Maritime history and heritage: shipwrecks


Why are shipwrecks important?

Shipwrecks have always held a specific allure. The promise of hidden treasure, the unexplored and underwater adventure is so seductive that a healthy, global tourist industry has developed around shipwrecks.

Although most people associate treasure with gold and silver cargo, historic shipwrecks provide maritime archaeologists with another kind of treasure. They gather immense amounts of archaeological, historical, scientific, social and technical information from wrecks.

Shipwrecks are sometimes called time capsules because, when they were wrecked, everything on board generally stayed, and were preserved, in one area. This means that everything found in and around the wreck can be accurately dated to be no older than the wreck itself.

This provides a window into the past that shows us how the crew and passengers of the vessel lived and worked, what cargo was being transported, how it was stored and which navigation instruments were used. Wrecks also often contain crockery, tools, clothing, foods and medicines that are better preserved than they would have been on land because of the low oxygen levels, and resulting low decomposition rate, under water.

• Franco Frescura
•  Marsh, R. (2003). South Africa Weird and Wonderful , Cape Town: Tafelberg.
• Potgieter, D. J. (ed), (1973). Standard Encyclopaedia of Southern Africa POP-SLA, Cape Town: Nasionale Opvoedkundige Uitgewery.

Last updated : 05-Sep-2017

This article was produced by South African History Online on 22-Mar-2011

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