Experts work on mystery skeletons

Time of article published Jul 28, 2011

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SHAUN SMILLIE

The occupant of grave 127 no longer has a name. His name has slipped from living memory as the decades passed and a mine dump swallowed the cemetery where he was buried.

But while the skeleton in grave 127 might never reclaim its name, archaeologist Anton Pelser hopes to provide him with some identity, perhaps note his religion and record where he came from.

The skeleton could be one of as many as 650 bodies that archaeologists will have to exhume from this cemetery in Crown Mines, about 4km from the centre of Joburg.

The mystery is that there is no apparent record of this graveyard, which, at the turn of the 20th century, could have been one of the largest in Joburg.

“This was not a haphazard cemetery, people were buried in neat rows,” said Pelser.

The cemetery was discovered in October when mine security noticed human bones sticking out of the ground.

The area had once been covered by a mine dump, which earth-moving equipment had recently removed to extract any remaining gold.

The discovery of human bones prompted the SA Heritage Resources Agency to call in Pelser and his consulting company Archaetnos to assess the site.

They have been tasked to exhume the skeletons, which will be reburied at a later dates.

From what they have discovered so far, Pelser believes the cemetery was in use from the 1890s until the 1920s. After that the graveyard was covered by a mine dump.

They have exhumed about 70 skeletons, which have been examined and then taken to Avbob undertakers, where the bones are to be stored until reburial.

The reburial site is yet to be identified.

The exhumation has had its difficulties. Two weeks ago, a group of archaeologists working on the site were robbed by several armed men. Now they work with armed guards.

From the 70 exhumations, Pelser and his team have been able to draw a profile of the occupants of the cemetery.

They were men aged between 18 and 25.

“Joburg was built on the backs of these guys,” said Pelser.

The man in grave 127 was likely one of these men. Strands of hair still attached to his skull show he was black.

Dark stains on his bones suggest he was wrapped in a blanket that has since rotted away. The dead in this cemetery were not buried in coffins but wrapped in canvas, cowhide or blankets.

Two along from grave 127 is number 129. The skeleton in this grave was that of a Chinese man, the archaeologists believe. They deduced this from his facial features and teeth.

He was possibly one of the 63 000 labourers who were bought from northern China between 1904 and 1910 to work on the mines.

Pelser hopes that from the position of the skeletons they will be able to ascertain either the nationalities of the corpses or their religion.

“We have come across skeletons in a foetal position, some buried with their hands against their chin, and heads turned to the west and east,” he said.

A body buried facing the east could signify a Christian burial, believes Pelser.

As more bodies are retrieved, Pelser hopes clues will also emerge as to how some of these men died.

Historical records paint a picture of the mines and mine compounds as being death traps, where labourers lost their lives in rockfalls or dynamite explosions or succumbed to diseases like syphilis and pneumonia.

“These guys were just seen as commodities, they were there to do a job. And at the end of the day they were forgotten,” said Pelser.

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