Letter: Exhumation for aboriginal head

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Sir: Next week will see the anniversary of the murder of Yagan. One of the best-known of Australian aboriginal leaders, he was shot on 11 July 1833 by a white youth. His head, cut off and smoked, landed up in the Liverpool Museum and remained there until, in 1964, the then Keeper of Ethnology - for reasons never explained - had it buried with other unwanted relics in an unmarked grave in Everton cemetery.

Now, as you have reported, his descendant Ken Colbung is in Britain and seeking the head's return. His request for exhumation has been backed by the Australian Prime Minister, John Howard, who on 29 June - after a visit to London in which the problem of Yagan's head was one of the matters discussed - offered to pay for the costs of digging the head up.

On Monday (30 June), the Aboriginal Torres Island Straits Commission (ATSIC), representing Aboriginal communities, and the Nyoongah people of Western Australia officially and unanimously authorised Ken Colbung to renew the application.

The previous Home Secretary refused a licence on the grounds that there were objections from the parents of several stillborns who lie in a higher layer of the same grave. But the Home Office have now been sent a technical study showing that the head can be extracted without disturbing the stillborns, by sinking a shaft adjacent to the grave.

We therefore urge the new Home Secretary, Jack Straw, to give his permission now for the exhumation, in time for a joint Australian-British commemoration of Yagan's death on 11 July. European beliefs about physical resurrection are so muddled that we no longer know what they are - or were. But today's Aborigines are more certain than we are that the whole body should receive appropriate funerary treatment before the spirit of a dead person can rest in peace.




The Institute of Archaeology

University College London

London WC1