Graves give up secrets

Prof Hallie Buckley, of the University of Otago anatomy department, gives a public talk about...
Prof Hallie Buckley, of the University of Otago anatomy department, gives a public talk about research into a former cemetery near Milton.PHOTO: GERARD O'BRIEN
A multidisciplinary investigation of a former cemetery near Milton is shedding new light on the early New Zealand history of vitamin D deficiency and tuberculosis.

Prof Hallie Buckley, of the University of Otago anatomy department, recently gave a public talk on campus, about findings that had emerged from an excavation she and archaeologist Dr Peter Petchey had undertaken there in late 2016.

The site was formerly known as the St John's Church of England burial ground, at Back Rd, near Milton.

The talk was co-hosted by the university's Centre for Global Migrations and the Otago department of history and art history, to encourage more connections and discussion between the disciplines, organisers said.

Prof Buckley said many ``wider benefits for the community'' were emerging from the study, and the community would benefit from new insights into `the origins of vitamin D deficiency and Tb in New Zealand''.

``Vitamin D deficiency is actually still a problem in Otago and here, particularly, in Dunedin.''

She said that ``surprise, surprise'', some signs of vitamin D deficiency had also been found in the burial analysis.

``I knew that Tb would have occurred. I wasn't expecting it to be so high.''

Prof Buckley said the research highlighted the stark health challenges faced by people living in South Otago in the 19th century.

``Death was all around,'' she said.

Back in these ``19th century, pre-antibiotic days'' there had been ``very high infant mortality'', as well as high rates of Tb, evidence of extensive tooth decay and gum disease, and clear signs of vitamin D deficiency.

This deficiency also made people more vulnerable to infectious diseases.

The study of deceased infants ``can give us a lot of information abut the health of the mother''.

Many people in the community had also faced the hazards of mining in challenging conditions, and several people had signs of healed bone damage, and one person could well have died from mining-related crushing injuries.

The research findings were derived from collaborative work undertaken by a team of archaeologists and anthropologists which has been working with the Tokomairiro Project 60 (TP60) Cemetery Research Group.

Together, they had explored a ``forgotten'' former cemetery.

The purpose was to open and identify unmarked graves at the site and investigate the ancestry and history of those buried there.

Prof Buckley said that working closely with local historians and the community had resulted in ``many, many levels of cool stuff'' being revealed, including about the early history of Tb and vitamin D deficiency.


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