JCU archaeologist studies unmarked graves

3 December 2014

A James Cook University archaeologist says dozens of European settlers may lie in unmarked graves on the Queensland coast, with records from Townsville’s Magnetic Island suggesting it is ‘dotted’ with burial sites.

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JCU’s Associate Professor Mike Rowland said after reading journals of early explorers, along with reports in newspapers of the day, it appears there are a significant number of Europeans buried in unmarked graves on Queensland’s coast and offshore islands.
He believes the majority of the graves would be from the mid-19th century, but it is possible bodies were buried in unmarked sites up to the 1930s.
“For example, the anthropologist John Taylor has noted that unmarked and unofficial graves dot certain parts of Magnetic Island, but the records have been lost in council archives,” he said.
Associate Professor Rowland said in addition to a significant mortality among the European population from various causes, more than 400 ships were wrecked or run aground on the Great Barrier Reef route between 1891 and 1919, with more than 160 fatalities. Some of these were buried on the coast and on offshore islands.
“The graves might have originally been marked with stones or crosses or coral, but those markings are now long gone,” he said.
Associate Professor Rowland said the study was of particular concern because he helped police develop policy on the handling of human remains back in the early 1980s.
“This focused on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander remains, and that focus established an expectation that human remains exposed by erosion in coastal dunes and on islands would be Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander.
“The indications are that this cannot be assumed in all cases, and that further investigation might be needed to ensure that the appropriate community is liaised with when remains are found.”
Associate Professor Rowland said some ancestors of early settlers are still curious about what happened to their relatives and the ‘lonely grave’ filled an important space in the Australian ethos.
He suggested a live, crowd-sourced database of European burials on the coast and islands of Queensland be established, to which new evidence could be added.

What is archaeology?

Archaeology is the study of past human societies. The JCU Bachelor of Arts Archaeology major covers historical and human evolutionary topics as well as practical fieldwork skills, including a Rock Art Field School.
This JCU Faculty of Arts program makes the most of the North Queensland environment, investigating the deep past of Australian Indigenous people as well as the last 200 years of Indigenous-settler history. It also explores the archaeology and heritage of Australia’s Pacific and Asian neighbours, early European societies and human origins.
Making the most of the northern Queensland environment, you will investigate Indigenous and colonial Australia, our Pacific and Asian neighbours, as well as the origins of European society.

Getting real experience

Archaeology students at JCU will gain fieldwork skills through projects at archaeological sites around Townsville and Cairns. This provides experience in research and skills needed for a professional career in archaeology.

Getting a job

Archaeologists can work as consultants conducting cultural heritage impact studies or with cultural heritage agencies such as the Queensland Department of Environment and Heritage Protection (DEHP), who are responsible for managing cultural heritage.
Archaeology graduates also have careers in

  • mining and development projects;
  • government departments and local councils;
  • universities (as teachers and researchers); and
  • forensic science.

Program: Bachelor of Archaeology
Location: Townsville or Cairns, Queensland
Semester intakes: February and July
Duration: 3 years

Apply to an Arts Degree at James Cook University!


Find out more about arts degrees available at the the JCU Faculty of Arts. Contact OzTREKK Admissions Officer Rachel Brady for more information about how you can study in Australia! Email Rachel at rachel@oztrekk.com or call 1-866-698-7355 (toll free in Canada).