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Wednesday 19 April 2023 2:33pm

The remains of 34 unknown early settlers, who have helped further shape the picture of life on Otago's goldfields, will be laid to rest again this weekend.

The Southern Cemeteries Archaeological Project will conclude its work at Lawrence's Ardrossan Street and Gabriel Street Cemeteries with a public reburial service on 23 April.

Project co-lead Professor Hallie Buckley, of the University of Otago's Department of Anatomy, says researchers set out to create a detailed picture of what life was like at the time of the Goldrush in the early 1860s.

“We are grateful we have been able to provide more detail into people's backgrounds, their burial traditions, health, diet and overall quality of life,” she says.

During archaeological excavations in 2018 and 2019 a total of 51 unmarked graves were exposed. Of those, 45 were excavated and the remains of 34 people were found, predominantly adults but also four infants, most of whom died in the 1860s to the 1890s.

Project co-lead Dr Peter Petchey, Southern Archaeology Director, says Lawrence was the seat of one of Otago's main goldrushes, after Gabriel Reid found gold in Gabriel's Gully in 1861. It was also the location of a Chinese goldfield settlement, which grew after Chinese miners began to arrive in Otago from late 1865.

The Ardrossan Street cemetery was only in use from late 1861 until about 1864.

“In 1866 the Borough Council discussed seeking permission from the families of those who were buried there to move the bodies to the 'new' cemetery on Gabriel Street, and local lore was that all graves, but one, were moved. However, to our surprise, we found that no-one had been exhumed and moved,” Dr Petchey says.

The Gabriel Street cemetery was opened in about 1864 and is still in use. There, the researchers concentrated on the southern end of the cemetery, where Chinese and 'paupers' were known to have been buried. A number of those graves had been historically exhumed for repatriation to China, including on board the ill-fated SS Ventnor in 1902.

A combination of historical research, archaeological investigation, and bioarchaeological analysis revealed interesting aspects of the lives of those buried.

Many of them had poor dental hygiene exacerbated by pipe-smoking, some even had pipes buried with them.

“These people would probably have been in discomfort due to the state of their teeth, but on the flipside to that, pipe-smoking provided people of the day with some relief from the rigours of life on a goldmining frontier,” Professor Buckley says.

The graves in the Ardrossan Street cemetery were widely scattered, in contrast to the neatly ordered rows of the later Gabriel Street Cemetery, and the depths of the graves varied greatly.

Dr Petchey says this was a reflection of a frontier society where locals were concerned about goldmining, not town planning.

One surprising element of the research was discovering the variety of places the Chinese population on the goldfields came from. Chinese on the goldfields are often believed to have come from the same region of Guangzhou, but the isotope work showed they probably came from a few different regions of China.

“Interesting artefacts were also found in some graves, with several containing distinctively Chinese artefacts, including a wooden comb and the remains of a Chinese-style tunic or jacket. Items such as these demonstrate how Chinese miners maintained their cultural links and identity in the goldfields,” Dr Petchey says.

So far, five academic articles have included information about those buried in the cemeteries. Histology and isotope analyses will continue over the next few years. A monograph of the project and its findings is also set to be published later this year.

Reburials of the Southern Cemeteries Archaeological Project's Milton project occurred in November last year, while reburials of its Drybread project will take place later this year.

Event details:

Sunday, 23 April 2023, 2:00pm

For more information, please contact:

Lea Jones
Communications Adviser
University of Otago
Mob +64 21 279 4969

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