In life, Captain Matthew Flinders was a prolific explorer, the first to circumnavigate Australia and put the continent on European maps. But in death, well, he got lost.
It wasn’t his fault. Flinders died at age 40 in 1814, just one day after publishing “A Voyage to Terra Australis,” a full account of his journey that included all of his maps. But when his sister-in-law came to visit his grave in 1852 at St. James Burial Ground, there was a problem: She couldn’t find it. The headstone was missing. The churchyard had been remodeled. And according to archaeologists, a train station, Euston Station, had expanded into parts of the graveyard, making it virtually impossible for descendants, or anyone, to find the man who gave Australia its name.
Or, as it happens, at least not until London decided to build another train station on top of a graveyard.
On Thursday, more than 200 years since his death, archaeologists announced they believe they’ve finally found Flinders’s remains beneath a site behind Euston Station in London — almost exactly where historians, Australians and Brits believed the explorer had likely been reburied.
The archaeologists had been exhuming remains as part of a controversial high-speed rail construction project expected to disturb at least 45,000 graves. The dig site is directly behind the station, where archaeologists are making room for the high-speed rail called High Speed 2, or HS2. Once the skeletons are exhumed, they will be examined by osteoarchaeologists and reburied elsewhere at a later date.
Archaeologists were able to identify Flinders’s remains because of a lead breastplate found on top of his casket, the inscription still legible, according to a release from HS2 on the U.K.’s transportation department website.
“This is a very exciting moment for Australia,” George Brandis, Australia’s high commissioner to the United Kingdom, said outside the station Thursday, Australian Broadcasting Corp. reported. “It is serendipitous the discovery of the remains of Matthew Flinders, one of the great early explorers, should come in the week of Australia Day."
Flinders, a cartographer by trade, completed his two-year epic journey around the coast of Australia on the HMS Investigator in 1803. Joining him were Flinders’s cat, Trim, and an Aboriginal man named Bungaree, also the first man to be called an Australian, according to the Australian Dictionary of Biography. Though Flinders was from Britain, he is far more celebrated in Australia, where a mountain range, a town in Victoria and a train station in Melbourne bear his name.
In 2014, a statue of Flinders went up in Euston Station to commemorate the 200th anniversary of his death.
According to the statement from HS2, the urban legend was that Flinders was buried directly underneath Platform 15 at the train station. He wasn’t — but perhaps just close enough.
Helen Wass, the HS2 project’s head of heritage, said that they did not believe they would ever find Flinders, since he was believed to be among thousands feared to have been lost. She said they were only lucky his breastplate was still legible because it was made of lead instead of tin, making it less vulnerable to corrosion.
“The discovery of Cpt. 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,” Wass said in a statement. “He put Australia on the map due to his tenacity and expertise as a navigator and explorer.”