Archaeological Evidence of Gender in Central Otago Mining Communities

During the 19th Century in Central Otago New Zealand, the discovery of gold encouraged many prospectors from around the world and New Zealand to search for gold in Central Otago’s rivers, fields and gully’s. Prospectors, both men and women, young and old, mined for gold in the goldfields. Here, evidence of the distribution of labour in the mining communities is found to include both men and women. This archaeological evidence from these mining communities, provide relevant information about the labour and social roles of men and women on Central Otago goldfields in the 19th Century.

Mining in Central Otago

Mining during the 19th Century in Central Otago began with the discovery of gold at Tuapeka. Here, in 1861, the incentive of a £500 reward from the Otago Provincial Council encouraged prospectors to search for gold within Otago. This incentive led Gabriel Read to discover gold at Tuapeka, where the goldfield was later named Gabriel’s Gully (Carryer, 1994). Read’s discovery sparked news to Dunedin residents and intending immigrants, informing them of gold in this area. Many left their homes and families and travelled long distances for the hope of striking it rich. Gabriel’s Gully led to the discovery of further goldfields within Central Otago. In 1862, the Cardrona, Shotover River, Arrow River, Lake Wakatipu and the Dunstan goldfields were discovered, and also Nokomai in 1863 (Carryer, 1994). These goldfields all gave rise to the construction and development of mining towns and communities. At first, these communities were temporarily built, with shops, hotels and miners huts all made from basic canvas or calico material hoisted by timber (Carryer, 1994). As the scope of the goldfields became larger, communities settled and became more permanent. The temporary canvas stores, hotels and huts previously made, were reconstructed with timber and concrete. Evidence such as material artefacts, foundations of huts and buildings, and photographs from the Central Otago goldfields provide us with information about the labour and social roles of men and women in the 19th Century.


Men in Mining Communities

As the news of the first discovery of gold at Gabriel’s Gully reached the citizens of Dunedin and the rest of the world, prospectors immediately left their homes in search for gold. The majority of theses prospectors were men, including such, labourers and tradesmen, in their late teens and twenties (Ell, 1995). Like many of the gold prospectors, professional businessmen made their way to the goldfields to establish services for the miners. These included stores, such as post offices, banks, pubs, hotels and hardware stores. Here, men owned these businesses, often making more money than the miners.


Archaeological evidence of men as miners or businessmen in the 19th Century Central Otago goldfields is relevantly readily available. For mining men, this evidence is available in forms of literature, written records of when and who discovered gold mines at specific locations are available, census statistics of the male population in these areas, and photographs of men at the goldfields mining, all of which provide suggestions about the labour roles in these communities. Evidence of businessmen and tradesmen provide information about labour and social roles within the community. Examples of these include that of the ownership and management of stores and hotels, such as the bank and gold office at Maori Point ("Bank of New Zealand") in the 1860s, managed by "G. M. Ross" (Hall-Jones, n.d.).

Although many men wrote diaries and memoirs about their lives in the mining communities, little mention and information was given about the significance of women’s labour and social roles. However, archaeological evidence suggests that many women on these goldfields played relevant positions in mining and other community roles.


Women in Mining Communities

On the 19th century goldfields, women played significant social and labour roles, as wives, mothers, prostitutes, business women and "‘Colonial Helpmeets’" (wives who worked alongside their husbands) (Dickinson, 1993). Women within these communities were young and single, or married with a family. As gold was in the midst of discovery, many wives and children of the male prospectors did not travel in search of gold to begin with. These wives and children moved to the goldfields as towns developed with hotels, stores and schools. However, women were present on these goldfields from the very first discovery of gold in 1861, at Gabriel’s Gully. An example is "Janet Robertson", who lived with her husband in a small cottage in Tuapeka. It was here in her cottage, where "Gabriel Read" wrote his discovery letter of gold to the Otago Provincial Council (Dickinson, 1993). As the news of this goldfield in Gabriel's Gully spread, prospectors engaged in the area, and Janet opened up her home, cooked meals and tended to the miners, as they passed through.

Evidence of another significant women present on the 19th Century Central Otago goldfields, was "Susan Nugent-Wood", a well known writer in the 1860s and 1870s. Nugent-Wood, her husband John, and their children moved to Otago in 1861, as prospectors of gold. Nugent-Wood worked on the goldfields of Central Otago in several official positions (Smith, 2007). She wrote stories based on her life and roles on the Central Otago goldfields. These provide accounts of labour and social aspects of mining and gender in the 19th Century.

As the majority of women within these mining communities were married, many became widows, as their husbands died during mining related activities or diseases. These women, whose husbands owned stores or hotels, adopted ownership rights (Ell, 1995). Many became well known throughout the communities, amongst visitors, passing miners and local citizens. Archaeological evidence of a widow, who took over ownership rights following her husbands’ death, was "Elizabeth Potts". Potts was given a legitimate license for the Victoria Hotel in Lawrence in 1869 (Tuapeka Times, 1869). This was recorded and published in the "Tuapeka Times", 11 December 1869. This archaeological evidence provides information which suggests that women played significant labour and social roles within mining communities.

Excavation Evidence

An excavation report written by "P. G. Petchey", from the Golden Bar Mine between the Macraes Flat and Palmeston, Otago, shows that located in front of the main mine workings of ca.1897, archaeological material was found. This material was a small heart-shaped broach with 13 glass diamonds (Petchey, 2005). This archaeological evidence suggests that women were present at this site, and within the Golden Bar goldfield. The exact occupation of women from this evidence is unknown, but indicates that women were present on the goldfields during the 19th Century gold rush in Otago.

Another excavation report by "Petchey" from the Macraes Flat mining area, presents items of children’s toys such as marbles, and a china doll’s leg amongst ruins of a house site (Petchey, 1995). This evidence is also useful to suggest men and their families engaged in mining activities and social life on the goldfields in the 19th Century.Archaeological artefacts from 19th Century mining communities in Central Otago, suggest women and children were on site of the goldfields. It is unknown whether these artefacts belong to women who were miners or women who were domestic wives and mothers.



Carryer, B. (1994). The New Zealand GoldRushes, 1860-1870, Berkley Publishing, Browns Bay, Auckland, pp 5-6, 19.

Dickinson, J. (1993). ‘Picks, pans and petticoats: Women on the Central Otago goldfields’, BA(HONS) dissertation, Otago University, New Zealand.

Ell, G. (1995). GoldRush: Tales and Traditions of the New Zealand Goldfield, The Bush Press, Auckland, New Zealand.

Forrest, J. (1961). Population and Settlement on the Otago Goldfields 1861-1870, New Zealand Geographer, 17, 1, pp64-86.

Glasson, H. A. (1957). The Golden Cobweb: a saga of the Otago goldfields, 1861-1864, Otago Daily Times & Witness Newspapers, Dunedin.

Hall-Jones, J. Goldfields of Otago: An Illustrated History, Craig Printing Co. Ltd, Invercargill, New Zealand, pp 122.

Harper, B. (1980). Petticoat Pioneers: South Island women of the Colonial Era, A. H. & A. W. REED LTD, Wellington, New Zealand pp184-189.

Mahalski, B. (2005). New Zealand’s Golden Days, Gilt Edge Publishing, Wellington, New Zealand.

Petchey, P. G. (1995). Excavation Report Site 142/27: House Sites Site142/28: Stone Ruin Macraes Flat: For Macraes Mining Company, Dunedin, pp 10.

Petchey, P. G. (2005). Golden Bar Mine Macraes: Report for Oceana Gold Ltd, Southern Archaeology, Dunedin, pp 34.

Smith, R. ‘Wood, Susan 1836 – 1880’, Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, updated 22 June 2007:, cited 28 March 2008.

"Tuapeka Times". (1869, December 11). "Licensing Meeting", pp 3.


ee also

Central Otago Gold Rush

Gabriel's Gully

Gold prospecting

Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.

Look at other dictionaries:

Share the article and excerpts

Direct link
Do a right-click on the link above
and select “Copy Link”

We are using cookies for the best presentation of our site. Continuing to use this site, you agree with this.