Robben Island calls in archaeologists after discovery of human remains

The Motura Kramat on Robben Island, built in 1969 over the grave of Sayed Abduraghmaan Motura, who died there in 1754.
Image: Anton Scholtz

The discovery of human remains is set to write a new chapter in Robben Island’s history.Archaeologists are being called in to survey and excavate the site of the discovery near a kramat (shrine), which was built in 1969 alongside the island’s maximum security prison.

“This is absolutely historical I believe, especially because of the island’s multilayered history,” said museum spokesperson Morongoa Ramaboa.

The human remains were found near Motura Kramat on Robben Island, which neighbours the prison and the harbour. Image: Google Maps

The island housed a general infirmary for people suffering from leprosy, the mentally ill and the terminally ill at different periods between 1846 and 1931.

The notorious prison was finished in 1961 to house political prisoners under apartheid, and is known to have been built over leper graves.

Initial inspections by specialists indicated that the bones, found in February 2018, were at least 50 years old and probably date from before the prison was built.

“Judging from the shallowness of the graves, it is suspected that the site was most likely levelled during construction of the prison in the early 1960s,” said Ramaboa.

Museum staff found the remains and are now looking for an archaeologist to begin a full excavation. The museum has posted a request for tenders and plans to pick a service provider by May 10.

Hundreds of pairs of shoes stand outside the Motura Kramat (shrine) on Robben Island during the 31st annual Urs Sharief festival. Members of the Islamic faith come from all over South Africa for the pilgrimage which is the annual death anniversary celebrations of Sayed Abduraghmaan Motura, who was exiled to the island in the 1700s and passed away there in 1744. The Kramat was built over his grave in 1969. Robben Island, Pic: ANTON SCHOLTZ. 16/06/2013. © THE TIMES

This type of discovery on Robben Island has been uncommon in recent years, according to Ramaboa, but there are records of political prisoners discovering human bones during the construction of the prison.

Once the remains are unearthed, the museum would follow protocol for handling them, said Ramaboa. An appropriate reburial would take place within the guidelines of the Heritage Resources Act once the remains had been identified.

Despite the delay in excavation, the identification of the remains is now a priority for the museum. “It’s very important for us to match the bones within a specific timeline in the island’s history,” Ramaboa said.

For visitors, the project will not affect the regular three-hour tours, as the excavation site is not on the tour route.

BY STENDER VON OEHSEN

TimesLIVE

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