Melbourne archaeology

Professor Tim MurrayProfessor Tim Murray


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Matt Smith:

Welcome to the La Trobe University podcast. I will be your host, Matt Smith, and I'm here today with Prof. Tim Murray. He's a professor of archaeology and the dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences.

Thank you for joining me, Tim. Let's give him a big fake round of applause.

Prof. Tim Murray:

Thank you very much indeed for inviting me.

Matt Smith:

Now, you're here today to talk with me about the archaeology of Melbourne and what you found out about the lovely city that we find ourselves in. It hasn't got a long history as far as European archaeology is concerned, being around for a couple of hundred years, but I'm sure there's other instances of archaeology that go far beyond that with aboriginal finds and so forth.

Prof. Tim Murray:

There are.

Matt Smith:

So tell us about the city. What sort of city have you found it to be?

Prof. Tim Murray:

If we focus on the times since European settlement, which is really where we're concentrating on and the archaeology at the centre of the city, what we've got is probably over 150 years worth of really quite complex occupation in different parts of the city at different times.

And really since the time since the place was first settled and the grid was laid out for the central part of Melbourne, it's been filled in by various buildings. And the buildings themselves have been knocked down and new ones re-erected and all that sort of stuff. There's been a lot of change taking place.

And what's been driving the archaeology of Melbourne has been redevelopment of the central core of the city really for the last 30 years or so.

And there's two elements to this. The first is that the archaeology takes place as a result of the development process. And because there are laws both state and federal which talk about the preservation or conservation of the archaeological heritage of the state of Victoria.

And there are some places where the destruction of that heritage before there was any legislation, and other places where we've been very fortunate that quite interesting and really considerable remains exist.

I'll give you an example. If you walk down the streets of Melbourne, say you walk down Collins St. and you see any buildings above four stories in height, you'll know that there's not going to be any archaeology underneath it, because a four-storey high building will have basements, and the basement will take out whatever archaeology was there.

There are quite a lot of buildings still in and around the centre of Melbourne that don't have basements and that do have archaeological remains in them. We've been excavating now in the centre of Melbourne for pretty much the last 20 years or so, 22 years and have come up with a considerable amount of stuff.

Matt Smith:

What sort of excavations have you been doing? What sites have you been looking at?

Prof. Tim Murray:

Well, the most famous of these sites is the block that's defined by Spring St., Exhibition, Little Lonsdale and Lonsdale St.

This is one single block which has now been mostly developed but development first started there sort of in the mid-'80s. And it was the big urban excavation that took place.

And then at the eastern and western ends of the block, the frontage on Spring St. and the frontage on Exhibition St., two very large skyscrapers were built there. There's the Immigration and Multicultural Affairs Building opposite Spring St. and the Telstra National Headquarters on Exhibition St.

Now, there are very, very considerable excavations that took place there for both of those areas and it was literally pristine archaeology. There were a lot of remains of houses and factories and rubbish dumps, toilets and all the rest of it, streetscapes.

Matt Smith:

From what time period?

Prof. Tim Murray:

From really the initial occupation of Melbourne 1830s but really sort of cranking up to being quite densely populated in and around about the 1850s and '60s. A lot of people coming up for the gold rushes were staying there. A lot of people who, if you like, were starting at the bottom rung of society, they were very poor people. We got evidence of really quite complex occupations there.

The houses, we know a lot about the houses they were living in. We know a lot of the food they were eating. All of that sort of stuff comes from the archaeology.

But there was also quite a lot known about the history of the place, because it was quite a famous, or should I say infamous, part of Melbourne. This is where C.J. Dennis' Sentimental Bloke was set. There was a lot of Street violence in the 19th century, a lot of prostitution, that sort of stuff, drug-taking in that particular part of Melbourne. And it was seen as being sort of vile slum, full of reprehensible kinds of people.

And what we're able to establish was that it was true. There were brothels there and here was violence in the district. It wasn't only that. It was a community of people that lived there, who lived sort of quite normal lives. There were factories there were people going about being who they were.

Matt Smith:

Is there a lot of comparisons to draw between the urban environment then and the urban lifestyle back in cities in Europe and, I suppose, England where the cities were modelled on? How do they compare in that timeframe?

Prof. Tim Murray:

It's a very interesting question, Matt, because we've now focused our attention on London but also have been doing work in York, particularly the 19th century parts of those cities. I mean London, as you know, is a very, very old city. It's been around since the Romans, but it went through a massive period of growth in the close of the 19th century, it doubled or tripled its size in the space of a century.

And it was the centre of tremendous industry as well as commerce and the arts and that sort of stuff. I mean a lot of people don't know but the Imperial Japanese Navy was built in the Thames as was the Imperial Russian Navy.

There was a major manufactures happening right in London itself, but what you find is in a city like that, you got a whole bunch of over-printing that takes place. You’ve got older areas that get reoccupied where there's redevelopment. And then newer kinds of structures are being built to accommodate the vast numbers of people that are flooding into London looking for work.

And you've got the worst conditions for living that you can possibly imagine in the slums of London during that period. Dickens wrote about quite a lot of that sort of stuff, Seven Dials and South London. It's probably one of the roughest places you could be.

And I suppose aspects of life in Melbourne during that period mirrored what was happening in London but in a somewhat smaller scale I think, given the fact that even at the last part of the 20th century, London had somewhere like 6 or 7 million people in it.

Matt Smith:

Being a younger city, though, didn't benefit Melbourne that way at all?

Prof. Tim Murray:

People are a lot more careful about the development that took place in the suburbs out there. Because remember that Melbourne kind of stayed pretty much in its core until the '60s and '70s when it started to grow out. And suburban Melbourne took place in the 1880s and that sort of stuff.

It was much more planned. And of course, you are able to put in transport infrastructure right along with the development of these new suburbs whereas in London, the transport infrastructure had to be kind of be blasted through in areas. And that's where the underground developed and all that sort of stuff.

And it's similar in Paris. I mean Paris went through a major redevelopment during the 19th century. A lot of medieval Paris just got knocked out.

Matt Smith:

Being a city that's started as a colony and that grew from people coming here from other countries, do you find that a lot of the archaeology that you find, the relics and even the architecture, you can draw parallels and see where the people have come from and what sort of countries they're coming from and backgrounds?

Prof. Tim Murray:

Another great question. Of course it would be great. It would be fantastic to say yes. You can always spot where an Afghani has been or when somebody has come from Italy. In reality, it doesn't quite work out that way.

There were some structures in Little Lone Star St. that were quite clearly associated with particular ethnic groups. For example, one of Melbourne's earliest synagogues is in that area. And the mikvah which is a ritual bath that you cleanse yourself before you worship. That was found there.

There are other places that we know for example, Chinese furniture manufacturers were working or where houses were occupied by people who were other Chinese or Turkish. I mean there's an incredible diversity of people down there.

Material culture is kind of interesting. The stuff that people, there are items of Chinese material culture. The old saying that, "If you find a Chinese tea cup, you've fund a Chinese person," isn't necessarily the case because there's a lot of material that's being used by people because you know, it depends on what people have at hand.

So can have people who are not if you like, of Scottish, Irish or English descent using material culture that's come from England, but that's not necessarily a guide to what their ethnicity is. What we do know though is when you look at the documentary evidence as well as the archaeology, is that you get a much richer sense of how people are using that place.

And so it's not simple. It's more complicated. It's more ambiguous but nonetheless it's there. You could see the transformations in the sorts of things that people are having about them.

Matt Smith:

I said this already, being a city that's relatively young and presumably some parts of it would be well-documented, is there things out there that you would like to dig up that you can't due to zoning or that sort of rule? Something that you know is somewhere but you're not allowed to explore.

Prof. Tim Murray:

Actually, it's very interesting. Archaeology is incredibly expensive. It costs a lot of money to do. And you can imagine property prices in the centre of Melbourne are such that people have gone to say, "Oh, sure we will let you have that vacant block of land for as long as you need to conduct all these excavations."

What drives the process is development so for the sake of argument, what happened in the case of the Commonwealth block was that the developers wanted to build two skyscrapers and a bunch of associated buildings. And then another 10 years later, they wanted to build a third.

So all of our excavations were tied in to somebody else's development process because we would never get access to that land for a start. And the only people that can afford to pay for the excavations were people who are making or already investing a considerable amount of money in building a skyscraper.

I don't know how much scrapers cost to build but they are not cheap. You can lose a considerable amount of archaeology in the petty cash that's left after building a building. Behind you on that wall over there is a map which got all the areas in Melbourne which are excavatable.

Matt Smith:

I will go and look at that map later.

Prof. Tim Murray:

And you'll find a lot of the areas over there where we could still look. One of the places where we currently can't look but we really badly want to look at is the old Carlton United Brewery site at the top end of Swanston St.

And it's a fantastic site, certainly huge. It’s already being developed. I think RMIT got the design hub which is being erected on the junction of Swanston St. and Victoria St. , just right at the southern end of the site. But the rest of the site it's just, well, not quite a vacant lot but it's prime archaeology.

And a couple of years ago, we did some test excavations there for Grocon, the one who developed apartment blocks and skyscrapers and the rest of the building block. And we found a lot of good stuff. There's a lot of potentially very interesting archaeology there but with the G of C, money's been hard to find.

So we have to wait for Grocon to be in a sufficiently strong financial position to get on with this development. I'm told that we'll be able to start work there later this year.

But that a site we really badly want to look at because it will be a fantastic comparison to what we found at Little Lonsdale St.

Matt Smith:

You're not tempted to take a shovel at that in the middle of the night?

Prof. Tim Murray:

It's against the law. Although we have a permit to excavate, it would be completely unethical and so we can't do that sort of stuff. And in fact, it's a big problem when lots become vacant like that they get looted by people looking for bottles and that sort of stuff.

It's been a constant problem since entering the city, really important sites that have been stuffed up quite considerably by people looting.

Matt Smith:

What is an item or something that you've found in one of your excavations that was completely unexpected or something that's very exciting?

Prof. Tim Murray:

That happens all the time. It's really interesting actually. Essentially what we're doing, a lot of it, is we're digging through people's domestic refuse. OK, so they're garbage, what they've chucked away. So what you think you're going to look at most of the time is pretty familiar sort of stuff, plates, bowls, cups and saucers, broken combs, bits of jewellery and all those sorts of stuff.

But every now and again, you get some really amazing things come up. You think, "How the hell did that survive?" - wedding rings that have been sort of thrown out into the cesspit, metals that people have been given for various purposes, whatever, and tools of trade.

But my favourite were in terms of stuff we never realized that going to be there was a particular kind of clay pipe that had a naked woman, like a little sculpted naked woman, you could fix to the end of your pipe. And there are several of them.

Never seen them before in my life, never seen them ever again. But that sort of stuff happened all the time.

Matt Smith:

Nice going, Melbourne. Nice and classy.

Prof. Tim Murray:

In terms of today's morals, it is. But you look through the catalogues trying to find this stuff and you'll read people talking about it. But it's not the sort of things that survive all that well.

So yeah, I think what you find of course and it's one of the great things about doing his kind of archaeology. When people visit and say basically, we had thousands people coming because they are really fascinated about it.

You'll find people looking over your shoulder as you're pulling stuff out of the ground. They'll say, "My grandmother had one of those. I can remember one of those in my father's kitchen," whatever. And there's an incredibly strong connection between material culture, that's kind of buried for the last 100 years or so, and people. They feel very, very strongly connected.

It's great when you do oral histories of people who lived in those areas and they talked about what it was like to walk down the street that has been buried for 70 years. It's not been part of the streetscape of the city.

But when you recover that, we have people crying because they remember walking there as a kid or some bloke going to get his father. I was told this story about how his dad was working for Chinese criminal gangs, used to go to Little Lonsdale St. to smoke opium. And he pointed to the house where he used to do it at the remains of the house. That's really powerful stuff.

Matt Smith:

Is it true that there's a graveyard underneath under the Queen Victoria Markets?

Prof. Tim Murray:

Oh, yes.

Matt Smith:

Did they take the bodies out because I hear they didn't?

Prof. Tim Murray:

No, some bodies have gone out. Now, there's a lot of excavations that take place there. And there are still bodies there, yeah.

Matt Smith:

That sort of things are considered when new places are going up in the city?

Prof. Tim Murray:

Yeah. But you can't do anything at Victoria Market like intervene under the ground and without having an archaeological survey done first. And so when they extend things or put pylons in for those shed roofs and all those sort of stuff. It was a major burial ground.

Matt Smith:

Yeah, I heard it was at there and it was moved to where it is now in Carlton.

Prof. Tim Murray:

Yeah, no one is planning on digging that up. The capacity of this stuff to really surprise you is almost limitless. I had an honours student a few years ago, he was Jewish himself but he was very interested in looking at the Jewish cemetery as part of the Melbourne General Cemetery.

And did you know it's in that are where there's that great big memorial to the Holocaust, which is that big menorah? It's actually a lovely park. It right down near Melbourne University.

Jewish people have got a whole bunch of really strict things that happen in that burial, how graves have to be memorialized, there's got to be a headstone with the person's name on it, all that sort of stuff. There's got to be a lot of detail about what's happening, and you might know that when people go to visit graves, they always leave a stone on the surface. So it's very highly ritualized.

And what he was able to establish, because he couldn't dig anybody up but just by looking at the records of the cemetery was that virtually all the rules that were supposedly completely fixed for the way that the Jews buried their dead in Melbourne, during the period of the 1850s and '60s, they didn't. They were burying multiple bodies in single graves. There were places that had no memorial at all.

What he was able to establish is that simply on the basis of looking at the records and looking at the landscape of the cemetery, was that something quite unusual happened in terms of the way Jewish people were burying their dead in Melbourne. And it took quite a long time to understand what is actually happening. It's a great story.

But again that's just in a cemetery.

Matt Smith:

That's sort of what archaeology can do at more recent time periods when they kept records that are extensive enough for that sort of thing.

Prof. Tim Murray:

That's right. And also, people get a bit upset when we start digging up their ancestors.

Matt Smith:

Yeah. Yeah.

Prof. Tim Murray:

Yeah. Don't think you'll be getting an excavation permit too quickly to start work on the cemetery for example, out there on Plenty Road. That wouldn't be happening.

But what's happening of course is that cemeteries get put out of commission all the time. There huge pressure for land and so in Sydney, it's the same. In London, you have a situation where pressure get so great there and the last burials that took place in a particular area or sometime beforehand that the families have all died or they all moved on. There's nobody directly connected to anybody there that's buried.

And so basically they close the cemetery, and they remove the bodies and start again.

Matt Smith:

Prof. Tim Murray, thank you for your time today.

Prof. Tim Murray:

My pleasure.

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