Exploring family history through artefacts

Hannah Craig-Ward, PhD Candidate, The University of Queensland

Archaeologists explore the past lives of people using many different approaches, depending on their particular area of research interest. In historical archaeology, identity, is one concept often explored, and made up of  facets including gender, religion, class, age, occupation, ethnicity, and social networks (King 2006:312; Lawrence and Davies 2011:223; Terry 2014:39). Identity is integral to one’s sense of being and can be explored archaeologically from the material goods acquired and consumption practices (Cochran and Beaudry 2006:200). Here, the sense of identity of family from early 20th century Ravenswood (a gold mining town in North Queensland) is explored through the artefacts found in association with their home.


Ravenswood is located approximately 100km inland from Townsville. Gold was first discovered in the area in 1868 (Hurle 1917:338), and from humble beginnings of a canvas and bark hut town, grew a large and prosperous settlement of great significance (Bell 2000:7). As a historical town, Ravenswood dates to between 1870 and 1917, however it has continued to be inhabited to the present day, with several minor booms during the 1930s and in the 1980s (Bell 2000:31; 35). Ravenswood saw several boom and bust periods mostly related to the challenges the miners faced regarding the difficulty of extracting gold from the ‘mundic’ (pyrite or sulphide) ore (Menghetti 1990:78; Roderick 1975:154). These difficulties, however, ensured that Ravenswood was at the forefront of technological advancement for gold extraction, and it was the first place in Queensland where the chlorination process, and later Wilfley tables were utilised (Bell 2000:7). Despite the Depression in the 1890s, the introduction of the cyanide process resulted in greater gold yields, and in 1898, Ravenswood had had its most productive year yet (Roderick 1975:164). In 1899, the New Ravenswood Company Limited was registered, led by A.L. Wilson, and Ravenswood’s most prosperous era had just begun. At it’s peak, the goldfield hosted a population of 4,707 people in 1903, half of which were women and children (Bell 2000:190; Roderick 1975:154).

The Edwards Family

The Edwards family lived in Ravenswood from c.1901 until 1915, during the town’s ‘heyday’. The family consisted of Henry John Edwards, an engine-driver, Annie (nee McPherson), a dressmaker, and their children: Gertrude May (Gertie, born 1889), Theodore Henry (born 1891), Eliza Irene Madge (Irene, born 1893), and Elizabeth Mary Ellen (Nellie, born 1900). There was also another son, Arthur Stanley, born 1895, who unfortunately died in 1899 approximately 3.5 years old. The Edwards were a working-class mining family, and they lived in a house on Church Street (outlined in red on map). The site of their homestead was surveyed and excavated in 2018 by Niche Environment and Heritage.

Ravenswood town map, 1980

Ravenswood map

The artefacts from the site, in conjunction with the historical record, tell a story about the inhabitants. Overall, the assemblage indicates a working-class family that aspired to middle class values of respectability. The ceramics purchased were mostly everyday items like  plates, bowls, platters, saucers, and teacups, except for a few sauce tureen fragments. This suggests  that while the Edwards were unable to follow fine dining rituals established in Victorian society, they did what was possible within their means.

A care for appearance was also apparent in the assemblage. A fine-toothed comb was recovered, demonstrating a concern for hygiene, and several accessories including possible brooch pins, a mother-of-pearl cufflink, and a few bottles of “Hauthaway’s Peerless Gloss” shoe polish were also present.

Fragments of a Sauce Tureen in the Kaiser Pattern by Burgess and Leigh
Fragments of a Dinner Plate in the Phoebe Pattern by Wedgwood & Co. Ltd.

The presence of the women in the Edwards family is visible in the artefacts recovered. The daughters can be seen in the various doll and toy tea-set fragments, as well as a perforated seashell that may have been a homemade pendant, perhaps commemorating a holiday to the coast. Annie’s occupation as a dressmaker is also well-documented in the archaeological record. A multitude of sewing paraphernalia including pins, eyelets, hook-and-eye clasps, buttons, press studs, tacks, and thimbles, was recovered from the site. It is also evident that at least one of her daughters followed in her footsteps with Irene’s work commented on in the Northern Miner for a needlework competition (17 May 1901).

The Edwards children’s education was also represented in the slate board and pencil fragments. Ink bottle fragments and a paper tack were also recovered demonstrating literacy in the family. According to historical archives, Ellen (Nellie) Edwards was enrolled at the Ravenswood school in 1913, aged 13 years and 5 months. In this record, the family’s religious denomination is listed as R.C., meaning Roman Catholic. During the surface collection of the site, a non-ferrous metal medal of the Immaculate Conception (a Miraculous Medal) was collected. This artefact provides physical evidence of the Edwards family’s faith.

A Perforated Seashell
A Mother-of-Pearl Cufflink
Fragments of a Hauthaway’s Peerless Gloss bottle
Excerpt of Admission Register Ravenswood State School 1903-1926


This is but a glimpse into the lives of the Edwards family, and research is still ongoing, but it demonstrates how the finds from a site, together with the historical record, can tell a story of the people of the past and their identity. From the ceramics and personal items, it seems that while the Edwards could be considered working-class, they had a level of affluence and social mobility that allowed them to aspire to and achieve certain middle class ideals. Perhaps this was achievable from Mrs Edwards’ occupation and reputation as a dressmaker, which bolstered the family’s income and social wealth.


Bell, P. 2000 Ravenswood Conservation management Plan. Unpublished report to Ravenswood Restoration and Preservation Association Inc., Ravenswood.

Cochran, M.D. and M.C. Beaudry 2006 Material Culture Studies and Historical Archaeology. In Beaudry, M.C. and D. Hicks (eds), The Cambridge Companion to Historical Archaeology, pp.191–204.Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hurle, H.H.C. 1917 The Discovery of the Ravenswood Goldfields. Read at the Meeting of the Historical Society of Queensland.

King, J.A. 2006 Household Archaeology, Identities and Biographies. In Beaudry, M.C. and D. Hicks (eds), The Cambridge Companion to Historical Archaeology, pp.293–313.Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lawrence, S. and P. Davies 2011 An Archaeology of Australia Since 1788. New York: Springer.

Menghetti, D. 1990 Ravenswood: Mining, Tourism and Heritage. Historic Environment 7(3&4): 77-81.

Roderick, D. 1975 Ravenswood 1868 – 1917. In B.J. Dalton (ed.), Lectures on North Queensland History. Second Series, pp. 147–167. Townsville: James Cook University.

The Northern Miner, 17 May 1901, p6.