South Africa has a rich and diverse maritime and underwater cultural heritage comprising shipwrecks, submerged prehistoric landscapes, pre-colonial intertidal fish traps, and sacred lakes to which oral traditions are attached.
During the 15th century trading between Europe and the East expanded rapidly and the shipping trade route became increasingly busy and important as demand for exotic goods soared amongst the European elite. South Africa’s geographical position at the mid-point on this route became fundamental to the continuation of trade and, as such, its recent history is inextricably linked to the history of the rest of the world. It was information brought back from these expeditions that helped establish colonies in the Cape which then expanded to other areas of southern Africa. The popularity and dangers of this route is reflected in the nearly 3 000 historical shipwrecks of different nationalities that are scattered around our coast. Shipwrecks are a unique archaeological resource and can provide a wealth of historical information. These precious resources need to be managed, maintained and protected as part of the nation’s shared history.
In addition to these wrecks, our maritime heritage includes many other sites associated with European maritime activities, such as shipwreck survivor sites, and maritime infrastructure like lighthouses, harbours and dockyards.
Briege and Lesa standing next to the SS Maori Sign in Hout Bay Habour.
Diver monitoring at a wreck site of the SAS Pietermaritzburg, conducting monitoring.
Underwater cultural heritage
The record of our long association with water is much broader than just shipwrecks and extends far back into prehistory. The archaeological record that constitutes this heritage includes large numbers of coastal fish traps, submerged prehistoric landscapes, rock paintings, and archaeology associated with inland waters such as lakes and rivers. Acheulean hand axes which may be up to 1.5 million years old have been recovered from the seabed in Table Bay, Cape Town and are indicative of potential submerged prehistoric landscapes dating from when sea levels were considerably lower during past glacial periods. A handful of rock art depictions of sailing vessels believed to have been painted by South Africa’s indigenous San and Khoi populations’ hint at contact between local people and early European mariners. Stone walled fish traps are also often found along our coasts and, though there is some debate regarding their origin, they are an intrinsic part of our rich maritime heritage and provide a unique insight into the development of innovative fishing technology.
Functions of the Maritime and Underwater Cultural Heritage Unit
SAHRA’s Maritime and Underwater Cultural Heritage (MUCH) Unit is responsible for protecting and managing all underwater cultural heritage below the high water mark along South Africa’s approximately 3000km of coastline, as well as in and around the inland lakes, rivers, and dams. The extent of its remit includes the Territorial Sea (to 22km offshore) and the Contiguous Zone (45km offshore). Site inspections and monitoring are part of the Unit’s key functions, as well as processing applications for permits to conduct activities on submerged sites. In addition, it assesses and comments on Environmental and Heritage Impact Assessments and is available to answer public queries that relate to maritime and underwater cultural heritage.
The Unit strives to expand the traditional view of maritime and underwater cultural heritage management by promoting a broad and representative range of sites through its activities. Its aims are to bring maritime and underwater cultural heritage management in South Africa into the heritage mainstream, showcase the shared nature and universal significance of this exciting heritage resource, and raise public awareness of an aspect of our national heritage which is often overlooked and ignored because much of it is hidden beneath the waves.
Maritime and Underwater Cultural Heritage and the Law
All archaeological artefacts and sites in South Africa are protected by the National Heritage Resources Act (No. 25 of 1999). This includes any shipwreck, any submerged aircraft wreckage, prehistoric landscape, sacred site, shipwreck survivor camp, or rock art site relating to maritime or underwater cultural heritage, which is older than 60 years. Any other archaeological material associated with these sites is also protected by the Act.
The law of salvage does not apply to historical shipwrecks in South African waters because they are defined under the Act as archaeological material and, as such, are the property of the State, administered by SAHRA in trust for the nation.
Maritime and underwater cultural heritage sites or material may not be disturbed unless a permit has been issued by SAHRA.
A permit is not required to visit most maritime and underwater cultural heritage sites, provided they are not disturbed or interfered with and that no artefacts are removed or damaged.
Permits to disturb shipwrecks and other submerged or intertidal sites are generally only issued for activities which have a strong scientific basis, clear research questions, adequate funding, suitable provision for artefact conservation and curation, and will result in the generation of new knowledge about our maritime and underwater cultural heritage.
Applications for maritime and underwater cultural heritage permits must be made through SAHRIS, SAHRA’s online heritage inventory and case management system.
Please contact the MUCH unit for further advice or with any enquiries on +27 21 202 8658.