Archaeologist of Sayers’ Lane breaks silence

Joan Orgill from the Simons Town Phoenix Committee welcomed and addressed people at the meeting.

An archaeologist who worked on the excavation of skeletons at the Sayers’ Lane site has refuted allegations of a cover-up at the dig.

ACO Associates archaeologist, John Gribble, told a public meeting at Simon’s Town library on Saturday that there had been nothing secret about their work at the site on the corner of Palace Hill and Waterfall roads and the excavation of 165 human remains – including both whole skeletons and disjointed bones – had been done by the book.

The meeting was called by the Simon’s Town Phoenix Committee, which represents victims of apartheid’s forced removals, in response to allegations that had surfaced in the media, among them claims that Muslim remains might be present; that the site was in fact a mass grave; and that archaeologists had prematurely stopped excavation work and been gagged from speaking to the media and the public so as not to impede the three-storey block of flats to be built on the land.

Most of the burials were Christian, Mr Gribble said -with skeletons lying on their backs, their arms by their sides or folded over their chests or pelvis in an east-west direction.

According to the team’s research, the remains belong to sailors and crew from 18th-century Dutch East India Company cargo ships.

The property, known to locals as Sayers’ Lane, housed 20 single-storey terraced cottages known as the Sayers’ Lane and Waterfall Cottages in 1830, built by the Royal Navy Works Department.

Residents of the cottages were forcefully removed in 1965 under the Group Area’s Act, and the cottages were demolished in 1972.

The property is adjacent to the old brewery and the registered national monument, Studlands which was built in 1797, (“Let sleeping bones lie,” Echo, September 5).

The Phoenix Committee’s Joan Orgill said the committee had been invited to the site and shown the remains as they had laid in the ground.

“We have been in close contact with the museum and the archaeologists and have seen how the remains were handled and stored,” she said.

She said they knew who had previously occupied the site and the families who had been removed during the Group Areas Act, and she invited anyone with documented proof that there were Muslim remains buried on the site to make it available to the committee.

Mr Gribble said the site was not a mass grave as reported but a historical burial site associated with the Dutch East India Company hospital, which had operated from 1765 to 1796 before the property was turned into military barracks.

He said the team believed the site was part of a much larger burial ground extending to Waterfall Road, the military barracks complex and some residences.

Thearchaeologistswere appointed by property owner and developer Micheal Bester in June last year.

A lot of research had been done before the remains had been removed, said Mr Gribble.

Trial excavations under a permit issued by Heritage Western Cape (HWC) was done and through those trials, he said, they had determined that the human remains were mostly located in the southern part of the property.

A four-week-long public-participation process – an HWC requirement – had followed, including adverts in the Echo as well as making contact with interested parties, such as the VOC Foundation, the Dutch Consulate and the Dutch Cultural Heritage Agency.

Feedback from the public-participation process had been “overwhelmingly positive”, Mr Gribble said.

Based on number of burials encountered during trial excavations, he said, they had estimated it would take them three months (June, July and August) to remove the remains.

“We were not forced off site or chased away by the developer, as speculated in the media. We finished our contract on time. In fact, we finished a day earlier, and all human remains were removed. We were not urged to remove the remains as fast as possible and the remains were removed with respect and consideration,” he said.

No Islamic graves had been identified on the site and a few of the bodies, he said, had been buried in wood coffins, showing their social status, but the majority had been buried without coffins and presumably had been naked as few buttons and other clothing items had been found.

A large number of the burials were individual but there were also group burials of between three and five bodies in a single grave.

“We suspect groups of sailors from the same ship could have been buried together.

“This indicates that these people were not necessary buried by loved ones but they were buried with some respect,” he said

Forensic archaeologists on site determined that most of the remains were male.

A small number of amputated limbs had been found, suggesting hospital burials, he said.

Mr Gribble denied there had been any secrecy around their work. The site, he said, had been screened off “out of respect for the remains we were excavating as well as respect for passers-by as some members of the community were upset after seeing the remains”.

He said the site had never been closed to the public.

“We welcomed visitors and volunteers on a daily basis. We were completely open about what we were doing and what was happening,” he said.

However, when the Echo tried to visit the site on Thursday August 29 we were denied entry and told not to take photos.

This was also the case for the assistant editor of the Daily Maverick, Marianne Thamm, who told Mr Gribble she had been refused entry to the site.

While most of the residents were not opposed to development on the property, they took offence to the design of the three-storey block of flats and the use of the name, Sayers’ Lane, which they say represents nothing of the heritage of Simon’s Town or the people who previously lived there.

For many, the slide show on the history of the site was an emotional trip down memory lane.

* The presentation was followed by a discussion about the property and other vacant historic properties in Simon’s Town. Notes were made of questions asked and attendees were asked to provide their contact details for feedback.