March 9, 2008 / 4:30 AM / 12 years ago

Grave of Australian outlaw Ned Kelly said found

SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australian archaeologists believe they have found the grave of the country’s legendary outlaw, Ned Kelly, on the site of an abandoned prison.

One of the unmarked coffins unearthed at the former Pentridge Prison site in Melbourne containing the remains of executed prisoners, in a photo released March 9, 2008. Australian archaeologists believe they have found the grave of the country's legendary outlaw, Ned Kelly, on the site of an abandoned prison. REUTERS/Heritage Council of Victoria/Handout

Kelly, immortalized for using home-made armor in a final shoot-out with police, became a folk hero of Australia’s colonial past with his gang’s daring bank robberies and escapes.

The son of an Irish convict, Kelly was hanged for his crimes in 1880 and buried in a mass grave at a prison in the southern city of Melbourne in Victoria state. The whereabouts of his body had remained as elusive as Kelly was in real life.

Archaeologists who have been digging at the site of the former Pentridge prison unearthed a mass grave where historical records suggested the remains of Kelly and other executed prisoners were buried after being removed from the old Melbourne Gaol when it closed in 1929.

“We believe we have conclusively found the burial site, but that is very different from finding the remains,” Jeremy Smith, senior archaeologist with Heritage Victoria, told Reuters on Sunday.

“If the remains exist, then we will have found them.”

He said the grave contained 32 bodies in rows of coffins in various states of decomposition. The bodies are incomplete and will now be subject to forensic tests.

Smith said it would be a struggle to prove conclusively that any of the remains were Kelly’s, particularly from single bones. He said the bones had been roughly treated in the 1929 move and some may have been taken for souvenirs.

Archaeologists would be looking for a headless body and signs of an injury to a wrist. Kelly’s head was known to have been removed from his body after his death and he had a wrist injury from one of his shoot-outs.

After evading police for two years, Kelly and his gang were trapped in bushland in Victoria on June 28, 1880.

In a defiant last stand, Kelly, dressed in homemade armor hammered out of plough blades, walked towards police with guns blazing.

He was shot in the legs, arms and groin more than 20 times before he was arrested. The rest of his gang was killed.

Debate about his place in Australian history has raged for decades over whether he was a hero, a lovable rogue who fought the colonial British establishment, or simply a horse-thieving killer surrounded by a gang of thugs.

Films have portrayed Kelly as a hero, from one of the world’s first feature-length films, the 1906 silent movie “The Story of the Kelly Gang”, to the 1970s version starring Rolling Stones frontman Mick Jagger and the late Hollywood star Heath Ledger’s 2003 film.

Australian author Peter Carey’s novel True History of the Kelly Gang was awarded the 2001 Booker Prize.

Editing by David Fogarty

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