Archaeologists at Work on Melbourne’s Metro Tunnel Project

Archaeology PhD candidate Maddi Harris-Schober is one of a number of SHAPS students and alumni who have taken part in the archaeological digs in Melbourne’s CBD as part of the Metro Tunnel Project. In this interview, she talks about being an archaeologist, and about her experiences working on the state’s biggest ever public transport infrastructure project.

As part of the Victorian Government’s Metro Tunnel Project archaeological excavations have been carried out over the past two years in different locations in Melbourne’s CBD. The dig is the largest archaeological exploration in the state’s history, with more than one million artefacts uncovered across the CBD south and north precincts. The scale of the Project – which involves the construction of twin nine kilometre rail tunnels and five new underground stations, two of them in the CBD – allows an unprecedented view of Melbourne’s history from its foundation. At the same time, it has provided many University of Melbourne students with valuable opportunities to obtain hands-on training in archaeological fieldwork, analysis and conservation of recovered artefacts, and effective report writing, preparing them for future careers in academia, commercial archaeology and the heritage sector. Maddi Harris-Schober, currently a PhD student in Archaeology at the University of Melbourne, worked on the project in 2017–2019. In this video, Maddi talks about her work and her aspirations and goals as an emerging archaeologist. A longer text version of the interview provides more detail below.

Can you briefly introduce yourself and your thesis topic?

I’m a PhD student in my first year, doing a joint PhD through the University of Melbourne and Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich. I’ve been at the University of Melbourne since 2014 and finished my undergraduate (with Honours) in 2017.

My thesis topic is situated in Late Bronze-Iron Age (c1200–600 BCE) archaeology with focus on an area in the Southern Levant, corresponding to modern-day Israel-Palestine. I’m researching a group called the Philistines and how their architecture and material finds connect with the wider ancient world. The Philistines were a group with connections all over the Mediterranean and beyond, appearing at the collapse of the Late Bronze Age. My aim is to bring a new layer of understanding to specific developments in their religious architecture and material culture.

What led you to this thesis topic? 

I’ve always had an affinity for the study of the ancient past and the mystery behind ancient buildings, cultures and texts. In 2014 I was lucky enough to work in Israel-Palestine on an excavation with my now supervisor, Professor Louise Hitchcock, and a team of Melbourne students. After my first day excavating and getting to hold sherds of 3000-year-old pottery in the Middle East, I just knew I needed to do all I could to make it my life’s work. From that moment on I haven’t looked back.

What would you say most motivates you to do what you do? What would you like to accomplish?

Playing a pivotal role in uncovering the past histories of ancient people is a privilege and a huge motivation for me. Travel and fieldwork has also been a great motivator – I always dreamed of having a career which would allow me to travel and see the world.

All in all, I’d like to accomplish a constructive and academically valuable PhD thesis at the end of my four years. However, I’m also thrilled about being completely immersed in archaeology for the duration of my PhD, continuing to attend and present at conferences all over the world, meeting new and interesting people, and slowly climbing the academic ladder as my career continues.

Did you have any key mentors or people who deeply influenced who you are, what you believe in and what you’re committed to in your work and life? 

The first that comes to mind is my supervisor, Louise Hitchcock. From the very beginning she has given me a roadmap to success and encouraged me to take every opportunity that came my way. Louise encouraged me to submit my work to a conference in the USA, which I thought was completely out of my league during my Honours year and, surprisingly, my work was accepted! Without her I wouldn’t be where I am today – she has been a pillar of support and guidance throughout my entire university career.

Second is Dr Gijs Tol, also from the University of Melbourne, who probably has no idea he has played such a large role in my life. From the moment I met Gijs he treated me like a colleague rather than a student and has always had time for a coffee and a chat. His advice and support have been invaluable. His passion for his research, friendliness, research clarity and dedication to his students has inspired and motivated me since he joined the faculty. I try to actively emulate these qualities in my everyday academic and professional life.

Thirdly, I would like to mention Paul Pepdjonovic, former Project Manager at Andrew Long & Associates, overseeing the dig in the CBD North precinct. He shared his love for Australian historical archaeology and the agency it can give people from the past.

Finally, my core beliefs are hard work, dedication and being passionate about all you do and doing it with power. I owe great thanks to Mum for the foundations of these values and the people mentioned above for expanding them.

If you could undo one myth about being an archaeologist, what would it be?

We don’t dig up dinosaurs or carry around a whip! I think the assumption that we know everything about all aspects of ancient history and ancient cultures has always made me laugh. We’re all very specialised people with our own niches. My favourite response from people after I say I’m an archaeologist is, “I saw this documentary …”

Maddi excavating Iron Age remains at Tel Akko, Acre/Akko, July 2018. Photograph: A. Schwartz

Between graduating and starting your PhD you worked in commercial archaeology on the Metro Tunnel Project. Can you tell a little bit about the work you did there, and how we might begin to think about the Metro Tunnel Project in the context of Melbourne’s history?

I was a field archaeologist on the Metro Tunnel Project. There were two big excavations run by two different companies, one in the south and one in the north. I worked at CBD North with Andrew Long & Associates.

Melbourne’s public transport has always had a few big city stations, Flinders Street station historically, followed by Melbourne Central and Southern Cross. As we’re all aware, Melbourne has grown enormously. In the past seven years Melbourne has grown from 3.8 million to 5 million, and the number of people coming from outside of Melbourne has been constantly rising, so the public transport system has been feeling some serious stress. The Metro Tunnel Project is completely changing the core of the city train services and making Melbourne more accessible. From my perspective, I can say that the Parkville Station will make some aspects of my commute a little easier!

Tell us about your specific role and contributions in this project. For example, what was the first thing you did? 

I was part of a group of six field archaeologists who were the first to excavate the CBD North site at La Trobe and Swanston streets. The first day on site was daunting, as it was such a large area and such a huge project, which isn’t common in commercial archaeology in Melbourne. Our first day on the job consisted of lots of cleaning and tidying up, but as soon as we started excavating we were finding artefacts and architecture almost instantly. It was quite incredible, actually!

Were there any surprises for you while working on this project?

The biggest surprise for me was the amount of finds! The first phase of the project ran for about six or seven months and over that period we uncovered over one million artefacts. It really makes you wonder how much more lies under the city.

What was most difficult or challenging about this work? What did you do to deal with these challenges?

The most difficult aspect of working in commercial archaeology on the Metro Tunnel Project was balancing my own archaeological interests and research with working in the field. Fieldwork is quite physically taxing and finding that work-uni life balance was difficult at times, but I made concessions to make it work.

A less in-depth issue would have to be the weather. Melbourne is known for its ridiculous four seasons in one day, but when you have to be working outside in winter it really takes its toll!

Would you encourage other archaeology students to work in commercial archaeology? Did you acquire any skills that assist you in your PhD research?

I would highly recommend to archaeology students that they consider commercial archaeology. Whilst it’s very different to the world of classics and archaeology here at Melbourne University (where we cover, for example, late antiquity and the Near East), it provides a valuable insight into the processes and methods used in a variety of different archaeological jobs. Through commercial archaeology I was able to solidify a lot of my archaeological methods and recording skills because I was exposed a variety of different methods, such as survey, test pits, large-scale historical excavation and artefact processing. The experience and exposure to new technological aspects of archaeology was also extremely beneficial.

What was most rewarding about your work?

The most rewarding aspect of being an archaeologist is seeing the end result. In some cases that can be overlooking a well-excavated site at the end of a project and patting yourself on the back, or an amazing find that can tell us about the history of a place or people, or simply learning more about the place you’re working in. I’ve found that archaeology as a general field, academic or commercial, has some really wonderful people involved. Getting to make new connections and hear all these brilliant stories has definitely been a highlight.

For more on the experience of working on the Metro Tunnel Project, read our companion post on SHAPS alumna Emma Hayles: ‘Conservators at Work on Melbourne’s Metro Tunnel Project‘.

Video: Many thanks to Melbourne-based video production agency Creativa for capturing Maddi’s story
Feature image: Screenshot from Maddi’s interview, 2019