Archaeological sites in Melbourne provide evidence of life in the region over the last 50 000 years, from the time of the earliest Aboriginal peoples, through the period of European contact, to inner-city working-class neighbourhoods as well as farms on the expanding suburban fringe. Some archaeological sites are buried and require excavation to recover the information they hold, while others include artefacts or structures visible on the ground surface which can be recorded by surveying. Most excavations within Melbourne are carried out for salvage purposes, when earlier sites are located during the construction of new buildings. Information from archaeological sites is first-hand evidence of the activities of people who have not left written records to tell their stories, and provides perspectives that are unobtainable from other sources.
The oldest archaeological site in the greater Melbourne area, and one of the most important, is at Keilor on the Maribyrnong River. A human skull discovered there in 1940 was later found to be around 13 000 years old, older than any other human remains found in Australia up to that time, and the find attracted worldwide attention. After small excavations in the 1960s and 1970s, in 1977 archaeologists from La Trobe University and the Victoria Archaeological Survey (VAS) began an excavation that continued for five years. The excavations found a sequence of stone tools and butchered animal bone buried beneath up to 5 m of silt washed in by floods over a period of 50 000 years. When the site was first inhabited by Aboriginal peoples, the region was still home to Tasmanian tigers (Thylacine) and to species of giant kangaroo and wombat, all of which are now extinct, although their bones have been found at the site. There were four major layers of deposited soils within the site, and artefacts were found in all of them, but most of the artefacts were found in the upper layer of the site and were less than 6000 years old. Many were also found in the same layer as two ancient campfires which have been carbon-dated to approximately 13 300 years old.
Other sites were used more recently by the Kulin people, the Aboriginal people in the Melbourne region. Brimbank Park, a few kilometres downstream of Keilor in the Maribyrnong River valley, has within its boundaries several archaeological sites, including quarries where stone for stone tools was mined, burial sites, and scatters of stone tools. As a result of the discovery of the burial site in 1965, the State Government acquired the site, which is now known as Kulin Wetlands. Some of these sites are approximately 17 000 years old.
Several large earth rings at Sunbury were also used by Aboriginal people, probably as places to hold ceremonies. The rings are low mounds of earth, less than half a metre high, that enclose circular spaces between 15 and 25 m in diameter. Similar structures, known as Bora grounds, were commonly used by Aboriginal people in Queensland and New South Wales but are rare in Victoria. Scarred trees, where the Kulin people used stone tools to remove bark for use in shelters, canoes, containers and shields, can still be seen in many places, including Fitzroy Gardens, Heide Museum of Modern Art and Brimbank Park. Shell middens - piles of discarded shell, charcoal, chipped stone and animal bones - once lined the edge of Port Phillip Bay. Traces of them remain on some suburban beaches. Many other places in Melbourne were and continue to be significant to the Kulin people, including the former Coranderrk mission at Healesville, the former Native Police Camps at Dandenong and Dights Falls, the Bolin Bolin Billabong meeting place in Bulleen, and corroboree trees in St Kilda and Burnley Park. No archaeological excavations have been carried out at these places.
Some of the best archaeological evidence for the early years of the Port Phillip colony comes from excavations on shipwreck sites such as that of the William Salthouse, wrecked off Point Nepean in 1841. Discovered in 1982 by sport divers, this site was excavated by archaeologists from VAS the following year and in 1991. The Salthouse was sailing from Montreal, Canada, with a cargo primarily of foodstuffs. Items from the ship's cargo were recovered by archaeologists. These include wooden casks that held flour and salt meat, basic supplies that were much needed by the young colony, and bottles of fine French wines sold as luxuries. Wine bottles still had corks and contents intact, so chemical analyses and tastings of the wines by professional tasters were organised. Together these tests led to conclusions not only about the identity of the wines, Muscat and Champagne, but also about changes in the way wines are made.
Had the William Salthouse reached its destination, its cargo would have cleared customs at the Customs House on the Yarra River at the foot of William Street. Although the building has been extended and renovated many times, archaeologists found that the footings of the original 1840 building still exist. They are made of large sandstone blocks, in contrast to bluestone used in the extensions carried out in the 1850s and 1870s.
Another archaeological site from the early colony is in Footscray, where excavations uncovered the remains of the Victoria Hotel, the first building in Footscray. It was a timber structure built in 1840, only months after the establishment of a punt across the Saltwater River. The pub was well placed for custom on the road to Geelong and Williamstown, and other businesses soon established there as well. Archaeologists also excavated the Stanley Arms Hotel, which replaced the Victoria in 1854, and the Bridge Hotel, built nearby in 1855, as well as Pickett Cottages, a group of workers' cottages occupied between 1872 and 1898. Animal bones recovered from the four sites provide insight into diet in the early colony, and document the dramatic impact of the introduction of rabbits in 1859. Rabbit bone, absent in all the early deposits, appears as early as the mid-1860s and is common in all the deposits after that time.
Within Melbourne City, salvage excavations have taken place on sites at 300 Queen Street, on Little Lonsdale Street in the working-class neighbourhood of 'Little Lon', and at Cohen Place in Chinatown. The Queen Street site was once a private house, built in 1849 and occupied by an early mayor, John Thomas Smith. From the 1860s the building was used as offices. Archaeologists excavated a cistern behind the house which was filled with rubbish, first from Smith's household and later from the offices. Smith's rubbish was that of a middle-class household. It included toys, clay pipes, medicine and perfume bottles, and food and dishes used at family meals and when entertaining: expensive tableware, relish bottles, and seeds from peaches, plums, grapes, and other fruits. The office workers, in contrast, threw out cheaper cups and saucers used during their tea breaks, empty pickle and salad oil bottles from their lunches, and countless empty ink bottles. In contrast to the lives of the middle-class people at Queen Street, the Little Lon site reveals the lives of people in a poor, ethnically diverse neighbourhood. There too, however, decorative crockery was used and children's toys were found. At Cohen Place, Chinese families were using new English crockery as well as dishes and foodstuffs imported directly from China. All three sites encapsulate changes to the Central Business District in the 19th century, as homes gave way to commercial premises and as inner-city neighbourhoods were characterised as slums and subsequently targeted for destruction.
Other urban sites that have been excavated reflect the range of facilities needed by a modern society. Sites include military barracks, cemeteries, gaols and schools. At Victoria Barracks on St Kilda Road, archaeologists uncovered a bronze scabbard tip belonging to a Grenadier Guard which dated from the end of the Napoleonic Wars. On the other side of the city, archaeologists continue to have a role in monitoring maintenance and building work at Queen Victoria Market. The market site was once the location of the Melbourne Cemetery until the cemetery closed in 1917. Many burials were removed to the new Melbourne General Cemetery, but any time new work is planned at the market archaeologists are called in to ensure that the work does not disturb the remaining burials. Rather than excavating, archaeologists look for signs of grave shafts so that new footings and trenches can be placed in other areas.
Excavations adjacent to the Old Melbourne Gaol have provided insight into the daily lives of inmates and staff. Artefacts recovered from the hospital yard show the kinds of medical treatments used by the gaol doctors, and also indicate that gaolers and their families lived within the gaol walls in the 1850s and 1860s. The site of the first publicly funded school in Victoria, the Model School (1853-1933), now the site of the Royal College of Surgeons, has also been excavated. Parts of the basement and colonnade of the school survived, as did the segregated playground areas for girls, boys and infants. Artefacts recovered from the site included many toys as well as dishes used in the domestic training subjects and personal objects used by the staff who lived on the site.
While the inner city became more and more crowded, areas that are now part of suburban Melbourne were still semi-rural farms and retreats for the wealthy. Although some of the stately homes such as Banyule are more intact, none of the landscape has survived as well as that at Viewbank Homestead, on the Yarra River north of Heidelberg. The property was home to Dr Robert Martin and his family, members of Melbourne's gentry, from 1844 to 1875. The Martin estate comprised 78 ha on the hills above the Yarra, where Martin built a large, well-appointed home and established formal terraced gardens. Although the house was demolished during World War I, considerable archaeological evidence of it remains, along with the terraces, pathways and imported trees in the gardens. Archaeologists from Heritage Victoria have excavated the site with the help of many local volunteers. They uncovered parts of the house built in the early 1840s, where the use of unusual handmade slate ventilation grilles demonstrates the difficulties of obtaining building materials in the young colony. Fragments of plaster cornices, and plaster with paint and wallpaper still adhering, provide details of the interior of a house for which no contemporary descriptions survive. Expensive crockery, a bone-handled corkscrew, and parts of the house's system of bells for summoning servants all attest to the family's privileged status.
Archaeological sites are an important part of Melbourne's heritage. They are protected by legislation and significant fines are imposed if they are destroyed or excavated without a permit. Permits are only issued to professional archaeologists, who must have an Honours degree or equivalent in archaeology. In Melbourne the largest archaeology department is at La Trobe University, with smaller departments at the University of Melbourne and Monash University. Organisations such as the Australian Association of Consulting Archaeologists maintain registers of qualified professionals. Aboriginal Affairs Victoria, in co-operation with Aboriginal communities, is responsible for administering Aboriginal sites and Heritage Victoria is responsible for non-Aboriginal sites. Collections of artefacts from the excavated sites described above are generally kept by those two agencies or by Museum Victoria.
Volunteers and avocational archaeologists have made a large contribution to archaeology in Melbourne. Members of the community frequently participate as volunteer crew members on excavations, and there are several archaeological organisations run by non-professionals. The Archaeological and Anthropological Society of Victoria sponsors excursions to local archaeological sites, has a regular seminar series, and publishes a journal, The Artefact , which contains articles about research in Victoria and overseas. Many sport divers with an interest in archaeology belong to the Maritime Archaeology Association of Victoria, which also sponsors seminars, workshops and fieldwork in collaboration with underwater archaeologists at Heritage Victoria. Members of the Australian Institute of Archaeology share an interest in Classical, Near Eastern, and Biblical Archaeology, and the Institute has a substantial library and research collection housed at La Trobe University.