Digging up Otago's gold rush graves

First@Five 12/04/2018

Graves in the Otago town of Lawrence are being dug up by researchers in an effort to learn more about the lives of its early settlers.

The town boomed during the gold rush in the 1860s, with an influx of European and Chinese miners whose bones could help solve a few mysteries.

Two cemeteries in Lawrence are being excavated as the archaeological team exhume the remains of early settlers.

Professor Hallie Buckley from Otago University's Anatomy Department told James Coleman on First@Five there have been quite a few surprises along the way.

“The cemetery that we’ve been working on for the past week or so was thought to have been cleared when they set up a new cemetery in 1867,” she said. “We went there expecting to find possibly only one grave left behind, but what we have found so far is eight graves including two infants.

“These are the very early people, Europeans and possible Chinese, who came to Lawrence as part of the gold rush and then were the first people to set up the frontier town of the settlement we have here today.”

Skeletons and artefacts removed from the unmarked graves will help to piece together their stories.

Prof Buckley says there are several reasons why the project is being undertaken. It’s aimed at creating a clearer picture of life for those working on the goldfields.

“One of those [reasons] is to establish where the graves are. The first cemetery is on private land and it’s important for the land owner and the wider community to know whether there were still graves left behind there.

“And then also we are working with the Chinese community because they are particularly interested in knowing where the graves of their ancestors are,” she told RadioLIVE.

Listen to the full interview with Professor Hallie Buckley above.

First@Five with James Coleman, 5am - 6am Monday To Friday, on RadioLIVE and streaming live to the rova app on Android and iPhone.

Significance to the Chinese community

Chinese elder and historian Leslie Wong joined Mark Sainsbury on Morning Talk to discuss how significant the grave excavations are to the Chinese community in Otago.

He says there were many Chinese miners, and their families, buried in the gold fields.

“And a lot of them have not got memorial stones because the inscriptions are written in Chinese,” he said. “The university has a deep interest in finding these unknown bodies, buried in graves that are unmarked and to study their DNA.

“To me, that is a great thing that could happen because at least we would know whether they were real bodies buried there or if they were exhumed and taken back to China many years ago.”

Listen to the full interview with Leslie Wong above.

Morning Talk with Mark Sainsbury, 9am - 12pm Weekdays and streaming live on 'rova' channel 9 - available on Android and iPhone.