Calls to Save Lost “Ancient” World of the Maribyrnong River

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For three decades of the 19th century, Solomon’s Ford on the Maribyrnong River was an essential river crossing on the road from Melbourne to Geelong.

Today, it feels like a place out of step with time.

Water flows soothingly over the remains of its wide, bluestone causeway while gumtrees sway atop colourful bursts of wattle and bottle brush.

Banjo Patterson’s Clancy of the Overflow could round the river bend at any moment singing behind a herd of lowing livestock.

It’s a scene of such distinctly Aussie bush beauty, you can almost forget you’re only 12 kilometres from the heart of the “foetid air and gritty of the dusty, dirty city”.

But a scene of colonial romanticism is just one tiny frame of the 31,000 years of human history to have swept along the banks of the Maribyrnong.

Not 500 metres from Solomon’s Ford, beneath the Quang Minh Buddhist temple is the site of an indigenous stone fish trap.

One of a wealth of indigenous artefacts along the river, it sits today lost amongst the reeds, even as local historians conjecture it could have been there for millennia.

Maribyrnong Council Deputy Mayor Megan Bridger-Darling has called for seven kilometres of the riverbanks between Smiley’s Creek and Solomon’s Ford to be archaeologically surveyed.

Cr. Bridger-Darling expressed concern ongoing development and a lack of public awareness had placed multiple indigenous and colonial sites at risk of being neglected or lost.

“This is a subject very close to my heart and much more work needs to be done to bring the councils actions in line with our intentions,” said Cr. Bridger-Darling.

While Maribyrnong Council has pledged to rename indigenous locations with Woiwurrung names, the stone fish trap is just one of many sites in the shire still unmarked and unnamed.

Maribyrnong Council is currently working on a reconciliation plan the councillor hopes will lead to a more proactive stance in recognising and researching indigenous historical sites.

But there is administrative red tape binding this issue extending far beyond one local council.

The seven kilometres of river in question are home to an extensive trail of indigenous sites and artefacts as well as some of the earliest European structures in Victoria.

Solomon’s Ford is distinctive amongst its neighbouring heritage sites.

Though unsigned on both riverbanks, it is marked on Google Maps and easily accessible by the popular Maribyrnong river trail.

But stone remains of colonial structures on the west bank sit decaying beneath mud and undergrowth while the ford’s indigenous origins remain unstudied and unacknowledged.

These relics are watched over by a swank new concrete picnic area and the townhouses of the River Valley development, home to thousands of new residents unaware of the unique history sitting in their own backyards.

The state government authority, Heritage Victoria, has surveyed Solomon’s Ford, but even their knowledge of its history is limited.

When approached for information about the centuries old river crossing, Heritage Victoria were unable to date work their own organisation had done since the site received a heritage listing in 1983.

For Melbourne historian Rick Keam, this is an all too familiar situation.

Mr Keam spent four years researching his book Keilor to Footscray: Mr Solomon’s Maribyrnong.

“There’s documentation and data held by private academics, non-government organisations, three levels of government heritage authorities and no co-ordination between the three” said Mr Keam.

During his research, Mr Keam found a large interest amongst locals for the indigenous history of the Maribyrnong River but a lack of understanding about how far it extended.

Despite efforts by historical organisations like Living Museum of the West and Footscray Historical Society, public awareness of indigenous history remains scant.

“The Keilor Man archaeological finds in 1940 showed us the Maribyrnong has been a centre of civilisation for tens of thousands of years,” said Mr Keam.

“Eighty years later, we have enough leads to suggest these riverbanks could be a living museum of ancient history, but we continue to neglect them.”

Mr Keam said there was a real risk these sites could be unintentionally tampered with or lost because “no one organisation has all the data”.

The preservation of the Maribyrnong river is also a comparatively recent development.

Until environmental protection efforts were begun by the state government in the 1980’s, the Maribyrnong was the carcass strewn sewer of the local abattoir industry and heavily deforested.

The steady gentrification of Melbourne’s inner west is bringing an awareness of a rich history once lost beneath its perception as an environmental eyesore.

Mr Keam envisions an indigenous heritage trail with extensive signage and information boards as the beginnings of a valuable local industry.

“We now have this beautiful, undisturbed stretch of river with a rich and potentially quite ancient history just waiting to be uncovered,” said Mr Keam.

Melbourne indigenous representative organisation Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung Aboriginal Heritage Corporation did not respond to requests for comment.

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