The excavations in Lawrence: A summary

We started excavations in Lawrence in April 2018, looking into the ‘old’ cemetery on Ardrossan Street (now privately owned land) and the unmarked area of the Gabriel’s Street cemetery where Chinese people are believed to have been buried – there are some graves marked with headstones with Chinese characters in this area. European people who were of limited means are also thought to have been buried in this area.

Colonial records suggested that the Ardrossan cemetery was abandoned and all burials moved to Gabriel Street in the late 1800s, but local legend said that one burial was left at Ardrossan Street that would need moving if the land was ever to be developed. Graves at the Gabriel Street cemetery were also likely to be empty, we thought, because of the Chinese practice of exhuming people after burial so that their bones could be sent back to rest in China. We know there were two exhumation events, a successful one in 1882, and the ill-fated 1902 exhumation, where remains were exhumed but never reached their homeland due to the sinking of the vessel carrying them (the SS Ventnor) off Hokianga in Northland.

With the permission and guidance of the current landowner of Ardrossan Street, and the Otago/Southland branch of the New Zealand Chinese Association, and in consultation with other descendant and local groups we aimed to find out:

a) Whether the Ardrossen Street cemetery really had been cleared in the late 1800s (as records suggested)

b) The extent of graves in the unmarked area of the Gabriels St cemetery, and who was buried in them. 

We found out pretty quickly that the idea that only one burial was left at Ardrossan Street was not the case, and uncovered an entire row of early colonial burials, none of which showed any evidence of people having tried to move them. Our digging in the first season (April 2018) was cut short by bad weather, but after 3 rounds of digging at the sites we now know there were 24 burials still at Ardrossan Street. These have all now been exhumed and after study will be reburied with markers giving information about the individuals at the Gabriel Street cemetery (as they were supposed to have been in the 1860s!).

The glamorous reality of archaeological fieldwork – site director Dr. Peter Petchey strides across the mud at the Ardrossan Street site, April 2018. (photo from https://www.stuff.co.nz/southland-times/news/103030698/exhumation-at-old-lawrence-cemetery-reveals-surprising-finds)

Empty graves, were, however, more the norm in the Chinese section of Gabriel Street. We found evidence of both of the phases of official exhumations (1882 and 1902) and of the 27 grave cuts we found, only 8 still had human remains in them. The others contained coffin wood, nails, cloth and occasionally brick grave markers explaining who had been in them (see later blog posts) but all bones had been carefully removed.

However, not all individuals were exhumed. Some rows contained graves where people had been taken, with people remaining in the graves right next to them. We know that Chinese miners had to pay into the exhumation schemes in order to be taken back to China, and officials would show diggers who was to be taken and who hadn’t paid and was to remain behind. In Lawrence these rules were clearly stuck to.

Our investigations at Gabriel Street also showed that burials extend well beyond the currently maintained area of the cemetery and into the overgrown bush at the bottom of the cemetery. We found at least 5 rows of (mostly exhumed) burials in this area

Some of the team (Bridget, Alana, India and Aew) mapping in the rows of graves in the overgrown area beyond the edge of the currently maintained Gabriel Street cemetery.

The skeletal remains are currently being studied by our team in the hopes of finding a little more about the lives these people lived, who these people were, and the accoutrements they were buried with. We’d love to be able to identify people so that they can be reburied with grave markers saying who they were, but records of who was buried in both Ardrossan Street and the Chinese area of Gabriel’s are few and far between. If you think you might have relatives buried in either area please get in touch!

Charlotte King

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