“Who is buried under our lawn?” When Helge and Meryl Metzner of Hennops River decided to build a large water feature in their garden last October they were shocked to find a human skeleton buried just a metre under the surface of their lawn.
The Police were notified and their forensics team declared the skeleton possibly to be more than 50 years old. Not a recent murder, therefore. “We were referred to the Co-ordinator for Archaeology in the Forensic Anthropology Research Centre at the University of Pretoria,” says Helge. “He tried to get a permit and funding from the South African Heritage Resource Agency (SAHRA) to be able to investigate and collect the remains for further investigation, with no luck.”
A plea to Sibongile van Damme, SAHRA's CEO, got an immediate response, requesting the relevant officials in Gauteng to attend to the matter immediately. That was four months ago.
“We have since had several wordy emails from a SAHRA official,” says Helge. “On 13 December he wrote: 'In most cases of exhumation and relocation of remains, costs of social consultations and professional fees are borne by the client and as a public entity it would take time to request and gain an approval of utilizing other budget votes as it would constitute non-compliance to treasury regulations. Further to three service providers would need to submit quotations.'” Come again?!
Impressive words, but no action, and Christmas was around the corner. Apologising once again, the official had a suggestion, however: “Alternatively I would advise that the remains be covered and the hole refilled, if that is agreeable with you.”
It wasn't an agreeable solution - Helge wanted the water feature completed for a special birthday party for Meryl, just before Christmas. All subsequent efforts to get a permit met a dead end. “I guess we have no choice but to resign ourselves to living with our own 'Christmas spirit' and inviting him/her to our party,” sighed Helge laconically.
He contacted the University of Pretoria again. “We have received the permit from SAHRA,” replied Coen Nienaber of the Research Centre, “but unfortunately SAHRA failed to sign our appointment to conduct the work. This appointment is the only vehicle for us to recover our expenses since we are doing this work on a contract basis. “ Stalemate.
Then Nienaber decided to step in, anyway. In March Helge got an email informing him that the Research Centre had decided to fund the rescue out of their own budget and take it up with SAHRA later to recover the costs.
Students from the University of Pretoria painstakingly uncover the skeleton.
The exhumation, started on 13 March, finally uncovered the whole skeleton. A sheet of plastic under the body indicated that it was a fairly recent burial - probably from the 1950s or '60s. The Metzners can now complete their water feature. But the mystery remains.