sites in future they have been included (Criterion 1).

Motifs of fish-shaped creatures (Criterion 2) are common in Sydney regional Aboriginal rock engravings (Stanbury and Clegg 1990; Attenbrow 2010). The art is well documented, but there is little information about its context of production or date. Limited unpublished study has aimed to identify scientific taxa in the art (e.g. Macintosh 1950; Golka 2008) but more work is needed to establish any cultural or biological taxonomies in the engravings that could indicate more about the significance of fish and fishing to Aboriginal people.

An important source of historical information was the Fisheries Inquiry Commission (1880) report, content from which is also presented separately (Table 4). Other information for Criterion 3 came from Poiner (1976); Beckett (1984); De Vries-Evans (1987); Karskens (1999; 2009); Attenbrow (2010) and Colley (2006b).

Indigenous names (Criterion 4) follow Attenbrow (2010). Information about species distribution, abundance, catch methods and edibility (e.g. Criteria 3, 5, 6 and 7) used Poiner (1976), Hutchins and Swainston (1986) and the Australian Museum (2009). Images of some non-Sydney fish are included in the archive to guide identification (e.g. to Family level) until gaps in collections are filled.

Table 1 also includes information about non-Australian fish taxa known or likely to have been imported to Sydney. These include northern hemisphere salmon or trout (Family Salmonidae) and ling (Family Gadidae, Molva molva), bones of which were found at the Quadrant site (Colley 2006b; Colley in prep.).

Table 1 explains why each fish is considered potentially significant to the archaeology and history of Sydney fishing with reference to the Fisheries Inquiry Commission (1880) where appropriate. It also includes an assessment of contemporary 'edibility' for each taxon (i.e. excellent, good, fair and poor 'eating' or poisonous), using information from a field guide book written for recreational anglers (Sea Fishes of Southern Australia) by Hutchins and Swainston (1986).

For each taxon, Table 1 also notes if bones are available in ANU or USyD reference collections; if images are included in the Archaeological Fish-Bone Images archive; if the fish occurs in the Sydney region according to the Australian Museum (2009); and if bones have been identified in Sydney regional archaeological sites or elsewhere (up to October 2009). A standardised scientific and common name is provided and a unique Fish Taxon Code which can link Table 1 information to that stored in Tables 2-4, the Archaeological Fish-Bone Images archive and elsewhere, including the archive of the Quadrant fish data (Colley in prep.).

The criteria used to select fish for inclusion in the current AFBI archive and associated tables were designed to address specific research questions about the archaeology and history of Sydney fish and fishing (Colley 2006b; Colley in prep.) and their application is subjective. The archive is a 'work in progress'. Our understanding of the relative importance of various fishes will change as more research is conducted, and new fish and new information could be added. A sustainable digital system can potentially incorporate these changes into the future.


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