A team of WA archaeologists and scientists has found the remains of four people in a sequence of remarkable discoveries at Beacon Island, part of the Houtman Abrolhos off the coast of Geraldton.
The research team, from the Western Australian Museum and The University of Western Australia, returned to Perth yesterday after an expedition to Beacon Island to examine archaeological sites related to one of WA's most famous shipwrecks, the Batavia.
The team last week reported the first burial site contained the remains of an adolescent person and musket balls. However, just a few centimetres away a second multiple burial of two adults was found. One had remnants of copper clothing clasps.
The fourth burial identified by the team was of a headless adult body. The body will finally rejoin its skull, collected more than 40 years ago by crayfishermen and exhibited in the Western Australian Museum - Geraldton.
These remains will join previously excavated materials held by the WA Museum and currently being studied at The University of Western Australia's Centre for Forensic Science.
Associate Professor Daniel Franklin, from UWA's Centre for Forensic Science, said these latest finds took the number of Batavia victims found to 13, and represented a significant opportunity for the team.
"These burials are relatively undisturbed and represent a unique opportunity to reconstruct events surrounding these individuals' deaths and internment, Associate Professor Franklin said.
Forensic anthropologists Associate Professor Franklin and Liesbeth Smits, from Amsterdam University, will analyse the remains over coming months and years to better understand their life and unfortunate death.
The project has relied heavily on remote sensing techniques carried out by other members of the team, led by UWA's Professor David Lumley and Associate Professor Jeffrey Shragge.
The Batavia was wrecked on Morning Reef near Beacon Island in the Houtman Abrolhos in 1629. Of the estimated 341 people on board, most made it to nearby islands but 196 people died, including women and children, mostly during the mutiny among the survivors.
The wreck site was discovered in 1963, excavated by the WA Museum in the early 1970s and since then, archaeological work on several islands has located historic material associated with the wreck.
WA Museum Head of Maritime Archaeology Jeremy Green said the team had hoped to find burial sites during the expedition.
"This information is important because it tells us about the life and times of the sailors on board Dutch East India Company ships," Mr Green said.
"As we suspected there is a remarkable survival of graves on the island. Human remains are being treated with the greatest respect and the team is adhering to national and international protocols while dealing with these remains"
UWA archaeologist Associate Professor Alistair Paterson said that other finds in the graves shed some light on the Batavia events beyond the deaths.
"We uncovered other items such as Dutch ceramic Beardman jug fragments, which are rare insights into the items brought from the wreck to the island," he said.
"The team of researchers is studying these areas as part of the Australian Research Council-funded project, ‘Shipwrecks of the Roaring Forties: a maritime archaeological reassessment of some of Australia's earliest shipwrecks".
The Shipwrecks of the Roaring Forties project is led by Associate Professor Paterson and involves national and international partners, including from UWA, WA Museum, Prospero Productions, Curtin University, WA Department of Fisheries, Tasmania Parks and Wildlife Service, Flinders University, University of South Carolina, University of Amsterdam, Netherlands State Archives, the Netherlands Ministry of Education, Culture and Science - Cultural Heritage Agency and the British Museum.