On 16 February I got a rare chance to see an old shipwreck that had just been uncovered again after many years in the sand and rubble of the reclaimed Cape Town waterfront area. One of the articles that made the news is here. The wreck was uncovered by construction workers who were strengthening the old Number 1 Silo. The silo is being converted into living and commercial residential units.They stopped digging when the machines struck wood. The main archaeological team was led by Liesbet Schietecatte, a consulting maritime archaeologist from Belgium. People from the South African Heritage Resources Agency (SAHRA) were also interested in learning about the wreck and I was invited to take a look with them and to assist where I could.

Unfortunately on the day the construction company did not have enough extra protective clothing available for everyone and so the SAHRA team was unable to go on to the site. I was one of the few lucky ones as there was one pair of Size 9 steel toe boots which fitted me just fine. So, soon I was on the site, with the main archaeological team, without SAHRA and without a specific reason to be there.

Luckily the whole team were standing around most of the time so there was not a lot to do anyway. There was a press team from Die Burger and the reporters were interviewing the project leaders. This gave me some time to wander around and take some pictures. I was properly bored before long and left before any of the real work started.

What we know about the wreck is that it probably sank rather than beached. Many years ago the shoreline in Table Bay was much further forward than it is today and the sea reached all the way to just outside the Castle of Good Hope. In the late 1600s the area close to today’s waterfront, where the wreck was found, was probably still under a few metres of water. The wreck lies facing the old shoreline and the diggers found it from the stern side which was rather badly damaged when they did. There was some old ballast in the bow and one person found an old coin. I could not find out more about it. There was also what was left of a shoe, stuck in the concretion on the bow. The sole is clearly visible on some of the pictures. There were also some very old barnacles. They probably grew on the outside of the wreck as finding them growing on what was a sandy shore seems unlikely. What was puzzling to the archaeologists though was that the outside of the hull appeared to have a protective outer layer of bronze or brass. Barnacles would probably not have grown on this.

I understand that the afternoon after I’d left the entire wreck was removed. The agreement with the contractor did not give the archaeologists more time to study it where it was found. And the following day the digging resumed.

Words and pics: Paul Papenfus