Sydney Observatory and Fort Phillip

Sydney Observatory, Fort Phillip, the missing Greenway magazine and Windmills

Fort Phillip used to send signals in the early 1800s.

Since the flag mast was reinstated in 2007, a flag decoder permits visitors to determine the daily astronomical, shipping, meteorological and ceremonial flags flown on Sydney’s highest hill in the CBD.

The significant heritage value of Sydney Observatory 1858 including the remains of Fort Phillip 1804 have been officially recognised at both local and state levels. The care and use of the site must protect the values that make it a significant part of the heritage of Sydney and NSW. 

The exceptional heritage aspects of the Sydney Observatory have been outlined in a ‘statement of significance’ in the Conservation Plan (Kerr). The statement forms a succinct summation of the particularly unique and significant aspects of the site and its values, and is used to guide decisions regarding the care of the site:

‘The Observatory is of exceptional significance in terms of European culture. Its dominant location beside and above the port town and, later, City of Sydney made it the site for a range of changing uses, all of which were important to, and reflected, stages in the development of the colony. These uses included: milling (the first windmill); defence (the first, and still extant, fort fabric); communications (the flagstaffs, first semaphore and first electric telegraph connection); astronomy, meteorology and time keeping ;

The surviving structures, both above and below ground, are themselves physical documentary evidence of 195 years changes of use, technical development and ways of living. As such they are a continuing resource for investigation and public interpretation;

The place has an association with an extensive array of historical figures most of whom have helped shape its fabric. These include: colonial Governors Hunter, Bligh, Macquarie & Denison; military officers and engineers Macarthur; Barrallier; Bellasis and Minchin; convicts: the as yet unnamed constructors of the mill and fort; architects: Greenway (also a convict), Lewis, Blacket, Weaver, Dawson and Barnet; signallers and telegraphists such as Jones and the family Moffitt; astronomers: particularly PP King, Scott, Smalley, Russell, Cooke and Wood;

The elevation of the site, with its harbour and city views and vistas framed by mature Moreton Bay fig (Ficus macrophylla) trees of the surrounding park, make it one of the most pleasant and spectacular locations in Sydney;

The picturesque Italianate character and stylistic interest of the Observatory and residence building, together with the high level of competence of the masonry (brick and stone) of all major structures on the site, combine to create a precinct of unusual quality;

Finally, the continued use of the observatory for astronomical observations and the survival of astronomical instruments, equipment and some early furniture, although temporarily dispersed, and the retention of most interior spaces, joinery, plasterwork, fireplaces, and supports ensure that the observatory can remain the most intact and longest serving early scientific building in the State (Kerr 1991: 39)

Also of significance for relationship of Commonwealth and State powers. Site of the first inter-colonial conference on meteorology and astronomy. (Pearson et al 1999)

An excellent example of a Colonial building erected for scientific purposes and continuing to perform its function at the present time. The structure makes an imposing composition atop the historic hill originally known as Flagstaff Hill and occupies the historic Fort Phillip site (1804-45). Designed by the colonial architect Alexander Dawson and built in 1858.

After completion of recent restoration from 2008  to 2011 the remains of Fort Phillip are now used for Australian historical archaeology workshops. Two of which are being set up today, June 29 for the school holiday period commencing tomorrow. They are Time Detectives and Dig It! Both workshops are being used as school holiday programs with the intent to run them on a regular basis for school and community tours.

Dig it! Archaeologists in training workshops run several times each holiday period and last just under two hours. They are always sold out and we use the following ad online and in our collateral:

“Become a hands-on archaeological detective and investigate the history of Fort Phillip and the site of Sydney Observatory. Experience a simulated archaeology dig, find out what happens to artefacts after they are ‘dug’ out of the ground. In wet weather, the dig is replaced by a fabulous 3-D Space Theatre session. Suitable for: ages 6–10 years”

Budding young archaeologists learning the trade in the Signal Master’s Cottage atop Fort Phillip.


More “Dig It!” archaeologists with one of our very own archaeologists, Anthea.

Our second workshop is Time detectives: a science and archaeology game. “Treat your child to a fabulous day of science investigation at historic Fort Phillip, part of Sydney Observatory. This workshop includes a simulated archaeology dig, investigating finds, making an electronics analysis device which they then use to solve a mystery dating back 200 years. Participants get to view through binoculars and telescopes and experience the 3-D Space Theatre. Suitable for: ages 8–12 years.” This workshop lasts 6.5 hours and again is always sold out.

The third archaeology program is offered to Vacation Care groups. In a typical 2 week holiday period we may have up to 10 groups attend and it is this one we have been preparing today in particular by cleaning the “dig pit” and planting our artifacts. Vacation care groups: dig it! And map it!A fun, hands-on simulated archaeology dig. In the program for primary and infants school age children participants dress up and take part in a simulated dig with our resident archaeologist and record their findings. Binoculars are used to view South Head and the children decode Sydney Observatory flags. For high school children measurement is made using instruments and participants map a section of the site, recording their archaeology finds. Participants safely view the Sun through a telescope (weather permitting) and record their measurements of solar activity. This workshop caters for up to 60 children at a time and is suitable for ages 5–9 years and 10–14 years.

As we continue to develop our programs and target schools and community groups it is expected that archaeology will continue to expand at Sydney Observatory.


Work on Fort Phillip commenced in 1804 but ceased in 1806.


Sydney Observatory and Fort Phillip ground plan circa 1870s. Note no mention of the magazine.


One of the many relics found at the site.

Geoffrey Wyatt

Education Officer

Sydney Observatory and Fort Phillip

A Day in the Life of a Curator & PhD Student From Down Under

A6008. Roman pendant earrings, 1st-2nd Century AD. Collection: Powerhouse Museum. Image © Powerhouse Museum, all rights reserved.

A6008 – Roman pendant earrings. Collection: Powerhouse Museum. Image © Powerhouse Museum, all rights reserved.

So I thought I’d share some insights into what it’s like working in archaeology Down Under (i.e. in Australia!) – specifically, in my role as an Assistant Curator of Design & Society at Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum and as a PhD candidate in Egyptology at Macquarie University.

As a museum curator, I don’t really have a ‘typical’ day. In my position, I work quite broadly across the collection, from my specialist area in archaeology and antiquities (especially Egyptian, of which the Powerhouse Museum has a small but select collection) all the way through to Muslim fashion, Central Asian and African textiles, historical and contemporary furniture, numismatics, ceramics and so on.

I always start the day by answering emails (actually, as I’m always connected, you can often find me answering emails throughout the night as well!) before I turn my attention to the different projects I am working on (rarely, if ever, do I work on a single project at a time – but that’s what I love most about being a curator – the rich variety in what we do!).

Of interest to the ‘Day of Archaeology’ is an upcoming jewellery exhibition I am working on with my colleague, Eva Czernis-Ryl, which is both a chronological and thematic look at the history of jewellery collecting in Australia. I am involved with developing the antiquities section with fellow archaeologist, Dr Paul Donnelly, and have spent the last couple of days researching the nature of ancient jewellery in the many different public and private collections, which span almost all states and territories in Australia. Right now I’m reading the exhibition catalogue to ‘Beauty and Betrayal – Ancient and Neo-Classical Jewellery’ held at the Nicholson Museum, Sydney in 2010 and am liaising with Macquarie University’s Museum of Ancient Cultures with regards to viewing some of their objects which we’d eventually like to have on loan.

I’ve also been down in our basement re-looking at some of our ancient jewellery, including our Egyptian amulets, faience beaded necklaces and beautiful Roman pendant earrings. At this early stage, we’re gathering our corpus of ancient jewellery objects from which we can potentially choose from to narrate our story (note – the exhibition is not scheduled to open until October 2013). We’re most interested in details like provenance (where was the piece excavated and how did it come into the collection?), interesting stories (around ownership and use) and of course, more practical matters like condition (is it suitable for display?) and costs (since loan objects involve fees, including insurance).

When I’m not ‘curating’, I’m studying for my PhD and doing other things ‘Egyptian’! My thesis topic is on the typological dating of false doors and funerary stelae of the First Intermediate Period (specifically, the reigns of Pepy II to Mentuhotep II – roughly 2400 – 2100 BC).

In brief, the First Intermediate Period was the first time in Egyptian dynastic history where there was a collapse in central kingship and a shift in administration from the Memphite capital to the provinces. My reason for studying false doors and stelae (slabs of inscribed stone usually placed in the west wall of the tomb) is that they are one of the best examples of Egyptian material culture which can be traced continuously at this time, which means they potentially offer an important benchmark for dating other objects and events of the period.

At this very moment, for example, I am transliterating and translating the stela of nfr-TbAw from a private French collection, one of almost 600 false doors and stelae I am working through. Apart from transliterating and translating them, I am also recording information about the owner and his/her titles, the collection location, acquisition/excavation details, bibliographic references, suggested date, commentary, parallels etc. Simultaneous to this, I am starting to test certain dating criteria on subsets of my corpus – like the writing of the Htp dj nswt offering formula as it applies to all those tomb owners holding particular groupings of titles.

To top things off, I’m in the preparation stages of a fairly long visit to Egypt! In September I will be heading to Tell el-Amarna to do some cataloguing work and will be returning again in November-December to work at the South Tombs cemetery. InshAllah or “God Willing”, as they say, I am also scheduled to lead a couple of tour groups through Egypt and the Western Desert. Never a dull moment, I can truly say I’ve found my calling in archaeology!