Telling the stories of our settlers, one by one.

This week we have exciting news, one of our first settler stories has been accepted for publication in the academic journal “Bioarchaeology International”. It’ll be published online in the next couple of weeks but for those who just can’t wait – this week’s article is our short, snappy summary of the study.

Burial 21 is one of the identified individuals in the St. John’s Milton sample, and the published study is his story, retold using evidence from his skeleton, tissue chemistry and historical evidence.

What do historical records tell us?

Identified from a readable coffin plate, we know that Burial 21 died in 1873 in his 40s. Historical records tell us that in life he was born in the Greater London area, and initially emigrated to Hobart, Australia in 1856. He travelled to Otago in 1861 following the discovery of gold at Gabriel’s Gully, Lawrence. His family followed him in 1862 and they settled in Helensbrook, near Milton (Findlay et al., 2015). He remained here until his death and was survived by his wife and their 11 children. His death certificate gives his cause of death as ‘Pneumonic phthisis haemorrhage’ (another of those confusing Victorian terms for tuberculosis).

Image showing a member of the Ancient Order of the Foresters surrounded by symbols of peace, strength and productivity – all traits the Foresters encouraged in their members.
B21’s simple iron coffin handles were paid for by the Ancient Order of Foresters after his death

Burial 21 was a member of the Court Bruce of the Ancient Order of Foresters (AOF), one of the self-help ‘friendly societies’ that existed in this period. These societies were important, especially in the colony because they filled the gap before formal social welfare systems were formed.

In the last 11 months of his life the Foresters helped support him and his family, paid for his funeral, and then raised funds to help his widow pay off a remaining debt on the family house.

What does the archaeology add?

The historical sources can tell us about specific points in B21’s life. But we’re interested in day-to-day experience. We looked at evidence from bones as well as his tissue chemistry to reconstruct more of what B21 went through when he was alive. Hallie and Annie (our resident paleopathologists), looked at his bones for signs of disease, Rebecca (our dental expert) did the same for the teeth, while I (Charlotte) looked at the chemistry of his teeth, bones and hair to reconstruct changes to his diet through life.

Dental health:

As we’ve touch on before, dental health wasn’t necessarily great in the colony and B21 has some tooth problems typical of the time. He’d lost six teeth before he died and had cavities on five of his remaining teeth. Just like many others from Milton B21 has a pipe facet, showing he smoked enough to wear down his teeth!

As well as all this his teeth show signs of stress during development, we see this a lines across the tooth’s surface where the enamel didn’t form for a period as the person was growing. Seeing this in B21 means that his childhood (when his teeth were forming) likely involved periods of ill-health or other physical issues.

The story from the skeleton:

First up, we noticed that in B21’s arms the areas of the bones where muscles attach were big and pronounced. Large muscle attachment sites can mean that the person had large and strong muscles in those areas. Because of this we think that B21 may have used his arms in strenuous manual labour for much of his life. This is very consistent with him being a goldminer prior to moving to the Milton area.

Experience of tuberculosis:

We’ve talked before about how a Victorian tuberculosis diagnosis might not be correct, and part of Hallie initial analysis, and Annie’s current job was to look at the bones to see if there were signs of disease in the skeleton. As it turned out there were quite a lot. B21 had unhealed pathological lesions at the top of the left femur, the inside of the left hip and the skull. While these things could be associated with other diseases, Annie and Hallie have gone through all the possibles thoroughly and tell us the evidence is most consistent with tuberculosis.

All this means that his disease was severe enough and chronic enough to affect his bones, and was still affecting him at time of death. In medical terms, B21 suffered from “active secondary pulmonary tuberculosis as well as disseminated skeletal infection”. B21 also had what’s called osteopenia, or reduced bone density – something that is probably due to his invalidism (or wasting) close to time of death.

Changes to his diet during sickness?

B21’s body chemistry shows us that some dietary changes happened close to his time of death though. The isotopic ratios change a bit between when his bones were formed (last 10 years or so of life) and when his hair formed (close to time of death). See our previous post on how all this chemistry stuff works – but basically his nitrogen isotope ratios become higher which generally indicates more meat in the diet. Medical texts of the time recommended over-feeding or use of meat-extract to combat tuberculosis – so perhaps this was tried as a care measure for B21?

Recommended meat-based drinks for those suffering from diseases. This page comes from Mrs. Beaton’s Book of Household Management (1861)

Combining historical and skeletal records

All these pieces of evidence can be combined to give a deeper appreciation of who B21 and his life-experience in the colony. In the journal article we’ve summed it up like this:

“This man began his life in London. His early life experiences involved periods of stress, both related to weaning and in later childhood. He experienced dietary change as he moved from a well-established agricultural society to the colonies where farmed meat sources were supplemented with wild fish and game. He suffered from prolonged and severe dental health issues that would have likely caused him constant pain and discomfort. Like many of his time, he indulged in the habit of tobacco smoking. He used his body to provide for his wife and large family, working at manual labour, first in the pursuit of riches in the goldfields of Australia and Otago and then as labourer after the dream of gold was lost.  At some point in the last few years of his life he contracted a disease which ultimately left him debilitated to such an extent that he could not support his family. His descent into death was prolonged, painful and distressing. Fortunately, his good works in the community and foresight of joining the friendly societies meant that he could go to his rest in the knowledge that his family would be provided for after his death.”

– Snoddy et al. (2019)


Most of this article is based around our recently-accepted journal article:

Snoddy, AME, HR Buckley, CL King, RL Kinaston, G Nowell, DR Gröcke, WJ Duncan, and P Petchey. 2019. “‘Captain of All These Men of Death’: An Integrated Case-Study of Tuberculosis in 19th Century Otago, New Zealand.” Bioarchaeology International. In Press.

With historical information from the Tokomairiro 60 Project:

Findlay, Robert. 2016. A History of the St. John’s Burial Ground. Back Road, Tokomairiro, Otago. Auckland: Robert M Findlay.

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