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Maritime & Underwater Cultural Heritage

Comparative photographs of a section of the keel of the “Barrel Wreck” shows deterioration of the hull remains between 2011 and 2012The Maritime and Underwater Cultural Heritage (MUCH) Unit

The Maritime and Underwater Cultural Heritage (MUCH) Unit at the South African Heritage Resources Agency (SAHRA) has taken a unique position on the management of South Africa’s MUCH resources. Whereas the perception of underwater cultural heritage as being solely shipwrecks has predominated globally, the MUCH Unit has worked hard to expand the focus to non-traditional, locally applicable examples of MUCH resources that reflect South African’s historical relationship with water. The Unit has used external funding to develop MUCH and bring it into the heritage mainstream and has made significant strides towards showcasing this resource as a shared and universal inheritance. By broadening the scope of the MUCH, the Unit has been able to address its key strategic objective of raising awareness of an aspect of heritage often hidden beneath the water’s surface.


The MUCH Unit has played a key role in grading and declaration activities for Lake Fundudzi through consultative workshops with the various role players and stakeholders and development of methods to capacitate members of the Lake community to self-manage the site.
David Conlin of the US National Parks Service records survey points on the wreck of a wreck believed to be the Portuguese slave ship Sao Jose, CliftonNAS Part II students Paul Buchel and Selvan Pillay of KZN Wildlife draw up shipwreck site plans assisted by Heather Wares and Shawn BerryDivers on the “Barrel Wreck” take measurements of wood integrity to assess the condition of the hull of the “Barrel Wreck”

Heritage Resources Management

The MUCH Unit is mandated to manage MUCH resources along South coast as well as in or around inland waters such as lakes, rivers and dams. The Unit processes applications for permits to conduct activities on or in the vicinity of wreck sites. In addition, the MUCH Unit assesses or comments on Environmental and Heritage Impact Assessments.

The Unit also carries out daily activities including site inspections, site monitoring, answering public queries and other mandated functions.

Archaeologists and developers examine the remains of the hull of an unknown shipwreck uncovered at the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront, Cape TownThe remains of the hull of an unknown shipwreck uncovered at the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront, Cape Town are given support before removal from the siteThe remains of the hull of an unknown shipwreck uncovered at the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront, Cape Town gently lifted from the ground
Policy and Legislation

South Africa stands at a cross-roads of MUCH management. This has compelled the MUCH Unit to redraft its Policy to re-focus SAHRA’s mandated functions, including permitting and management of underwater sites. By addressing the complex strategies associated with managing a multifaceted resource of both historical and commercial value the Policy will begin to moderate current management challenges. The Policy seeks to specifically mitigate the challenge of unchecked looting and treasure hunting. It takes into account both the current legislative directives and definitions imposed by the National Heritage Resources Act (Act 25 of 1999) as well as forward-looking trends in global MUCH management.

Co-operative Programmes

Together with Iziko Museums, the Unit planned and implemented two fieldwork seasons on a wreck believed to be that of the Portuguese slave ship Sao Jose (1794) as part of the on-going Slave Wreck Project. Partners from Iziko Museums, the George Washington University, the US National Parks Service’s Submerged Resources Centre, the Smithsonian Institute and the National Association of Black Scuba Divers co-operated to locate the site and make preliminary efforts to identify the wreck, determine the extent of the site and assess its condition. The Unit has also proposed a partnership with National Association of Black Scuba divers (NABS) that will see South African youths being involved in training programmes, idea exchanges and Youth Summits arranged by the Association.

The Unit continued to co-operate with regional partners through discussion and planning. A regional meeting organised by UNESCO in Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania brought together a wide range of heritage managers, marine agencies and government officials to initiate proposals for developing a regional voice for the protection of MUCH.

A proposal for the creation of an underwater museum on the northern coast of KZN was prepared and submitted to the Department of Arts and Culture by the MUCH Unit for inclusion in the Mzansi’s Golden Economy programme for heritage. The Unit will continue to work in partnership with the Department to conduct feasibility studies and to implement the project in the coming years.

Continued looting of shipwreck sites around Port Elizabeth on the Eastern Cape coast prompted local law enforcement agencies, together with divers and other interested members of the public, to contact the MUCH Unit to assist in providing knowledge skills relating to the National Heritage Resources Act and associated legislation that could be used to combat these illegal activities. The Unit provided training to law enforcement personnel and is developing a coastal network for monitoring and policing.The discovery of a wreck site during development works in the Clock Tower Precinct of the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town gave the MUCH Unit a unique opportunity to collaborate with a broad range of stakeholders including museums, developers, contract archaeologists and the public. The wreck remains, probably dating to the late 18th century, consisted a section of hull, cannon balls, ballast, a broken cannon and some smaller artefacts that will be conserved and studied by Iziko Museum.
Heather Wares teaches snorkelling techniques to learners during the Youth Development Programme held at Robben Island, and Simon TownSophie Winton adjusts a learners buoyancy while teaching snorkelling skills to a learner during the Youth Development Programme held at Robben Island, and Simon TownSophie Winton and Heather Wares monitor progress during snorkelling training at the Youth Development Programme held at Robben Island, and Simon Town

Capacity Building and Awareness Raising

SAHRA, together with the Netherlands based Centre for International Heritage Activities has concluded its Maritime Archaeology Development Programme (MADP). This extensive capacity building and awareness raising initiative, funded by the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands has exposed a broad cross section of South Africans to MUCH and has cultivated a network of coastal institutions and individuals with the competence to assist in managing MUCH resources along South Africa’s extensive coastline. The MADP has resulted in the identification of “Legacy Sites” that will allow SAHRA to reflect the full scope of MUCH. These sites include a shipwreck site, coastal fish weirs, an inland lake and a maritime landscape encompassing both underwater and terrestrial maritime sites.

In conjunction with the Department of Arts and Culture, the MUCH Unit co-ordinated and executed a second MUCH Youth Programme. The programme, held at Robben Island, included learners and dignitaries being invited to dive on the wreck site of the Clan Stuart and culminated in a Ministerial event on board the South African navy vessel SAS Mendi in Simonstown.  Four learners from all nine provinces together with their teachers were hosted during the programme. Robben Island Museum educators provided guidance and activities to enhance the experience, while SAHRA staff presented the subject in more detail. The programme and event were attended by the Deputy Minister of Arts and Culture, Education MEC’s from KZN and EC, DAC staff, SAHRA Executive and dignitaries from the South African Defence Force, the Institute for Maritime Technology, the Department of Environmental Affairs as well as journalists and other invited guests. An additional group of 50 learners from schools in the Western Cape were invited to the activities taking place on the event day. The SAHRA Library assisted at the event by presenting books on MUCH and general heritage topics and giving a short quiz.The MUCH Unit is concluding its National Lottery Distribution Trust Fund sponsored National Survey of Underwater Heritage. This pilot programme has mapped four wreck sites that will be included in a prototype online Atlas of Underwater Heritage which will be completed in the upcoming financial year.


A booklet entitled “How the Sea Shaped Our Land” was printed and distributed to learners at a Youth MUCH Programme in October 2011. The publication took the form of a workbook that gave an overview of South Africa’s maritime past. The booklet was distributed to 100 learners.

To ensure continued involvement in MUCH, the Unit created a Facebook page for learners. Entitled “SAHRA Underwater Youth Development Programme” it has attracted 30 members.

An awareness raising “manifesto” for the future development of MUCH in South Africa is being published by the MUCH Unit. The document, entitled “Towards Best Practices in Maritime and Underwater Cultural Heritage in South Africa” outlines the history of MUCH in South Africa, the challenges faced in managing the resource and making it universally accessible and a future approach to MUCH that is both relevant and rigorous. A draft of this document was presented to UNESCO in May 2011.


The Unit has continued to work closely with MUCH stakeholders including the Centre for International Heritage Activities, The Department of Environmental Affairs: Oceans and Coasts, Iziko Museum, KZN Wildlife, Robben island Museum, the University of Cape Town, the University of Fort Hare, The University of KZN, the University of South Africa, The University of the Western Cape and Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa


The maritime archaeologist at SAHRA can be contacted at:
Mr John Gribble
PO Box 4637, Cape Town, 8000
Tel: (021) 465 2198, Fax: (021) 465 5789

Other useful addresses are:

South African Maritime Museum, P O Box 645, Cape Town, 8000

East London Museum, P O Box 11021, Southernwood, 5213

Bayworld, P O Box 13147, Humewood, 6013

Natal Maritime Museum, P O Box 4085, Durban, 4000

Bartholomeu Dias Museum, P O Box 371, Mossel Bay, 6500

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