Beacon Island Burials

Book page | Updated 9 months ago

The discovery of the Batavia wreck site in 1963 led to a considerable frenzy of digging, especially on Beacon Island where archaeological material and human bones had been found on previous occasions. Several grave sites and isolated finds were located during the early and mid 1960s.

In the late 1980s, human bones were once again uncovered on Beacon Island, this time during the digging of a trench for a leach drain in the backyard of a fishing camp. The bones, including some skull fragments, were put back in the trench and covered up when the drain was finished.

The Museum was not informed about the finds until a Commonwealth Historic Shipwrecks Amnesty was declared in 1993-94. This allowed people to make reports without fear of prosecution under the Historic Shipwrecks Act 1976 and to declare any unregistered cultural material that they might have in their possession. Unfortunately, the site had already been subjected to vandalism and some bones had been reportedly removed.

The degree of prior human disturbance and ongoing disturbance by local wildlife (including mutton birds), together with the risk of future vandalism, led to the decision to fully excavate the grave site.

The excavation of the grave site also provided an opportunity to extend the research on the historical skeletal remains, which had started in 1994 as a UWA honours project. An important aim of this study was to identify the individuals with the aid of the well-known historical sources about the events on the Abrolhos Islands in 1629 and information obtained from physical anthropological research of the skeletal remains. In particular information on the individuals’ age, sex, cause of death, life standards and social status might combine to allow a victim’s identity to be determined with some degree of confidence.

Forensic Scientists, Chemists, Anthropologists and Archaeologists teamed up to conduct a Forensic Archaeological analysis of the mass grave sites.

Three scientists looking into a deep pit
Remains discovered in 1963 during early expedition. Henrietta Drake-Brockman, Hugh Edwards & George Brenzi
Image copyright WA Museum
A single skeleton on display at a museum
Excavated remains displayed at the Western Australian Museum – Shipwreck Galleries
Image copyright WA Museum

Beacon Island Burial Sites

Human skull fragments were discovered in the 1980s on Beacon Island by fisherman digging a leach drain from their privy behind two of the shacks. These finds remained unreported until the Commonwealth Historic Shipwrecks Amnesty in 1993–1994 from prosecution under the Historic Shipwrecks Act 1976. A team from the Western Australian Maritime Museum partially excavated the grave site in 1994 finding skeletal material from two adults and a child.

In 1999, the excavation area was enlarged to 5 square metres and the remains of five individuals (SK7, SK8, SK9, SK10 and SK11) were removed from a mass grave.

The bodies were found to lie over, under, or in, a large deposit of black, dense soil penetrated by numerous fines roots… Embedded in these black deposits were metal buttons, some fibrous material and impressions of woven, fibrous material, which may indicate the presence of fabric. Since this black deposit obviously needs special care and investigation it was left in-situ for future investigation.

In 2001, the excavation of the mass grave resumed.

Excavation Methods and Analysis

Field methods

The excavation of the grave opened up the 6 squares from 1999 and removed backfill to the level of the upper part of the solid mass. The aim was to remove intact the dense soil feature at the centre of the grave: accordingly the areas around the mass were excavated in 5cm spits. Eventually the mass sat on a pedestal of crushed coral and sand.

The removed soil was sieved in 5mm and 3mm sieves and residues searched both on site and - due to the slow detailed sorting required - later in the Maritime Museum. This was how the teeth of the infant (SK12) were located, as the deciduous teeth are almost indistinguishable within the crushed coral and shell matrix that constitutes Beacon Island.

The dense matter required careful treatment during excavation and removal. During excavation the mass was constantly kept damp to avoid the black matrix and the protruding human bones from drying out. Photographic techniques followed those developed earlier to create a 3D photo model of the mass. A wooden box was built around the mass and then packed with sandbags and hardened foam for transport to the Maritime Museum in Fremantle.

Analysis of dense soil feature

The analysis of the grave contents at the Maritime Museum involved several techniques -

1. The grave mass was x-rayed revealing the location of artefacts and bones;

2. The matrix was then excavated in thin layers of one centimetre.

The time afforded by excavation at the Museum allowed the bone fragments to be carefully removed and their position carefully plotted with photogrammetry. The matrix was a thick vegetable material combined with soil and intrusions of white material. Samples were taken for AMS dating from the organic material that had formed inside the long bones; this meant that if the dark matrix had formed in 1629 or shortly afterwards it could be dated.

Discussions with archaeologists who work with mass burials indicated that the solid mass was a rare formation that had not been seen in other contexts. Consequently, a sample of the mass was retained whole in the museum collection.

Findings

Individual human remains:

The removal of human skeletal material allowed more complete assemblies of the skeletons. As a result it is possible to state that there were six individuals in the grave: three adults, a teenager, a child, and an infant (Table 1). The infant SK12 was represented only by 19 teeth. Only one skeleton showed visible trauma (SK6+SK10), however this does not rule out a violent death for the remainder as murder by drowning or a cut throat (two common methods on the islands) would not leave evidence of trauma on the bones.

A mass grave
Remains of six people in mass grave
Image copyright WA Museum
INDIVIDUAL HUMAN REMAINS BEACON ISLAND MASS GRAVE SITE
Skeletal material from group burial, including sex and age estimations based on findings of Franklin (2001) and Pasveer (2000).
Individual Sex Age Elements SK5+SK11 Male 35-45 Damaged cranium & post-cranial skeleton SK6+SK10 Male 20-30s Damaged cranium & post-cranial skeleton SK7 Male 20s Skull & post-cranial skeleton SK8 Possibly male 12-16 Skull & post-cranial skeleton SK9 ? 5-6 Skull & post-cranial skeleton SK12 ? <1 Deciduous and permanent teeth

Forensics

An important result of the 1999 excavation is that the existence of a mass burial pit has been confirmed. The position of the individuals in the burial pit is such that they cannot be considered to have had a ‘normal’ Christian burial. The circumstances of their burial strongly suggest that the victims were buried in haste and without ceremony.

Apart from the cracked skull and displaced tooth of SK6, no positive evidence of violence was found among the five skeletons. It can be concluded, with the possible exception of SK6, that these individuals were unlikely to have died from blows with heavy instruments, sharp or blunt. The possibility remains, however, that these victims were killed in ways that leave little if any trace on the skeletal remains.

There are several descriptions of deaths, killings and burials in historical accounts, the main source being Pelsaert’s journal. A recent study of the historical accounts indicated many individual and group murders occurred on and near Beacon Island, as well as deaths from drowning and sickness (although many of the sick were murdered before meeting natural deaths). Two main mass burials are described in the journals, although other mass deaths could have gone unreported in the slaughter.

One mass burial included the Predicant’s family on July 21st: his wife and six children were beaten to death, their maid stabbed, another female had her throat cut, and another man was battered to death. An earlier mass killing occurred on July 10 or July 12 when Passchier van den Enden (gunner), Jacob Hendricxsz (carpenter) and a sick boy were killed as well as English soldier Jan Pinten.

The age profile and fact that, like the carpenter, SK7 probably limped in life, convincingly suggests that the 3 adults and 1 youth in the mass grave are those of van den Enden, Hendricxsz, Pinten and the cabin boy.

The child (SK9) and infant (SK12) could have died of natural causes or been among those murdered in early days. Clearly the infant was born on voyage, and may be one of those described as suckling: for example, Maijken Cardoes was described as having a suckling child who was strangled on July 20th 1629 (the day before the murder of the Predicant’s family).

The grave would have been more shallow than today - as the surface has been built up in the historic era - perhaps covered with less than 20 cm of sand. The infant SK12 would appear to have been the first in the grave. Some were buried with clothing, despite reports that clothes were retained by the murderers, and some everyday items, such as thimbles and jewellery - possibly in their clothes - were also interred.

Experts in craneofacial reconstruction have recreated an image showing the possible appearance of the man who died in this grave.

Scientist excavating a skull from a burial site
Careful excavation of a skull
Image copyright WA Museum
Process of recreating a face from a skull
Craneofacial Reconstruction - From skull to possible likeness of the 17th Century man found buried on Beacon Island
Image copyright WA Museum