Identifying the dead : eighteenth century mortuary practices at Cobern Street, Cape Town

Master Thesis


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University of Cape Town

A unique opportunity to study historic burial practices in Cape Town arose in 1994 when construction activities at Cobern Street, Green Point revealed an eighteenth century burial ground. Subsequent salvage excavations unearthed approximately 65 burials and scattered skeletal material (both historical and precolonial) representing a total of 121 individuals. A variety of cultural material was found with the burials. The following is a summary of the excavation activities, and a detailed description of the burial patterns and grave goods unearthed at the site. An attempt is made to construct a cultural identity for the Cobern Street burials, and to determine what, if anything, burial practices have to contribute to our understanding of eighteenth century colonial society. The burial patterns were divided into four analytical categories, covering a spectrum ranging from the Later Stone Age to the end of the eighteenth century. The artefacts are divided into six groups; Later Stone Age artefacts, coffin hardware, burial items, clothing accessories, personal items (excluding clothing residues), and intrusive items. Burial items and artefacts are considered against the spatial layout of the site to determine that Cobern Street was used as used as an informal cemetery by lower class members of Colonial Cape society, primarily during the eighteenth century.

Summary in English.