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19 November 2003
Underwater heritage survey launched for South Africa

South Africa’s first ever survey of underwater heritage sites has been launched in Cape Town thanks to a R4.2 million grant from the National Lotteries Distribution Trust Fund. Established by the South African Heritage Resources Agency and conducted by four archaeologists, the three year project expects to document a wide diversity of sites ranging from shell middens to more recent wrecks and other maritime remains. Unit head and maritime archaeologist John Gribble says that coastal sites are under threat from coastal development. Gribble believes that underwater cultural heritage suffers from the perception that it is colonial, and therefore only of interest to some South Africans. “However, when one considers that underwater heritage is best defined as the physical remains of people’s relationship with the sea, it is clear that it is a resource of importance and interest to all South Africans.”
     The country’s coastline is almost 3,000 km long. According to Gribble, this coastline is “one long midden”. There are thousands of Stone Age middens – piles of discarded shells and bones – left by early hunter-gatherers. The middens are of great archaeological importance. Some have yielded evidence of human activity from nearly 100,000 years ago. The survey will also chart later sites and relics: fish traps, shipwrecks, survivor camps and harbours. Gribble does not expect to survey the whole coastline in the three years for which funding is available. “We will start with a number of small, discrete geographical areas, including Saldanha Bay, Simon’s Town, Struisbaai, Port Elizabeth, East London, Durban and possibly Port Nolloth.”
     The survey will also produce an inventory of some of the estimated 3,000-5,000 shipwrecks that litter the exposed coastline. Its main purpose is to find and record sites, rather than excavate them. The team also plans to scour archival sources for information, and to supplement conventional sources by tapping into the oral history of people in various parts of the country.

Source: Mail & Guardian online (15 November 2003)

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