We’re dusting off our tools, and headed to Drybread!

It’s been a while since we posted on the blog – post-lockdown we’ve been very busy catching up on analysis and making plans for the future – one of which is heading into a new collaboration with the Drybread Cemetery Trust, to help them understand the extent of their burials, and hopefully shed some light on their unmarked graves.

Set in the upper reaches of the Manuherikia Valley, with the Dunstan mountains as a picturesque backdrop, Drybread cemetery is a beautiful place to stand an consider things that once were. In the peak of the New Zealand goldrush Drybread was a thriving little settlement, full of miners seeking a better life, and the services that supported them. It existed for 30 years or so (in two different locations) before the miners moved on, and it became one of the many ghost towns of the goldrush era. Now nothing remains of the once busy settlement – we don’t even know exactly where it was – all that remains is farmland and the cemetery.

The cemetery is anything but dead though. It is currently managed by descendants through the Drybread Cemetery Trust, is beautifully cared for, and remains an active burial ground. Many descendants of the nineteenth century inhabitants of Drybread have plots set aside, and plans to be interred there when the time comes. This poses some problems for the Trust, because of a number of issues with record keeping in the past. The cemetery’s originally surveyed boundaries do not align with the area that is currently fenced, and there are large gaps in the cemetery’s records ā€“ no records survive from the goldrush era, many later records were destroyed in a fire, and the remaining plans are difficult to reconcile with the known burials. This, understandably, makes it difficult for the Trust to know which plots are empty and can be used, and which should not be disturbed. They have tried remote sensing in the past to establish the extent of burials without excavation, but sadly the results did not show them anything…

Drybread Cemetery as it stands at the moment has some marked graves (which will not be touched) and many ambiguous areas of potential unmarked graves. This makes it difficult for the Cemetery Trust to know if new interments can be made in an area (photo: C. King)

Our work in other historic cemeteries has shown how archaeological excavation is one of the only ways to definitely establish where burials may be located. We’ve had success in identifying individuals buried in historic cemeteries, allowing their graves to be marked and their stories to be brought back to light. In establishing where individuals are buried in the Drybread cemetery we will also be able to look at some of the skeletal remains of these individuals, and will be working to establish who they were, where they came from and how they lived in early colonial New Zealand. All these individuals will then be reburied in marked graves. It’s incredibly exciting for us to be invited to work with the Drybread Cemeteries Trust to help with the management of the cemetery, and increase recognition of those who lived and died in this almost-forgotten settlement.

We’ll be dusting off our tools and heading out into the field in mid-November, not just to help with the cemetery project but also to do a bit of archaeological exploration to see if we can find the original site of the settlement! We will be trying to keep people informed of our preparations and progress on the blog so stay tuned. But in the meantime, we’d love to hear from you if you have/think you have relatives buried in the cemetery – just leave us a comment below. We won’t be touching any marked burials, but we’re still keen to hear people’s family stories about both the people who are marked, and those possibly in the unmarked sections. All of this helps us to build a picture of goldfields life.

Time to get the tools out again… next stop Drybread!

The upcoming work has also been reported in the links below ā€“ check them out for more details:

https://www.odt.co.nz/regions/central-otago/unmarked-graves-may-tell-stories-researchers

https://www.rnz.co.nz/news/national/428642/unmarked-graves-near-gold-rush-settlement-to-be-explored?fbclid=IwAR0KWuHRqHKA_wQ-V72esJn5PO3d2QGxh6n0PXnnX9mhG2OaiKYbPndi8do

https://podcasts.apple.com/tt/podcast/unearthing-the-secrets-of-otagos-drybread-cemetery/id208012905?i=1000495238607&l=fr

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