Robben Island Museum seeks answers on human remains found at historic site

2019-04-09 18:20
Robben Island

Robben Island

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A planned archeological survey of human bones found last year on Robben Island could peel back yet another layer of the island's centuries-old history.

This comes as Robben Island Museum is advertising for someone to conduct an archeological survey and rescue operation of the exposed human remains discovered at the beginning of 2018.

Spokesperson for the museum, Morongoa Ramaboa, said they were discovered in the maximum security precinct and near the Muslim Kramat by a doctor visiting from Argentina.

"Because of the shallowness of the grave, they were beginning to protrude and became visible," she said.

At first a femur was found, and on further examination, there were more remains. So, the relevant specialists were called in to investigate. 

"Judging from the shallowness of the graves (10cm) it is suspected that the site was most likely levelled during construction of the prison in the early 1960s," Ramaboa said.

"Ex-political prisoners have recorded the discovery of human bones during the extension of buildings of the maximum security prison in earlier years."

The SA Police Service's pathology unit and officials from Heritage Western Cape carried out an inspection at the maximum security precinct on February 28, 2018.

Once appointed, the archeologists will conduct an archaeological survey of the demarcated land area using less-destructive methods, such as ground penetrating radar.

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They are also expected to conduct physical testing of the human remains in the hope of determining the age and gender.

This will help determine which period the remains belong to in Robben Island's multi-layered history. 

The island, named after the Dutch word for "seals", holds deep reminders of many periods throughout history, mostly of isolation of the ill, or of political opposition or people who would not obey colonial authorities. 

Robben Island Museum notes that it is actually a submerged mountain which is linked by an undersea saddle to Blouberg on the West Coast.

It understands that some Khoi Khoi were banished to the island for resisting colonisation.

In its more recent history, it is famous for the jail that housed three South African former presidents, Nelson Mandela, Jacob Zuma and Kgalema Motlanthe.

It was also a treacherous stretch of the sea for colonial sailors who bashed their galleons and clippers into its shallow rocks.

The prison itself was constructed over some leper graves but there is also an Irish graveyard, and near the Kramat of the Prince of Madura Sayed Adurohman Moturu, one of Cape Town's first Imams, there are unmarked graves of early Muslim exiles who were banished to the Island in the 1700s. 

Part of the survey process will include consultative meetings and at the end of the service provider's study, the remains will be reburied within the guidelines of the National Heritage Resources Act.

Ramaboa said the archeological work will not affect visitors in any way.

Read more on:    robben island  |  archaeology
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