The University of Otago and Southern Cemeteries Archaeology will excavate parts of Drybread Cemetery next month to uncover unmarked graves at the Central Otago site.
Drybread, near Omakau, was established in the early 1860s as a gold rush settlement and faded away about 30 years later as the diggers moved on.
As the cemetery dates back to that time many graves are suspected to be unmarked and outside the cemetery's fenced boundaries.
Work to discover and identify unmarked graves will begin mid next month.
Project co-leader, Professor Hallie Buckley said researchers would be at the site for about a month with subsequent research expected to take a year.
"We know formally the first burial was recorded in 1870, but it's highly likely that there would've been people buried from the gold rush period if not before," she said.
There were a number of unmarked graves and inconclusive records at the cemetery, which led the Drybread Cemetery Trust to approach the University of Otago and Southern Archaeology Ltd for assistance in learning the true extent of the cemetery's borders, and location of burial plots in areas which were unrecorded but suspected of containing human graves.
Drybread was a classic gold rush-era settlement at the foot of the Dunstan Mountains in the upper reaches of the Manuherikia Valley, Central Otago.
The settlement was established in circa 1862.
Professor Buckley said it was a privilege to work alongside the communities associated with Drybread Cemetery.
"The invitation to assist the Drybread Cemetery Trust comes with significant responsibility. We're tasked with learning more about the cemetery and who came to be buried in it during the Gold Rush days. We can learn a lot about early-settler life in New Zealand, and answer key questions to help the Trust maintain the cemetery site with confidence into the future."
Southern Archaeology director, Dr Peter Petchey, was also excited by the offer.
"This is an exciting opportunity to study both the people and the place from this pivotal time in New Zealand history. The 1860s saw the gold rush in the south and the New Zealand Wars in the north. It was a period that shaped many aspects - both good and bad - of the country in which we live today."
Otago's bioarchaeology experts have conducted similar research at cemeteries in Milton, Lawrence, and Cromwell.
This project involved locating unmarked graves, exhumation and relocation of some graves, and surveying and archaeological analysis of the site.
No marked graves will be excavated in any way.
Project work included searching for the Drybread settlement site, working alongside Chinese and Drybread communities to identify areas inside and outside the present Cemetery boundaries that contained unmarked and unknown graves, and excavation to determine the true boundary of the cemetery.
A sample of remains would be analysed to determine aspects of the deceased's past such as ethnicity, age, and sex. A picture of their life history could then be created through evidence of diet, disease or physical trauma.
The Drybread Cemetery Trust was eager for the project to answer long-standing questions over the cemetery and those buried within its uncertain border.
"We have undertaken several projects over the years to try and resolve these issues with limited success.
"With the University's help we can finally establish occupancy or vacancy over our unknown burial plots in a professional and sensitive manor.
"This will benefit both the ongoing management of the cemetery plus descendants of lost individuals the project might find," trust spokesperson Karen Glassford said.