The township of Milton, in Otago, back in the times of New Zealand's earliest European settlers. Milton is where the abandoned cemetery - now being researched - was discovered. Photo: Supplied

New research will unveil individual life histories of people buried at an abandoned Milton cemetery, writes the University of Otago’s Simon Ancell

Little is known about the quality of life of New Zealand’s early European settlers and farmers, a hardy bunch who did not blanch at travelling across the globe to build a new life in a foreign land they hoped and dreamed of building into a “Better Britain”.

Now new research using state-of-the-art techniques into these pioneers’ health and funeral practices is being carried out by University of Otago archaeologists and bioarchaeologists who are seeking to identify and study the health and lives of first-generation European settlers buried in an abandoned cemetery in Milton, Otago.

The forensic research, which is the first to study early European settlers in this way in New Zealand, involves excavating and analysing skeletons from unmarked graves in St. John’s Burial Ground, in Tokomairiro, Milton. The researchers are undertaking DNA, bone, hair and tooth analysis — including investigations into strontium isotopes that may help to pinpoint where in the UK the settlers came from.

This biological information will be integrated with the historical research gathered by a local community group, Tokomairiro Project 60 (TP60), and death certificates to aid in identification of more people.

The research project is being undertaken in partnership with TP60 and the Anglican Church.

A public meeting to unveil the initial findings, and individual life histories of some of the people buried at the cemetery will be held on August 15 at 7pm at the Milton Coronation Hall.

Professor Hallie Buckley, who is co-leading the research with Dr Peter Petchey and Professor Lisa Matisoo-Smith, says the team is intrigued by the findings to date.

The names of some of the people who have been identified so far, and whom the Otago researchers are seeking further information on from living descendants, are:

– Lt Robert Rowley Thomson (formerly of Kilcooly, Tipperary, Ireland. Died September 1877)

– Flora Clementine Weber (nee MacKay and widow of Dr John Williams before marrying Gustavus Weber)

– Flora’s husband, Gustavus Adolphus Weber, (the researchers have found descendants of his brother),

– Henry Pim

The first three people were identified by the painting on their coffin plates during the excavation and Henry Pim’s inscribed headstone was found buried just under the ground surface. Henry’s grave was not excavated.

The TP60 group had located records of 68 burials in the St John’s Church of England Cemetery on the back road at Tokoiti.

Recent research has revealed that the first known burials were in 1857 and 1859 which predate the consecration of the site by Bishop Harper in 1860. Previously, the first known burial was thought to be in 1860 and the last in 1926.

The people are mostly first-generation settlers and their families with two thirds born overseas. Half of these were from the UK, mostly from England but some from Ireland, Scotland and Wales who moved to Otago after 1850.

State-of-the-art archaeological and forensic analysis of the cemetery and those buried within is being undertaken by a multidisciplinary research team led by Dr Peter Petchey of the Department of Anthropology and Archaeology and Professors Buckley and Matisoo-Smith of Anatomy.

From left, Hallie Buckley, Lee Maher and Peter Petchey examine a coffin handle exhumed from the burial site. Photo: Sharron Bennett

Detailed mapping and geophysical surveying of the burial ground has been carried out, followed by careful archaeological excavation of selected areas. The researchers found many previously unknown burials outside the presently-fenced area of the old cemetery. Sixteen graves were found in the area to the rear of the fence, confirming the common suspicion that the cemetery was larger than these bounds.

Archaeological excavation of part of the cemetery took place in the latter part of last year. The work was preceded by a blessing by the Anglican Bishop and a whakawātea conducted by Ōtākou rūnaka and closed by a blessing by the local vicar, who also performed a brief blessing for each burial as it was uncovered and prior to it being lifted.

Identified living descendants of the people known to have been buried there will be asked to provide a DNA sample to help determine which remains may be those of their ancestors. Buckley’s departmental colleague Professor Matisoo-Smith is conducting the DNA analyses on the skeletons and their living descendants.

Most of the coffins were discovered to be covered with a black woollen fabric that was fixed with iron tacks, with an embossed decorative metal (possibly zinc) strip tacked on around the edges. These trim strips had deteriorated, but several patterns could be seen. Iron coffin plates were applied over the chests of most of the adult interments, and originally bore the name and age at death of each person. These plates were very rusty, but writing on four could be deciphered.

“New Zealand was presented to settlers as a place where they could build more fulfilling and healthier lives. Through our research we are trying see whether this was a reality or not,” Buckley says.

The researchers are comparing the detailed life histories the TP60 members have compiled with the new forensic evidence.

The burials will be re-interred at the burial ground later this year, with appropriate markers for these previously unknown graves, once the weather becomes more favourable.

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