Burke and Wills time capsule unearthed

By Natalie Muller 12 May 2011
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A time capsule buried beneath a monument to explorers Burke and Wills has been unearthed in Ballarat.

A HISTORY BOOK WRITTEN by William Withers in 1887 describes Governor Henry Barkly, sealing a glass bottle below the symbolic monument to renowned explorers Robert Burke and William Wills.

But historians weren’t sure if the story was true, or if the 1863 capsule would still be there – until last week, when the Ballarat city council decided to excavate the site.

Hundreds of people, including Victorian Premier Ted Baillieu, gathered around the fountain monument to watch the excavation team drill and chisel away at the rocks for more than three hours.  

“We had no way of knowing what was there; it could have been really exciting or really embarrassing,” says Ballarat councillor Samantha McIntosh. “There was massive excitement all around when a sneaky little bottle cap could be seen through the rocks.”

Sure enough, the team, led by Heritage Victoria archaeologist David Bannear, discovered a broken glass ink bottle, with newspaper clippings and a series of priceless coins inside. He estimates the findings are worth more than $50,000.  

Sydney mint coins found in hidden treasure

For almost 150 years the bottle was stored in a cavity beneath the fountain, covered by solid plaques of granite and marble. David says the strong stone barrier would have made it impossible for the capsule to be stolen or tampered with. “In a way it was lucky it was so hidden away and largely forgotten about,” he says.

Among the valuables found in the bottle were a gold sovereign, a half gold sovereign, and several silver and copper coins from the time. According to Samantha, the gold coins were in mint condition, while the copper coins were badly damaged, despite the still-visible “beautiful reefs and faces”.

“They were made at the Mint in Sydney, and there are not many of those around because most of the gold from the gold fields was sent straight to England,” she says.

The bottle was removed and replaced again in 1867 with an updated edition of The Star newspaper. A damaged parchment, believed to be a memorandum of understanding, was also among the papers.

The full set of coins is being assessed by conservators and will be on display in the Ballarat Gold Museum until June 2011. Ballarat school students will then put together a new time capsule to replace the old one.

The time capsule had been hidden behind solid granite, under the monument
to explorers Burke and Wills, for more than 150 years. (Credit: Sovereign Hill)

Ballarat’s message in a bottle

The famous explorers Robert O’Hara Burke and William John Wills died in 1861 after attempting to trek from Melbourne to the north coast of Australia. They were searching for new land and water during the gold rush, a time of wealth and expansion in Victoria. But their ill-fated journey came to an end in the Queensland outback, where they eventually starved to death.

The fountain is one of two monuments erected to honour their memory. The other, a cenotaph, was built in Castlemaine, Victoria. Samantha says the history of Ballarat is closely tied to the explorers’ ambitious trip. William’s father served as a doctor in the Ballarat gold fields, and many of his ancestors still live in the area.

“On the day when we discovered the time capsule, there were a number of his relatives in the crowd, so it was very exciting,” she says.

David describes the preserved coins as a gift from Ballarat’s past inhabitants, a sign the town was beginning to see itself as sharing the experience of transformation that defined gold rushes in other parts of the world.  “I’ve been involved in Ned Kelly excavations, and that captured people’s interest, but this was different because of the shared nature of it,” says David. “I had never experienced such universal joy, as in that moment when we finally got it out. It was an extraordinary experience.”