Origins of Sayers’ Lane bones traced

Sayers’ Lane during the 2019 excavation.

Human remains excavated at Sayers’ Lane in 2019 have been identified as crew from 18th-century Dutch East India Company cargo ships.

The bones, currently in the possession of the Simon’s Town Museum, will be reburied at the Simon’s Town Old Burying Ground soon.

This was revealed at a public meeting at the Simon’s Town Museum, on Saturday November 6.

The meeting was hosted by the museum and the Phoenix Committee, which represents people displaced during the forced removals under apartheid.

In 2019, the remains of 165 humans were excavated from the property located on the corner of Palace Hill and Waterfall roads after digging the foundations for a three-storey block of flats.

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 next to the old brewery and the national monument, Studlands, which was built in 1797 and is about 150 metres from the old Dutch East India hospital, which treated crew members from ships between 1765 and 1796 (“Let sleeping bones lie,” Echo, September 5, 2019).

Archaeologist Tim Hart, from ACO Associates, who had been involved in the excavation, said the site was not a mass grave but a historical burial site associated with the hospital before the property was turned into military barracks.

He said that due to the suspected link to the Dutch East India crew members at the time, ACO Associates had contacted the Dutch embassy and the Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands to help extend the search for the origins. In response, he said, two bone specialists were sent from the Netherlands to assist in the field.

Mr Hart said the bodies, all adults, had been buried on their backs in rows, and few artefacts, with the exception of some coins, were found with them. A small number of amputated limbs had been found, suggesting hospital burials, he said.

Some bones, he said, indicated that they had died from “very bad” injuries.

“The bones tell a story of a difficult time, and we should remind ourselves how fortunate we are to be here, in this time and place,” he said.

Following the excavation, half of the bones were sent to the Netherlands where they were analysed with the help of the Laboratory for Human Osteoarchaeology of the University of Leiden, the Earth Science Stable Isotope Laboratory of the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, and the Centre for Isotope Research of the University of Groningen. The project was funded by Cultural Heritage Agency.

He said the excavation had been difficult as the bones were “very fragile”.

Due to the poor preservation of the organic component of the bones, it was difficult to analyse them and not all tests could be completed successfully.

However, he said, the analysis of stable isotopes stored within teeth proved most successful. This is known as an apatite test, and, using comparative data, the isotopes provide geological patterns that can help narrow down the potential geographical regions of origin. The result indicated that the origin of the remains was western Europe and, for a few, the Indian archipelago.

Mr Hart said the bones, which are in six custom-made coffins, would receive a dignified burial, and the City of Cape Town had made burial space available.

City spokesman Luthando Tyhalibongo said the recreation and parks department had agreed provisionally to provide two vacant graves on the edge of the Old Burying Ground in Simon’s Town, but no date for the reburial had been set yet.