The Past Beneath your Feet - Archaeology in Cape Town’s Golden Acre Shopping Centre

  • Posted: Sep 15, 2012

Image Caption: Figure 1: c. 1663 reservoir built by the 2nd governor of the Cape, Zacharias Wagenaar (1662-1666).

The Golden Acre is one of the few places in urban South Africa where the past so publicly meets the present in the form of the Wagenaar’s Reservoir display (Figure 1). Construction began on 6th August 1663 on the orders of Zacharias Wagenaar, the 2nd Governor of the Cape (1662-1666) to supply European ships with fresh water. Previously, Jan van Riebeeck had had a temporary dam built. Wagenaar’s reservoir was built next to the ‘Fort of the Good Hope’ and close to the shoreline –where Strand Street is today. It was about 45 metres long, 15 metres wide and held over 1 million litres of water. In 1671 W Mostert built a channel from the reservoir to the harbour. Today only a small part of the reservoir remains but you can see part of the brick channel built to drain the reservoir after its sluice collapsed in the 1710 and it became useless, covered by earth and forgotten.

But, in 1975, when work on the Golden Acre began, traces of old brick were uncovered. Archaeologists from South African Museum (now Iziko) were called in. Led by Graham Avery, their research proved this was the long-lost Wagenaar’s Reservoir – one of southern Africa’s oldest European structures. A lot of work and over R1.5 million was expended on ensuring this landmark was researched, preserved, and displayed. Other artefacts such as clay pipes, domestic refuse, porcelain – and even stone tools from South Africa’s indigenous people were found. These artefacts are evidence of the long history of Cape Town, during all of which water was key. The Versche River that flows off Table Mountain sustained San communities, domestic animals of Khoekhoe herder and once watered the Dutch East India Company’s gardens. It still flows underground. In an age of global warming, managing water is vital, and this reservoir can provide us with some lessons from the past.

Iziko, in partnership with Growth Point, who manage the Golden Acre, are planning a two-part revitalisation of this unique archaeological display. The first part will take place, appropriately, during heritage week where Iziko’s archaeologists will clean the reservoir and Growth Point will replace the lighting. The second part will be to update information and display more artefacts from the 1975 excavation. Ideally, this will take place next year to mark the reservoir’s 350th anniversary. The public is welcome to view the archaeologists at work 25-28 September and ask them questions.

Jaco Boshoff and Sven Ouzman
Archaeology, Social History Department, Iziko Museums of South Africa &

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