Historic shipwrecks are time capsules of their time, they are often untouched for decades, sometimes centuries, until they are discovered. Everything onboard gets frozen in time, which archaeologists can study to understand our history. Ships have had an immeasurable impact on how we live today. These vessels are what opened the seas for trade, travel and communication across continental borders.

Understanding these ships is important when trying to understand South African history, as South African contact with European sailors goes so far back, that it is reflected in rock art. Shipwrecks are very prevalent around Africa’s southern coast, particularly around the Cape. Cape Town has notoriously bad winter weather conditions. One notable storm called ‘‘The Great Gale of 1865’’, saw more than 10 shipwrecks off of Cape Town alone in one night. These sea conditions along with poor navigation devices have seen that 38 nationalities are represented in South Africa’s known shipwrecks.

When analysing the contents aboard historic shipwrecks we can see the progression of certain technologies; including different fixtures on the ship, ceramics, and often weapons. The changes over time, and across different wrecks can tell researchers how learning over time, and contact with different communities influenced what was built, and how it was built. These help archaeologists understand when something was invented, or changed. For example, if a ship sank in 1682 everything abroad was made before 1682. Historians and archaeologists can know the date a shipwrecked based on different written records; diaries kept by survivors and ship logs stating the date a vessel left for its last voyage.

Looking at the contents of a ship is also a window into what was important to the crew members, researchers can look at what they felt was important enough for them to take aboard with them. We would otherwise not know about the interests of everyday people, as they were not likely literate. Therefore, without artefacts like shipwrecks, we would only understand history from a fairly narrow perspective.

  • Sharfman, J., Boshoff, J. and Parthesius, R., 2012. Maritime and underwater cultural heritage in South Africa: the development of relevant management strategies in the historical maritime context of the southern tip of Africa. Journal of Maritime Archaeology, 7(1), pp.87-109.

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