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Secrets, Buried Treasure, and Collegiate Identity

— One day about 600 BC, the people of the Greek city of Ephesus gathered around a big pit in the ground. Someone important (we dont’t know who exactly) scattered a group of coins across the bottom of the pit, and then teams of workmen lowered several enormous stone slabs over them. These slabs were the central floor stones of what was to become the Artemision—the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus—known to later ages as one of the Seven Wonders of the World.

[An electrum third stater of ancient Asia Minor, circa 600 BC]We know about the coins that passed from someone’s hand into the ground that day because in 1904 they were recovered, by archaeologists from the British Museum, right under the floor where they had been left two and a half thousand years before. These particular coins are important to scholars because they are among the first coins ever made: irregular lumps of electrum stamped with images of roaring lions, horses’ heads, stags and winged griffins.

The scattering of coins under the floor of the Artemision was an example of one of the most ancient building traditions in the world: the placement of “foundation deposits.” Naval architects will be familiar with a similarly ancient tradition: the insertion of coins into the keels of newly-made ships.

Secret treasures, hidden places, trap doors under carpets, sliding panels in walls that only the right people know about—all these things add enormous psychological depth and meaning to a temple, a home, a ship, or a college. In their important book A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction—the one architectural book every residential college officer should own—Christopher Alexander and his colleagues assert that “there is a need in people to live with a secret place in their homes: a place that is used in special ways, and revealed only at very special moments.”

And what could be easier to create? Whether you loosen a brick from the Junior Common Room wall, carve a slot into the underside of a library table, place a secret inscription in the base of a statue, cast coins underneath the stones of your foundation, or hide “in the instep arch / Of an old cedar at the waterside / A broken drinking goblet like the Grail / Under a spell so the wrong ones can’t find it”—whichever of these or a hundred other things you do, do something, and keep it as a secret of your college. When you let your new members in on the secret, you transform them in an instant: by knowing, they belong.

On a different morning, James Grant tells us, in the austral summer of 1870—half a world, two millennia, and an entire religion away from Ephesus—a happy crowd marched in procession to another pit in the ground. They were on the way to lay the foundation stone for Trinity College at the young University of Melbourne.

[Laying the foundation stone of Trinity College, Melbourne.]At the head of the procession were the choristers of St. Peter’s, Eastern Hill, in white surplices: following them came clergy and lay members of the Church Assembly; then Bishop Perry and Dean Macartney in their gowns with other officers of the Diocese; and finally members of the University according to rank, including a sprinkling of doctors of laws in scarlet. Awaiting the procession was an assembly composed very largely of ladies…. Proceedings began with a shortened form of Morning Prayer: St Peter’s Choir with harmonium accompaniment sang Boyce’s anthem, ‘Oh, Where shall wisdom be found’, which the Argus thought ‘very appropriate’ and the Age ‘very pretty’; then Perry descended from the platform and with due ceremony laid the Foundation Stone. This was unmarked, but beneath it, in the usual manner, was a bottle containing the newspapers of the day, the current coins of the realm and a scroll with a Latin commemoration.

And to this day, 136 years later, a Trinity College student can say to her friends, “Do you see that stone in the corner of the building? There’s a secret hidden beneath it.”

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© Robert J. O’Hara 2000–2021