H idden graves at Drybread Cemetery may be revealed during a research project due to begin next month.
The Drybread Cemetery Trust approached the University of Otago and Southern Archaeology to help uncover burial plots at the remote site in the Manuherikia Valley.
For about a month from November 16 on-site research will take place and bioarchaeological laboratory research will be conducted over the next year.
Drybread Cemetery Trust spokeswoman Karen Glassford said they did not know how many unmarked graves there might be.
‘‘We honestly don’t know.’’
Records for the earliest burials were lost, ‘‘we don’t have the original burial book’’.
The trust had been quietly working to try to identify further burial sites for many years, Mrs Glassford said.
‘‘We’ve done everything we can to try and make our records as good as we can before this point.’’
There were some obvious anomalies in the ground and the trust had previously tried to find out more information by using ground-penetrating radar but the results weren’t conclusive.
‘‘A lot of the area where we know there are anomalies, giant trees and roots disturbed all the ground.’’
The cemetery was likely to have been about 10 minutes’ walk from the former settlement of Drybread, but pinpointing the area was a challenge.
There was only a sketch of the township, and using some strong features from the skyline it was possible to narrow down the area ‘‘but it is a drawing not a photograph, so it is not accurate’’, Mrs Glassford said.
Southern Archaeology director Dr Peter Petchey said this was an exciting opportunity to study both the people and the place from a pivotal time in New Zealand history.
‘‘The 1860s saw the gold rush in the south and the New Zealand Wars in the north.
‘‘It was a period that shaped many aspects — both good and bad — of the country in which we live today.”
No marked graves would be excavated in any way, he said.
Drybread was a gold rush-era settlement at the foot of the Dunstan Mountains established in about 1862, but the township had all but disappeared by the 1890s.
The project would include searching for the Drybread settlement site, identifying areas inside and outside the present cemetery boundaries that contain unmarked and unknown graves, and excavation to determine the true boundary of the cemetery.
A sample of remains would be analysed to determine aspects of the deceased’s past such as ethnicity, age and sex.
University of Otago department of anatomy project co-leader Prof Hallie Buckley said the invitation to assist the Drybread Cemetery Trust came with significant responsibility.
‘‘We’re tasked with learning more about the cemetery and who came to be buried in it during the gold rush days.
‘‘We can learn a lot about early settler life in New Zealand, and answer key questions to help the trust maintain the cemetery site with confidence into the future.”