Archaeological Geophysics

Yagan's Head

ABORIGINAL SKULL PROJECT - Taken from theSt. Andrews Citizen

Dr Richard Bates of the School of Geography and Geosciences at the University of St Andrews and Dr. Martin Bates of the Department of Archaeology, University of Wales, Lampeter, have recently successfully conducted a geophysical survey to locate a box containing the skull of an aboriginal chief buried in a grave yard in Liverpool. Dr R. Bates is an expert in the geophysical survey techniques that resulted in the final exhumation of the skull and it's eventual return to the Bibulum tribe in Western Australia.

In 1833 an aboriginal warrior called Yagan was shot by bounty hunters. As was the custom in those days his head was dried before being presented to the Australian authorities. It finally found its way to Liverpool's Royal Institution and was put on display at Liverpool Museum, but in the 1960's a curator became concerned at its deterioration and so in 1964 the head was buried in a local cemetery together with a Peruvian mummy and a Maori head.

Subsequent to this burials were made around the grave and above the box containing the museum remains. In a move to repatriate remains of this nature, the British Home Office contacted Dr. M. Bates with the view to exhuming the head. However, due to the other burials, the box containing Yagan's head could not be simply exhumed in the typical manner and a plan to dig down the side of the grave and tunnel sideways to the box was formulated.

First the exact location of the box was needed and for this state of the art electromagnetic and ground penetrating radar surveying equipment was used to locate the exact position of the box from the surface. (See figure 1)

Plan view of electromagnetic signature for grave site from EM-38

The archaeologists were then able to excavate six feet down the side of the grave and a further geophysical survey was conducted to refine the location of the remains.

Vertical section through grave showing location of box and survey with EM38

Because of the sensitive nature of the geophysical survey equipment to metal, only wood shoring could be used to hold open the excavation pit. The lesser strength of the wood shoring meant that only a very short period was available in which to accomplish the work safely in the ground.

The remains were retrieved by tunneling horizontally into the grave without any damage being caused to the remains or other burials. Dr Bates said, "it was a delicate and risky operation, and we are delighted that it was so successful. Due to the other burials in the area and the potential of disturbing these with the unstable soil conditions, we only had one shot at being able to recover the box so pinpointing it within the grave became critical. The geophysical survey highlighted an anomalous area that was consistent with the shape and size of the box that was known to contain the remains. Once this had been identified I just crossed my fingers while the tunneling was done. The first shovel of dirt from the grave showed signs of the decayed box and the Peruvian mummy came next followed by the Maori head and finally Yagan's head. There were a lot of happy people when the head finally came out of the ground and we were able to get out of there safely!"

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