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How tough was life in colonial New Zealand?

Significant research has been carried out on the life of Māori in pre-colonial times but very little has been done on what it was like to be an early settler from Britain. As Jo Galer writes, scientists from Otago University are unearthing new information on past lives.

When Milton local Kath Croy was a little girl she would visit the abandoned St John’s churchyard on the back road behind Milton, play in the long grass, and try and imagine what life must have been like for her descendants buried there.

But when Croy, along with other Milton relatives of colonial settlers buried in the little churchyard, decided to start a research project to investigate who was in many of the unmarked graves, she never thought she would one day be part of New Zealand’s first large-scale archaeological excavation of a colonial settler cemetery; literally unearthing the past.

In 25 graves, a team of scientists accompanied by Croy and the relatives, excavated the graves and uncovered the remains of 27 individuals: Two of the infant-child burials were double graves.

At a meeting in the Milton town hall on Tuesday night, Croy and members of the Milton community gathered to hear for the first time what the researchers had found when they took the coffins and skeletal remains back to the University of Otago for careful analysis.

Lead researcher Professor Hallie Buckley, from Otago’s Department of Anatomy, found that the infant mortality rate was high and diseases like tuberculous and whooping cough claimed the lives of many.

The researchers are also keen to ascertain economic disparities and social class issues.

Coffin handles have been X-rayed to look beneath the rust of more than 140 years, to ascertain what types of burials these people could afford to have: it turns out, most followed the Victorian death rituals used in the day – involving the beautification of death, inscribing the coffins with head, chest and foot plates, adorning them with handles in some cases especially embossed with cherubs, and sometimes, for children, covering them with woollen blankets that partially survived the long internment.

University of Otago archaeologist Peter Petchey is now determining where in Milton they lived, finding out more of their social history, and how they lived – and then died, on average, by the age of 46.

DNA found in the remains is also being studied to determine who they are, who in the local community they are related to, and what their lives might have been like. The forensic research will help pinpoint where in the United Kingdom the settlers came from.

The information will be integrated with the historical research gathered by a local community group, Tokomaririro Project 60 (TP60) and death certificates to aid in identification of the unknown settlers buried at St John’s.

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

The scientists and the community were fascinated and unified in their quest for new knowledge: Did life in New Zealand for these colonial adventurers live up to the promises made before they stepped on board their sailing ships bound for the new settlement of Dunedin; was life better, or worse than for their compatriots who remained in England? What hardships did they endure once here, and once they got to Milton, as they began taming and farming our wooded countryside. What accidents befell them? The answers are both illuminating and tragic.

Initial concerns from some members of the St John’s parish that the sanctity of the dead would be disrespected were overcome by observance of religious practice as it would have been in 1662. Local Vicar Vivienne Galletly was on hand to give a special blessing when any remains were exhumed. She also performed the 1662 funeral service for those remains that scientists decided were best left where they were.

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