Plan to exhume bodies questioned

Moa Creek Cemetery Trust chairman Jeff Sawers, of Alexandra, at the cemetery, which reopened for...
Moa Creek Cemetery Trust chairman Jeff Sawers, of Alexandra, at the cemetery, which reopened for burials in 2011. Photo by Lynda van Kempen.
A proposal to open up what are thought to be unmarked graves in the Ida Valley to find out more about Central Otago's pioneers has already struck some controversy.

The project attracted much discussion and some opposition at a Central Otago District Council meeting last week.

A pilot study, conducted by academics from the University of Otago at the Moa Creek Cemetery, is proposed to study the remains of people from the gold rush era and its aftermath.

The graves were expected to date from that period.

Associate Prof Hallie Buckley and Dr Peter Petchey, who pitched the idea to the council, said 17 cemeteries that could have unmarked graves had been identified throughout Central Otago.

Moa Creek Cemetery alone was thought to contain up to 55 unmarked graves, identified by a geophysical survey of the area.

It was concerning at least four were in a field which had been ploughed, Dr Petchey said.

The pilot study proposed to open up about 12 of the suspected graves to determine if they were burials.

Exhuming bodies, examining the burials and conducting tests on bone and tooth samples could provide researchers with information about individuals and groups.

It was an opportunity to enrich historical records, he said.

Prof Buckley said forensic investigation would reveal the age, sex and ancestry of people buried.

''What we are proposing to do ... is unusual, the first time in New Zealand, but not unheard of elsewhere.''

A high-profile example of a similar project was the discovery of the remains of Richard III in the United Kingdom in 2012, which received ''large amounts of positive coverage'', she said.

Any exhumed remains at Moa Creek would be reburied in the original graves with biographic information obtained during the study.

A memorandum of understanding would have to be established between the University of Otago and the council.

Concerns were raised by councillors Shirley Calvert and Stu Duncan about the need to exhume remains, when the history of the area was already known.

The university pair were asked what benefit the community would derive from the project.

Dr Petchey said the study would plug gaps in existing history.

New discoveries about the region's settlers were being made, he said.

''There's been some more recent historical research looking at some of the people coming out which has blown away some of the myths ... that Central Otago has been settled by highlanders ... but most of them were lowlanders.''

The most vocal opponent, Cr Duncan, said he was not comfortable with the idea.

''I would not be very happy if my grandfather was dug up for science.''

He did not think people would be interested in the project because it was recent history.

''I don't know what relevance it has for small rural Central Otago towns.''

Prof Buckley said other communities she had worked with usually wanted to know about their past.

''Whether it's people from 3000 years ago or people from 150 years ago, people want this information about their past.''

The researchers already had support from the Moa Creek Cemetery Trust, local Runanga and the Chinese community, who could possibly have ancestors buried at the site.

Cr Steve Battrick said council was required to consult on sensitive matters - ''and this is certainly one of those''.

Council community services manager Anne Pullar asked what the financial requirements of the council might be.

Prof Buckley said there was no expectation for council to fund the work, but if it did contribute, that would be helpful, she said.

The council decided to discuss the project further and hopefully make a decision on the project within the next ''couple'' of months.

In the meantime, it was agreed the researchers needed to conduct wider community consultation about the work.

If it were to go ahead, researchers said they would prefer to conduct the excavation during the summer.

A timeline for how long analysis would take and expected return of the remains would have to be established.

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