Museum receives prehistoric stone handaxes

Iziko Museums CEO Rooksana Omar with Dr Bruno Werz at the opening of the exhibition, Digging Deep – uncovering underwater handaxes in Table Bay.

In February 1995, underwater archaeologist Dr Bruno Werz and a few divers were investigating “some unusual deposits” during a maritime excavation of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) shipwrecks, the Oosterland and the Waddinxveen in Table Bay when they discovered some prehistoric stone tools.

Called handaxes, the tools had been held in place for hundreds of thousands of years and turned out to be the world’s oldest artefacts ever to be found underwater at the time.

The three handaxes were handed over to the South African Iziko Museum on Friday February 18 to form part of its collection.

An pop-up exhibition, called Digging Deep – uncovering underwater handaxes in Table Bay, has been launched in partnership with the African Institute for Marine and Underwater Research, Exploration and Education (AIMURE).

The handaxes will be on display as part of a pop-up exhibition.

Handaxes were developed about 1.76 million years ago by homonins, the extinct species ancestoral to humans.

Speaking at the launch event, Iziko Museums CEO Rooksana Omar said the museum was honoured to accept the donation of the handaxes from Dr Werz.

She said with the museum having so many treasured objects, it celebrates archaeologists’ explorations found in rocks, mountains, caves, and the rare finds underwater.

She said it told a story of people who roamed the land 100s of years ago.

“We hope this exhibition takes visitors on a journey of discovery.

“These handaxes changed the way scientists saw our past.”

Dr Werz, who has been excavating shipwrecks for a little over 40 years, said it was pure co-incidence that the handaxes were discovered.

Speaking to the CapeTowner, he said he was digging a hole in the seabed at the bottom of Table Bay. “I wanted to study the geology and the environment of the shipwreck, so I looked at the strata and rocks in the seabed. As an archaeologist, you look for all of these.”

Pictures of Dr Bruno Werz documenting his findings in 1995.
Pictures of Dr Bruno Werz documenting his excavations at Table Bay.

While digging a hole in the seabed, he discovered a layer of reddish-brown rocks and at the time he didn’t realise that this was previously a land surface – rock minerals rust and turn red when it comes into contact with air.

And buried in these rocks were the handaxes, that he recognised immediately, however, he didn’t realise that his discovery would be of global significance.

Made from Table Mountain sandstone, it is estimated that these local handaxes were made from 1.7 million to 300 000 years ago.

Dr Werz said these handaxes were created by hitting a suitable stone with a hammerstone; the resulting flake that broke off had a natural sharp edge for cutting and could be sharpened further by striking other smaller flakes from the edge.

These handaxes would have been used as a multi-tool by those living along the shoreline to dig up roots and tubers, butcher carcasses, chop wood, and break open bones to access the nutritious marrow inside.

These artefacts provide evidence that hominins occupied ancient environments, or paleo-landscapes, that are currently covered by water due to rising sea levels and changing shorelines over time.

They are also proof that artefacts left behind many thousands of years ago can survive repeated sea level changes, caused by shifts in global temperatures.

The discovery in Table Bay changed the perceptions of prehistorians internationally and inspired further finds all over the world.

Dr Werz, who is from the Netherlands, moved to Cape Town in the late 1980s to take up a lecturing post at the University of Cape Town.

He said when he was busy with his PhD, his father asked when he knew he wanted to be a marine archeologist, to which he replied “When I was 10 or 11 years old”.

His father then took out pictures of a 4 or 5 year old Dr Werz “excavating” in the bathtub. “I remember I used to look through plastic boxes in the bathtub, and use household items for flippers to put on my feet. It clearly has always been a passion.”

His interest in archaeology probably came from his father, he said, who is also an archaeologist.

He said his first dive with compressed air was in a muddy sandpit in the Netherlands. “It’s the liberating feeling you get when you realise you can breathe underwater and you can float freely…it’s amazing.”

He said his first excavation project was in England, when he volunteered for a project on a Swedish warship just after matric in 1981. “The ship we worked on was well-preserved, and the whole ship was brought to the surface along with thousands of artefacts we excavated. The warship is being preserved in a museum in Stockholm.”

Dr Werz, a Muizenberg resident, who is also a trained commercial diver, said after all these years, the feeling of awe never goes away.

As for discovering the oldest handaxes in the world, Dr Werz said: “It’s one of the perks of the job to make a discovery like that. You can’t describe this feeling. This is great because I get to make a contribution to society and to human kind.”

Digging Deep – uncovering underwater handaxes in Table Bay will be on show at the Iziko South African Museum, Queen Victoria Street, Cape Town, until Thursday August 18. The museum is open daily from 9.30am to 3.30pm.

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