27 early settlers buried again

Return in peace . . . Rev Vivienne Galletly officiated at a public service for the re-interment of historical human remains at St John’s Cemetery, in Milton, last month. PHOTO: SUPPLIED


Six years after they were excavated from an Otago cemetery, the remains of 27 people who shed light on the lives of early European settlers were buried again.

The Southern Cemeteries Archaeological Project concluded its work at St John’s Cemetery, in Milton, with a public service late last month.

Project co-leader and University of Otago anatomy Prof Hallie Buckley said the community had an emotional and physical connection to the burial ground and was grateful to those who attended.

‘‘The community has ownership of the project, and many are descendants of people buried here.

‘‘They were interested in doing something with the cemetery and we are very pleased to have helped them achieve that and to have had the opportunity to investigate the lives, health and burial traditions of early European settlers in New Zealand.’’

The project began in 2014 when local community group Tokomairiro Project approached Southern Archaeology director Dr Peter Petchey, seeking assistance to preserve and better understand the cemetery on the outskirts of Milton.

Last used in 1926, it was closed in 1971, and it was not known if the fence was in the correct place.

In late 2016, 29 unmarked graves were exposed, 16 of them outside the fence.

Of those, 25 were excavated, revealing the remains of 27 people, ranging in age from infants to adults, most of who died in the 1870s.

The research team identified five people and built a picture of some of their lives.

They included William Toogood, a labourer who died of tuberculosis in 1873, and whose family was supported by the Ancient Order of Foresters, a friendly society which provided a form of social insurance to members.

Gold miner, father and store keeper Joseph Higgins died in an underground mine accident in 1877.

A combination of disciplines revealed widespread dental disease among the adults. Tooth examinations revealed every individual except one suffered periods of physiological stress in childhood from illness and hunger.

The burials were consistent with other European settler interments and the same coffin motifs and decorations could be found in both Milton and London.

‘‘It appears they transported their biosocial landscape when they immigrated, and little changed for these initial colonists,’’ Dr Petchey said.

‘‘However, the foundations were laid for their grandchildren and great-grandchildren to lead better lives.’’

So far, a monograph, 10 academic articles and one book chapter have included St John’s Cemetery information. More are expected as sample analyses continues.

Dr Petchey said the team was honoured to be able to tell the stories of people who had been lost.

‘‘The project enabled us to put them and their lives back into the landscapes they inhabited.’’