Exploring a neglected area of Australian historical archaeology

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19th Century farm buildings, Gembrook

VC&A staff member Wendy Morrison recently submitted her PhD at La Trobe University, in which she investigated the remains of one of the first farmsteads built in the Gembrook area of south-eastern Victoria by one of the town’s pioneer families.

“I’m very interested in the whole process of early colonial immigration and settlement”, she said, “particularly the process of making a new home in a (then) remote and isolated part of the State, and the creation of new towns and communities”. With the exception of tiny ephemeral mining and forestry communities, the small towns in the forests of south-eastern Victoria sprang up after the area was opened up to Closer Settlement following the Selection Act of 1869, and as the area was fairly inaccessible at the time, they developed quite independently of the State government, under the stewardship of the Selectors themselves. Furthermore, there were no squatting properties this far east into the foothills of the Great Dividing Range. “I have always found it surprising that there has been so much attention paid to the squatters”, she said, “whilst the small farming families that left their homelands to carve out new lives in the Australian bush have been largely ignored by archaeologists, although they probably had a far greater impact on Australian society than a handful of wealthy speculators!”

Her research involved working closely with the descendants of the original settlers, as well as the local community, an experience which she describes as “incredibly rich and humbling”. “They were so generous”, she said, “welcoming me onto their land and into their homes, and sharing their memories, stories and insights”. They also preserved not only the houses and farm buildings constructed by their forebears, but their contents, and Wendy found herself confronted with the task of identifying, cataloguing and analysing over 5,000 objects associated with farming and daily life from the 1870s to the 1950s, ranging from tools and farm machinery, to bottling jars, alcohol bottles, music and artworks.

Here at VC&A we are often called upon to investigate sites associated with Victoria’s colonial history, and we intend to take full advantage of Wendy’s highly specialised expertise in the field.

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Shoulder-sealing masons jar, c.1892-1915, Gembrook.