The Oranjemund Shipwreck

On April 1, 2008, Tate Kapaandu Shitaka, an excavator operator, inadvertently uncovered two metal tubes, later identified as bronze breech-loading cannons, along with other unexpected artifacts to include copper ingots, elephants tusks, gold coins and lengths of timber, suggesting the remains of a shipwreck. Shitaka was not an archaeologist; he was in fact part of a mining operation in Namibia, on the south west coast of Africa; and he was looking for diamonds.

Shitaka reported his find to the managers of Mining Area 1, operated by NAMDEB, a joint venture between the Namibian Government and the DeBeers diamond syndicate, located in a coastal area some 12 miles north of Oranjemund, a small town devoted primarily to the recovery of diamonds. The area is a maximum security zone with strict limitations for access and circulation within, a surveillance system to include video monitors and x-ray body scanners, systematic individual inspection entering and exiting the zone, and no outside contact whatsoever -- the purpose being to prevent any theft and illegal trafficking of raw diamonds.

The mining system is itself unique. The site is directly on the Atlantic coast and so, in order to excavate, large sand seawalls are constructed to prevent the entry of wave and water and to create a series of enclosed basins from which the residual sea water is pumped 24 hours a day to reveal a sediment layer that is then vacuum sucked, crushed, and screened to recover what in 2009 amounted to some 10 million carats of diamonds. Abandoned, mined out, these dry basins are immediately inundated by the sea.

All work stopped on that day in 2008. What was at first a short-term salvage operation became suddenly under Namibian law an archaeological excavation with the site designated by government to be managed and protected as part of national heritage. There was widespread international media coverage; professional archaeologists from Namibia, South Africa, and eventually Portugal were engaged to continue an investigation that in the first phase alone recovered more than 2100 gold and silver coins, 20 tons of copper ingots, more cannons, additional weapons, three early astrolabes and other navigational equipment, as well as medical instruments, tableware, and cooking utensils - in sum, a spectacular collection of cultural memory from a moment in time suddenly recovered from the sea.

The ship was identified as a Portuguese nau, a type of trading vessel dating from the 16th century. The earliest date on the coins was from 1545. Some of the copper ingots were inscribed with the Fugger family crest, a prominent family from Augsburg, Germany, who were invested in the Portuguese shipping trade. Suffice it to say that the ship became an extremely important cultural discovery for Namibia, Portugal, and the rest of the world. In 2011, Francisco J.S. Alves, professor of archaeology and history at the University of Lisbon, released a comprehensive report of the excavation, its contents, and its findings.

What has followed represents the now predictable process and ensuing conflict of interests that characterize most such discoveries. Perceived by the media as "treasure," the artifacts assume a notoriety measured by market value; governments become seduced by the prospect of sale; national and proprietary interests arise; and archaeologists debate recovery methods, conservation requirements, and publication credits. From the discovery of the Spanish galleon Atocha in the Florida Keys to the discovery of the Titanic in the North Atlantic to the recent multi-million dollar discovery of the Beitung wreck near Singapore, these projects invariably make bold headlines and generate heated debate. For an excellent and entertaining survey of many of these projects, I recommend William J. Broad's The Universe Below: Discovering the Secrets of the Deep Sea.

These finds embody mystery and attraction. First, they are liberated from an unexpected, forgotten place - far away, in a restricted diamond mine, a mile deep underwater, with international controversy, the glitter of gold and silver, the public accusations and intimated questionable practice; second, they contain revelatory historical information and cultural meaning; and third, they are a focus for the full spectrum of human emotions from personal greed to community idealism, from secrecy to celebration. My personal view is that these finds belong not to the treasure hunters and salvers but to the people of the nations where they are found. The mystery and attraction and information and meaning belongs to them, and to all of us. Not everyone agrees.

Recently, at an international maritime museum congress in Lisbon, I met Nzilia Marina Mubusisi from the National Museum of Namibia and Angel Tordesillas from a new maritime museum in Namibia, to be built near the Oranjemund site. These two young professionals were there to learn and exchange ideas about how to conserve and display their national treasures and I found gratifying and delightful their knowledge, enthusiasm, and determination to share the exceptional history accidentally uncovered by Tate Kapaandu Shitaka -- in amongst the diamonds -- with their countrymen and the world.