Bodies of 19th century convicts found by emergency archaeology team near Portsmouth

By Ben Miller | 19 March 2014

The remains of four individuals are set to be investigated after an emergency excavation near HMS Victory

A presumed 19th century skeleton found at Rat Island© MOD
The bodies of four 19th century prisoners have been rescued off the coast of Portsmouth. A team of soldiers injured in Afghanistan, working on the foreshore of an area known as Burrow Island, responded to an emergency call when a member of the public alerted police to human remains exposed by severe weather conditions.

Better known locally as Rat Island, the site has not been used by the armed forces for more than 40 years, despite its position near Her Majesty's Naval Base and the mighty warships of HMS Victory and HMS Excellent. Experts from Wessex Archaeology hope to reveal the age, sex, stature and physical health of the figures, who are thought to have been held by the floating prisons moored in the harbour.

"It’s always exciting being part of a rapid reaction force," said Richard Osgood, the senior archaeologist for the Defence Infrastructure Organisation behind the two-day excavation.

"We were only told about it three days before we needed to get to the site and establish exactly what had been found.

"It is important for the Organisation to undertake proper stewardship of the cultural heritage of the Ministry of Defence's estate.

"It was great having recovering soldiers from Operation Nightingale [in Afghanistan] on the team.

"It's rewarding that this programme to help soldiers wounded in Afghanistan recover and gain new skills is proving to be so successful for them and helpful to my team."

The individuals are thought to have been French or American.

In a joint statement, Dr Nicholas Márquez-Grant and Dr Kelly Domoney, of the Forensic Institute at Cranfield University, which will also analyse the remains, called the discoveries "a great opportunity".

"Our small team of forensic archaeologists and anthropologists were privileged enough to provide an input into search and identification of human remains on site," they said.

"Post-excavation work in our laboratories should contribute to shedding light on the living conditions of those individuals and the history of Rat Island."

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Why the assumption that the bodies are Americanor French?
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