The excavation of graves at the old Ardrossan Street cemetery in Lawrence has delivered a few surprises for researchers from Otago of University’s archaeology team, with eight graves discovered.
They had expected to find only one, as according to a local story, someone had been left behind when others were exhumed to be reburied in the town’s new Gabriel St cemetery in 1867.
Otago University’s Otago Historic Cemeteries Bioarchaeology Project co-directors Prof Hallie Buckley and Dr Peter Petchey and their team of postgraduate students have been in Lawrence since April 3.
After both the old and new cemetery sites were blessed by Chinese community representative Leslie Wong, of Dunedin, Ngai Tahu elder Edward Ellison, of Otakou, and Presbyterian minister Andrew Harrex, of Lawrence, excavations at the old cemetery started on April 5 and were expected to be completed today.
They used a hydraulic digger to removed the surface ground but when they got closer to the remains, they spent most of their time on their hands and knees in the mud.
Prof Buckley said the work had been physical difficult and muddy.
“It was also mentally demanding, as we had to be very careful,” she said.
Heavy rain meant the exposed and vulnerable remains had to be protected.
“We tried our hardest to keep it safe from the elements.”
They found eight graves with remains in various states of preservation, which will be analysed to determine ancestry and health, diet and quality of life.
Dr Petchey said in addition to the skeletal remains, they found buttons, fragments of clothing and coffins, and coffin furniture.
They also found dentition evidence of pipe smoking and cavities.
Once the analysis is completed, the remains will be reinterred in the new cemetery in consultation with the Lawrence and Chinese communities.
The team is also excavating near the Chinese section of the new cemetery, which may also have graves of paupers and other marginalised people, including European wives of Chinese men.
They intend to release a report of their findings in the next few months.
Dr Petchey said they were grateful to the Lawrence and Chinese communities for allowing them to do the work.
In addition, the Clutha District Council, the Ministry of Health and the Heritage Places Trust, as well as the landowner, had been supportive.
Mr Wong represented the Chinese community and was asked to bless both cemeteries.
“The Chinese talk about spirits in the same way Christians talk about God,” he said.
“I wanted to please the spirits by make an offering, scattering rice and tea and pouring wine on the ground.
“I felt the time had come that there was no harm in excavating bare land to see if there is anyone buried there,” Mr Wong said.
“If there are, it is the community’s job to give the Chinese remains a dignified reburial and I will see this is done.”
His wife Maisie has offered to look after the the remains of any infants or European women that might be found.