What they must have wondered, nearly a century ago, when a metre down in Melbourne clay their shovels found a picket fence, its planks still hard and neatly rowed.
At its base emerged a wooden track and, nearby, the stump of a long-ago chimney.
There was no ready explanation for the workers, digging foundations for what would be Swanston Street’s famed Capitol Theatre, as the building they had just demolished had stood since 1865. Melbourne as a European settlement had existed only 30 years before that.
The discovery was remarkable enough for Jim Whelan, the man responsible for the theatre’s dig, to souvenir the fence for his own backyard and for two anonymous and well-heeled Melbourne gents to pose for a picture.
We know these details thanks to historian and writer Robyn Annear, who devotes them a paragraph in her 2014 book, A City Lost and Found: Whelan the Wrecker’s Melbourne.
But little else has ever been said or explored, even as other Pompeii-esque finds, far too deep for such a young city, accumulated across Melbourne’s CBD in more recent decades.
Archaeologists were no more confounded than in 2017, when they unearthed a preserved neighbourhood block, the size of four or five tennis courts, metres below the grounds of Lonsdale Street’s Wesley Church.
Someone remembered the photo in Annear’s book and the archaeologists tossed around theories, namely that they were digging into basements. But how then to explain the evidence of gardens, windows, fireplaces and that picket fence discovered by Whelan’s workers so long ago?
The Heritage Council of Victoria commissioned a study to find answers. It would become, says Jeremy Smith, principal archaeologist with Heritage Victoria, one of the “most significant combinations of historical and archeological research that’s ever been conducted.”
The report has now been delivered and “It wasn’t what we expected,” Mr Smith says. “It’s going to have implications for the way we do archaeology for the next 50 years.”
The Alliance Archaeology study, Heritage in Ruins: An investigation into Melbourne’s ‘Buried Blocks’ reveals details of a forgotten campaign throughout the 1850 and 1860s by Melbourne’s then-council to raise the levels of swampy Melbourne’s putrid streets.
Hills were flattened and low-lying areas filled, the reason for today’s milder up-and-down cross-town walks.
However, the bombshell in the study was its discovery of a law passed in 1853 requiring those in low-lying areas to bury their homes. If a landowner refused or was too slow, the council was empowered to raise the level of the land itself and charge the costs.
The researchers pored through old council records, newspaper articles and existing archeological reports to find references to at least 30 sites (although there are likely dozens more), many of which would still be frozen in time under Melbourne’s CBD.
Unsurprisingly, many early residents were devastated. They pleaded with the council for mercy (and there is evidence it occasionally worked). Others rebuilt their homes above the new level. Melburnians scavenged rubbish and bartered for road off-cuts to use as fill, which became a precious commodity.
To understand why people had to bury their homes, it’s important to appreciate the landscape and squalor of early Melbourne.
The report includes vivid first-hand descriptions of such city landmarks as “Lonsdale Swamp”, at the eastern end of Lonsdale Street, which brewed with vegetation, rubbish and offal from slaughtered pigs and sheep.
Early Melbourne’s hills and water flows
A writer who documented early Melbourne, Edmund Finn (known as Garryowen) said, similarly, Flinders Street was a swamp, and described Swanston and Elizabeth streets as shallow gullies with “deep and dangerous ruts”.
Even Collins Street “was so slushy and sticky that … one required to be equipped in a pair of leggings or long mud boots”.
Disease thrived in these low-lying areas, where “the humble classes” made their lives.
The people care not for drainage and cleanliness, they are so full of meat, bread, brandy and water.
A speaker at an 1850 ratepayer meeting, as reported by the Geelong Advertiser.
“We celebrate the Hoddle Grid, but the Hoddle Grid is very uniform,” Mr Smith says of Melbourne’s now-helpful rectangular and right-angled design.
“Melbourne wasn’t suited to that. Elizabeth Street was a watercourse. It’s not an even landscape and the system that was imposed by the European settlement did not cater to the watercourses and the river flows.”
As the population increased and the city began its transformation into “Marvellous Melbourne” of the 1880s, the answer, according to the council, was to fill the holes and fill them fast.
“Sometimes [residents] just didn’t have time to look under the floorboards, to clear out those things in the corner or even empty out the cesspit,” Mr Smith says.
“They just leave it and they go. They never planned to fill these sites in and they didn’t have a lot of time to do it.”
For the hardship for their forebears, contemporary Melburnians – not to mention an army of excited archaeologists – have a sealed insight into the early years of their city.
“It’s a bit Pompeii-like, in a minor sense,” says Meg Goulding, archaeologist and member of the Heritage Council of Victoria.
“Those early deposits are really exciting because they tell us a lot more about Melbourne’s early development than the historical record can give us.”
While most retrieved items from previously explored sites are not of significant monetary value, the report’s findings – how they came to be buried in the first place – are rewriting the cannon of Melbourne archaeology.
Old digs, which may not have made any sense at the time, can be reinterpreted and re-examined. Archaeologists now have a date stamp, too, whereby anything below the line of fill can reliably associated with pre-1860s. Mr Smith says it is reasonable to assume Aboriginal archaeology underneath Melbourne’s first homes has also been preserved in the capping process.
“I think people might think ‘well what’s an historical archaeologist going to do in Melbourne, we’re not old enough’,” Mr Smith says. “For me, the exciting part of this project is that it shows that in parts of the city we have extensive archaeology – two metres deep in some areas – that is intact, in good condition and very early. It’s also the promise of there being a lot more that we still haven’t discovered yet.”
Perhaps as remarkable as the report’s findings is that it took so long to make them. Ms Goulding points out the information has been sitting in archives the entire time.
But the answers are in the dates.
“This is Eureka Stockade, this is the height of the gold rush, this is Melbourne’s population growing by a massive exponential factor,” Mr Smith says.
“In a way, I’m not surprised it got lost. I don’t think we understand just how tumultuous those gold rush years were. Every six months in Melbourne there are monumental changes happening at that time and this is another one of those.”
Mr Smith sees parallels in the transformation of the burgeoning modern Melbourne, particularly the recent closure of sections of Flinders Street for the next three years for infrastructure works.
“I think there’s a connection between what we’re going through now, with the construction of the Metro Tunnel, which we really haven’t gone through since this moment in the 1850s and 60s,” he says.
“The deprivation of the individual citizen and liberty for the good of the community, it’s sort of happening again now.”
The mystery of the buried bullock dray
Are the remains of a bullock team and its cart “mouldering beneath the tarmac and tram-lines” of one of Melbourne’s busiest intersections?
Author and historian Robyn Annear asks the question in her 1995 book Bearbrass: Imagining Early Melbourne, based on a recollection from Thomas Strode, one of the town’s early newspaper men.
Strode wrote in 1868: “We remember on (one) occasion a dray of bullocks were so hopelessly imbedded [sic] in a hole in Elizabeth Street, that the animals were allowed to stifle in the mud, and its being nobody’s duty to remove the nuisance, their remains with that of the dray, lie buried in that extemporary graveyard to the present day.”
Heavy loads were generally moved around Melbourne’s via bullock dray – a two-wheeled cart hooked up to as many as a dozen oxen.
But so poor was the condition of the city’s early streets, they would regularly become bogged.
Elizabeth Street was at that time a watercourse, especially after rains, and Ms Annear bets the “hole” described by Strode was at Bourke Street, next to the GPO.
Only an excavation would solve the mystery once and for all. But the Heritage in Ruin report shows the early council’s determination to raise the level of the city’s most swampy areas. Ms Goulding says Elizabeth street was raised by more than a metre on original levels and it would be “understandable that things would be buried”.
Mr Smith says the anecdote corroborates archaeologist’s understanding about the state of early Melbourne streets.
“It’s no surprise some of the major intersections would have been churned up by the wagons, carts and horses,” he said. “It’s quite conceivable that you could have got one bogged in a metre of mud, left there and effectively becoming an archaeological relic of its own.”
Zach is a reporter at The Age. Got a story? Email me at email@example.com