Cromwell Museum Trust director Edith McKay said the large hand-cut schist stone was originally thought to be a welcome sign during the district’s gold mining era of the late 1800s.
It had its origins in the original Chinese settlement on the banks of the Clutha River at Cromwell.
That site was excavated in 1980 by New Zealand Historic Places Trust archaeologists before the area was flooded for hydro-electric generation.
‘‘What happened from there is not too clear, but in 2006 it was found under the stairwell of the present museum. Where it had been in between we just don’t know,’’ Mrs McKay said.
‘‘Last year, Auckland academic and photographic specialist Dr King Tong Ho visited the museum and photographed the 130cm high headstone after it was dragged out from under the stairwell.
‘‘He literally went very pale and said ‘that is not a welcome sign, it is a headstone’.’’
Chinese historian Dr Leslie Wong later discovered the headstone belonged to Cantonese man Mooi Yeem Chin from the Toi Shan Province, in China’s Ning County.
University of Otago history department records show the man was 76 years old in 1896 and at that time had been away from his homeland for 46 years.
It was thought the man may have carved the characters on the headstone himself.
‘‘This is the only one of its kind in New Zealand and it is regarded as a national treasure,’’ Mrs McKay said.
‘‘There are a number of local people who have called in to view it and it is attracting plenty of attention.
Mrs McKay said museum visitors tothe museum were also enjoying other displays including wall panels depicting life before the Clyde Dam and people’s opposition to it.
‘‘We intend to follow that up with another display post the dam, that shows the positive results for Cromwell the dam brought.’’
She said trustees would welcome more volunteers, especially to help with online cataloguing ofcollections, including photographs.