Royal Exhibition Building archaeology

22 October, 2009

Groundbreaking on the World Heritage, World Futures project
Goodbye, asphalt! Groundbreaking on 22 October for the World Heritage, World Futures project.
Image: Jon Augier
Source: Museum Victoria

The area between the Royal Exhibition Building and Rathdowne Street has been a functional but unappealing car park since the 1950s, but buried beneath the surface may be traces of the area’s previous lives. A $5.3 million grant from the Victorian Property Fund will unearth what lies under the tarmac in a sustainable redevelopment that will ultimately restore the original 1880s garden.

The project, World Heritage, World Futures, will install underground water tanks to store 900,000 litres of rainwater from the REB roof and Southern Drive. After the tanks are in place, the garden planted for the building’s opening in 1880 will be reinstated. The funding for this project was provided from the Victorian Property Fund on the approval of the Minister for Consumer Affairs.

Before all the major earthworks occur, a three-week archaeological dig will uncover and record any historic remains, as mandated by the Heritage Act 1985. Museum Victoria CEO and archaeologist Dr Patrick Greene is excited about the prospect. “It is the nature of archaeology that you never know what you are going to find,” he said. “We’re going to look, but are we going to find anything?”

He expects there will be evidence from Melbourne’s early history. “Before comprehensive sewerage systems, sewerage was collected by night soil men.” Night soil is a delicate term for a very indelicate matter – human waste. In the mid 1800s, the rapidly expanding city produced huge quantities of it, which was dumped in various places on the city’s outskirts, including the area that would become Carlton Gardens. Over time, the organic component of night soil composts to virtually nothing, but pottery shards, clay pipes, glass and other durable items persist.

It is hoped that above the night soil layer, there will be signs of the German Garden that was planted for the 1880 International Exhibition. Very little is known about the garden’s design, so finding evidence of plants and the location of garden beds or paths will assist reconstruction. There will also be an appeal for information from the public. “Maybe somebody’s got photographs or an old rolled-up drawing of a circular garden and they’ve always wondered what it was,” said Patrick.

The astonishing popularity of the archaeological exhibitions A Day in Pompeii, Ancient Hampi and Little Lon suggests that locals will be excited to explore the secrets buried right here in Melbourne. Best of all, the dig is the first step towards reinstating the splendid gardens that Melbourne’s World Heritage site deserves. The water tanks will lessen reliance upon mains water and ensure that Carlton Gardens are irrigated sustainably for years to come.

The dig will run from 2 November to 20 November 2009, while the redevelopment as a whole will be completed in 2011. The project website will provide updates on the finds, images, and stories from the dig.

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