The archaeological work at Wesley Church on Lonsdale St is being conducted as part of heritage requirements of the site’s redevelopment.
The carpark excavation has uncovered the lower structural remains of six single-storey terrace houses and an earlier building thought to date back to before the 1850s.
Jeremy Smith, principal archaeologist with Heritage Victoria, is overseeing the dig and said it represents one of the most important finds in past 10 years.
“This one ranks within the top four or five based on the significance of the condition, the age of what we are finding. It’s a very old site,” he said.
“There’s nice layers to the archaeology you can see here.”
The six houses, which are shown on early maps of the area, are thought to date back to the 1860s.
“There were different families and different residents here at different times,” Mr Smith said.
“In the 1860s and 1870s the cottages were supporting factory workers but become valuable as residencies after that.”
Mr Smith said that although council rates and other historical records might show who owned the buildings they didn’t necessarily reveal who lived in them.
“The historical record gives us a one dimensional insight. The archelogy gives us a reality,” he said.
The range and quality of artefacts at the site are particularly valuable because many were from before Victoria’s gold rush and resembled early colonial items more commonly found in Sydney or Tasmania.
“If we get a new understanding of the ethnicity or growth of Melbourne, or who was here before the gold rush, what were they using, what materials were available, what were they eating then we can present that back to the public,” Mr Smith said.
“It’s a very strong collection. There’s very little 20th century disturbance on the site so the archaeology is intact, there’s a lot of it.
“The good thing about this site is that we will end up with a collection of 20,000 pieces.”
The historical records and artefacts point to at least two female-headed families living in the houses in the middle to late 1800s and later Chinese residents.
Among the collected artefacts are ceramics, including Wedgewood oriental style china plates and a plate decorated with an Uncle Tom’s Cabin motif, bottles of varying ages, children’s toys such as porcelain dolls, marbles and miniature tea cups, clay pipes with commemorative themes and jewellery; including some gold and precious metal pieces which would have been relatively valuable.
There is also a whale tooth reflecting, perhaps, the early whaling industry of Victoria.
Michelle Cleary, who works for the archaeologist company Dr Vincent Clark and Associates which is doing the site work, said the collection was genuinely surprising.
“We were thinking this is going to be a fairly poor area, but some of the ceramics are actually associated with slightly more wealthy, middle class, artefacts like the china,” she said.
“They actually had very nice possessions in the houses. In some ways the depth of the deposit was interesting, the fact that they had cellars. We weren’t really expecting that.”
There are still roughly eight weeks of archaeological work to done on the Wesley site before work begins on a new 39-storey office building and surrounds.
The unexpected historical richness of the site has attracted wider interest. Victorian planning minister Richard Wynne was recently an appreciative visitor, while Channel 9 and the Herald Sun newspaper have featured stories on the findings.
The historical insights the site has offered up will be incorporated in a display in the new development.
“It’s one of the most amazing blocks in the city,” Ms Cleary said.
“Without Wesley and the Uniting Church being good caretakers it would have been lost.”