Researchers excavating, examining unmarked graves from Otago's gold rush era

Unmarked graves from Otago's gold rush era are being examined by university researchers. 

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Drybread was a thriving township in the 1860s, but today only a cemetery remains. Source: 1 NEWS

Located east of Cromwell and outside Omakau, Drybread was a thriving township in the 1860s. Today only a cemetery remains. 

Tombstones bear the names of those who once called this area home, but it's the vacant spots of land that researchers are interested in.

"What we're trying to do here is find the truly lost," Drybread Cemetery Trust's Karen Glassford told 1 NEWS.

"We know we've got anomalies in the ground and we have tried several methods to try and establish whether or not they're actually bodies."

The town of Drybread was established in the early 1860s as a gold rush settlement.

It disappeared around 30 years later as diggers moved on.

Locals can still be laid to rest there but in the 19th century, not all burials were recorded. 

Work began today to see what and who can be uncovered.

"We never know what to expect with these digs," research fellow Charlotte King says.

"When we've dug in the past in Lawrence, we have found that graves just weren't at all where we expected them to be, so at this point we don't know what we're about to find and how hard it might be."

Drybread Cemetery Trust's Tony Glassford says it's important to get the history right.

"We've tried to get it right through the physical records but they haven't been enough," he says.

"Doing this is making sure that there are no problems into the future."

The dig is carried out slowly and with respect, Southern Archaeology director Peter Petchey says.

"We're looking for the grave cuts, the signs in the ground that you can see the rectangle where a grave has been cut, then we'll excavate down to get the top soil off," he says.

If remains are found, the origins will be traced and returned if possible. 

"Do we have a boy or a girl, or a man or a woman, did they come from Scandinavia, are they of Chinese descent? We're trying to give them some identity and then the dignity of marking where they are," Karen Glassford says.

Following the digs, researchers also plan to mark out where it's believed the township once stood, giving Drybread its place in Central Otago's history.