New book digs up old graves

A new book tells the hidden history of graves underneath Green Point.

When you walk along Somerset Road in Green Point, it’s very easy to get distracted by the hustle and bustle.

There are the usual coffee shops, restaurants, boutique stores, various businesses and schools. But what many visitors and even residents might not know about is what lies beneath the surface – unmarked graves.

This is all revealed in a new book, titled Grave Encounters, about the history of the area.

One of the books co-authors is Green Point resident Antonia Malan, who said she felt the book, which took four years to complete, was of significance to a hidden history.

“Several old church cemeteries along Somerset Road, Green Point, were deconsecrated and exhumed at the end of the 19th century, but unmarked graves and burial grounds were not. Human remains are still being found beneath buildings and pavements. When discovered, archaeologists are called in to remove them, among them the Archaeology Contracts Office (ACO).”

Ms Malan added: “We also try to find out how and when the people were buried in that place, and who they could be. The official reports end up on a shelf – a real waste of time, effort and resources

“We applied for Lotto funds to pull all the information together and to make it freely available. Then we realised that we should write a background story, introducing the research material and describing our personal involvement.”

She said research on the matter had been ongoing since the 1990s and most information comes from reports to the authorities.

“As a historical archaeologist and heritage consultant, I have done archival and historical research in the area for various projects.”

Ms Malan said the Somerset Road precinct used to be known as District One. “It has as powerful and emotive a history of community life and dispossession as District Six. For instance, city-wide anger and objections to the disturbance and removal of burials erupted at a site in Prestwich Street in 2004. The district has been gentrified: traces of gallows, cemeteries, prisons, hospital for paupers, tenements, migrant labour and the bustling commercial and red-light district of the port are gone. We join the call to reclaim and mark our city’s layered history.”

She said responses from readers since the book was released earlier this year had been positive. “They didn’t know this stuff. The book has several facets: historical, socio-political, anthropological, graphic. It is not the sort of book you sit down and read from cover to cover – unless maybe you are a historical archaeologist.”

She said that putting the book together with her co-authors was a team effort. “The finished product would not have been of such high quality without professional design by Neil Rusch and editing by Catherine Damerell,” she said.

Ms Malan added that she was currently working on a book about the people and places in Piketberg based on oral history, archival and architectural research – a very particular landscape and farming way of life that lasted from the 1780s to 1980s.

She said she would also would like to write about Paradise, the old woodcutter’s post in Newlands Forest where Lady Anne Barnard spent a few months. “That story spans earliest colonial times to the early 19th century, and marks the birth of historical archaeology at UCT in the 1980s.”

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