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Britain Returns Skulls To Australia

  • December 18th, 2008
  • Posted by Daniel Challis

Oxford University agreed on Wednesday (17.12.08) to return remains of three indigenous Australians to their rightful owners.


Three skulls and lower jaws, which where taken in the 1860s and held at the Oxford Museum of Natural History, will be returned to the Ngarrindjeri people of South Australia.

The Australian government requested the remains from Britain earlier this year as part of its repatriation policy for Aboriginal remains.

The remains came from Goolwa, or Port Elliot in South Australia, the heart of Ngarrindgeri native country.

After a documentary review of the university’s records, the university confirmed the remains did belong to the Ngarrindjeri.

The Museum director Jim Kennedy said an agreement was made based on weighing up “our (Oxfords) duty of care” for the study of the remains with respecting what rightfully belongs to the Ngarrindgeri people.

“It has been a pleasure working with the Australian government and the Ngarrindjeri Heritage Committee, who have provided us with extensive information and background material that enabled us to reach the decision to repatriate the material,” he said.

Oxford introduced a stringent policy in 2006 that governs requests for repatriation of human remains.

The guidelines for whether remains should be returned revolve around their uniqueness, scientific and educational value as well as the cultural sensitivities.

“The policy is to ensure that items are given back to the appropriate community and to give due consideration to benefits that the items can bring to education and research,” Oxford said in a recent statement.

The Australian and British governments agreed in July 2000 to commit to facilitating the return of indigenous remains from United Kingdom collections.

British museums have repatriated human remains on several occasions since then, while keeping that under a set of conditions.

Australian authorities have said they do not want conditions attached when remains are requested for return.

However, the return of the bones was well received by the Chairman of the Ngarrindjeri heritage committee, Tom Trevorrow.

“The Ngarrindjeri people acknowledge the respect that Oxford University has shown by its decision to repatriate the Old People back home to their traditional lands from where they were wrongfully taken and removed overseas,” Mr Trevorrow said in a statement.


Paul Totaro, “Britain to return Aboriginal skulls”, The Sydney Morning Herald online,, (17.12.08).