Keynote Speaker – Professor Susan Lawrence FAHA FSA

Keynote Address: Rivers of Gold 

Human influence on Australian rivers is nothing new. Recent research has demonstrated that Victoria’s nineteenth-century mining boom dumped a deluge of sand, silt and gravel into local rivers for over 50 years. ‘Sludge’ permanently altered floodplains and river channels all over Victoria. Theimpact was particularly great in the north east where alluvial mining sent millions of tons of sediment into the rivers and dredges churned up lengthy stretches of river bank to depths of up to 40 metres. Downstream communities in the north east led the fight to get sludge out of the rivers. After decades of struggle their efforts resulted in some of the world’s first legislation to restrict mining pollution and remediate former mine sites. That legislation continues to influence mining regulations internationally even though the recent human history of Victorian rivers has been forgotten.

The environmental impact of mining in Victoria is one of the great untold stories of the gold rush and is of lasting significance for communities and natural resource managers today. The story of sludge has implications for river remediation programs, catchment management, public health, the management of cultural heritage and debates about how people and environments interact.


Professor Susan Lawrence is an industrial archaeologist at La Trobe University, Melbourne. She is a co-Chief Investigator of the AR- funded Rivers of Gold project, a multi-disciplinary investigation of the lasting effects of historic mining sediment on Victoria’s rivers. Susan has nearly thirty years’ experience working on archaeological sites all over Australia, including the Victorian goldfields, Tasmanian whaling stations and South Australian farms. She is the author of several books and over 90 articles and has published internationally on gender, material culture, urban archaeology, colonialism, environmental and landscape archaeology, and industrial archaeology. Susan is a past president of the Australasian Society for Historical Archaeology and was on the Archaeology Advisory Committee for the Heritage Council of Victoria for many years. She is a Fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities and the Society of Antiquaries of London. Her most recent book, Sludge: Disaster on Victoria’s Goldfields (Black Inc/La Trobe University Press 2019), co-authored with Peter Davies, was short-listed for the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards.