Two sisters from St. John’s?

Historically, children have been very much ignored by archaeologists, and stories of little lives are often not told. But we know that the lives of children touch the lives of the whole community, and so whatever we can find out about them is important. Because their bones and teeth are so delicate we’re often limited in what we can do. But in today’s blog post Peter and Hallie tell us the story of two children who we think we might have been able to identify…

In our last post we talked about the 15 individuals at St. John’s Milton who had died before reaching adulthood, and the two burials that contained more than one youngster. We call these double burials. One of these was Burial 3 which we found outside of the current fenced area, and which contained the remains of a baby who died within weeks of birth (3A) and a young child of 2.5 years of age (3B) buried beneath the wee baby. Burial 3A was able to be given their age from measuring the limb bones, and 3B was aged from their teeth as the bones did not survive. 

The other example of a double burial was Burial 20, which had one individual who died at around 15 months of age (20A) buried in their own coffin above a child of 3 years of age (20B). For both of these cases we only had the teeth to estimate their ages as their bones did not survive.

As Peter explained in a previous post the fact these babies and young children are buried in the same graves strongly suggest they must have died at the same time or at least very close together. They may have died from an accident or from illness. Being buried together would also suggest that there were close ties between the children.  Maybe they were siblings? But with so little information to go off, how do we even start to figure out who these little ones were and how they died?

Usually when I work with skeletal samples that are thousands of years old we can only make inferences about family ties when people are buried together. As an example, I’ve worked in a 3,000 year old cemetery in Vanuatu where a new born baby was placed over the shoulder of a woman. We assume these are a mother and baby who died at the same time – in childbirth perhaps?

But one of the things that makes the Southern Cemeteries Archaeological Project so exciting is that we can play detectives with the historical sources that we have available. Most of the time in bioarchaeology we cannot tell the specific cause of death of people because many diseases don’t leave marks on the bones, or the person succumbed to infection before the bones could respond. But here one of the other bits of sleuthing we have been able to do is to search for the death certificates of people buried at the St John’s burial ground. We have 15 death certificates of babies and children buried there, many of which died of infection.

The death certificates from St. John’s a are poignant reminder of the danger of childhood diseases in colonial times. Here, with redacted names, are just a few examples of some of the records of the short-lived children of the colony.

We’re also very lucky at St. John’s, Milton to be working with the Tokomairiro Project 60 (TP60) group, who had already done a lot of sleuthing before we excavated at St John’s. The TP60 research book is laden with the tales of early demise of young babies and children, which allows us to look to see if any of their stories match-up with what we see in the bones. In their research TP60 had brought to light the sad tale of two sisters who died on the same day, June 16th 1873, and it’s likely that these two girls would have been buried together. The cause of their death was whooping cough, one of many diseases that claimed the lives of infants and children in the past. In fact, the brother of the two sisters also died as one year old, but 8 years before, but we don’t know the cause of his death.

The death of a child from whooping cough was, unfortunately, not uncommon, and advertisers often played on parents’ fears of this to sell their products. This advert is from the Mataura Ensign (Issue 511, 22 Nov 1898, accessed via Papers Past)

One of the sisters was just over a year old when she died. The other sister was 3 years and 4 months old. The ages of the individuals found in Burial 20 A and B fit with the ages of these two sisters. The age estimations we have from the teeth are not exact because we have two work within possible ranges of developmental stages. We also can’t say for sure if this is the burial of the two sisters because our current methods can’t tell us whether the babies and children are boys or girls.  But the ages of the individuals in the other double burial (Burial 3A and 3B) don’t fit at all with the age of the sisters – both were too young.

Even though we cannot say for absolutely certain that the children in Burial 20 are these sisters, this is much closer than we would normally get to a positive identification from an archaeological site…

Hallie Buckley, 29th April 2020

Author’s note: Even though the sisters are named in the historical records we have, we don’t name them here out of respect for descendant groups.

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