HUMAN remains taken from a central Victorian grave are probably yet to return home after travelling halfway around the world.
But descendants are optimistic they can one day rebury their ancestor's skull.
The Bendigo Weekly is examining what happened to the remains after obtaining a letter that details the incident, dated to 1877.
The letter is helping inform the paper's ongoing investigation into unrelated remains once housed in modern day Bendigo TAFE buildings.
Those six skulls are now thought to have vanished and anyone who has them should surrender them to Traditional Owners the Dja Dja Wurrung.
Two of them were last seen at TAFE's McCrae Street campus in 1960, in an arts supply cupboard, as revealed earlier this year by the Weekly's sister paper the Bendigo Advertiser.
Now, the Dja Dja Wurrung and a leading international academic have detailed what is known about another set of remains taken from a grave in the 19th century.
They hope the story will help keep the search for the Bendigo museum remains in the public eye.
The man of God, the scientist and the grave
In 1877 a Bendigo resident called Joseph King wrote to eminent Oxford University scientist George Rolleston to report a discovery 35 miles away on the Loddon River.
"It was dug up in the Estate of the wealthy member of my congregation," the Protestant reverend said.
King was part of a worldwide network sending human remains back to Rolleston.
"The men were digging the foundation for an out house when they came upon it. They found the entire skeleton or at least a number of bones," King wrote.
"I tried to obtain these as well as the Skull but they had left them in the ground and the Outhouse was built over them."
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King could not be entirely certain that the remains were of a "New Hollander", as Indigenous people were sometimes called.
A number of white people had been buried at the property 20 years earlier, but King was sure enough going by the skull's features.
"There is little doubt they are (unless they belong to "a white") the remains of our Loddan Tribe. This tribe has Entirely disappeared from these parts but some of them still survive higher up the river," King told Rolleston.
And that was that.
King's letter turned to his life in Bendigo, saying "our residence at Sandhurst has done wonders for my wife and daughter" before asking after for the latest scientific breakthroughs on the history of Polynesian migration.
The letter eventually ended up going to Oxford University's Ashmolean Museum along with other papers from Rolleston's files after his premature death in 1881.
Presumably, no-one decided to dig up the Oxford don's head up and mail it to their friends.
Don't assume these men were monsters, historian says
Rolleston's approach to Aboriginal people was quite normal among the comparative anatomists of the period, The University of Tasmania's Paul Turnbull says today.
"He was well liked. By all accounts a nice man," the emeritus professor told the Weekly.
"He was just typical of his time in seeing Aboriginal people as destined to die out, and saw collecting their remains as serving a higher good than letting them turn to dust."
Professor Turnbull said it would be a mistake to think Victorian-era collectors were monsters.
"It does not help us understand what happened in the past and why - which are the important things," he said.
The remains Rolleston collected were certainly treated with far more care and respect than others found by colonialists.
The Advertiser has previously revealed how central Victorians used Indigenous remains for everything from practical jokes to props in court cases.
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Professor Turnbull is the author of Science, Museums and Collecting the Indigenous Dead in Colonial Australia, which draws on two decades of archival research to chart how Traditional Owners' remains became the subject of scientific curiosity.
He said Rolleston was particularly interested in what different ethnic groups remains might reveal about humanity's evolution.
"High on Rolleston's list of acquisitions were the bones of Khoi and San peoples of Southern Africa and the first peoples of Tasmania and the Australian mainland - whom he and fellow Darwinians imagined as primordial human types whom environmental circumstances had trapped in evolutionary stasis," Professor Turnbull said.
The theory was later discredited as scientists learned more about evolution and as anthropologists cast doubt on presumptions that some races were naturally superior to others.
Professor Turnbull found King's letter at the Ashmolean Museum in 1991 was not aware of any papers documenting Rolleston's thoughts on the find.
Rolleston could have been more interested in Indigenous remains found in Queensland, the vast, newly established colony which some thought could contain the "purest" examples of Indigenous Australians.
Some of the remains English universities once collected have already been returned to their descendants and more are slated to be sent back in years to come.
Unclear what has happened to remains
The remains King found could very well be from an Ancestor of Indigenous leader Rodney Carter.
He said the mistake scientists had made in the past was not the study of Indigenous remains, but the way they handled it.
"Traditional Owners must be engaged and must be able to consent in an informed way," he said.
"That, in a medical science context, should be the only way it should happen and sadly what my people experienced (in the 19th century) was very low standard."
Mr Carter is among people working to bring Traditional owners' remains back to Country.
"There's still so many Ancestors' remains that we know of that still need to be reburied," he said.
Even more work needs to go into working out which parts of Australia they needed to be returned to.
The Weekly is yet to confirm where the remains King found have ended up.
Inquiries with several British museums including the Ashmolean did not yield any clues about their location.
The Weekly is yet to finish contacting all groups that could conceivably have the remains.
Traditional Owners the Dja Dja Wurrung are uncertain whether that particular Ancestor has been repatriated, though they believe it unlikely.
Mr Carter only recently reinterred another Ancestor.
Unlike many modern day reburials, it was a lonely affair.
Mr Carter was the only person who could be there because of COVID-19 restrictions.
"In those instances we still go through some ritual, and speak of our respect for the person being buried ... and gift the deceased some items," Mr Carter said.
Traditional Owners are increasingly choosing to bury Ancestors with possum or kangaroo skins, necklaces and pigments like ochre.
Many reburial attendees come so they can celebrate the Ancestor's life.
"We might not have known that person but we still can still bring that admiration," Mr Carter said.
Even more importantly, an Indigenous person buried on Country can never truly be alone, even if no living person knows where they lie.
They are with Djandak, the Country and living entity that Dja Dja Wurrung are part of.
Know more? Contact journalist Tom O'Callaghan at email@example.com
This story is the latest in the Bendigo Weekly's regular history series WHAT HAPPENED?
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