Uncovering Melbourne’s hidden history

Uncovering Melbourne’s hidden history

Archaeologist Sarah Hayes has spent years piecing together artefacts from Melbourne’s 19th-century buildings to uncover some fascinating insights into an era when rigid class structures began to dissolve.

Dr Sarah Hayes is a part-time research archaeologist who is part-way through a Discovery Early Career Researcher Award funded by the Australian Research Council.

Following her undergraduate archaeology degree, Sarah moved to Melbourne to complete an honours thesis, investigating one of Tasmania’s first convict settlements. Her PhD thesis then examined a site that was excavated on Melbourne’s outskirts, Viewbank Homestead, the home of a middle-class family.

‘This was an aspect of the archaeology of Melbourne that hadn’t been looked at as closely as the work that had been done on working class sites and the lower end of the social spectrum,’ Sarah says.

‘It was a good opportunity to look at the established middle-class people in Melbourne at that time and it kicked off a lot of my future research into social mobility.’

Sarah has since spent the last decade or so researching the daily lives of people in 19th-century Melbourne through their discarded possessions. From this, she has pieced together some fascinating insights into the way that the gold rush shaped quality of life and improved social mobility for many Melburnians.

Archaeology’s close-up view on daily life

Sarah says that the main difference between historians and historical archaeologists is that historians so often rely on written records, which reveal the social, political and economic currents of broader society.

‘In archaeology, we start with a site, and we learn a lot about the people who lived at that site and the artefact deposits that might relate to them. We get right down at an individual level, which gives us a really different kind of window into history,’ she says.

‘Looking at the things that people owned and the things they threw out is a really rich area for understanding life in the past.’

Nineteenth-century Melbourne

By 1890, Melbourne was the second-largest city in the British empire and one of the world’s richest. But the fine sandstone buildings of colonial Melbourne give little indication of the reality of 19th-century life for most city-dwellers.

The city was honeycombed with cesspits (or backyard ‘dunnies’), and outside the mansions, thousands of people lived in poverty in crowded hovels.

Many of the artefacts Sarah has examined were recovered from cesspits, which later became rubbish dumps. ‘It’s not as bad as it sounds,’ she says. After cesspits were replaced by sewers in the 1870s, they were filled with household castoffs.

More than 100 years later, all that is left is nicely-composted soil and a whole lot of broken and discarded household items – key to understanding daily life of the era, Sarah says.

‘It’s fascinating, sorting through thousands upon thousands of fragments of ceramic and bits and pieces to find something that gives you an amazing insight into the past,’ she says.

‘We often joke in the lab about it being like jigsaw puzzles for adults, because you’re trying to find which broken pieces of a ceramic plate go together.’

Plate recovered from 300 Queen Street.

Sarah’s study of Viewbank Homestead revealed the life of Dr Robert Martin and his family, who moved in the higher social circles of 1860s Melbourne. Examining more than 50,000 fragments, Sarah found evidence that the Martins could afford to buy the goods they wanted, participating in ‘genteel society’ by shopping in Collins Street. As early participants in mass consumer culture, the Martin family lived very different lives from working-class Australians.

After completing her PhD, Sarah worked on the historic ‘Little Lon’ site which was a late 19th century working-class crowded slum, a red-light district also home to Melbourne’s poorest residents.

‘Even there, we found in some of the houses there was evidence they were trying to present themselves in a certain way with nice tableware, throwing certain things out to keep up with fashion a little bit.’

From convict to Mayor

Her next project examined 300 Queen Street, the home of former Melbourne mayor, John Thomas Smith.

Facade – 300 Queen Street (image by Peter Maltezos).

‘He came from a very working-class background, both his parents were convicts, yet he made a swift progression from a very lowly background to become Mayor of Melbourne,’ Sarah says.

‘Looking at these different sites can really tell a fascinating story about a very flowing kind of society that made such rapid social mobility possible, because in Melbourne at that time, they needed capable, intelligent people to establish the colony,’ she says.

‘There weren’t enough people from middle or upper classes to fill those positions in Melbourne; the massive influx of money following the gold rush meant there were opportunities that had not existed before, and people like Smith, soon greatly outnumbered people like the Martins. This changed Australian society quite dramatically.’

As Sarah can attest, a career in archaeology can be immensely rewarding for those who are passionate about uncovering the past.

Whether you’re looking to become a researcher or academic, government heritage manager, private consultant or even a museum curator, find out more about La Trobe’s program in archaeology.