Why old piles of rocks are the next big thing on SA’s heritage trail
SA's mysterious fish traps are finally getting the recognition they deserve
For some they are piles of underwater rocks, home to sea urchins and starfish. For archaeologists they are the building blocks of history – some of the country’s oldest and most enduring maritime heritage.
Now SA’s mysterious fish traps are finally getting the recognition they deserve with the formal declaration of the first fish trap national heritage site in 2018, and more likely to follow.
Countrywide research into fish trap sites is under way involving the South African Heritage Resources Agency and the University of Cape Town.
The use of low stone walls to trap fish in the intertidal zone is of disputed antiquity. Some experts believe them to be under 2,000 years old; others point out their proximity to excavation sites at Blombos and Pinnacle Point, considered by some to be the birthplace of behaviourally modern humans dating back 70,000 years.
Incredibly, some of the traps (visvywers in Afrikaans) are still in use and are therefore regularly maintained. Others have been abandoned, giving rise to a heritage conundrum: if the traps are left alone they are pounded into oblivion by the dynamic environment; but constant repair of the traps by conservationists could compromise their authenticity if not done correctly.
“We simply do not know how far back they go,” said Jean du Plessis, conservation manager for CapeNature’s Stilbaai marine protected area.
“We know the technology of fish traps goes back thousands of years – that has not been disputed.”
Written records of the Stilbaai traps date back to 1800s, hence the site’s eligibility for national heritage status. However, precise dating is much more difficult in the sea than on land.
In the case of the newly declared Stilbaai traps there is evidence suggesting some were built by farmers and farm workers. Or were they simply repairing traps that had been there all along?
“We know that people have been here since the beginning of people,” Du Plessis said. “I’m pretty sure there would have been traps here in some form or another, maybe just on a smaller scale.”
Archaeological studies of shell middens along the coast have found little evidence of the concentration of fish bones scientists would expect to find if traps had been in use. However, the evidence is inconclusive.
Protection for the Stilbaai site marks a 180-degree turnaround compared with the disdain for indigenous heritage shown during the apartheid era.
One site, the continent’s southernmost fish trap at Cape Agulhas, was dynamited to make way for a tidal pool, prompting criticism from a Khoisan community leader.
By contrast, colonial-era shipwreck sites have dominated maritime heritage studies for generations.
A form of heritage redress is now under way in the form of a heritage agency fish trap oral history initiative that could help devise a conservation management plan for the Stilbaai site.
Lesa la Grange, acting head of the agency’s maritime and underwater cultural heritage unit, said an aerial survey had provided a starting point for the fish trap survey of the entire coast. Other known sites include Arniston and Witsand.
“The first step is to do oral histories and interview some people in the community and find out what they know,” said La Grange.
“If you know which one is the oldest then we can try and use that as a method of relative dating.
“The interesting thing was when we looked at the 1996 surveyor-general diagram of the Stilbaai site, a lot of the traps had names, such as ‘Roodt se Vywer’, which indicated some kind of ownership or use. There was also one called ‘Alleroudste’, which excited me quite a lot.”
Shipwrecks also remain a priority research area, and the heritage agency is collaborating with the Dutch government on an oral history project of salvaged Dutch shipwrecks along the coast, assisted by historical records kept by Dutch administrators based in Cape Town when the city was a small trading station for the Dutch East India Company.
La Grange said at least 37 nationalities were represented in SA’s coastal wrecks, hence international interest in the country’s maritime archaeology.
Currently, the heritage agency has issued only one excavation permit, for the São José slave ship near Clifton. A test excavation permit has been issued for the search for the wreck of the Nieuwe Haerlem which sank in Table Bay in 1647.
La Grange said shipwrecks transcended definitions of colonial or indigenous heritage. “There are examples of contact sites where hunter-gatherers painted pictures of ships – we have some beautiful rock paintings,” she said.
“It is easy for wrecks to be viewed negatively, but it is not all about the legacy of something unpleasant.”