Hi-tech FBI tools to retrieve aborigine chief's head

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The Independent Online
Scientists are to use FBI techniques to remove the severed head of an aboriginal leader from a Liverpool grave without disturbing the 22 stillborn children buried above it.

Ground-penetrating radar and electromagnetic sensors will be used to determine the exact location of a box containing the skull of Yagan, a 19th century aborigine shot and beheaded by English settlers. Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, has ordered that the tomb cannot be opened without permission from the children's parents, so a plan is being drawn up to remove the head by tunnelling alongside the grave.

Yagan is one of the best known leaders in aboriginal history and Britain's failure to return his head for burial in his tribal homeland is threatening to become an international public relations disaster.

Ken Colbung, a member of the Nyoongah tribe from Western Australia and a descendant of Yagan's, has flown to Britain to retrieve the skull and is being supported by the rich and famous including Lord McAlpine, the former Tory party treasurer, Bill Cash, the Tory Euro-sceptic MP, and Peter Kilfoyle, the Cabinet Office minister in whose Liverpool constit- uency the head is buried. "This is something which is very real to the aboriginal people," said Mr Colbung.

Senior Australian politicians are also lobbying the government for the return of the skull.

Dr Martin Bates is heading a team of applied geophysicists from University College London and the University of St Andrews which has been commissioned by Merseyside's museums to find an alternative route to Yagan's head. He said the ground-sensing technique they would use is employed by the FBI in criminal investigations.

The Yagan case - he was shot in the back of the head by an 18-year-old English youth for a pounds 30 reward in 1833 - has drawn attention to the 19th century practice of sending the heads and other body parts of indigenous people back home for "scientific" purposes. Aboriginal groups estimate that 1,500 aboriginal remains are stored in British museums and universities.

Extensive collections were established at Oxford, Cambridge and Edinburgh universities, at the Natural History Museum and the Royal College of Surgeons. Other skulls ended up in private homes. Thomas Pettigrew, a London antiquarian, used Yagan's skull as the focal point for a "conversazione" - a Victorian dinner party where scientific oddities were shown off.

The quest to retrieve Yagan's skull was entrusted to Mr Colbung by tribal elders. He enlisted the help of Professor Peter Ucko, of London University's Institute of Archaeology. One of his researchers, Cressida Fforde, discovered that the skull had been taken to Liverpool and buried in 1964 in Everton cemetery. Inquiries revealed that four years later the grave had been opened to bury 22 children who died in or immediately after childbirth.

Ken Colbung is determined that he will not go home empty-handed. "It is like the sword of Excalibur. It takes a mighty man to pull it out," he said. "I am that man."