FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS

Where is Green Point, Cape Town?

Cape Town was established in 1652 by the Dutch East India Company (VOC) on the southernmost tip of Africa to service its fleets trading between Europe and the East Indies. Before that, indigenous people enjoyed the natural wild resources and later grazed their domestic livestock in this magnificent setting for millennia. The district of Green Point is located at the north-western corner of today’s central city area. It extends from Buitengracht Street to Three Anchor Bay, and flanks Somerset Road as it wraps around the base of Signal Hill. To the seaward side, the old shoreline, harbour precinct and new developments on landfill are incorporated within the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront.

Why are there burials in Green Point?

In the 18th century, this area lay along the shore on the outskirts of the settlement. The old dunes of that area provided soft sandy topsoil deep enough to easily dig burial shafts. Formal cemeteries were laid out for the burial of Dutch East India Company militia in about 1720 and then for members of the Dutch Reformed Church in 1755. Allotments of land to other religious denominations followed in the 19th century. For various reasons, as they did not qualify for burial in the formal cemeteries, the graves of many other people, such as slaves, hospital patients, criminals, paupers, migrant dockworkers and the unidentified casualties of shipwrecks were found outside the established graveyards.

Who was buried in Green Point?

Indigenous people (Khoe-San) had been buried in the soft dunes for a thousand years or more before the arrival of the Dutch. The Dutch East India Company established a military cemetery for people in its service. Members of religious institutions such as the Dutch Reformed Church, Anglicans, Catholics, Missions, Scottish Presbyterians, Lutherans, etc. were buried in consecrated cemeteries along Somerset Road. The Muslim community was granted land on Boundary Road and above the Bo-Kaap. 

As far as we know, a wide range of people were buried outside the walls of formal cemeteries in Green Point. Mass deaths from infectious disease occurred throughout the 18th and 19th centuries and corpses were buried anywhere and in haste. 

As many of Cape Town’s inhabitants were poor or separated from their families, on their deaths, these folk would be buried in paupers’ cemeteries. ‘Native’ dockworkers, ‘Chinese’ and slaves were among those recorded to have been buried in such graveyards. 

Cape Town was a hospital station for passing ships, and crews and passengers of all ranks and from many parts of the world were brought ashore to survive or die. Known as the ‘Cape of Storms’ there were several shipwrecks with loss of lives in Table Bay. Executed criminals and suicides were usually buried outside cemeteries.

How old are these burials?

The first formal burial ground was established in Green Point by 1720 and burials continued until the expansion of the town and the conditions of the cemeteries forced the authorities to order in 1886 that all burials were to cease. 

Although a few skeletons from Green Point have been scientifically dated, we rely on archival documentation and on relative dating based on associated of artefacts found with the skeletons to infer when the person was buried. For example, if a coin is found with a burial, we can say that the person was buried after the date that the coin was minted. If there are a range of associated artefacts with known ages, one can narrow down the time period.

Where are the skeletons from Green Point?

A condition of receiving a permit to disturb / exhume burials (be they in Green Point or elsewhere) is agreement on a place where the remains will be stored or on the site in which they are to be reburied. In the case of Green Point, some remains are kept at the University of Cape Town and while the majority are at a specially constructed ossuary known as the Prestwich Memorial, at the corner of Buitengracht and Somerset Roads. This was named after Prestwich Street where an extensive area of the informal burial ground was unearthed during construction in 2003.

what is the ossuary?

The Ossuary is a part of the Prestwich Memorial, constructed by the City of Cape Town to house historical human remains from the Prestwich Street site and any others discovered subsequently in Green Point. 

The Memorial was built in front of St Andrews Church on land that was once part of the Dutch Reformed Cemetery before Buitengracht Street and Somerset Road were reconfigured in the 20th century. After much debate, the Minister of Arts & Culture decided that a suitable memorial park or garden should be established in the Green Point area where the remains could be interred and which would become the focal point for the community’s memory and acknowledgment of the past history. It was designed by the architect Lucien le Grange and was largely funded by the developer of the Prestwich Street site.

was anything found with the bones?

Most burials have nothing associated with them. A few however did have associated material. A number of coins were found, and some had been placed to cover the eyes of the deceased. We found buttons which had been part of clothing or bundled in cloth, and beads which could have been adornments or sewn onto garments. Other finds were clay tobacco pipe stems, metal rings, remains of fabric, sea shells, etc. 

Other artefacts relate to the manner in which people were buried: shroud pins, coffin nails and wooden coffin fragments, stone headrests.

Where are the grave stones?

When the church cemeteries were exhumed to enable redevelopment in the early 20th century, some of the grave stones and inscriptions were taken to the newly established cemetery in the suburb of Maitland. Some with special significance went to the Cultural History Museum. Many were broken up and carted off as rubble. 

The informal burials, outside the formal cemeteries, were either unmarked or perhaps marked with impermanent materials such as wooden crosses, rattan frames, stone cairns, maybe some shells from the beach. On contemporary maps, there is some indication of grave markers, but the detail is not sufficient to see what exact form these took.

Are any Artefacts on display?

The artefacts themselves are not on display although photographs of some of them can be seen on the exhibition panels in the Ossuary, and photographs are included in the book Grave Encounters.

has any research been done on the skeletons?

The human remains excavated at the Cobern Street site in 1994 were analysed by Dr Alan Morris and his students at the Division of Clinical Anatomy and Biological Anthropology in the Department of Human Biology at the University of Cape Town. 

The skeletons of Prestwich Street were excavated after new heritage legislation was promulgated and the required public consultation rejected further forensic and other scientific research of the remains. A moratorium on such studies remains in place today. The only biological/anatomical information we have is the non-invasive anatomical observations noted during the excavation and recorded on site record forms.

has any research been done on the artefacts?

Artefacts have been conserved to prevent deterioration and have been partially analysed. We invite other researchers to contribute their knowledge to the ongoing identification and analysis of the material.

How do I find out if any of my ancestors were buried here?

As far as we know, there are no written records of the names of those buried in these informal burial grounds, only anecdotal remarks (e.g. Robert Jacob Gordon killed himself and was buried “at Somerset Road”). 

 Because of the decision that no further research can be done on the human remains excavated at Prestwich Street, DNA analysis is not possible.

Why were the skeletons exhumed and not left in place?

At the start of the public participation process for Prestwich Street, loud calls were made to stop exhumation and leave the human remains in place. This contradicted the developer’s right to develop the site which he had obtained by going through all the required processes. A robust debate took place, an appeals process went to and fro, and the excavation was suspended and re-started on several occasions. The matter was eventually decided by a ministerial decision confirming that exhumation should proceed, based on ‘the need to balance the social, economic and scientific values of the find’.

why do you not show pictures of the skeletons?

Public consultation during the excavation and appeals processes in 2004 have highlighted the sensitivities around excavating and ‘displaying’ human remains. More recent consultation indicates that these sensitivities haven’t changed. Therefore, we made the decision not to show any images of human remains from excavations in Green Point.

my family has a story about this area. How do i get in touch?

We would like to hear and record people’s memories, stories and family information related to the area. We are particularly interested in old photographs and/or maps. You can call us, or send an email or fax.We would like to hear and record people’s memories, stories and family information related to the area. We are particularly interested in old photographs and/or maps. You can call us, or send an email or fax.

has anything like this been found elsewhere in the world?

Even though the informal burial ground in Green Point contained people other than just slaves, it is often referred to as the Slave Burial Ground. Other slave burial grounds have been discovered in New York, USA (1991), on St Helena Island and on plantations. 

For example, African Burial Ground, New York, USA: https://www.nps.gov/afbg/index.htm. 

Saint Helena Island: http://sainthelenaisland.info/slaves.htm#theslavegraves. 

Paupers’ Burial Grounds and mass burials from infectious disease are sometimes found associated with old cities. During tunnelling for the new Elizabeth Line in London (the Crossrail Project), archaeologists excavated the graveyard of the Bedlam (a notorious insane asylum) and victims of the Black Death. One of the core objectives of the Crossrail archaeology programme is the dissemination of archaeological information to the wider archaeological community, together with a focused education and outreach programme for local communities: http://www.crossrail.co.uk/sustainability/archaeology/.

what to do if human remains are found in and around cape town?

At least one or two human skeletons are discovered every month in Cape Town. The contractors or landowners usually notify the South African Police Service, who attempt to determine how recent the remains are and whether or not any foul play was involved. If a skeleton is likely to be older than 60 years, the provincial heritage resource agency (Heritage Western Cape) is contacted, and a stop work order is put in place, which means that no construction can continue until the site has been evaluated by a professional archaeologist. 

A permit is required to disturb or remove human remains in terms of section 36 of the National Heritage Resources Act of 1999. Permits are given to suitably qualified persons for the excavation of disturbed burials or burials threatened by development. In these instances the stipulations of the Act and the Regulations apply, especially the regulations regarding consultation with the family or community about exhumation and, where appropriate, reburial.

how can i get in touch with the excavating team?

You can contact ACO Associates cc by phone on 021 706 4104, by email on admin@aco-associates.com, or by fax on 086 603 7195.

How can i get in touch with the heritage authorities?

City of Cape Town – Heritage Resources Management – Tel: 021 487 2284 – email: heritage@capetown.gov.za 

Heritage Western Cape - Tel: 021 483 5959 - email: hwc.hwc@westerncape.gov.za 

South African Heritage Resources Agency – Burial Site Unit - Tel: 012 320 8490 or 012 941 4960 - Fax: 012 320 8486.

can I help excavate?

The excavations at Green Point have been concluded and the artefacts have been cleaned and put away in storage.