Just 2km from Perth’s CBD, below the bitumen surface of a nondescript car park, the remains of eight-year-old Mary Craig lay with her doll for more than 100 years.
She was buried in 1896 when she died from typhoid, so why is her tombstone over the road at East Perth Cemeteries, and how did she end up beneath the layers of modern Australia?
Mary’s remains were among 364 individuals uncovered recently during one of Australia’s largest exhumations of human remains. The archeological dig, completed in August after 10 months of painstaking work, has revealed significant historical insight into colonial life in the area.
Described by those who worked on it as an “archeological gem”, this project promises to shed light on some of the people who lived in the area in the years leading up to federation.
National Trust Western Australia CEO Julian Donaldson said it was very unusual for a capital city to have excavations in its original cemetery. This project would provide significant research opportunities.
“It’ll continue to inform us about the burial practices and the stories of the people who moved to Perth in the 19th century,” he said.
Little Mary’s parents James and Annie, could have never known what the future held for the patch of earth where she was laid to rest in the Presbyterian section of the greater East Perth Cemeteries, which was used for burials until sometime around 1899.
After the burials ceased, weeds crept in, squatters periodically took up residence, and the odd fire broke out. Decades passed, and in the 1950s, to restore what had become a neglected part of the city, funding was put towards tidying up parts of the cemeteries, while a portion of them was to be repurposed into playing fields for the nearby Perth Girls School.
Many of the graves in the western section where those from the Presbyterian and Chinese communities were buried no longer had any identifying markers. Most originally had wooden grave markers that had either been burnt at some point or had broken down over time.
The small portion of tombstones in this area was removed from the land for that section of the cemeteries to be turned into school grounds.
When the school closed in the early 1960s, the land was smoothed over and turned into a car park.
Changes to land use, a lack of record-keeping, and the passing of time meant knowledge and connections to those laid to rest at the site had almost been lost.
The public servants from the police force, who went to work in the old school buildings for decades after, could have no idea they had parked on top of long-buried graves.
When the carpark along with the school site was sold in 2014 to Australian Development Capital, with plans to develop the heritage building and surrounding site, the condition was that all human remains on the land be properly exhumed and relocated. An archaeological team from Terra Rosa Consulting was brought in to carry out the work.
Terra Rosa’s heritage manager Daniel Monks said it was anything but a straightforward exhumation as there were no tombstones or identifying markers to show where each body may have been buried.
“We weren’t dealing with an original ground surface,” Monks said.
Gravestones had been removed, and the earth re-landscaped at least twice, and somewhere beneath the ground were the unmarked remains of hundreds of people. At the outset, they did not know exactly how many bodies were buried there, and from research, had only a rough guide of 200 to 400.
It was also unclear whether any human remains had been exhumed when the land was repurposed in the 1950s.
“Remnant headstones were moved across the road, but there was never any identification of where [exactly on the burial ground] those tombstones came from, and we didn’t have any idea whether those people were exhumed or left in the ground,” Monks said.
Ground-penetrating radar surveys produced uncertain results, and old maps of the area didn’t provide a full picture of the scale of burials or locations of graves.
In October 2019, excavators were finally brought in to peel back the layers of earth, revealing the remains of at least 346 individuals, each of which took almost a day to exhume.
The work required careful removal of fragile layers of the ground’s surface before soil was removed by hand using tools such as trowels and dustpans to dislodge small piles of earth and reveal more of the coffins and their human remains.
Monks said it was not surprising there was not a great amount left of many of the human’s remains, given they’d been buried for more than a century.
“In some instances, we had nicely preserved coffins, but there weren’t many,” he said.
While some full skeletons were uncovered, many of the individuals were quite literally one bone or teeth because of decomposition level. All of the coffins uncovered were made from wood, but there were also several shroud burials, where the human remains had simply been wrapped in fabric and placed in the ground.
These people had likely been buried this way as their families could not afford coffins to bury them in.
At least 35 of those uncovered are understood to have been buried in the Chinese section of the cemetery. Many of these people were buried with items such as oriental-style clothing and jade bracelets. The remains of one had what is believed to be a Chinese money belt around them.
With the local Chinese community’s permission, the National Trust WA will work to preserve a jacket that one Chinese man was buried in.
In addition to the remains of the 35 Chinese individuals uncovered, many empty graves are believed to have belonged to Chinese people, making sense according to those who carried out the work.
“There is reasonably established practice that Chinese people would bury loved ones in a regular ceremony, but they would come back and exhume the bones and send them home to China,” Monks said.
The passage of time, lack of records, and movement of populations were always going to make the task of identifying those who were buried here difficult. However, researchers are confident they know the identities of at least 18 of the exhumed individuals.
Little Mary Craig’s burial details were matched with information in the East Perth Cemeteries archive, and her headstone is one of a small number relocated to the remaining part of the East Perth Cemeteries over the road in the 1950s when the land was repurposed.
Monks said while working on the dig was at times confronting, it was an important project to work on.
“This has been an opportunity to learn more and to have these people treated with a bit of respect. One of the things that have shocked me, to be honest, is just how little respect has been shown to the site since they stopped putting people in the ground,” he said.
As researchers work through the remains that have been uncovered, they are being reinterred at a section of another Perth cemetery along with any items they were originally buried with, which means little Mary will be buried with her doll once again.
“It’s been an area that squatters took up in the depression, its been bulldozed, its been covered over, its been dismantled, and these people are finally going to get some respect and recognition in their new resting place, hopefully never to be exhumed again,” Monks said.
Terra Rosa Consultancy is expected to complete a full report of their findings by the end of the year, provided to the Western Australian government.
The contents of the report will be a starting point for much further research. The National Trust WA, which oversees the remainder of the East Perth Cemeteries, will take possession of several artifacts unearthed in the dig, such as timber coffins, handles, and hinges keep them as part of its collection.
The Trust’s CEO said this project provided a significant research opportunity.
“There is continual learning from East Perth Cemeteries both on the side we look after and the site that has been excavated,” Donaldson said.
He said the Trust intends to use the dig’s findings to work with Notre Dame University to research 19th-century burial practices.