Kythera and the gold rush, competing priorities or complementing research?

Richard MacNeill set out to understand the relationship between water catchment and community in Kythera, but ended up shifting to the goldfields of Victoria, Australia. The two are oddly complementary…

When I first contemplated post-graduate research I had just returned from participating in the 2016 season of the Australian Paliochora-Kythera Archaeological Survey (APKAS) project in northern Kythera. I wanted to know what made a local community, whether the community within a small stream catchment in northern Kythera could be considered a society, if the physical surroundings influenced its character and how a succession of communities may have used the catchment’s resources.

Water channels and gardens of the Karavas basin, Kythera (the Author)

It was a perfect idea for researching the history of a small but dynamic catchment in northern Kythera, you would think, with applications that extend to broader practical and theoretical issues relating to archaeology and to ecological and social sustainability.

So how did it come about that I am now working on the results of my fieldwork and research into an early goldmining society on a peripheral goldfield in central Victoria?

… Good question.

I had always intended to combine both in my research. When I attempted to explain why, I met raised eyebrows, doubtful expressions and difficult probing questions: a sure sign that I was onto something. As was explained to me early on, if post-graduate research is easy then it’s not worth doing. However, the inverse of this – that if it’s worth doing, then it will inevitably be difficult – was not encouraging.

To use an archaeological approach to understand a society of the past and its relationship with its environment I needed a grounded methodology in which arguments recreating dynamic relationships involving individuals and their surroundings are balanced by a firm grip on the capabilities of the evidence.

I could examine contemporary relationships between a living community and its surrounds and extrapolate into the past, my argument grounded by the recorded and material evidence of post site-formation processes visible in an historical landscape. Alternatively, I could examine an historical landscape and use the observed dynamics of a living society to fill the gaps between the material record and scattered historical sources;  I could consider recreating a society expressed as both a collective and a spectrum of individual identities.

The raised eyebrows didn’t go away, and neither did my doubts.

Ultimately, I took the second option. In approaching the past as a spectrum of communities, APKAS’s diachronic approach allowed me to see Kythera catchment as an evolving cultural landscape that could serve as a source of comparison and inspiration.

The practicalities of research based on fieldwork in Australia, and questions surrounding early societies on the goldfields that had not yet been asked, let alone answered, decided the choice, and later Covid-19 sealed the bargain. The goldfields became the focus of my fieldwork. Yet, the grounding influence of my experiences and work in Kythera remained, providing an example of a relationship between a living society and its surroundings within a cultural landscape.

I turned to research and fieldwork related to a little-known gold diggings in Central Victoria, but looked to a methodology that owed much to the work of Prof. Tim Gregory and Dr. Lita Tzortzopoulou-Gregory, notably with Lita’s work on the role of water in the Karavas catchment.

It turns out that these two worlds – the modern society in a distant valley in Kythera and a valley in Victoria occupied by a society equally distant in time – have much in common.

The two study areas

Activity in both localities is delimited by their topography. Domestic and collective activity in both are governed largely by the presence of water. Societies in both exhibit mixes of pragmatism and a metaphysical relationship with the landscape that contribute to their resilience and coherence, and both have a historical beginning while, tellingly, only one has a historical end.

There is even historical evidence that Kythereans participated in the gold rush at Ballarat, close to my study area, in the mid-19th century. Well, who hasn’t, it appears … and for that matter where have Kythereans not been?

The contexts in which we can draw out these similarities include personal and civic identity, the relationship between domestic and collective space and community coherence and resilience and, more arcanely, the metaphysics of success, subsistence and survival.

Personal identity among the community in Northern Kythera has always involved a mix of collective pride centred on closely situated villages and a personal capability embodied in the untranslatable word φιλότιμο (loosely translated as “virtuous honour”). Even as these qualities fostered an Odyssean canniness and a collective rivalry between villages, they contributed to a dynamic in which they are balanced against the absolute necessity of cooperating in order to harvest the resources from a fertile but restricted catchment. This shifting balance provides an energy and a dynamic that sustains this society in a world where the struggle, the ἀγών, is a civic and political quality.

A self-conscious personal and a collective identity was also present among the early miners on the goldfields. Faced with a judgemental and disapproving dominant society, their identity, while masked by common appearance, was presented and, among genteel society, presented forcefully and subversively. Those on the early goldfields balanced conflicting qualities. Individuals born of distinct national and cultural backgrounds arrived with a desire for transformation that migration only partly served, and for which gold offered the key.

While competing for the space to find gold and for the water necessary to recover it, they demonstrated a collective identity reinforced by common circumstance and a collective dependency on the sustaining resource of gold.

One feature, the water channel, illustrates the connections between these two worlds. In both, the water channel provided water to enable activities to continue. Just as the streamside gardens of the Karavas catchment depended on the collective maintenance and management of water channels, so industrial and domestic life on the goldfield depended on water races and a growing body of law and custom regulating its use and access.

Both followed the contours of the slope, linking otherwise separate domestic and collective spaces. In both Kythera and on the goldfields this function contrasted with dispersed settlement, in one the scattered villages and in the other distinct clusters of canvas or bark dwellings.

“Ballarat in the Early Times; as it appeared in the summer of 1853-54” Eugene von Guerard, oil on canvas, 1884. Held in the Art Gallery of Ballarat. Image: public domain.

While these examples demonstrate physical correspondences, there are also metaphysical ones that correspond, one of which is the need to protect chances of success and survival by associating luck with appropriate behaviour, in day-to-day terms by placating the possibility of bad luck: “just to be safe”. By recognising that this behaviour exists in a living society it is possible to build a historical social context that opens a window into the personal experience of life on the goldfields from what would otherwise have been a collection of descriptions.

While mining quickly became a scientific endeavour using principles of engineering and geology, it never lost the sense that gold was not created or manufactured, but discovered, and that this discovery involved a significant element of luck. For the miner on a mid-19th century early goldfield gold was instant capital, an element that transformed the finder. Gold according to one early miner[1] needed to be courted but was capricious. It ignored the devoted follower and favoured the undeserving.

While luck played a significant part in the success or failures of the early miner, it has not often been considered as an influence on their behaviour and identity, even if contemporary anthropologists observe its influence in modern gold rushes in Ghana and Kalimantan. Gold miners in these countries, as on the mid-19th century goldfields, deliberately courted luck, sometimes in ways familiar to us by “big spending” and in other less obvious ways that helped define a collective identity.

As far as I know, no gold industry existed on Kythera, but water, as a life sustaining and transformative element to an extent fills its place. Its central role in preserving and sustaining the community invests it with a metaphysical element that influences the identity and behaviour of the community.

Water in Northern Kythera occupies a strange place. Unlike the garden plots, fields and villages, the space where water appears has no ownership, and the channels through which it flows belong to all but to no one individual person. Water arrives and is harvested as it flows through garden and water mill. Springs and the plateia beside them, the sites of communal entertainment and celebration, commonly contain plaques commemorating the contributions of community members to maintain them. While the spring has a pragmatic function, it is also the source of odd examples of the uncanny; the liminal; the εξωτικός that while the stuff of late-night stories, are nevertheless told. Water, like gold, has its own individual agency that people would do well to take into account; to placate if necessary.

So, back to my methodology.

I like the word hermeneutic. It conveys the sense of secrets and revelations. My methodology attempts to combine a deductive “scientific” structure with a hermeneutic argument grounded by a comparative focus on a living community. In this way any revelations of hermeneutic argument may be limited to those that extend from a clear line of reasoning based on relevant material.

Nevertheless, a hermeneutic argument must ultimately transcend a deductive process by providing statements that, while based on evidence, are theories. To do this, in the best post-processual traditions it must reach beyond the material record, but remain held to earth by sources that, while unfamiliar, are verifiable.

Put like that, the raised eyebrows, baffled faces and difficult questions that still occasionally occur are signs of hope.

Richard MacNeill is a PhD student in the Department of Archaeology and History at La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia.

Richard was introduced to archaeology while in The Netherlands in 1980. He worked as a crew member for surveys and excavations in The Netherlands and the American southwest for several years before completing study and training as a surveyor and GIS specialist. Richard then worked in the cultural heritage and conservation sectors while assisting field surveys and excavations in Northern Syria ( and Australia and from 2003 assisting the APKAS project. In 2016 Richard finally began to pay his dues to the discipline, enrolling as a PhD candidate at La Trobe University, where he is pursuing his studies and hopes eventually to catch up.

[1] The Frenchman Antoine Fauchery (1823-1861), who proceeded to found a French coffee-house (estaminet) in Melbourne.

This blog post is part of Festival CHAT 2020, a weeklong celebration of contemporary and historical archaeology running from 23-30 October, 2020. For more information, visit the CHAT blog site:


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