Melbourne archaeological dig traces its coffee culture back to 1850s


Nationally significant artefacts discovered as part of an archaeological dig in Melbourne, Australia, has traced its coffee culture back to the 1850s.

An Australia-first discovery deep below the CBD reveals Melbourne’s famed coffee culture may be decades older than first thought.

More than 500 coffee beans were unearthed near the site of the future Town Hall Station, one of two new underground CBD stations being built as part of a metropolitan rail infrastructure project currently under construction.

Before construction on the entrances to the underground station could begin, an archaeological excavation took place to uncover occupation deposits and recover and document artefacts from the site.

“Heritage Victoria required this excavation to occur because the sites are protected under the Heritage Act and the Metro Tunnel was going to impact on any archaeological material that could be found at the site,” says Excavation Director Meg Goulding of Ochre Imprints.

Archaeological consultants Ochre Imprints began the excavation in May 2018, digging up the historic remains near the site of iconic Melbourne hotel Young and Jacksons on Swanston Street when they discovered half a million artefacts.

“The excavation involved 80 people, with around 45 archaeologists on site at any given time. The dig included excavation of the archaeological deposit on the ground, as well as management of artefacts that were found in our off-site artefact management centre,” says Goulding.

The site where the coffee beans were found was once a general store that belonged to a John Connell and burnt down in the early hours of 19 September 1855, some 170 years ago.

“This created an internationally significant artefact deposit, preserving more than 500 coffee beans along with English biscuits, fruit remains and other perishables that would not ordinarily have lasted the test of time,” says Goulding.

“This is a unique historic archaeological site formation process because the conditions of the fire created these preserved goods. The chemical process that occurred during the high intensity heat from the fire meant that the material preserved, snap freezing the beans and sucking out the oxygen, leaving behind a carbon copy of the object. That’s why the coffee beans look remarkably like what you’d receive from your local barista.”

The artefacts have drawn comparisons with the ancient Roman city of Pompeii and the eruption of Mount Vesuvius when the city was buried under layers of volcanic ash.

“Like the organic remains found at Pompeii, the beans have been carbonised, which has led to their preservation,” says Goulding.

“Typically, at archaeological sites it wouldn’t be surprising to find a lot of ceramics and glassware after the destruction of a fire, which we did find. But it’s very rare to find organic, plant-based materials, because they’re so fragile, and organic things don’t tend to survive well in the ground.”

Ochre Imprints Senior Artefact Manager Jennifer Porter was blown away by the discovery of these perfectly preserved artefacts.

“I’ve never seen anything like it, and I’ve been working with artefacts for over 20 years. It really was unexpected, the variety and the preservation of these different types of organic remains,” she says.

Porter and her team were responsible for the delicate process of moving the beans to the artefact management centre to start the conservation process.

Over 500 preserved coffee beans were found in Melbourne’s CBD.

“Once the beans were sorted, we catalogued them, which involves entering all relevant information about the artefacts, such as their size and weight, into an electronic spreadsheet. Then we moved onto the analysis phase, which involved uncovering the history of where these beans may have come from, how they ended up in Australia, what Australians were doing with these particular types of food at the time, and how they fitted in with their general diets. The artefacts were then made stable by conservators so they can be preserved for a long period of time,” says Porter.

During the analysis phase, Porter discovered that at least five coffee houses existed in Melbourne during the Gold Rush era in the 1850s.

“Early Melbournians were often considered tea drinkers, as most of them came from the United Kingdom. With the establishment of these coffee roasting houses in Melbourne, this means people had access to high-quality local coffee, and that there was a big demand for it,” says Porter.

Goulding says the ancient bean discovery highlights the importance of archaeology and how it can reconstruct what’s known about a city’s history.

“The find has the potential to re-write the history of Australia’s coffee capital, with the city’s obsession with coffee currently attributed to late 19th century coffee houses,” says Goulding.

According to Porter, Melbournians in the state of Victoria consumed 1000 tonnes per annum of coffee during the Gold Rush period, while those in the state of New South Wales consumed half as much.

“We know that at least some of these perfectly preserved beans came from Ceylon, now Sri Lanka. The favourite variety was called Ceylon Plantation and would have been perfect to serve alongside some of the English biscuits, also found intact in the fire deposit,” says Porter.

While the excavation was an unexpected deep dive into the history of Melbourne’s long-celebrated coffee culture, Goulding says the recent findings will not impact the ongoing construction of the Metro Tunnel Project.

“Once we excavated the entire site, all artefacts were removed so the site could be disturbed by the construction of the tunnel entrances. That’s why we conducted such an extensive excavation over nine months and why the beans and other significant artefacts were conserved. It’s so that all the information and artefacts will be there for future generations to re-examine,” she says.

This article was first published in the September/October 2022 edition of Global Coffee Report. Read more HERE.

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