Q&A with Neville Ritchie, author of Archaeology and History of the Chinese in Southern New Zealand During the Nineteenth Century

Dr Neville A. Ritchie is an archaeological heritage consultant. Prior to his retirement in 2018 he worked for over three decades as a technical advisor/archaeologist for the Department of Conservation, Hamilton, New Zealand, and prior to that spent a decade with Heritage New Zealand.


Congratulations on the recent publication of your book, Archaeology and History of the Chinese in Southern New Zealand During the Nineteenth Century. This book revisits your 1986 PhD dissertation, how did this study begin?

In 1977 I was appointed project archaeologist on the Clutha Valley Development, a plan to build five hydroelectric dams in Central Otago in the South Island (Te Wai Pounamu) of New Zealand. My job was to record and carry out a program of mitigation excavations on the sites that would eventually go underwater or be destroyed by other construction work. It soon became apparent that about 60% of the sites that would be destroyed were associated with the Chinese miners who came to Otago after 1866. With their distinctive Chinese artefacts, these sites were readily recognisable. As there had been no prior archaeological research on Chinese sites, I decided to make them the focus of the project. In the process I accumulated so much artefactual material and data I decided to write it up and submit it as a PhD.

Much work has been done on the goldmining regions of the US and Australia, would you say that comparatively little research has focused on these regions in New Zealand, and particularly the experience of those of Chinese background? Why is that? 

Much greater numbers of Chinese miners went to the US and Australian goldfields (as well as Chinese railroad builders going to the US) than came to NZ. Chinese settlers were also late arrivals – initially only coming in small numbers from Victoria, Australia, after they were invited by the Otago Chamber of Commerce in 1866.  Consequently, there are far more Chinese sites over vastly greater distances in the US and Australia. Before I started my archaeological research on the Chinese miners in Central Otago, there had been a lot of historical research on Chinese migrants in all three countries but there had been relatively little archaeological research. As soon as I started publishing papers after the Cromwell Chinese Camp excavation in 1981, I started receiving letters (no emails initially) seeking information from my digs and invites to overseas conferences. It just snowballed from there. After my thesis became available in 1986, it became an important international reference for information on overseas Chinese material culture, in no small part because of the high-quality artefact drawings.

What sparked your interest in historical archaeology?  

When I was a young student in the early 1970s, the focus of archaeology in our teaching universities (Otago and Auckland) was on Māori and Pacific archaeology. In the 1980s, myself and other archaeologists with an interest in the colonial era started getting into historical archaeology – especially the New Zealand Wars-era and mining archaeology – while others got into urban- and missionary-era archaeology. Another factor was growing up in Dunedin in the South Island, only a few hours drive from the Otago goldfields. I loved to explore the goldfields and it is a passion that has stuck with me. The same with archaeology – my career was a paid hobby.

Your dissertation is considered by the Australian Society for Historical Archaeology to be a seminal work in the field of historical archaeology. Might you have some advice you’d like to pass on to the next generation of archaeologists?

If it’s a seminal work, it’s because I had nine years to do extensive fieldwork and accumulate a huge amount of material for comparative analysis. Few receive such an opportunity, but archaeology is all about pattern recognition. Every investigation of sites anywhere touched by the Chinese diaspora will produce artefacts and data that can be compared and contrasted against the findings and conclusions expounded in Archaeology and History of the Chinese in Southern New Zealand During the Nineteenth Century to expand knowledge about the lifeways of Chinese migrants across distant lands.

What are you currently working on?

Since I retired at the end of 2018, I have mainly been writing books and doing some archaeological contract work, and spent two years in Taiwan. I am currently working on two contract jobs: an archaeological impact assessment for the Pauanui Tairua cycleway and a Heritage Assessment and Maintenance Plan for sites in the Waiorongomai goldfield (unfortunately Chinese miners did not work on the North Island goldfields).

If you could go back in time, when and where would you go?

I wouldn’t want to go anywhere back in time if I couldn’t come back, but I think an interesting and topical time would be to go back to the heyday of the goldrushes in NZ.

Archaeology and History of the Chinese in Southern New Zealand During the Nineteenth Century is available now. Order your copy here.