Early mining methods
Early gold prospectors had very little in terms of mining equipment. Faced with a harsh, arid landscape, they had to use whatever methods they could think of. The most common method was gold panning. Panning was the preferred method of miners working alone as it required no sophisticated equipment and little physical labour compared with other methods.
Panning was the simplest of all methods and required the least equipment. Prospectors would use a round and shallow metal pan to dredge through many kilograms of rock. They would pore (look very closely) over the rock and gravel, swishing it around the pan with river water. See image 1
To the goldfields
Once the goldfields were opened from the mid-19th century, miners began digging for gold. Staking a claim on the goldfield, they proceeded to mine their small claim, excavating with pick and shovel. This method was a lot harder than gold panning. It was slow, back-breaking work and the miners usually had no idea if their plot would yield gold.
If they detected a gold lode (a seam of gold running further underground) they would excavate as far as possible. Excavation could take weeks or even months. Many were sustained in their efforts only by the faint hope that they would find the elusive gold lode.
Frequently several miners banded together, working as a team on one large claim. This was one of the better methods of prospecting as it had a greater chance of yielding gold. The labour of digging was shared and friendships were formed, all of which made the task easier. This work practice contributed to the creation of the tradition of Aussie mateship and Australian men sometimes refer to each other as `digger' today.
Shaft miners met with mixed success. There were the lucky few who could find a lode of gold within a few weeks. Excavating further usually led to some sizeable finds. Others might toil away (work hard) for weeks or months and find only a few small grains.
Gold mining methods changed considerably in the late 19th century with the return of prospectors from the goldfields of California, such as Edward Hargraves. This larger than life character introduced several innovative techniques, the most successful of which was cradling. See image 2
Cradling involved a large wooden box with handles on each side and a sieve on the bottom. This was a clever method that could be very productive as the miner could work through larger amounts of rubble far more quickly. For this reason, yields for this reason were considerably larger than those achieved by the traditional panning method.
Technology has changed mining methods considerably over the years. Many prospectors today still employ the older methods such as panning. New technology means that mining is no longer a hit-and-miss affair. Today's prospectors can be confident of the existence of gold before they attempt to excavate an area.