Discovered in a shallow grave above the Clutha river in 1983, the man’s remains have been studied for the past 40 years.
More than 140 years after he died, an unknown gold miner initially buried in his boots has been laid to rest for the final time.
On Saturday morning a horse-drawn hearse carried the man to Cromwell cemetery where the experts who’ve spent decades studying his remains lowered his coffin into the ground.
Dr Neville Ritchie discovered the man’s body in a shallow grave nearly 40 years ago and says while there’s now a clearer picture of who the man was, he always hoped that someone would eventually be able to reveal his name.
“We just referred him as our friend.”
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Believed to be one of the thousands of men who came to the Central Otago region during the late 1800s gold rush, the man’s body was found in 1983 by Ritchie during archaeological work ahead of construction of the Clyde Dam and highway.
An orchardist had been told by his father that a man who drowned in the river was buried on his land in a grave that lay in the path of the yet-to-be-constructed State Highway 8.
Upon finding and excavating the schist-topped grave, Ritchie discovered it had been robbed, a practice that had never been recorded in the goldfields.
“You would expect human remains to be at the bottom of the grave but we were finding bits and pieces, particularly ribs, within about 20cms of the surface. It was obvious something untoward had happened.
“The pelvis had a cut mark on it that we believe was from a shovel. Presumably they were looking for something valuable like gold.”
Although the wooden casket had rotted away, the brackets and handles were missing as were the buttons from the man’s clothes. But while the top half of the man’s skeleton was in disarray, from the waist down he was intact and still wearing his boots.
“That was unusual and possibly more evidence it was a decomposing body found on the banks of the Cluth and the people who found him had enough concern to acquire a coffin and bury him with some slabs of stone on top.”
The man’s remains – known as “E224” – were sent to Otago University’s medical school where experts set about trying to find out more about him.
Testing ultimately revealed he was between 35 and 40 years old when he died and at 1.88m was tall for his time.
“The DNA suggests he was of English extraction but with links to Denmark so he may have been of Viking blood way back.”
The boots put the man’s death at anywhere between the height of the gold rush through to the late 19th century and nutritional information shows he had a “pretty tough” and undernourished childhood.
“He came to New Zealand and he had better nutrition for a while, but by the time he died was suffering from scurvy like a lot of miners were.”
Ritchie says there was no obvious indication of how the miner died other than the story of drowning that had been passed down through the landowner’s family.
Now, after languishing for 37 years in the University of Otago’s anatomy department it was time for the miner’s body to be returned to the ground.
“I’m not sure what send-off he had originally, but this probably exceeds it, and is really for other forgotten miners lost in the goldfields who didn’t end up in a cemetery or urupa in the end.”
Professor Hallie Buckley says the work has been a team effort from archaeologists both here and in the UK. The project has been significant in its findings, and it was down to advances in bioarchaeological and archaeological methodology that so much about it was able to be revealed.
“But we’re now at a place where we’ve told as much of his story as we can, and we’re very pleased to be able to have him safely reinterred.”
The funeral was organized by Alexandra-based funeral director Lynley Claridge and the team at Affinity Funerals who covered the costs.
Claridge says the man had become a symbol for all the gold miners lost during the gold rush, many of whom never had the funerals they deserved.
Speaking at the service she said the gold miner is now lying on a soft calico mattress with his boots no longer on his feet but placed next to him.
“His work is done now so, Mr Gold Miner, rest in peace.”