22 December 2015

Associate Professor Susan Lawrence.

Image: Associate Processor Susan Lawrence.
Image courtesy: Associate Professor Susan Lawrence.

 

The Australian gold rush is a historic period in our nation’s development.

The gold rushes caused a huge influx of people from overseas and Australia's total population more than tripled from 430 000 in 1851 to 1.7 million in 1871. 

During desperate digs for wealth, from the mid-1850s onward, the impact of gold mining on Australia’s river system was not a top priority.

More than 160 years on a dedicated research team is determined to learn more to ensure we have a greater understanding of human interventions in the environment.

Associate Professor Susan Lawrence is head of the Department of Archaeology and History at La Trobe University. In October her team was awarded a $650 000 ARC Discovery Projects grant to evaluate how historical gold mining has shaped river systems in Victoria.

“Documenting the types of landscapes that existed before and at the height of the mining boom, can contribute to the way our catchments and reservoirs are managed into the future,” said Associate Professor Lawrence.

“This is a multidisciplinary investigation on the impact of historic mining practices on Victorian river systems, and what has happened to the rivers in the 100 years since the end of mining.

“For over 50 years from 1851 to 1914 gold mining was the biggest industry in Victoria bar none.

“In that period it produced two and a half thousand tonnes of gold.”

The downside of the gold rush was the production of polluted sludge that was discharged directly into the water and, therefore, Victoria’s rivers and streams.

As part of a previous ARC-funded project, Associate Professor Lawrence and colleague Dr Peter Davies researched and documented the extent of that water use, and have estimated that 75% of Victoria’s catchments were affected by mining waste.

“Despite considerable public discussion at the time, the impact of mining on Victoria's rivers has since been forgotten,” said Associate Professor Lawrence.

Her aim is to determine exactly what happened to the rivers, and how historic mining continues to influence them today.

To do this she has put together a truly multidisciplinary team of geographers, environmental chemists and archaeologists.

The research team will use a wide range of scientific techniques, from landscape archaeology, physical geography and geomorphology to environmental chemistry.

It will identify and map the extent of changes, including increased sedimentation, erosion caused by the altered water flows, and how many contaminants from mining still remain.

“Together we’re going to document the archaeological evidence of mining along the rivers, so we know what was done,” said Associate Professor Lawrence.

“Then we’re going to look at how the physical shape of the landscape and how the functioning of the rivers has changed as a result of that mining.

“We want to find the layers of sediment that we know were created by the mining sludge and the erosion caused by the altered flows of water.

“Then we’re going to do fine grained chemical testing of the sediments to determine what if any contaminants from mining might still remain.”

Associate Professor Susan Lawrence expects that an improved knowledge about our rivers and floodplains and legacy mining sediments will help catchment managers and local planning authorities to make better decisions about what happens in those areas today.

“Nationally this will be the first systematic study of the impact of historic mining on Australian rivers,” she said.

“This is a major area of research in many countries overseas and one in which Australia has lagged behind.

“It is a particularly important one for understanding the long-term consequences of major human interventions in the environment.

“Internationally the Victorian case study presents the opportunity to provide historical perspectives on mining related water damage, which is a major issue in many developing countries,” she said.

The combination of approaches from the sciences and humanities in this research project promises to open a new window into the physical processes occurring in the natural world and the human activities in the past that contributed to those processes.

For more information about this research project, please contact Associate Professor Susan Lawrence.