Studying the past to connect it to the present is an undertaking Barkerville Historic Town and Park archaeologist Dawn Ainsley has embraced fully for the past five years.
In particular, Ainsley has been studying the clues left behind by the some 2,000 Chinese miners who came to the Barkerville area for the Gold Rush during the 1870s.
Her focus is, particularly, on an area in the Chinatown district at Barkerville where, following some sewer infrastructure work in the area, salvage from what was then the Doy Ying Low restaurant, the Lung Duck Tong restaurant and from the Chee Kung Tong — a benevolent society that helped look after Chinese miners — was dumped.
“It’s been a lot of fun all the years I’ve been here,” Ainsley said. “Every year is new, depending on what comes up. The restaurant garbage was located right off the porch so you find all kinds of interesting things.”
Everything from the 1800s is mixed in with artifacts dating to 1940, she said, due to the excavation work done in the area over the years.
Opium paraphernalia including pieces of pipes and opium tins, coins dated from the Qing Dynasty (1644 to 1912), gambling beads made of glass from a popular game called San Tan, tin cans filled with meat, pottery, emperor coins (from 1644 to 1661) and tiny, glass medicine bottles, to name just a few, are some of the interesting artifacts she’s discovered.
“I look at the artifacts to try to determine date frames … the dig site works as part of our public programming so it’s a great segue into why things are protected within an archaeological setting for the school programs and then, educating the public after July in our public programming,” she said.
Ainsley, originally from Calgary, Alta., moved from the Lower Mainland to work at the Barkerville Historic Town and Park. She worked for a year under the previous archaeologist before taking on the lead role in 2015.
Now, everything she collects is stored on site. Artifacts she collects are taken to her lab, washed in plain water and scrubbed with soft brushes, then dried and sorted based on colour and function.
“Glass, for example: there are greens and blues and so many different shades of green, and the colour sometimes will depict what was in it,” Ainsley said. “Amber- and olive-coloured bottles tended to have alcohol in them. Medicines liked to come in little blue bottles, and sometimes amber, so we look for anything diagnostic and find out: What can it hold? Can I get a date from what was in it?”
Bones, as well, are quite common.
“The majority are pig bones,” she said. “We know the Chinese did pig husbandry, so they would butcher them and use them for food and some are showing juvenile traits. We know the Chinese liked to have suckling pork, and there was a pig roasting pit behind the Chee Kung Tong.”
The artifacts, ultimately, tell a story of how Chinese miners lived during the Gold Rush era.
“We don’t have a lot of written record and what we do have is in Chinese, and that’s just the account of lives,” she said. “This gives us a little more in depth like looking at the different products being brought into the area and how the early miners came on foot and only carried what they could pack in before things started being brought in by merchants.”
Ainsley said aside from discovering treasures from a bygone era, she particularly enjoys educating the public about Barkerville’s history.
“Everything I do is dynamic, which is nice,” she said. “I love telling people about things that come up, and interpretation is one of my favourite things to do on site.
“I just really like seeing what cool thing this [discovery] could be and then seeing what kind of rabbit hole I’m going down. It happens regularly.”