The Exciting World of South African Marine Archaeology

underwaterA chance opportunity took Dr. Bruno Werz to South Africa as the country’s first marine archeologist in 1988. For over twenty years now, Dr. Werz has undertaken numerous projects of immense scope, including the excavation of sub-Saharan Africa’s oldest shipwreck. He is also responsible for the discovery of the oldest human artifacts ever found beneath the ocean’s surface.

In this exclusive interview with James Blake Wiener of the Ancient History Encyclopedia, Dr. Werz discusses his passion for marine archaeology and the activities of the African Institute for Marine and Underwater Research, Exploration and Education (AIMURE).

JW: Dr. Bruno Werz, welcome to the Ancient History Encyclopedia! It is an immense pleasure to converse with a pioneer in the field of marine archaeology. I was intrigued by the fact that you worked previously as an archaeological diver on the Mary Rose, as a research assistant at the Rijksmuseum, and as a member of the Underwater Reconnaissance and Diving Unit of the Royal Dutch Army.

How and when did you first become interested in marine archaeology, and what were the circumstances that led you to South Africa?

BW: Thank you, James! It is a pleasure to speak with you!

Funny enough, my father asked me exactly the same question on the day of the public defense of my DLitt. thesis in maritime archaeology! There and then I had to confess to him that at the age of eleven or twelve, I sometimes “borrowed” his library card to take out a book from the adult library in my hometown in the Netherlands. This book was the Dutch translation of a publication edited by the “Founding father” of maritime archaeology: “A History of Seafaring based on Underwater Archaeology,” by Dr. George F. Bass. I borrowed this book repeatedly as everything in it intrigued me: from the stories of submerged buildings in the Mediterranean Sea; “pirate booty” in the West Indies; to the wreck of the Vasa in Stockholm, Sweden. However, it was not only that. The pictures of divers — busy excavating artifacts underneath the surface of the world’s oceans — also had a huge appeal. My father corrected me, though, showing me a drawing that I had made as a child of divers excavating bones, stones, and pottery in a submerged cave. Underneath, he had recorded the date in pencil: “1966,” so  that dates to when I was five or six.

I think that my interest was twofold: I had inherited an affection for history and ancient artifacts as my grandfather was an art historian, and my father was an antique dealer and keen amateur historian. I do not really know how my interest in diving came about, but I remember trying to make goggles and experimenting with these in the bathtub from a very young age.

“Maritime archaeology [is] an exciting specialization of archaeology, but it should not be forgotten that the foundations for this field were already laid over 50 years ago. Another point I would like to stress is that although underwater field work is very different than terrestrial excavations, the underlying principles are exactly the same.”

My first hands-on experience in the field came about in 1980, when I was invited to participate in the excavation of the Mary Rose in the UK. By then I was already an experienced sport diver and knew a bit about field work, having participated in several archaeological summer camps in my teens. During the second dive on this amazing shipwreck the visibility cleared, and I could see several divers busying themselves inside the hull and surveying finds. There and then, I knew that there was nothing that I would like to do more as a career! I still had a long way to go, however, as I only started studying after returning from the UK. Six years later, after having spent each summer season on shipwreck excavations, I completed a doctoral degree in history with a thesis that discussed an interdisciplinary approach between the fields of history and maritime archaeology.

After completing this degree, I was drafted into the Royal Dutch Army as one of the last conscripts. (The Dutch government ended compulsory military service a year later). Having proven myself academically, the next challenge was to see if I could further myself in other ways. With the ‘nerd stigma’ attached to most academics in armed forces all over the world, I knew this would be a challenge. Nevertheless, as I had always been active in sports — swimming, diving, judo, and self defense — I decided to volunteer for the Army’s Underwater Reconnaissance Unit. After having successfully passed the strict selection and rather demanding course that followed, I was allowed to continue to become a salvage and demolition diver.

Following my departure from the Dutch Army — with two commercial diver certificates under my belt — an advertisement caught my eye in an international scientific journal: a position was offered for a lecturer in Maritime Archaeology at the University of Cape Town. By the end of 1988, I was on my way to Cape Town to establish the field of maritime archaeology in southern Africa.

chinesepiecesJW: The African Institute for Marine and Underwater Research, Exploration and Education (AIMURE), based in Cape Town, is presently engaged in maritime and underwater archaeology. Among its many projects is Operation Zembe, which searches for evidence of submerged, prehistoric habitation sites.

As I understand, you are responsible for the discovery of the oldest human artifacts ever uncovered from the oceanic floor. Could you share with our audience what you discovered in 1995, and what this has meant to you and your fellow researchers?

BW: Shortly after arriving in Cape Town, I was approached by some local sport divers who told me they had discovered two shipwrecks in Table Bay. As this find provided for an excellent opportunity to introduce a public education program, besides accumulating scientific data, we entered into an agreement to start a project on these wrecks. Research soon indicated that it concerned two Dutch East Indiamen — the Oosterland and the Waddinxveen — that had foundered during the same storm on May 24, 1697. This project, which took about six years, was successful as significant research data and many artifacts were secured.

While engaged in field work, I decided to record and study the general stratigraphy adjacent to the sites. To that purpose, equipment was brought in to remove the layers of deposits that had accumulated over the millennia. The first test hole was excavated close to the wreck of the Waddinxveen. The stratigraphic sequence at that location was clearly defined and showed different layers with varying percentages of boulders, cobbles, pebbles, and sand. At the bottom of this first hole — at a depth of about 3. 5 m (11 ft) below the seabed surface and immediately overlaying the bedrock of Malmesbury Group meta-sediments — a very distinct 0.30 m (1 ft) thick band of fine but compact red-brown sand appeared. I did not realize it at the time, but this layer turned out to be an old land surface going back hundreds of thousands of years. While digging deeper, the tip of what initially looked like an ordinary stone emerged. Moments later this stone was fully exposed and I recognized it for what it was: an Acheulean hand axe dating to between 250,000 to 1. 4/1. 5 million years ago. Two similar finds were made some time later on the adjacent wreck site of the Oosterland.

The significance of these finds is tremendous. They are the human oldest artifacts ever found underwater in the world. The previous oldest finds were located in the Mediterranean, but their age is “only” about 45,000 years; a significant difference. The finds from Table Bay provided the first evidence that physical traces of hominid activity in the distant past can survive under water, even in areas that have witnessed multiple transgressions and regressions — by the sea — due to glacial control. They have also opened the way for further studies of prehistoric migration patterns on what is now the continental shelf, which in turn could help explain the spread of humankind to other global regions. Furthermore, sampling and analyses of the layer, in which the first find was made, can result in knowledge of past climates and palaeo-environments. This is of immediate international relevance as it can contribute to increased knowledge regarding current issues of debate like global warming.

CapeHopePeninsulaMapThe discovery of the oldest artifacts ever found under the sea sparked tremendous international interest. Due to their scientific importance, a research project was conceived named Operation Zembe. (“Zembe” is the the word for “axe” in the Nguni languages of southern Africa.) Future expeditions will search parts of the seabed for further evidence of hominid presence on the current continental shelf.

JW: Dr. Werz, what makes the waters off of the Cape of Good Hope such a rich area of study for marine archaeologists? I would suspect long-distance trade and severe weather patterns have something to do with it!

BW: You are absolutely right, James.

Before the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, all European ships that plied the trade routes to the East had to pass the Cape of Good Hope. During the 17th and 18th centuries CE these included the thousands of ships that were operated by Portuguese traders, as well as the Dutch, English, French, Danish, and Swedish East India Companies. These were later followed by tall ships such as the tea clippers, traders with Australasia, and migrant and warships as part of colonization.

The Cape of Good Hope was not always a good place to be. Its alternative name, the “Cape of Storms,” indicates this. Due to unpredictable conditions at sea, many passing ships were caught off the Cape by adverse winds, treacherous cliffs, currents, and sometimes hurricane-like storms. As a result of this, a substantial number of vessels found an untimely end here. A study that I undertook for Table Bay has shown that a minimum of 360 recorded historic shipwrecks can be found in this relatively small area, whereas the estimated number for the whole of the South African coast is roughly around 3,000.

JW: AIMURE also oversees the Maritime Archaeological Project of Table Bay (MAP) and a survey of the Oranjemund shipwreck in Namibia, which is an excavation of sub-Saharan Africa’s oldest known shipwreck. What other projects is AIMURE going to undertake in the near future?

teapotsBW: Two projects are especially close to my heart and a lot of preparatory work has already been done for these. They concern the shipwreck and survival camp of the Dutch East India Company vessel the Haarlem, and the shipwrecks around the infamous Robben Island where Nelson Mandela was incarcerated for a number of years.

The Haarlem ran aground on March 25, 1647 somewhere near the east coast of Table Bay. The ship was on its way back to the Netherlands, in the company of two other vessels, and loaded with a rich cargo consisting of spices, textiles, and porcelain. Salvage work on the cargo started immediately, but it was soon clear that this would take awhile. For that reason, the two accompanying ships continued their journey. A group of 62 men from the Haarlem stayed behind and were finally rescued a year later. During this period, they built a survivor camp and continued the salvage of goods. They also came into contact with indigenous peoples. After an initial period of insecurity and apprehension, the Europeans and locals became quite friendly and visited each other, learning basic communication in two languages.

Upon their return, the commanding officer wrote a proposal to the Dutch East India Company to establish a much-needed refreshment station for ships at the Cape. This was accepted and in 1652 the station was established. This would later develop into the city of Cape Town (Kaapstad). For this reason, as well as the fact that this event marks the beginnings of a multicultural society in South Africa, the story of the Haarlem needs to be told. This will hopefully happen soon with the publication of my new book that is based on archival documents, which pertain to the incident. Archaeological field work aimed at locating the site of the survivor camp and the wreck of the Haarlem will hopefully be undertaken by the AIMURE in near future.

From 1991-1992, I guided a project named Operation Sea Eagle that was executed on the direct order of the South African National Cabinet. The reason for this was that Robben Island — at that time a high security prison very much like Alcatraz Island in the United States — was going to become a UNESCO World Heritage site. Assisted by the South African Navy, I undertook a large-scale survey of the shipwrecks surrounding the island to assess this national and international cultural site of importance. The project indicated that over the centuries at least 22 shipping incidents had occurred. In sum, a total of 15 shipwrecks were found and identified. Nevertheless, two further incidents that caused two vessels to be destroyed and deposited near the northwest shore of the island occurred in 1998 (after Operation Sea Eagle was completed).Cape_of_Good_Hope_(Zaian_2008)

Unfortunately, all wrecks have been affected severely over the years due to extreme natural conditions. Many have also been harmed because of the destructive actions of scrupulous treasure hunters and poachers. A restricted one mile zone around the island has not discouraged these people from entering and tampering illegally with these non-renewable cultural sites of international importance. Currently, AIMURE is advising the South African Police Services on ways to monitor and protect the Robben Island wrecks, and it is hoped that a project similar to Operation Sea Eagle can be undertaken by the AIMURE in future to collect more information.

JW: Marine archaeology is seen by some as being the “next” or “new” frontier in archaeology. Do you feel that this is an accurate statement?

BW: To some extent I can agree with this statement as field work is often undertaken underwater. This environment necessitates special skills from the excavator and requires specific equipment. In addition, work time on site is reduced and working depths are restricted due to physical and physiological constraints caused by working under pressure.

The underwater environment also contains sites that are rarely encountered on land, such as shipwrecks. Another important factor is that this environment often preserves archaeological material much better than on land. This is especially the case with organic materials. Some examples are the quantities of pepper, mace, and indigo that were found on the sites of the Oosterland and the Waddinxveen in Table Bay, or the remains of human tissue that were still present in a shoe and other finds that were excavated on the Mary Rose.

These aspects make maritime archaeology an exciting specialization of archaeology, but it should not be forgotten that the foundations for this field were already laid over 50 years ago. Another point I would like to stress is that although underwater field work is very different than terrestrial excavations, the underlying principles are exactly the same.

diversJW: Finally, I wanted to ask you what specific challenges do you face as a marine archaeologist? Can you elaborate for those of us who are relatively unfamiliar with the state of the field?

BW: I think that one of the greatest challenges is to change public perception. Many people, especially in Africa, still regard the sea as a last frontier where no laws exist. As a consequence of this attitude, some divers and others think they can do as they please. This attitude not only has a serious impact on the natural environment but also on underwater cultural resources. Many shipwrecks have been and still are pilfered and destroyed for personal financial gain without the slightest respect for their historic, scientific, or cultural significance.

Another problem is that many in Africa are unfamiliar with the sea and show no interest in things “maritime.” As most shipwrecks around Africa originate from elsewhere and especially Europe, research focusing on this is often tainted as “Eurocentric” or even worse. Few seem to realize that certain aspects of many modern African societies have their roots elsewhere, such as legal systems, health care, and education. Initially these could only be realized through international maritime traffic and exchange. Due to these prevailing points of view, support for maritime archaeological research is extremely limited. This is very frustrating as this specialization can make a valid contribution to the history of this spectacular and very special continent.

JW: Thank you so much for introducing us to AIMURE and its exciting endeavors. We wish you many happy adventures in research!

BW: Thank you, James! I hope to be able to report back to you and the readers in due time on other exciting projects. Please, do not forget that the African Institute for Marine and Underwater Research, Exploration and Education (AIMURE) hopes to welcome you and any other interested volunteer on one of its expeditions in future. We invite the public to follow our activities.


Image Key:

  1. A diver recording part of the remaining hull structure of the Oosterland (1697) in Table Bay off the coast of Cape Town, South Africa. Photo courtesy of Dr. Bruno Werz and AIMURE.
  2. Chinese blue-and-white export porcelain from the Kangxi period (1662-1722) excavated from the Oosterland wreck site. Photo courtesy of Dr. Bruno Werz  and AIMURE.
  3. A map showing the Cape Peninsula in South Africa, showing the locations of the Cape of Good Hope, Cape Town, and Cape Point. This is a file from the Wikimedia Commons. It is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. Image credit: Johantheghost, February 2006.
  4. Three Chinese Yixing stone ware teapots excavated from the wreck of the Oosterland. Courtesy of Dr. Bruno Werz and AIMURE.
  5. View of Cape of Good Hope from Cape Point, South Africa. This is a file from the Wikimedia Commons. It was released this into the public domain. Image credit: Zaian, April 2009.
  6. The interviewee (right) and another diver with some Japanese copper finger ingots from the wreck of the Waddinxveen (1697). Photo courtesy of Dr. Bruno Werz and AIMURE.


  • G.F. Bass. (ed.). A History of Seafaring based on Underwater Archaeology. Thames & Hudson Ltd., London 1972.
  • M. Rule. The Mary Rose. The Excavation and Raising of Henry VIII’s Flagship. Conway Maritime Press Ltd., London 1990.
  • B.E.J.S. Werz. Diving Up the Human Past. Perspectives of Maritime Archaeology, with specific reference to developments in South Africa until 1996. British Archaeological Reports (BAR) International Series 749, Oxford 1999.
  • B.E.J.S. Werz, The Shipwrecks of the ‘Oosterland’ and ‘Waddinxveen’. 1697, Table Bay. Zulu Planet Publishers, Johannesburg 2009.
  • B.E.J.S. Werz, The Origin of Cape Town. 17th century accounts of the wrecking of the ship Haarlem and the dawn of the Tavern of the Seas. [in press].
  • B.E.J.S. Werz & N.C.Flemming, ‘Discovery in Table Bay of the oldest hand axes yet found underwater demonstrates preservation of hominid artefacts on the continental shelf’ in: South African Journal of Science 97, 5.


brunowerzDr. Bruno Werz was born in the Netherlands and joined the Underwater Reconnaissance and Diving Unit of the Royal Dutch Army after obtaining a doctoral degree in history. This was followed by a DLitt. in maritime archaeology. In 1988, he moved to South Africa and became a Senior Lecturer at the University of Cape Town, bringing the field of maritime archaeology to South Africa. He has undertaken numerous projects, including the excavation of sub-Saharan Africa’s oldest shipwreck. He was elected a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London in recognition of his services to archaeology. Presently, he is the Chief Executive Officer of the African Institute for Marine and Underwater Research, Exploration and Education (AIMURE).

James Blake Wiener is the Communications Director of the Ancient History Encyclopedia, providing a continuous listing of must-read articles, exciting museum exhibitions, and interviews with experts in the field. Trained as a historian and researcher and previously a professor of history, James is also a freelance writer who is keenly interested in cross-cultural exchange. Committed to fostering increased awareness of the ancient world, James welcomes you to the Ancient History Encyclopedia and hopes that you find his news releases and interviews to be “illuminating.”

All images featured in this interview have been properly attributed to their respective owners. Unauthorized reproduction of text and images is prohibited. Ms. Karen Barrett-Wilt is to be thanked for her assistance in the editorial process. The views presented here are not necessarily those of the Ancient History Encyclopedia. All rights reserved. © AHE 2013. Please contact us for rights to republication.

Filed under: Interviews


James Blake Wiener is the Communications Director at Ancient History Encyclopedia. Trained as a historian and researcher, and previously a professor, James is chiefly interested in cross-cultural exchange, world history, and international relations. Aside from his work at AHE, James is an avid Arabist, devotee of romance languages (French, Portuguese, and Spanish), reggaetoñero, and fan of ice hockey.