British Columbia

Gold rush garbage mined to unearth history of Chinese miners in B.C.

A B.C. archaeologist is digging through the garbage of a gold rush restaurant to unearth the history of the several thousand Chinese miners who used to dine there, 150 years ago.

Clues to the lives of 2,000 Chinese miners found in Barkerville's gold rush garbage

Archaeologist Dawn Ainsley has found everything from opium tins to toothpaste lids in the garbage of a gold rush era Chinese restaurant. (Betsy Trumpener/CBC )

A B.C. archaeologist is mining a garbage dump beside an old Chinese restaurant, working to unearth clues about the lives of Chinese gold miners more than a century ago. 

Dawn Ainsley's dig site is in the Chinatown section of Barkerville Historic Town and Park, about 700 kilometres north of Vancouver. 

2,000 Chinese miners 

At the height of the gold rush, about 2,000 Chinese miners lived in the area, making up about half of the local population.

Ben Zhou, acting in character as Nam Sing, a Chinese teacher, sits in the lead wagon during a historical re-enactment at Barkerville Historic Town and Park. (Betsy Trumpener/CBC )

Now, working beside historical wooden buildings, Ainsley picks through layers of trash thrown off the side porch of the Doy Ying Low restaurant as far back as 1870. 

The garbage has been buried in layers of mud from the flooding that's occurred in the last 150 years.

The treasure trove of trash was discovered during modern-day excavations for water and sewer lines.  

'Amazing things'

Now, several days a week, Ainsley digs into the refuse pile with a shovel, filling a simple, silver bucket labelled "archeology." Then she sifts the material and dries the artifacts at her lab.

Some days are very mundane, "with nothing but broken glass and rusted metal," she says. 

"But then other days, amazing things come out of there."

Archaeologist Dawn Ainsley dries artifacts from the refuse pile in her lab at Barkerville Historic Town and Park. (Betsy Trumpener/CBC News )

Her discoveries include dominoes, Chinese medicine bottles, opium tins and pipe pieces, beer bottles, and a bone that appears to be a crochet hook. 

History in garbage

Ainsley has found Qing dynasty coins that are almost 400 years old.

There has also been a toothpaste cap, a can of tinned meat, and many pork bones. Ainsley thinks some of the bones came from suckling pigs, and there's evidence there was a pig roasting pit near the restaurant. 

Historians believe several thousand Chinese miners live in Barkerville during the gold rush, about half the community's population. (Betsy Trumpener/CBC )

"There's a lot of history in garbage, absolutely," said James Douglas, who heads Barkerville's public programming and global media development.

"In fact some of the greatest things we've ever [discovered] have come out of garbage dumps," he said. "She's been finding some remarkable artifacts."

Ben Zhou dresses in costume as a gold rush era Chinese school teacher, Nam Sing. He says tourists are often surprised to hear about the several thousand miners who lived in Barkerville during the gold rush. (Betsy Trumpener/CBC )

Rich Chinese history during gold rush

Barkerville already has one of the largest Chinese archival collections in Canada, with approximately 18,500 items.

Ben Zhou has worked in Barkerville's living history program, dressing in costume to portray a gold rush era Chinese school teacher.

Tourists visit his Chinese school house for old-fashioned lessons in Mandarin and calligraphy.

Zhou says many visitors are surprised to learn about the gold rush's rich Chinese history. 

"The men came here from Guangdong province," said Zhou. 

"They were looking forward to make some money to help [their] family back home. They wanted to find gold. They worked hard."

Zhou applauds Ainsley's efforts to find out more about the lives of these Chinese men.

"It's very important," he said.

About the Author

Betsy Trumpener

Reporter-Editor, CBC News

Betsy Trumpener has won numerous national and provincial journalism awards, including a national network award for radio documentary. Based out of Prince George, B.C., Betsy has reported on everything from hip hop in Tanzania to B.C.'s energy industry and the Paralympics.

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