From the early days of Melbourne until around 1900, the area known recently as the Casselden Place Archaeology Project was a residential area albeit an impoverished one and commonly referred to as the Red Light District of Melbourne.
The cottages found in the area between Lonsdale Street and Little Lonsdale Street and between Spring Street and Exhibition Street were crowded together. They were unsanitary and dark. After 1900 property values increased and residential properties were taken over by light industry and commerce. In 1950, when the Commonwealth Government acquired most of the block, the warehouses and commercial buildings were demolished and a car park was built at street level, leaving the sub-surface area undamaged. In 2002 the property was bought by ISPT. They plan to erect a multi-storey building which would damage this sub-surface area.
As archaeological digs are only carried out if a site is to be damaged, Heritage Victoria stepped in and informed ISPT that they would have to postpone construction. Jeremy Smith, as Senior Archaeologist at Heritage Victoria had the task also of informing ISPT that their company had to bear the cost of the dig. This would be in the order of 1 to 2 million dollars. These discussions took place about a year before building on the site was to begin.
The Casselden 'dig' was the largest undertaking of its type carried out in Victoria. As there was no Victorian company large enough, Austral Archaeology (from Adelaide) and Godden Mackay Logan (from Sydney) were contracted, supported by Latrobe University. Heritage Victoria acted as overseer. Approximately 500 people worked on the dig over a period of 6 months. At any one time, there were 50 people on site including students mostly from Latrobe University and also interested members of the public, working in 3 teams.
The asphalt car park and a 30cm base were removed to reveal the outline of brick footings of little cottages. Recording the process was a high priority and careful mapping of the positions of the half million artefacts unearthed was undertaken. As the cottages would have had wooden floors many tiny objects were found at foundation level. Cesspits were of great interest, containing on average about 7,000 artefacts. Remains of animal bones indicate what type of animals were slaughtered, at what age they were killed and what cuts of meat were used. Stones and seeds showed what fruit was consumed. Pieces of shell meant that oysters were readily available. Entire plates have been put together from broken pieces. A rare coin which commemorated the establishment of Tasmania and the end of transportation was found in a cesspit. It is one of only 100 minted.
The artefacts tell the story of the underclass and the illiterate people in early Melbourne. There were not only the brothels, but also respectable businesses such as cabinetmakers and seamstresses and there were families with children. Remains of children's toys, ink wells, thimbles, objects decorated with the Freemason's emblem, clay pipes, and fine combs for getting rid of lice build up an interesting picture. Nude female figurines which could be attached to the side of clay pipes closest to the smoker came probably from the brothel areas.
Over 2,000 people were taken on guided tours of the dig and the viewing platform provided was very popular. It will take another year or so before all the artefacts are studied. Eventually there will be an 'academic' archaeological report and a 'plain English' version. Photos of the dig can be seen on the Heritage Victoria website.
Contributed by Jan Hanslow (PPPG Member No. 1057)
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