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date: 10 April 2021

Maritime Archaeological Research in Sub-Saharan Africafree

  • Bruno E.J.S. WerzBruno E.J.S. WerzAfrican Institute for Marine and Underwater Research, Exploration and Education (AIMURE)


Maritime archaeology in sub-Saharan Africa is still in its early development stage. An extensive literature survey indicated that relatively few projects of this nature have been undertaken in these parts. Even fewer warrant the adjective “scientific,” based on the dearth of peer-reviewed academic publications that have appeared to date. Based on the survey, it seems that most research is undertaken in South Africa, Kenya, and Namibia, and the emphasis therefore lies with these countries.


Although covering an immense marine and coastal area that must contain many thousands of important archaeological sites of a diverse nature, the maritime, coastal, and submarine cultural heritage of sub-Saharan Africa is still being ignored for the most part. The mere fact that only Gabon, Guinea-Bissau, and South Africa—three coastal states out of a total of twenty-four—have accepted the 2001 UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage to date may already indicate this disinterest. Furthermore, when looking at initiatives to undertake research and to study the nonrenewable and finite cultural resource on and offshore, the general conclusion at present is that these initiatives are not adequately supported. By discussing the potential of different sub-Saharan African maritime archaeological sites, based on published scientific research results that followed from studies of these sites, the values of such remnants can be demonstrated. This may assist in a better appreciation of their significance in the light of human historic development (UNESCO: Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage).

The Setting

Africa, the world’s second largest continent after Asia, covers about 20 percent of the land surface of the earth. The most northerly point—Ras ben Sakka in Tunisia—to the southernmost point—Cape Agulhas in South Africa—equals a distance of almost five thousand miles. The distance from Cap Vert, the most westerly point, to Ras Hafun in Somalia in the east is approximately forty-six hundred miles (Wikipedia: Geography of Africa).

The continent is bounded by the Mediterranean Sea to the north, the Red Sea and Indian Ocean to the east, the Atlantic Ocean to the west; whereas the Atlantic and Indian Oceans converge in the south at Cape Agulhas. The coastline, which has few bays and gulfs, is approximately nineteen thousand miles long. Offshore there are a number of associated islands, such as the Azores, Madeira, and the Canary Islands to the northwest of the continent; Ascension, St. Helena, and Tristan da Cunha to the southwest; and in the east and southeast Madagascar, the Seychelles, the Comoros, Mauritius, and Réunion (Britannica: African Geologic History).

Sub-Saharan Africa is the area of the continent that lies south of the Saharan desert. The UN Development Program lists forty-six of Africa’s fifty-four countries as sub-Saharan, excluding Algeria, Djibouti, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Somalia, Sudan, and Tunisia. Of these forty-six sub-Saharan African countries, twenty-four are situated on the coast, ranging from Mauritania in the northwest, South Africa in the south, to Kenya in the northeast (Wikipedia: Sub-Saharan Africa).

The Potential for Maritime Archaeological Research: Prehistoric Archaeology

When discussing aspects of maritime, submarine, and coastal cultural sites, it must be acknowledged that the boundaries between these are not always clearly defined. For the sake of clarity, the term “maritime sites” and “maritime archaeology” will be generally used here to indicate their relation to the sea and the different roles that the sea played in human development in the past. These roles started with the emergence of hominids (Goggin 1960; Gould 2011; Henderson 1986; Muckelroy 1978, 1980; Werz 1999).

Migration of small coastal hominid population groups must have taken place over periods of hundreds of thousands of years, as is evidenced by terrestrial archaeological sites, paleontological data, linguistics, genetic analyses of modern population groups, and submarine data. In many cases, hunter-gatherers moved along or close to the shore, as this prevented the necessity to negotiate natural obstructions such as mountainous regions. At the same time, the proximity to the sea provided an equable climate and a continuous supply of food, in the form of shellfish, crustaceans, fish, and aquatic mammals. Although many scientists previously assumed that hardly any traces of hominid activities on the continental shelf survived (repeated) inundation, and that the associated costs and technical difficulties for retrieving such traces are prohibitive, others suggested that it must be possible to find remnants of hominid coastal activities underwater, even though much of this is relatively inaccessible as a result of changing sea levels during the course of the last two million years. These resulted in variations of between −400 feet and +33 feet (Bailey 2014; Flemming et al. 2003).

With the underwater discovery of two Acheulean hand-axes and one bifacial hand-axe-like artifact in Table Bay, South Africa, during the 1990s, a new chapter in submarine prehistoric archaeology was opened. These stone tools were used to dig for bulbs and roots, to butcher animal carcasses, and to open mollusk shells. Research indicated that at least one of the three artifacts—that were dated on the base of typology to between 1.6–1.4 million and 300,000 years bp—was found in situ, buried in an old land surface that is currently underwater. Before this discovery, the world’s oldest finds excavated from the underwater environment concerned Levallois-Mousterian tools and debitage found 660 feet offshore from the island of Kerkyra in the Mediterranean at a depth of 16 feet. This material was dated to forty-five thousand to forty thousand years ago. The finds from Table Bay therefore increased the age of the oldest known artifacts found in situ under the seabed to possibly one million years or more. The timescale over which both the occurrence and preservation of hominid and human artifacts located on the continental shelf can be analyzed was thus extended considerably and increased the proven survival of submerged artifacts from the last period of low sea level and one marine transgression to several marine transgressions. In 2002, a project was launched to systematically search for stone age artifacts underwater along the South African coast. The project is called Operation Zembe and is undertaken under the auspices of the African Institute for Marine & Underwater Research, Exploration & Education (AIMURE) (Flemming 1985, 1998; Werz, Cawthra, and Compton 2014; Werz and Flemming 2001). (See AIMURE; YouTube: Operation Zembe Surface Cave; YouTube: Operation Zembe Atlantic Cave; YouTube: 3D Model of the World’s Oldest Underwater Archaeological Discoveries.)

Figure 1. The three Acheulean stone tools that were excavated in Table Bay. These are the world’s oldest artifacts recovered from underwater to date.

Reproduced from Bruno E. J. S. Werz (2004, 104).

The role of the sea in the development of the human species is also evident from many land archaeological excavations. As such projects are in most cases undertaken by terrestrial prehistoric archaeologists and not from a specific maritime archaeological research perspective, they are not further discussed. Nevertheless, they do provide important information that assists in interpreting data retrieved from the underwater environment (Avery 1987; Avery et al. 1997, 2008; Basell 2008; Berger and Parkington 1995; Clist 1998; Compton 2011; Crowther et al. 2016; Fisher et al. 2010; Giresse 1989; Jerardino and Marean 2010; Marean 2010; Parkington et al. 1987; Van Andel 1989).

Historical Archaeology: Maritime Cultural Landscapes

Besides offshore or submarine prehistoric archaeology, a relatively new approach in sub-Saharan maritime archaeology is to look at maritime sites holistically, as elements of maritime cultural landscapes (Amartey and Reid 2014; Borrelli 2017; Caporaso 2017; Harris 2017a, 2017b; Harris, Jones, and Schnitzer 2012; Horlings and Cook 2017; Jones 2017; Pollard 2008a, 2008b; Pollard and Ichumbaki 2017; Werz 1999, 2007; Westerdahl 1992, 2003, 2011).

The study of maritime cultural landscapes is juxtaposed to the particularism that characterizes most studies that have been undertaken to date and that focus on individual sites that are often studied in isolation. Westerdahl (1992, 5) described the formation of a maritime cultural landscape as: “utilization (economy) of maritime space by boat, settlement, fishing, hunting, shipping and its attendant sub-cultures, such as pilotage, light house and seamark maintenance.” Following this description, a coastal fort as a focal point in a cultural landscape may be used as an example. The building can be studied in a broader context than just the history and architecture of the structure itself and the material it contains. It also played a role as a stopover place for visiting ships, or as a depot for cargoes, provisions, and people in transfer. These roles are in part reflected by the remains of ships and their contents, some of which may have found an untimely end nearby. As time progressed, a settlement often developed in the vicinity and its and the fort’s economies became partly intertwined, as may also be witnessed by an associated harbor that was created due to a growing economy and to enable increased and safer shipping. An example in this context is the Castle of Good Hope in Cape Town, South Africa. It was the second United Dutch East India Company (VOC) fort that was constructed in present-day Cape Town, between 1666 and 1679.

Figure 2. The Table Bay roadstead from the north. In the center, Table Mountain and at its base the second official Dutch East India Company (VOC) fort. This is surrounded by the rudimentary stages of the first European settlement that later grew into Cape Town. In the foreground a fleet of VOC merchant ships is approaching.

Reproduced from Bruno E. J. S. Werz (2017c, 2).

The Cape Town Castle was originally situated directly opposite the Table Bay roadstead where passing ships dropped anchor. It served an important role in the operations of the VOC, as this foothold was situated about halfway between Europe and the Dutch East Indies. The castle served as the administrative center of the VOC in this part of the world and contained a garrison for defense. It, as well as the adjacent town that soon developed, served as a refreshment station from where provisions and drinking water were distributed to passing ships and where visiting seafarers found an opportunity to relax. To this purpose, an infrastructure was created that, besides the castle itself, included extensive gardens for the cultivation of vegetables and fruit, a lodge where slaves that worked in the company gardens were housed, and a hospital where sick mariners could convalesce. The town itself contained various lodges and taverns that were frequented by visitors and that soon gave it the nickname the “Tavern of the Seas.” The various past roles that both the castle and town played in relation to the maritime cultural landscape in which they are still situated is reflected in many different ways: architecture and design, archaeological material and historical documents, graffiti and symbolism, to the physical remains of people that once lived and worked there (Abrahams 1985; Armstrong and Worden 1989; Cox and Sealy 1997; Hall 1991; Hall et al. 1990; Hall, Miller, and Moore 1993; Werz 2002).

Besides the Cape Town Castle, there are many other fortifications and associated settlements along the sub-Saharan African coast that played similar roles. Just one other example is Fort Jesus in Mombasa, Kenya (Kirkman 1974; McConkey and McErlean 2007; Quinn et al. 2007). On the West African Gold Coast alone, more than fifty posts were established between 1482 and 1787 where interaction took place between locals and those from overseas. In particular with regard to the transoceanic gold and slave trade, Badagry in Nigeria, Elmina in Ghana, and Fort Săo Sebastiăo on the island of Mozambique were key points during the 16th to 18th centuries ce. Elmina Castle was constructed in 1482 on the site of an older trade settlement where mainly gold was exchanged between locals, Arabs, and Berber traders. The fortification later also became a transshipment entrepôt where slaves from different kingdoms in West Africa were temporarily kept prisoner. Elmina Castle became one of the most important stops on the Atlantic slave trade route. In 2003, a survey project was initiated with the objective to search for the wrecks of nearby ships that were engaged in the slave trade. Searches in the approaches to the fort resulted in the location of seventy potential wreck sites of which three have been investigated further since. One of these contained European manufactured goods, including beads and brass manillas. It could thus be a slaver, but this has not yet been established with certainty as other ships also carried such goods to Africa (DeCorse 2001; Ferreira 2010; Newitt 2017; Oyediran 2017; Posnansky and DeCorse 1986; Webster 2008). The African diaspora has since become another topic of interest to sub-Saharan maritime archaeological research (Gijanto and Horlings 2012; Webster 2008).

Area Surveys

But it is not only coastal forts and related population centers that form part of the maritime cultural landscape. The adjacent sea itself and the bays, harbors, and ports that connect the various elements are as much part of the landscape. For a better understanding of the interrelationships between coastal settlements and their maritime components, the results of area surveys can be included. In most cases, these are not aimed directly at revealing historical and archaeological information, but the result of contemporary economics. Nevertheless, some more encompassing Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) surveys also include historical-cultural components. Cases in point are the ports of Cape Town and Durban in South Africa, but also elsewhere along the sub-Saharan African coast (Werz 2003b, 2003c, 2006a, 2013; Werz 2017b).

An example of a specific maritime archaeological area survey is the Maritime Archaeological Project (MAP) of Table Bay that started in the early 1990s. The bay, which has an approximate surface area of twenty square miles, is the repository of more than 350 shipwrecks some of which are currently buried under reclaimed land, but also contains the remains of harbor works and anchorage debris. This long-term project is complex and multifaceted and attempts to answer a variety of research questions. The holistic approach that is followed in this study includes contributions from archaeologists, historians, hydrographers, oceanographers, surveyors, and geologists.

In order to preserve, store, and interpret the diverse data that were accumulated, a Geographical Information System (GIS) was developed. Although the primary users are maritime archaeologists, the system allows for the incorporation of other non-archaeological information so that geologists, oceanographers, biologists, and others can also benefit. Thus, in addition to an inventory of shipwrecks and artifacts, the database has been designed to offer a statistical analysis technique for surface-, intermediate-, and bottom-currents as well as presenting wind data, sediment distribution, and an analysis of the bathymetry using digital elevation modeling (Martin and Werz 1999; Werz 1990a, 1993a, 1999; Werz and Martin 1994).

Figure 3. Schematic overview of the “base map.” This is the first group of “coverages” for the Geographic Information System, or GIS, that was developed for the Maritime Archaeological Project (MAP) of Table Bay.

Reproduced from Bruno E. J. S. Werz and Colin G. C. Martin (1994, 11).

Within the framework of the MAP of Table Bay, several projects have been undertaken over the years. One of these, code-named Operation Sea Eagle, focused on the maritime potential situated within the one-mile security zone surrounding the Robben Island prison. The project was initiated by the South African Government with the objective of assessing the underwater cultural resource, before the high security prison was taken out of commission and the island declared a world heritage site. The project included archival, literature, hydrographic, and diver surveys that contributed to the formulation of detailed advice on future management of this cultural resource. Archival information was retrieved on twenty-two shipwrecks in the area. During subsequent diver surveys, nineteen wreck sites were located that contained varying quantities of diverse materials. The position of three shipwrecks could not be established as neither documents nor underwater observations provided relevant data. During Operation Sea Eagle, no excavation was undertaken. Only when it was deemed essential for the identification of specific wrecks, some material was recovered temporarily, studied on the surface, and later returned to site.

With regards to the periods during which vessels perished it appears that only two such incidents were recorded for the 17th century ce, although only one ship sank. The other vessel was cast on shore and its structure completely dismantled without leaving a trace in the archaeological record. No references were found to incidents occurring during the 18th century. Most incidents thus took place during the 19th and 20th centuries in an eleven-to-ten ratio. Accidents during the 19th century are relatively evenly spread over the period, but the 20th century showed a more imbalanced trend.

Figure 4. A South African Police Service (SAPS) diver inspecting the wreck site of the British mail steamer Tantallon Castle, off the northwest coast of Robben Island. The Tantallon Castle was on its way to Cape Town from Southampton when it ran aground in a thick fog on May 7, 1901.

Photograph Bruno Werz.

The diversity of the underwater heritage around Robben Island is partly reflected by ship type as well as origin. A total of twelve sailing vessels were documented during Operation Sea Eagle, consisting of four barques, four ships (proper), one or possibly two brigs, one clipper, one yacht, and possibly one snow. The ten engine-driven vessels include two mail steamers, two steam whalers, one cargo steamer, one carrier, one research vessel, one steam liner, one steam trawler, and one tunny boat. Most of these were British, but the potential also includes American (three), Dutch (three), Canadian, Italian, Korean, Norwegian, Spanish, and Taiwanese vessels (Werz 1993b, 1994b, 1999, 2001, 2003a, 2014; Werz and Deacon 1992, 1–101).

Shipwreck Sites

Even though scientific maritime archaeological research in sub-Saharan Africa is slowly developing broader perspectives, the focal point of most projects is still on individual shipwrecks. Most of these originate from elsewhere and little if any evidence of a historic, ethnographic, or archaeological nature exists of regional seagoing craft in precolonial times (Bita 2013a, 2013b, 2019; Bita and Tripati 2015; Pollard et al. 2016; Werz 1997). Wrecks have been located all around the subcontinent and many fell prey to the actions of treasure hunters or careless developers. It is only since the late 20th century that measures have been taken in some countries to improve protection, monitoring, and control of the maritime cultural resource and to stimulate related public information and education (Boshoff 1998; Deacon 1988, 1993; Gribble 1998, 2002; Guérin 2012; Horlings 2012; Ichumbaki 2011, 2015; Lane 2012; Texeira Duarte 2012; Trakadas 2012; Werz 1989, 1990b, 1993c, 1994a, 1997, 2007, 2014, 2015b).

Although in some sub-Saharan African countries progress has thus been made related to protecting the maritime archaeological resource, it remains a fact that most coastal states lag behind. There are many examples of wrecks that have been pilfered and destroyed for personal gain, without any consideration for their historical, cultural, or archaeological significance. A case in point is the outward-bound United Dutch East India Company (VOC) ship Bredenhof (1753) that foundered on the Silva Shoal in the Mozambique Channel with copper coins, silver ingots, and golden ducats on board. The wreck was discovered in 1986, and this attracted the interest of different salvage groups and governments. Parts of the contents of Bredenhof were salvaged, kept by those involved, or sold at auction, and no published record exists of any archaeological work done. Similar comments apply to other wrecks, such as those of the English East India Company (EEIC) ship Sussex (1738) and a Portuguese vessel—possibly the carrack Santiago (1685)—that were lost at Bassas da India, a French atoll in the Indian Ocean. In 1976, South African divers looted these wrecks and many artifacts were sold to various museums in South Africa, Portugal, and elsewhere. After intervention by the French Navy, a systematic survey of the atoll was undertaken during which several wreck sites were located. The expedition confirmed that the area constitutes a ships’ cemetery and that there is a substantial archaeological resource present on the atoll (Bousquet, L’Hour, and Richez 1990).

On the other side of the subcontinent, a similar example is that of the VOC ship Witte Leeuw (1613) in St. Helena. This shipwreck was rediscovered in 1976 and a substantial number of artifacts recovered, part of which were sold at auction. A collection of broken Asiatic ceramics was later transferred to the Dutch National Museum, and the catalog that resulted from describing this incomplete collection represents the only archaeological report on this project, while one more general article appeared in print (Delgado 1997; Pijl-Ketel 1982; Stenuit 1979).

VOC ships in South African waters, including the Huys te Crayensteyn (1698), Meresteyn (1702), Vis (1740), Reygersdaal (1747), and Middelburg (1781), underwent similar fates. Hardly any information on related salvage operations on these wrecks exists, and the little that has been published was done by researchers that were not directly involved (Marsden 1976; Meltzer 1984). One exception is the Nieuwe Rhoon (1776), a Dutch East Indiaman that wrecked in Table Bay on the homeward-bound voyage. In 1971, during building activities on the Cape Town Foreshore—an area of reclaimed land in the city center—a shipwreck was uncovered. Timbers and artifacts from the site were documented and recorded, including a large variety of shot, clay tobacco pipes dating to between 1730 and 1780, and fragments of Chinese porcelain bowls that assisted in the identification (Durden 1997; Lightley 1976).

Some case studies will now be briefly discussed to illustrate how these contributed to the development of maritime archaeological research in sub-Saharan Africa. In contrast to most of the profit-orientated projects already referred to, they concern studies that were undertaken from a scientific perspective. This section is not all inclusive and some shipwreck projects, such as Vlissingen (1747) in Namibia and Haarlem (1647) in South Africa, have been omitted because these wrecks have not been located yet (Werz 1999, 2006b, 2008a, 2011a, 2015b, 2017a, 2017c, 2017d, 2019; Werz, Steenkamp, and Prowse 2017).

Bom Jesus (1533), Oranjemund, Namibia

During the Portuguese attempts to circumnavigate the African continent and the trade that followed once India was reached—the carreira da India between Lisbon and Goa—several vessels perished. The oldest shipwreck that has been found in sub-Saharan Africa to date is in all probability the Bom Jesus that foundered in 1533 on a submerged rock, close to the beach near present-day Oranjemund in southern Namibia.

On April 1, 2008, archaeological material was uncovered in a local diamond mine. Further investigations below the low-water mark, in an area that was temporarily reclaimed from the sea, indicated that the finds date to the 16th century ce and that they formed part of a shipwreck. An initial survey was undertaken during that same month, and full excavation of the wreck followed in September and October 2008. The excavations revealed diverse groups of artifacts, representing the original ship and its contents and function as well as those on board.

Figure 5. A section of the hull of Bom Jesus. Some of the heavier ground futtocks (top to bottom) are overlaid with ceiling planking (left to right).

Reproduced from Bruno E. J. S. Werz (2015a, 90).

Constructional elements that formed an integral part of the vessel’s structure consisted of ground futtocks and ceiling planking that belonged to the lower sections of the underwater hull. The closely related category ship’s equipment included hemp cables and iron anchors. Navigation equipment from the wreck consisted of navigational dividers as well as three astrolabes, while the ship’s armament was reflected by forged iron and cast bronze cannons. The ship’s role as a merchantman was represented by its cargo that consisted of hundreds of semicircular copper ingots, tin finger ingots, and crudely cast lumps of lead of varying weight. Most of the copper ingots had been marked with a trident. This indicated that they had been produced for the Augsburg merchant and banking family the Fugger, who established a Lisbon office in 1506. Another part of the cargo consisted of elephant tusks destined for India. Goa, on the west coast of the subcontinent, was especially known for its artisans that fashioned tusks into ornamental boxes, religious statuettes, and other decorative items. The ivory most probably originated from Africa and reached Portugal partly via caravan routes or with homeward-bound vessels on the carreira da India that often called at feitorias or African trading posts. Upon arrival, the tusks may have been stored in a Lisbon warehouse before being loaded aboard an outward-bound ship. Part of the trading element is also reflected by the more than twenty-one hundred gold coins that would have been used to purchase Asiatic products. About 90 percent of the coin collection consists of Spanish excelentes from the reign of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, who ruled from 1476 to 1516 ce. The second largest group, about 8 percent of the coin collection, consists of Portuguese coins, so-called portugueses from the reign of King Joăo III, who ruled from 1521 to 1557. In addition, some Venetian and Hungarian gold coins were excavated as well as some silver and copper alloy coins, including one of Arabic origin.

Artifacts that reflect more personal aspects of life on board include a leather shoe, leather purses—one of which still contained some silver coins—a decorated book cover, cutlery, lice combs, and a rosary. Personal armament is evidenced by a fragment of mail, dagger handles, sword sheaths, and musket stocks. Food stores and provisions were kept in earthen- and stoneware vessels of which fragments were also found, whereas related tableware included pewter plates and jugs. Some drops of mercury that may be associated with a copper urethral syringe used in the treatment of venereal diseases, like syphilis and gonorrhea, are evidence of the stores and tools of the barber-surgeon.

The excavated artifacts allowed for an approximation of the period during which the ship sank. The pewter tableware, elements of rigging, and the cannons strongly resemble or are virtually identical to artifacts from Henry VIII’s warship Mary Rose that sank in 1545 ce near Portsmouth in the United Kingdom. The coins provided for a terminus post quem of 1525, and a provisional terminus ante quem was established at c. 1550. Based on this information, the ship was later identified as being most probably the Bom Jesus. From archival information it is known that the ship left on March 7, 1533, as part of a fleet sailing to India. The Bom Jesus was owned by King Joăo III and sailed under the command of Francisco de Noronha, with about three hundred people on board, including crew, soldiers, and merchants.

Full excavation of the wreck was deemed essential at the time for its preservation, as the site was to be inundated again afterward. Because of the very limited time that was available, extensive use was made of different surveying techniques. Besides Total Station Theodolite readings and Differential Global Positioning System (DGPS) observations, this included the application of laser scanning technology, and it was the first time that this method was applied on a shipwreck excavation in Africa. The laser scanning proved invaluable as it allowed for a highly accurate spatial record of the entire site, before, during, and after excavation. Laser scanning was undertaken at various intervals from different positions around the site. Optimal coverage was achieved by scanning from different heights. With the survey data being saved and using the associated software, contour plans and cross sections at any determined location can be produced. The system can also zoom in on selected smaller sections, to provide more detail, or show sections from different angles and distances along the X, Y, and Z-axes. In addition, the system allows for the visualization of specific artifact groups on separate site plans, similar to the layers that can be produced by a Geographical Information System (GIS). In addition, the laser scan system allows for the calculation of quantities of removed deposits. Because of its accuracy, speed, and versatility, the laser scan survey was invaluable to this most important project.

Figure 6. The first laser scan survey on the wreck of Bom Jesus that was undertaken in April 2008. The scanner can be seen in the foreground. To the far right, a security camera from the diamond mine.

Reproduced from Bruno E. J. S. Werz (2009b, 96).

The discovery and excavation of the Bom Jesus is of global importance, as the ship represents the oldest European vessel to be discovered in sub-Saharan Africa to date. The wreck’s material culture and related excavation data contribute in a major way to a better understanding of the early period of navigation along the African and Asian coasts. They also provide more information on 16th-century Portuguese ship construction and other technological advances of the time, besides international contacts, commerce, and trade. This primary example of world heritage thus serves an important scientific and educational role (Chirikure et al. 2010; Chirikure and Sinamai 2015; Werz 2008b, 2009a, 2009b, 2010b, 2011b, 2015a).

Santo António de Tanna (1697), Mombasa, Kenya

The excavation of the wreck of the Portuguese forty-two-gun frigate Santo António de Tanna near Fort Jesus in Mombasa, Kenya, represents the oldest example of a scientific maritime archaeological project in sub-Saharan Africa. Discovered in the early 1960s by local divers, the wreck was initially dated based on ceramic finds and later identified by subsequent finds, including cannons and teak ornaments from the stern bearing the Portuguese coat of arms. The frigate, with a length of about 125 feet was constructed in 1681 in Goa and had sailed mostly in the Indian Ocean with only one voyage between Lisbon and India. In 1696, it was dispatched to relieve the siege of Fort Jesus by Arabs who had been angered by Portuguese taxes. The ship did not stay long, and after offloading some personnel and supplies, it continued to Mozambique. Returning nearly a year later, the Santo António de Tanna suffered from enemy action and ran aground before sinking on October 20, 1697.

Between 1976 and 1980, the site was surveyed and excavated by an international team. This resulted in a detailed study of the hull and the recovery of more than fifteen thousand artifacts. These partly reflect the vessel’s inventory, such as armament, navigational instruments, stores, and personal belongings. Of special interest is the diverse collection of ceramics that includes Portuguese faience jars, Martaban jars of Southeast Asian origin, Indian earthenware, coarse earthenware from the East African coastal region, and Chinese porcelain. The assemblage partly reflects the voyages the Santo António de Tanna undertook; from Goa to Lisbon and back, calling at different places in the Indian Ocean and along the East African coast. Not all ceramic objects or fragments thereof were identifiable immediately. Some were thought to be of Persian origin originally but could later be classified as Portuguese blue-and-white glazed earthenware. Four long-necked flasks and other fragments of thin-walled earthenware bottles were thought to have originated in the Persian Gulf but were later reassessed as probably being manufactured in India. The ceramic assemblage from the East African coast that was on board, consisting of unglazed earthenware, has allowed for specific chronological markers in the dating of other archaeological sites in the region due to the fact that the life expectancy of such items was no more than a few years.

The remaining hull structure of 99 by 32 feet was excavated and meticulously recorded underwater before being reburied. This was essential, as the wreck was the first of a Portuguese interoceanic vessel to be studied, and knowledge of these ships was extremely limited at the time. Several research questions underlay study of the hull remains. One of these concerned the type of vessel, that was referred to as either being a nao or fregata. Another question concerned differences between vessels constructed in Portugal and those in India. Another objective was to compare the hull’s characteristics with those of contemporary British and Dutch ships, which were more specifically designed for trade or war.

The Santo António de Tanna project is the oldest scientific maritime archaeological project in sub-Saharan Africa. It was undertaken by an experienced international team and was based on a research design that attempts to answer a variety of questions. These are diverse and relate to a wide spectrum of data contained in the material culture that ,was excavated, ranging from the hull to the ceramic assemblage and other find groups (Blot 2015; Fraga 2008; Kirkman 1972; Piercy 1977, 1978, 1979, 1981, 1983, 2005; Piercy, Darroch, and Bass 1992).

Mauritius (1609), Cap Lopez, Gabon

Mauritius was constructed during 1601–1602 ce in Amsterdam and became one of the first ships of the VOC. It completed one successful return voyage to the East Indies between 1602 and 1604 and left the Dutch Republic again in June 1605. In December 1607, the ship departed Java with the instruction to sail to Madagascar, to recover the crew and freight of the Portuguese carrack Săo Antonio that had ran aground there. For nearly two years nothing was heard of the ship. Then, in September 1609, some survivors arrived back home and reported that they had managed to take on board part of the cargo of the Săo Antonio after which they passed the Cape of Good Hope in December 1608. Three months later, on March 19, 1609, Mauritius reached Cap Lopez where the ship perished. Some merchandise from the wreck was salvaged, and the survivors obtained a small boat on the Gold Coast with which they returned to Amsterdam.

The wreck of Mauritius was discovered during a bathymetric survey in 1985. It is situated at a depth of between 33–40 feet and resembled a tumulus of 165 by 75 feet and 10–13 feet high before excavation. This was mainly caused by between 18,000 and 22,000 zinc ingots, weighing about 122 tons in total, that covered the site. Before intrusive work started, a survey was conducted utilizing sonar, side-scan sonar, sub-bottom profiler, magnetometer, and divers. This allowed for the specific characteristics of the site and the problems posed by its surroundings, such as strong currents, to be precisely determined.

During excavation of the hull remains, one of the oldest examples of a shell-first construction was found, which was typical for shipyards in the northern Netherlands at the time. Another interesting constructional detail is that the hull of the vessel was protected by lead sheathing that was placed between the interior and exterior planking or doubling. On other VOC ships, such as Batavia (1629), the doubling was fastened with close-set iron nails that formed a protective iron crust when oxidizing.

Artifacts that were found on-site besides elements of the hull consisted of parts of the cargo, the armament, and stores. Most of the zinc ingots that had protected the underlaying material are plano-convex and circular or oval in shape, with an average diameter of ten inches. Some flat rectangular ingots were also found. Metal analysis showed that the ingots are pure zinc, with only minute traces of other elements. Based on their shape, most ingots were initially thought to originate in China but later isotopic analysis points to a Japanese origin. The flat ingots were remelted at some stage. Pepper that was found was originally transported in bags of which fragments were recovered. Three different types of peppercorns from the Patani region, in the northern part of the Malay Peninsula, could be identified through paleo-botanical analysis. The porcelain shards that were excavated represent evidence for some 215 vessels. This number is far too small to account for a formal cargo of porcelain, and they may thus represent trade samples for the VOC, or private goods taken back by people on board. The porcelain is blue-and-white Ming of the Wan-li period (1573–1619 ce) and consists of subgroups including Kraak and Swatow porcelain. Other ceramics that were probably used as storage containers for provisions or medication include a Bartmann bottle from the German Rhineland and a number of coarse glazed sherds of Martaban jars, possibly produced in northern Thailand between the 1550s and 1730s ce.

The artillery that was found can be divided into ship’s artillery, probably twelve cannons, whereas sixteen guns were carried as ballast. Both cast-iron guns and bronze cannons were found in the ratio of nineteen-to-nine. The ship’s artillery included richly decorated bronze guns of different calibers that were produced in the Low Countries and Spain. Among the iron cannon at least two are of English origin. An additional twelve iron and two bronze guns were excavated from the bottom of the hold on both sides of the keel. They were used as ballast during the voyage and would have been either taken off and installed on newly constructed ships upon return to the Dutch Republic or melted down. The bronze cannons are Portuguese and may have been on board the Săo Antonio. Of the twelve iron cannons in this category, seven are similar English ten to twelve pounder demi-culverins.

The shipwreck of Mauritius reflects the beginning of VOC operations that heralded a new period in the European trade with the Far East. Through detailed excavation, it was possible to record specific constructional details of the hull of the vessel, indicating technological trends of the time that differ from later periods. The same applies to the study of the diverse collection of cannons of different types, calibers, and origins. Analysis of the zinc ingots, but also of the remains of pepper and porcelain shards that were found, added to more knowledge of the diverse origins of certain products, the level of technology with which they were produced, as well as economic demand and supply at the time. It was only through the foresight of the company that discovered the wreck and that sponsored its excavation that this information could be secured (L’Hour 1997; L’Hour, Long, and Rieth 1989, 1990; Van Duivenvoorde 2015).

Oosterland and Waddinxveen (1697), Cape Town, South Africa

Oosterland and Waddinxveen were both so-called retourschepen, specifically designed to transport cargoes and crews on the Dutch-Asiatic trade routes. With a length of 160 Amsterdam feet or 147 Imperial feet Oosterland was of the biggest class, whereas Waddinxveen fell in the 145 Amsterdam feet (133 feet) category. The ships were constructed during the period 1684–1691 ce and belonged to the regional VOC offices of Zeeland and Rotterdam, respectively. On Wednesday May 22, 1697, when both were laying in Table Bay as part of a homeward-bound fleet, a storm picked up that lasted for a few days. During the early morning hours of May 24, distress signals were fired from the fleet and at approximately 09:00 hours the cable of the Waddinxveen’s bow anchor snapped. A stern anchor and an additional side anchor were lowered immediately, but these only held for a short while before the ship went adrift. Shortly after 11:00 hours, the Oosterland, which had broken off its bow and stern moorings, also started drifting. At approximately 13:00 hours, Waddinxveen touched ground in the surf zone north of the Salt River mouth. The ship’s main mast collapsed and shortly after the vessel broke up. A similar fate struck Oosterland. In between 14:00 and 15:00 hours, this vessel also foundered in the shallows; the main mast fell overboard and the hull disintegrated almost immediately.

In 1988, amateur divers located the remains of two historical shipwrecks in Table Bay. This discovery came at an opportune moment, as a lectureship in maritime archaeology at the University of Cape Town (UCT) had been established only months before. Maritime archaeology was still an untouched field in southern Africa at the time and during the first term of appointment, much attention was devoted to public education. After attending a lecture, one of the divers came forward and reported the discovery. In the period that followed, the wrecks were identified based on the material culture that could be observed on the seabed, as well as related archival documents. Parallel to that, preparations were set in motion to undertake an excavation project. The discovery also made the formulation of a research and management policy a priority. The starting point that was selected aimed at showing the diversity of maritime archaeological research and the various avenues that can be followed to answer a multitude of questions.

Figure 7. The Direct Survey Method in practice. The excavator records the distance from a find to a fixed survey point. By taking three measurements to different fixed points surrounding a find, its position in space can be established accurately.

Reproduced from Bruno E. J. S. Werz (2004, 89).

Excavations on both wrecks were undertaken during the 1990s. Although primarily aimed at recording and retrieving archaeological data for research purposes, they also included a variety of other tasks. This ranged from the adaptation and improvement of applicable surveying and registration methods, to teaching practical aspects of fieldwork to students and interested members of the public. During excavation, a range of materials was recovered. The spatial relationships between different artifacts and finds were recorded by Direct Survey Method (DSM). This spatial information was later entered into a Geographic Information System (GIS) that formed the basis for the system that was developed for the Maritime Archaeology Project (MAP) of Table Bay. In this way, the way in which Oosterland was deposited on the seabed could be reconstructed, by relating the positions of navigational instruments, galley remains, barber-surgeon instruments, and cannons. By applying GIS analysis, in combination with documentary research, it was also possible to ascertain that the porcelain finds did not form part of a formal VOC consignment. They were either part of a permitted or illicit private cargo, stored in the master gunner’s room near the stern.

Analysis undertaken showed that the collection of excavated ceramics from the 1990 to 1991 field season alone contains thirty intact and three almost complete vessels and figurines as well as 1,145 shards that represent an estimated additional 279 items. Eighty-five percent of artifacts in this category consist of Chinese blue-and-white porcelain items, dating to the Kangxi period (1662–1722 ce). Study of the Chinese porcelain and other ceramics from the wreck is of great value from an international perspective. Accurate dating of objects of this nature is often difficult, and gaps exist in the chronology of these kinds of artifacts. A substantial part of the existing information on porcelain dating has been obtained through the study and analysis of shipwreck finds, as wrecks provide ideal chronological references. As a result of the Oosterland ceramics analysis, certain items in the collections of the British Museum, the Ashmolean Museum, and the Victoria and Albert Museum could be dated more accurately.

Figure 8. Two examples of complete Chinese blue-and-white porcelain artifacts that were excavated from Oosterland. They date to the Kangxi period (1662–1722 ce) and were probably private trade goods.

Reproduced from Bruno E. J. S. Werz (2015b, 317).

Another example of private belongings on board, whether legal or smuggled, is a particular shell that was also retrieved from the Oosterland site. This shell was found separately from any other finds and distinguishes itself from the hundreds of Cypraea moneta shells and others of the Cypraea family that formed part of the cargo. It was identified as Turritella (Zaria) duplicate, which was described by Linnaeus in 1758. The shell is of an Indo-Pacific species, found on the coasts of the Indian Ocean and in Southeast Asia. Maybe this shell was picked up from some Asian beach and kept as a personal souvenir, or with the intention to sell at a later stage to a collector back home. Two lumps of a resinous material that were collected from the beach opposite the wreck of Oosterland may either have belonged to an individual on board or may have been part of a formal cargo. It is assumed that this material originates from the wreck, as it was deposited among porcelain shards and cowrie shells from the Oosterland. For this reason, analysis of the lumps could possibly provide for an indication of their origin, even more so as no indigenous southern African sources of amber are recorded in standard mineralogy reference texts. Apart from one Angolan amber source of Pleistocene age, the continent of Africa represents a significant gap in the worldwide occurrence of amber deposits.

The first objective was to identify the lumps positively, by using standard gemological techniques. Subsequently, both specimens were also examined by infrared spectroscopy, as it has been established that infrared spectra of amber resins are characteristically unique and may be used for identification and sometimes sourcing of this material. The gemological test results were evaluated against similar tests done on a Baltic amber reference sample as well as published values for amber. This indicated a close resemblance between the Baltic amber reference sample and the published values. The absorption spectra of the two lumps supposedly originating from the Oosterland were very similar to each other but differed from that of the reference sample, in that they did not indicate a distinctive “Baltic pattern.” Based on the test results, it could be concluded that the two lumps that were found on the beach are natural resins and can be described as amber, if a more general definition of amber as a polymerized terpenoid or phenolic resin is followed. The similarity of the two infrared spectra of these samples suggests that they originate from the same botanical source, and hence from the same geographical region. They are certainly not Baltic amber and do not originate from northern Europe or North America. They are also not likely to be of South African origin. Hence, the amber lumps that were found on the beach must have been transported from an unknown source. The presence of the shipwreck of the Oosterland, situated at less than 985 feet from the place where the amber lumps were found, provides a plausible explanation for this. The amber could well originate from an unidentified Asiatic source, but as material from this region has not been studied to the same extent as amber from Europe and North America, there is not yet comparative material available to answer this question conclusively.

Dozens of copper bars were found and are reflected in relevant documents as being part of the cargo. One bar was sampled and analyzed metallographically. This showed it to be about 99 percent copper, with minor sulfur and silicon traces. It could be concluded that the bar consists of so-called tough pitch copper, a Cu-O alloy with about 0.05 percent oxygen. The bar represents a primary copper product, which has not undergone deoxidizing or other refining. The metallographic study was not particularly revealing and did not provide any leads as to its provenance.

Further study at the Department of Scientific Research of the British Museum focused on trace element analyses, in an attempt to confirm the origin of the copper. Material from shipwrecks is particularly useful in building up a database of comparative materials for this purpose, as the related historical documentation sometimes includes information on their origin and destination as well as the date of deposition. In this specific case, archival research had already indicated that the copper originated from Japan. This had some bearing on research into 17th- and 18th-century Chinese coin production. Before 1683 ce, copper used in minting coins originated from the Yunnan Province, in the southwest of China. In 1683, a ban on the import of Japanese copper was lifted, and Japanese copper was brought to China in substantial quantities. This continued until the early 18th century, when Japan withdrew from international trade. From then on, Yunnan copper was used again. This is reflected in the composition of coins of the period. Those dating to between 1683 and the early 18th century show a much purer copper content, and it was surmised that this was due to the imports from Japan. This, however, remained a hypothesis until the discovery of the ingots from the Waddinxveen, as they provided for the first comparative samples of Japanese copper dating to the late 17th century. With the excavation of a Dutch shipwreck in Table Bay, South Africa, a contribution was thus made to a better understanding of the Chinese economy and, more specifically, the currency that was in use during the late 17th and early 18th centuries.

The underwater excavation of the VOC shipwrecks of the Oosterland and Waddinxveen represents the first scientific maritime archaeological project in southern Africa. The multidisciplinary approach that was followed, involving contributions from surveyors, hydrographers, oceanographers, chemists, material scientists, botanists, metallurgists, ceramic experts, and others, allowed for the answering of a multitude of research questions. It was thus proven that in this way, valid contributions can be made to obtain more knowledge about different aspects of the human past. The project also set a standard for future research in sub-Saharan Africa. Furthermore, it served as a field school and played an important role in teaching students and educating the general public. In addition, it disproved the self-serving opinions expressed by profit-motivated treasure hunters that shipwrecks do not contain valid archaeological data, such as spatial and stratigraphic information, as these are all supposedly destroyed by the underwater environment (Martin and Werz 1999; Miller 1997; Miller, Lee-Thorp, and Werz 1992; Werz 1989, 1990a, 1992a, 1992b, 1993a, 1999, 2004, 2009c, 2010a; Werz and Klose 1994; Werz and Martin 1994).

Summary and Conclusions

Although acknowledging that the archaeological potential situated under the sea and on the shores of sub-Saharan Africa is tremendous, insufficient interest and support seem to be the major factors that restricted development of the field. Since the late 20th century, some efforts have been undertaken to better manage and protect the underwater and marine cultural heritage of the region through government and public participation. This resulted in a series of meetings in 2006, 2008, and 2009, hosted by the South African Department of Arts and Culture, that focused on developing an international underwater cultural heritage policy. Although attended by various representatives from other African and European nations, very little transpired from this. A positive development for South Africa was the introduction of the National Heritage Resources Act No. 25 of 1999 that includes far more stringent regulations regarding the underwater cultural heritage than before. With the establishment of the African Institute for Marine & Underwater Research, Exploration & Education (AIMURE) in Cape Town in 2013, a way forward was created to further stimulate academic research in African maritime archaeology (AIMURE website). Most of sub-Saharan Africa’s coastal states still have not realized a proper infrastructure for maritime archaeological research and have no track record of scientific work being done. Be that as it may, progress can be detected, however slow. The field has made its mark, especially in South Africa, Kenya, and Namibia, partly as a result of some discoveries since the late 20th century. These include Bom Jesus, Santo António de Tanna, Oosterland, and Waddinxveen. It is now time to build on this small foundation and to develop research strategies and methodologies for the different types of sites that may be encountered in the future. These strategies should be underlain by a holistic approach that acknowledges the complexity and multifaceted character of the different types of marine and underwater sites and the material culture they contain.

Further Reading

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  • Muckelroy, Keith. 1978. Maritime Archaeology. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
  • Werz, Bruno E. J. S. 1999. Diving Up the Human Past: Perspectives of Maritime Archaeology, with Specific Reference to Developments in South Africa until 1996. British Archaeological Reports International Series 749. Oxford: BAR Publishing.
  • Werz, Bruno E. J. S. 2007. “A Suggested Blueprint for the Development of Maritime Archaeological Research in Namibia.” Journal of Namibian Studies: History, Politics, Culture 2: 103–123.
  • Werz, Bruno, Hayley Cawthra, and John Compton. 2014. “Recent Developments in African Offshore Prehistoric Archaeological Research, with an Emphasis on South Africa.” In Prehistoric Archaeology on the Continental Shelf: A Global Review, edited by Amanda M. Evans, Joseph C. Flatman, and Nicholas C. Flemming, 233–254. New York: Springer.
  • Westerdahl, Christer. 2011. “The Maritime Cultural Landscape.” In The Oxford Handbook of Maritime Archaeology, edited by Alexis Catsambis, Ben Ford, and Donny L. Hamilton, 733–762. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


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