The excavations at St. John’s Milton: a summary

The excavations at St. John’s Anglican cemetery, Milton are where it all began for us with this project. Our site directors Dr. Peter Petchey and Prof. Hallie Buckley were asked by local historical group the Tokomairiro 60 project and the Anglican diocese to look into the extent of unmarked graves in the cemetery for the purposes of helping to restore it to its former glory.

St. John’s Anglican church and burial ground was opened in 1860 on the main road of the growing pastoral community of Milton. However when gold was found in Central Otago in the early 1860s the main road through the township of Milton shifted more inland, leaving the St. John’s cemetery marooned on what was now a backroad. By the late 1860s the chapel on the site had been removed, and the cemetery itself fell out of use almost completely by the 1890s. All this means that those buried in the cemetery represent the first European settlers to the Tokomairiro plains and their immediate offspring – making it a perfect place for us to learn more about colonial life!

Our excavations were led by the concerns of the community, who wanted to define the boundaries of the cemetery and establish whether or not there were burials in the unmarked sections of the currently fenced area. In an ideal world we’d also be able to identify the people buried in the unmarked sections of the cemetery so that their graves could be marked properly when they were reburied and the cemetery restored. We were pretty clear from the start that actually identifying individuals in an archaeological context is tricky, but even without being to identify specific people our study of the bones would give the descendant groups more information about the lives lived in this early colonial farming community.

So what did we find?

Almost immediately we found that the currently-marked cemetery doesn’t use the real cemetery boundaries, and that there were 16 burials lying in the field beyond the cemetery. This issue is currently being dealt with by the community, who are investigating re-fencing the cemetery taking this into account.

We also looked at the unmarked sections of the currently-fenced cemetery to see whether there were burials there, and uncovered a neat row of burials at the back of the cemetery.

Plan of the St. John’s cemetery with burials found during excavation marked. Burials 1-14 and 28 & 29 lie outside of the currently fenced area. Burials 15-27 form a clear row in the unmarked section of the cemetery. Plan from Petchey et al. (2017).

What were the burials like?

Excavating at St. John’s Milton was a very varied experience. Some of the burials were underneath the water table and very wet, others higher up the site were very well preserved and nice and dry. Most burials had either complete or remnants of coffin wood. Most of the coffins were covered in black fabric and decorated with pressed metal strips. We found iron coffin handles in most of the burials, some of these were very simple, others more fancy and ornate.

We only found tiny scraps of clothing remnants in the burials, but that isn’t too surprising as fabrics don’t tend to preserve well once buried and lightweight materials decay quickly. We did find buttons though and some eyelets, helping us interpret the type of clothing that was once there.

Can we tell who any of the people are?

Yes! None of us were really expecting to be able to identify those excavated, but in 4 cases burials had readable coffin plates associated with them giving us names and ages for the individuals buried in those plots. We are currently in contact with the descendants of these individuals and, with their permissions, will hopefully tell some of their stories through this blog.

We also found one cracked headstone buried in the topsoil giving us the name of the person interred beneath it. Strangely, this person was not a name that appeared on any of the church burial records making it a mystery how/why they are there!

The cracked headstone, held up by two of our excavation team (Teina Tutaki and Alana Kelly). Note the actual headstone has a legible name, but this picture has been altered to retain the individual’s anonymity.

We’re also in the midst of looking at features of some of the skeletons to see if we can identify them using historical information from church records, death records, and the research of the Tokomairiro 60 project. For instance we have some people who seem to have died and been buried at the same time. Others have fractures or trauma to their bones that happened at the time of death. All of these little bits of knowledge might help us to identify them.

What next?

Our work looking into St. John’s Milton is now well underway and is already revealing new insights into the lives of it’s people.

Hallie is busy looking at the bones of the people to establish who they were (their age, sex, height and any diseases they may have suffered from).

Peter is looking into their burial traditions to tell us more about how they viewed death and whether or not they were following British funeral fashions.

Charlotte is looking at their skeletal chemistry to work out where they came from and what their diets were like during life (results TBA soon!).

Annie is looking into the diseases they suffered from and how they were cared for

Rebecca is looking at their dental health.

We’ll bring you our findings as we get them!

For more information:

See the preliminary site report here:

Charlotte King

2 thoughts on “The excavations at St. John’s Milton: a summary

  1. What a great job you all are taking part in, I have a big interest in history and am processing my geneology , family, your completed work will be an asset to Milton, Yvonne brown


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