CBD’s new digs

By Meg Hill

One of the most significant archaeological discoveries in the CBD in recent years has been uncovered on a King St construction site.

The remains of a 19th-century girls’ school in one of Melbourne’s earliest buildings and thousands of artefacts dating back to settlement have been revealed during excavation works for the Aspire Melbourne development near the corner of La Trobe and King streets.

Heritage Victoria’s principal archaeologist Jeremy Smith said the findings stood out among sites in the CBD.

“I think there’s five digs on in Melbourne at the moment, and of about 200 sites we’ve investigated in Melbourne over the past few years, the age of what we’ve found here are some of the earliest archaeological finds we’ve ever found in Melbourne, not including Indigenous archaeology,” he said.

Among the discoveries are the ruins of a six-room sandstone cottage which was used as a school for young women. 

A newspaper clipping from the Port Phillip Gazette dated April 1846 confirms the site was owned and occupied by a Mrs Bruford, who was advertising for pupils to enrol in her school.

“We know the cottage is talked about in records in 1846, it potentially was a couple of years earlier that it was constructed,” Mr Smith said.

“Melbourne wasn’t settled until 1835, and it is without doubt one of the earliest buildings in this part of Melbourne.”

“The foundations of the cottage are sandstone not bluestone which is very unusual in Melbourne, more found in Sydney and Launceston.”

“It’s often an indication when we find remains built in sandstone that its very, very early, it’s possible the stone actually came across from Launceston and we know Melbourne was settled by people who came across from there.”

Artefacts found include jewellery, cosmetic items, brushes, needles and pins, likely to date back to the operation of the school in the years before and during the Gold Rush.

The remains of shops and warehouses that functioned as grain stores, grocers, stables, spirit merchants, and hay merchants have also been uncovered.

Heritage Victoria had previously identified the site as having high archaeological potential and required the developer to conduct archaeological excavations before commencing construction.

The find triggered an eight-week archaeological dig which is now reaching its conclusion.

“About 15 years ago we did a predictive model in the city and worked out where about 800 sites were that had potentially survived,” Mr Smith said.

“The King St sites were flagged in that study.”

It’s hoped a display of artefacts will be established on the site from where they were excavated. 

Mr Smith also said there were discussions commencing about larger exhibitions – potentially at the State Library – to bring together archaeological findings from the CBD over the past few years, including from the Metro Tunnel project.

ICD Property’s managing director Matt Khoo said the company was looking to incorporate the findings into the future site.

“It’s incredible that ICD Property has been able to uncover this alongside the expert hands of Heritage Victoria and Terra Culture to return the lost history to Melbourne and discover so much about the site’s previous use relating to the girls’ school and beyond,” he said.

“We are keen to have discussions around integrating these findings into the building’s design. Whether through displaying some of the findings in a permanent artwork exhibition in Aspire’s ground floor or otherwise – we hope to find the most appropriate and respectful way of incorporating the site’s history into its future with Aspire if possible.”

The construction of the 65-storey Aspire is now underway, with builder Hickory having been appointed to deliver the Elenberg Fraser-designed project. 

Adjacent to Flagstaff Gardens, the $440 million skyscraper received financial backing from global conglomerate Goldman Sachs — in partnership with MaxCap Group — and is anticipated to begin staged completion by October 2021, with full completion by early 2022. 

The building will include 594 apartments and six levels of “world-class” amenities.

Acknowledging the tough economic climate, ICD Property and MaxCap said they were “proud to acknowledge that throughout the project’s approximate three-year construction life cycle, approximately 1,000 jobs are expected to be created.” •

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