About the Casselden Place dig
Work began on the largest archaeology project ever undertaken in Victoria in May 2002. From May until August archaeologists, students and members of the general community worked hard to expose the secrets of Casselden Place, part of the city block bounded by Lonsdale, Exhibition, Little Lonsdale and Spring Streets.
Major development work had been proposed for the Casselden Place site, but before the construction work began an archaeological investigation took to uncover and record the historic information that lies buried on site.
The archaeological excavation was a collaborative effort between Heritage Victoria, archaeologists from Godden Mackay Logan Pty Ltd, the Archaeology Program at La Trobe University and Austral Archaeology Pty Ltd, and the site owners the Industry Superannuation Property Trust.
A public viewing platform was constructed running from the southern end of the site, with access directly off Lonsdale Street so that everyone could see the archeology at work and follow the progress of the site. Weekly updates and information about the dig were put on display on the viewing platform. There were regular guided tours of the site.
Why is Casselden Place so interesting?
From roughly 1850 to 1950 the "Little Lon" district was home to a colourful and dynamic community. It was predominantly working class, with cottage industries, simple houses, small scale businesses and a few larger factories. The archaeological exploration of Casselden Place shed light on a multitude of vanished lives and on the poorly understood community that filled the crowded blocks and laneways.
The city blocks at the top end of the city were characterised by a series of laneways, with small properties packed together creating crowded and unsanitary conditions. The area gained a reputation for being shady and disreputable – it was Melbourne's "red light" district, and also home to the city's poorest residents. Impoverished immigrants, newly arrived in Australia, found that they could only afford to live in the area around Casselden Place. But the area had a richness and diversity that extends beyond the common perception of "Little Lon" as a den of iniquity. Recent archaeological and historical research has thrown light on the individuals who battled through adversity but still managed to find success in business, and on a tight-knit community which valued friendship, loyalty and tolerance.
The Casselden Place excavation gave us the opportunity to penetrate beyond the popular perceptions of the Melbourne slums. The result is an insight into the richness of a diverse community that is otherwise poorly represented in traditional historical records, and information about individuals who have managed to make their mark despite the hardship of their surroundings.
It is certainly true that the residents of Casselden Place have always battled against the perceptions of outsiders. Melbourne's moral reformers peered into the shadows of Casselden Place, and didn't like what they saw. Periodically, police chiefs or health officials conducted raids on the area to address concerns about possible disease outbreaks. At the end of the 19th century, many houses in the block were declared unfit for habitation and demolished. Early in the 20th century, the character of the area became more industrial, as the small cottages were replaced by factories and warehouses. In the early 1960s most of these buildings were removed and a car park was laid down to service office buildings.
For the last forty years, the archaeological remains of Casselden Place were safely sealed away from the pressures of city development beneath an asphalt carpark.
What area was actually excavated?
The area was known as the former Commonwealth Block, defined by Spring, Lonsdale, Exhibition and Little Lonsdale Streets. It consisted of an L-shaped piece of land located between the Telstra Corporate centre and Casselden Place Tower, and is bounded by Lonsdale, Spring, Little Lonsdale and the Telstra Corporate Centre to the west.
Had there been any other digs on the site?
The former Commonwealth Block had been subject to a number of archaeological excavations. These consisted of the excavation of various allotments immediately adjacent to the project area, in particular the extensive "Little Lon" excavation of 1988. More recent archaeological investigations included smaller controlled excavations of areas within the interior of the Black Eagle and Oddfellows Hotel premises and a remnant Victorian terrace house, No.17 Casselden Place.
The 2002 project covered a smaller area than the 1988 "Little Lon" dig, but the size of the fieldwork team and the detail in which they conducted the excavation work made this the largest archaeological project ever undertaken in Victoria.
What did previous excavations reveal?
Extensive historical and archaeological research had been undertaken on the previously excavated sections of the "Little Lon" area. This involved analysis of the excavated artefacts and documentary research into the history of the place during the 19th and 20th centuries.
Professor Tim Murray, Archaeology Program, La Trobe University and Associate Professor Alan Mayne, History Department, University of Melbourne were responsible for the detailed reassessment and analysis of the excavation data collected from "Little Lon" in two projects funded by the Australian Research Council. These findings significantly refined and, in some instances overturned, how the dig results were interpreted.
It also led to a more complex and complete picture of the 19th and early 20th century life in Melbourne through highlighting themes of family and community, as opposed to the more traditional view of the area as a "den of iniquity". These themes were more thoroughly explored in the 2002 excavation.
The dig uncovered thousands more artefacts, which added considerably to our understanding of the history of the site. The artefacts recovered from the site were treated by Heritage Victorias Conservation Laboratory and have been analysed by a team of experts, particularly staff and senior students of the Archaeology Program at LaTrobe University.
Why did this dig happen?
All historical archaeological sites in Victoria are protected by the Heritage Act 1995, which is maintained by Heritage Victoria.
The owner of the Casselden Place site intended to develop the area, and the construction of a multi-level basement will involve the disturbance of the site. Heritage Victoria required that an extensive project of archaeological investigation and recording must take place prior to the commencement of the construction works. Heritage Victoria also specified that the findings from the dig, and the study of the artefacts that are found, must be presented in detailed archaeological and historical reports, which would be available for public viewing.
The project area was part of a wider precinct listed on the Victorian Heritage Inventory as site number H7822-1209. The inventory lists all sites of potential archaeological significance in Victoria. There are 800 sites listed in Melbourne's CBD alone.
How was the site excavated?
A team of about ten archaeologists supervised the excavation work. The field team also involved other specialists, such as photographers, artefact cataloguers and conservators. Each day, the archaeologists supervised a staff of approximately 30 archaeology students, primarily drawn from the Archaeology Program at La Trobe University, and community participants.
The initial stage of the works included the removal of the asphalt carpark, under the watchful eye of archaeologists. This work was followed by the careful hand-excavation of areas of potential significance. Archaeological work can often be painstakingly slow. It is essential that all important discoveries are accurately recorded by photography and the drawing of plans, and care must be taken with the removal of delicate artefacts.
All artefacts that were found on the site were carefully cleaned, catalogued, labelled and packed. Any objects that were particularly delicate or required immediate conservation treatment were taken directly to Heritage Victoria's conservation laboratory.