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This Place Has a Past

Read Thursday, 7 Jan 2021

Following the Number 19 tram, Maddi Miller delves into the hidden stratigraphy of Melbourne.

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An illustration featuring two hands which rest either side of the word 'NURA', over a collage background of greenery meeting an urban environment

For this edition of Notes, participants in our Signal Boost programme have created audio stories around the theme ‘Order’. 

You can listen to this work here, or find a full transcript below.


[SFX: ominous guitar loop plays]

This place has a past. 

A big one, a deep one. A past filled with people and stories that stretch back millennia. 

Sometimes this past can feel distant and abstract. 

[SFX: Number 19 tram dings and departs and the guitar slowly fade]

You might miss it as you gently sway into the pre-covid armpits of a stranger aboard the number 19 tram, as it rambles  its way down Elizabeth. The subtle earth forms, and undulations that hug either side of the street hint at what used to be there – a waterway obscured. 

[SFX: Number 19 tram announcement, it is barely discernible, but the words ‘change here’ and ‘city circle’ can faintly be heard]

[SFX: A busker plays a bright song on the guitar while people chat at the cafes]

Slip down Degraves and be engulfed by the 19th century bluestone buildings, cheek to cheek and bursting with coffee and tourists. 

If you wander down the less appealing Sargood Lane you are confronted with a wall of earth. The wall stretches high overhead and you are in the belly of the city. 

[SFX: The tram crosses an intersection and the ominous guitar loop becomes louder]

It reminds you where you are, that you are not in some concrete place of the future. It reminds you that you are somewhere ancient and enduring. 

[SFX: Lyrebird calls, the guitar becomes softer]

This city was built on a place that was and is Woi Wurrung and Boon Wurrung lands and waters. It rests in a basin, encompassed by wooded hills and volcanic plains. The Birrarung springs from distant ranges bringing with it rich nutrients that nurtured the sedge and rushes .

For tens of thousands of years this place has provided for, and been nourished by, the people who call it home. 

[SFX: The ocean lapping at the shore]

8,000 years ago the seas slowly began to rise, closing the land bridge between the mainland and Palawa country. Slowly over thousands of years the sea engulfed the land, the brackish water creeping its way up the river until it reached the Yarra Yarra falls.

[SFX: Number 19 tram announcement ‘The next stop is Bourke Street Mall – change here for route…’, the tram departs]

In 1883 the falls were blown apart with dynamite in an act of  violent colonial carelessness that characterised the ways in which this country was treated. 

In the 1850s local officials required that streets be filled and properties be raised, sometimes by several metres. Around the Wesley Church entire houses were filled with clay. The gullies and transient waterways that had formed over millenia were no more. No longer were smelly pools of water collecting in the streets and residences. The puddles that swirled with the filthy debris of colonial life were covered over. 

But these  acts of erasure resulted in the retention of this fabric in the archaeological record: a time capsule of the colonial city. 

[SFX: Sounds from under the Flinders Street Station Clocks – an announcement and people talking, the guitar fades]

Under the Flinders Street McDonald’s, the archaeologist carefully excavates an 1890’s dentist shop, finding hundreds of teeth that were thrown down the drains. They uncover an 1840s kitchen with the bones of a long forgotten dinner, and then they reach something much older. 

[SFX: Lyrebird calls, the ominous guitar becomes louder]

Small flakes of stone – debris from tool-making, perhaps thousands of years old.

[SFX: People shopping for fruit and vegetables at Queen Victoria Market early in the morning]

The Queen Victoria Market is built upon a cemetery. The lively calls of vendors contrasting the silence below. Across the road, after the buildings were torn down, the archaeologist discovered an ancient waterway. 

[SFX: Tram departs with a ding]

The layers of colonial occupation of this place simply obscure the past. In many ways this place has shown its scars, shown that under the surface lies a truth:  Always Was, Always Will be, Aboriginal Land. 

[SFX: Lyrebird calls and the ominous guitar loop gets louder before finally fading out]

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Acknowledgment of Country

The Wheeler Centre acknowledges the Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung people of the Kulin Nation as the traditional owners of the land on which we work. We pay our respects to the people of the Kulin Nation and all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Elders, past and present.