Archaeologists excavating an abandoned burial ground under Euston Station in London have uncovered the remains of the Royal Navy explorer Captain Matthew Flinders, who led the first expedition to circumnavigate Australia in 1802 and gave the country its name. Identified by a lead plate on his coffin, Captain Flinders' grave is one of 40,000 human burials that are being relocated to make way for the HS2 high-speed railway's London terminus.
As a result of 2,000 years of urban development, London has a lot of history packed in thick layers one on top of the other and every major building project by law has to make accommodation for excavating and removing archaeological sites that may be present, but not worth preserving. If this wasn't enough to keep archaeological crews busy year round, the capital is chock-a-block with disused cemeteries and plague burials that the law requires be carefully exhumed and reburied if disturbed by development.
In the case of the HS2 project, this means dealing with 40,000 inhumations in the St. James's burial ground that ended up under Euston railway station as it expanded in the 1840s. The problem was that Captain Flinders was buried in St. James's on July 23, 1814 and the westward extension of the station carried away his gravestone. The result is that, though the archaeological team working for HS2 knew that Flinders was there, they didn't know exactly where, nor if it would be possible to identify his body.
Flinders is of particular interest because he's a major historical figure. The English navigator and cartographer made three voyages to the southern ocean during which he helped confirm that Tasmania is an island and, while in command of HMS Investigator, he circumnavigated the entire coast and proved that Australia is a continent.
In addition to this, it was Flinders who gave Australia its name, though it didn't originate with him. Today, his name can be found in many places in the country, like Flinders St Station in Melbourne, the Flinders Ranges in South Australia, and the town of Flinders in Victoria. Meanwhile, statues have been erected at Euston to Captain Flinders and his cat, Trim.
According to HS2, there is an urban legend that Flinders was buried under platform 15 at Euston – much as the ancient queen Boadicea is supposed to be buried under platform 9 at King's Cross. His body was not there, but turned up on the HS2 site, which is scheduled for major construction next year. His grave was identified by a lead depositum or breast plate with his name and particulars inscribed on it.
It's hoped that a scientific study of the burial ground inmates will shed light on health, social status, and lifestyle of Londoners in the 18th and 19th century. Flinders's remains along with the others will go into storage before being re-interred at a new location that has yet to be announced.
"The discovery of Captain Matthew Flinders's remains is an incredible opportunity for us to learn more about the life and remarkable achievements of this British navigator, hydrographer and scientist," says Helen Wass, HS2 Ltd's Head of Heritage. "He put Australia on the map due to his tenacity and expertise as a navigator and explorer.
"Given the number of human remains at St. James's, we weren't confident that we were going to find him. We were very lucky that Captain Flinders had a breastplate made of lead meaning it would not have corroded. We'll now be able to study his skeleton to see whether life at sea left its mark and what more we can learn about him.
"This discovery is particularly exciting for me as an archaeologist as Captain Matthew Flinders was the grandfather of renowned Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie, commonly known as the 'Father of Archaeology.'
"The Flinders name is synonymous with exploration, science and discovery and HS2, through its archaeology program, will ensure that we maximize the opportunities for further academic and scientific study."
The video below discusses the discovery.
Want a cleaner, faster loading and ad free reading experience?
Try New Atlas Plus. Learn more