In search of the CBD’s founders

Archaeologists are hoping for their first real look at the lives of the CBD’s first European residents during digs associated with the Metro Tunnel project.

Since the recent demolition of buildings acquired by the government around the two new city station sites, archaeologists have been peeling back the layers of time and have already found thousands of artefacts.

At the Town Hall Station site between Young and Jacksons Hotel and the Nicholas Building in Swanston St, archaeologists have a direct connection with Melbourne founder John Batman.

According to archaeologist Geoff Hewitt, Batman bought the sizeable block for £100 in 1837 and had built a substantial home in the south-west corner of the site by 1938.

The exact location of the house had not been established when CBD News visited the site in mid-June.  But its presence has Mr Hewitt and his colleagues really excited as it offers the first opportunity to direct connect with the first years of settlement in Melbourne.

“If we find the ground surface from the 1830s, it will be first time for Melbourne,” Mr Hewitt said.

Mr Hewitt and his team had already dug about 1.5 metres below the current street level, but he estimated that the original soil level could be another half a metre lower.

When this level is reached, it is likely to reveal artefacts discarded into the backyard by Batman’s numerous daughters and other elite young women who were taught at the seven-room house by governess Nicola Cooke.

At this time, Swanston St was on the eastern edge of the settlement, with activity centred around Market St where the fresh water met the navigable lower section of the Yarra.

Property prices were already booming though, with Batman mortgaging the property for £500 in 1838. However, deteriorating health and finances saw him lose the property in the 1850s when his creditors foreclosed.

This period saw more intense sub-division and development of the site and Mr Hewitt and his team are unravelling a jigsaw puzzle of footings, cellars and foundations from many structures – right up to the reinforced concrete used for the 1960s McDonalds and KFC buildings which have been demolished.

The foundations are intertwined – with much reuse, addition, subtraction, patching and re purposing – so the excavation presents some mind-bending puzzles to interpret.

Most of the thousands of objects recovered to date will have limited value but they are all, nevertheless, carefully cleaned, dried and catalogued.  It is hoped they will be displayed prominently later on during the Metro Tunnel project.

There have been some treasures unearthed though.  Mr Hewitt said a Half Gold Sovereign from the gold rush era had been found ­– evidently it had slipped between the rough-hewn floor boards in a Swanston St pub on the site.

Looking at the amount of the site so far tackled, the depths reached and the vast amount of the site not yet started, the archaeologists have only really scratched the surface. So the most dramatic and exciting discoveries are yet to come. The digs are expected to continue for the rest of the year.

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