Eleven years after originally promised, a British museum yesterday "ended the torment" of their rightful custodians by handing back four Australian Aboriginal skulls.
At a time of growing tension over the ownership of international artefacts, Manchester Museum returned the skulls to a delegation of tribal elders who plan to return them to their traditional homelands in the state of Victoria for burial in a sacred place. Such remains, brought to this country as gruesome souvenirs, for experimental purposes or as scientific curios by early white settlers, have become a burning political issue in Australia.
Aborigines believe the spirits of these people cannot rest until their bones are laid in their native ground, nor can they be free if the remains are separated. With contentious collections across Britain, the Government gave an undertaking to increase efforts to repatriate such artefacts.
Among the most controversial are the Elgin Marbles, sought by the Greek government, and the Rosetta Stone, which the Egyptians yesterday requested be returned on loan to be displayed at a new wing of the Cairo Museum.
Tristram Besterman, director of Manchester Museum, said the act of returning the Aboriginal skulls recognised "our common humanity". "These remains were removed during the colonial era ... Their removal, more than a century ago, was carried out without the permission of the Aboriginal nations ... in violation of the laws and beliefs of the indigenous Australian people," he said. "None the less, by returning these remains now, we hope to contribute to ending the sense of outrage and dispossession felt by Australian Aborigines today."
Yesterday's ceremony follows an agreement between the University of Manchester and the Foundation for Aboriginal and Islander Research Action (Faira).
Bob Weatherall, of Faira, said: "This will end the practice of scientific investigations and maintaining Aboriginal ancestors in cardboard boxes, plastic bags and vaults in museums." Major Sumner, a traditional custodian from the Ngarrindjeri nation in South Australia, added: "The torment is ended, we now put an end to the torment."
Last year the Royal College of Surgeons' museum became the first English institution to hand over Aboriginal remains. Among them were said to be hair and skin from Truganini, a woman hailed as the last Tasmanian Aborigine. She died in 1876.
The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, Australia's main organisation for indigenous people, has identified more than 50 institutions in 18 countries that acknowledged holding remains and artefacts in their collections.
Ken Colbung, an elder of the Nyoongar Bibbulman tribe and a justice of the peace in Western Australia, travelled to Liverpool six years ago to demand the return of the head of Yagan - one of the community's greatest heroes. Yagan was considered an outstanding leader of the Tondarup Ballaruk clan who was the first to speak up for his people's rights and tried to reconcile whites and blacks in the 1830s. He was shot by a farm worker and his severed head was smoked, pickled and exhibited before being buried in an unmarked pauper's grave in Liverpool.
The Home Office initially refused exhumation, after objections from relatives of stillborn babies in the same public grave, sonar technology was eventually used to do so without disturbing other bodies.
Mr Colbung said: "It is Aboriginal belief that because of Yagan's skeletal remains are incomplete, his spirit is earthbound. The uniting of his head and torso will immediately set his spirit free to continue its eternal journey."
The row over the 2,200-year-old Rosetta Stone flared again yesterday when Zahi Hawass, director of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities, insisted the British Museum should send it back. But the museum refused a request to loan it to Cairo for the 2005 opening of a new wing of its museum.
A statement said: "To loan such pieces would result in our disappointing the five million visitors who come to the museum every year." Mr Hawass said the museum should "not be selfish". The stone unlocks the mystery of hieroglyphics, but the Egyptian museum only has a reproduction.
STILL IN BRITISH HANDS
The British Museum has consistently refused to return the Rosetta Stone, right, to Egypt. The 2,200-year-old stone, which unlocked the mysteries of hieroglyphics, was discovered by French soldiers in 1799 before being handed to the English upon surrender. It has been in the London collection since 1802.
The museum has also long resisted Greek attempts to regain the Parthenon Marbles, right, the 2,500-year-old frieze depicting an Athenian procession that Britain acquired in 1811 from Lord Elgin, British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire.Reuse content