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Russian bear grease, skeletons & guns: Excavation at a gold-rush hotel

Ian Harvey
Photo credit: Archlink Archaeologists and Heritage Advisors Pty Ltd
Photo credit: Archlink Archaeologists and Heritage Advisors Pty Ltd

A major archaeological dig in Melbourne has yielded a treasure of 19th-century artifacts including a vast amount of alcohol, dog skeletons, and Russian bear grease.

The Excavation site on McKenzie Street revealed the seedy underbelly 1800’s Melbourne; what was once a bustling gold rush pub filled with prostitutes, robbers and gold prospectors.

A senior archaeologist with Heritage Vitoria Jeremy Smith has hailed the discovery as the most significant archaeological digs in the history of the state.

A total of around 250,000 artifacts have now been unearthed in the dirt; the treasure that gives a rare glimpse into the life of the gold rush Melbourne all those years ago.

Explaining the sorting process of excavated material from Mistletoe Hotel – that remained active until 1923 – Jeremy Smith said that it felt like going through a messy room that stayed untouched for a whole century.

He added that the owner of the famous pub had presumably ordered his employees to dump the piles of used alcohol bottles and other rubbish at the bottom of the garden. The pub’s garden had been used as a car park up until 2016.


Speaking to the reporters, Smith said that all the evidence uncovered so far points towards the fact that the Mistletoe pub was a very vibrant place at its peak; hence the prostitutes and the treasure of alcohol bottles.

Most of the artifacts found at the site are either ceramic or glass, carrying no real archaeological value. However, some of the objects found are really unique in nature. One of the most talked about discoveries of the Mistletoe Hotel is a small porcelain jar that was filled with Russian bear grease; a remedy that was famous to be a cure for baldness during the gold rush.

Despite the fact the actual mixture was some kind of hoax – probably a mixture of sheep fat or something like that – object carries a unique historic value.

Another important object recovered is an old revolver which is rusty but in a good condition. The revolver, says Smith, belonged to the owner of the pub Charles Wright.

The local records of the time show that Mr Wright had informed the authorities of him using his revolver – matching the description of the one discovered at the site – to scare off five youths who had been creating a problem for Mr Wright after they were told they couldn’t be served at the pub.

The newspaper reports from 1855 extensively reported on the illicit activities being carried out in the pub, especially prostitution and robberies.

In one such report, a man was apparently enticed by one of the charming women who worked in the hotel to the back of the building and was given a liquor mixed with a substance. The man quickly became unconscious and was deprived of £40 in notes and £3 in sovereigns taken from his belt.

The excavation project at the Hotel is funded by Malaysian developer UEM Sunrise, and the site will soon be transformed into a 38-storey apartment building.

Here is another one from our archeology files:Excavation in Leicester reveals an elaborate belt from Roman Britain

The excavations at the site are led by the archaeological consultants Terra Culture and ArchLink, who have been supervising the dig for the last three months and will now undertake the cleaning and analyzing process on the objects recovered so far.

Ian Harvey

Ian Harvey is one of the authors writing for The Vintage News