Skull home, no thanks to Archbishop; now for the shield . . .

Part of the ceremony at the Australian High Commission in London

A former Anglican Archbishop of Perth broke export laws when he sent the skull of an Aborigine to London where it remained for nearly a century until its homecoming on Monday.

The skull was among the remains of 13 Aboriginal ancestors being held by British museums and institutions finally returned to Australia.

The National Indigenous Times understands the mystery skull may have been dug up from a Perth deanery in the early 1920s. But Cambridge University in London said it had no records about who the skull belonged to or where it came from.

“The University holds no evidence as to the origins of the cranium, which was recorded as having been sent to Cambridge by Charles Riley, Archbishop of Perth, in 1923,” a spokesman said. “The decision to return the remains was made principally on the grounds that Archbishop Riley had acted in contravention of local export laws.”

Riley was Archbishop of Perth from 1914 to 1929.

The skull will be held in trust by the WA Museum while research is done to find the tribe and community to whom the person belonged. Deciding exactly where the person should be put to rest may be a complicated process.

It is a similarly long path home for many of the remains of the other ancestors.

Members of the Ngarrindjeri community in South Australia met the remains of one elderly person who had been returned by the Royal Pavilion and Museums in Brighton at the Adelaide airport, according to the federal Department of Communications and the Arts.

The community will return the old person to a Ngarrindjeri resting place.

But for others, the path is not so clear.

The remains of another 11 ancestors, returned by the University of Birmingham and the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, will be cared for by the National Museum of Australia until it can be determined where they belong.

A spokesperson for the federal Department of Communications and the Arts, which oversees the repatriation, said negotiations for the return of the Ngarrindjeri old person had spanned seven years. Others took less than a year.

The Brighton & Hove City Council in England did not immediately respond to NIT inquiries about the remains.

In the past two decades more than 1300 remains from overseas collections have come home.

Monday’s homecoming followed a traditional smoking ceremony which was held at the Australian High Commission last week and performed and attended by Ngarrindjeri and Whadjuk representatives.

But as they travelled back to Australia, the descendent of Gweagal warrior Cooman prepared to begin an international speaking tour in a bid to get back a shield and spears stolen from his ancestor by Captain James Cook and his men in 1770.

Cooman was shot in the leg by the English landing party at Botany Bay in 1770.

The shield is currently held by the British Museum and the spears by the Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.

Cooman’s six times great grandson Rodney Kelly, Roxley Foley and Luritja elder Vincent Forrester will speak in London, Berlin and Amsterdam over the next few months in a bid to get the Gweagal Shield returned.

The speaking tour will begin at the Cambridge Museum today.

On the First Contact tour the men will talk about how life was for Indigenous Australians before Cook arrived and how an act of violence and the theft of the shield began the first of a series of massacres and ended a way of life.

Last week they got some support from the Australian Senate, which voted in favour of a motion supporting the repatriation of the shield.

In August, the NSW Parliament also supported the shield’s return.

Mr Kelly wants the artefacts returned to the Gweagal people to form the centre-piece of an Aboriginal living culture museum.

A British museum spokesman told NIT they planned to meet Mr Kelly and his associates in London.

“The British Museum acknowledges that some objects, such as the bark shield, are of high cultural significance for contemporary Indigenous Australians and we are always keen to engage in dialogue to see where we can collaborate,” a spokesman said.

“The British Museum is also aware that some communities have expressed an interest in having objects on display closer to their originating communities.

“The Trustees of the British Museum lend extensively all over the world and over 3.5 million objects from the collection are available to study online. Some communities may not have infrastructure to facilitate historic objects but we look to work with local institutions to see if a loan could be facilitated in that way.

“This process would require additional resources and collaboration with local institutions and these communities.

“Many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander objects, including the bark shield, from the British Museum were on display at the National Museum of Australia in Canberra earlier this year. The shield has recently returned to the British Museum and is back on display in one of our free permanent galleries where nearly seven million visitors a year are able to see the shield.”

Wendy Caccetta

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