Imvubu Newsletter

'A Farewell to Arms'*: Unearthing 'Buried Treasure'.

© Victor, S. 2010. Imvubu 22: 4, 2 – 3. A revised and more detailed edition of the article was subsequently published under the same title in SAMAB, 33: 86 – 91.

In November 2009 construction workers stumbled upon a large amount of historic weapons while digging foundation trenches for new classrooms at Lovedale Public F.E.T. College in King William’s Town. The College halted construction in accordance with the National Heritage Resources Act (1999). The area was cordoned off and police from the Eastern Cape explosives unit were sent to investigate whether there was any live ammunition present in the cache. The local and national media quickly caught wind of the story and it was widely reported.

The aim of this paper is to provide a summary of the events, both recent and historical, connected to the above find and then to comment on the role played by Lovedale College (the developer), members of the public, the media, SAHRA and the heritage authorities, the archaeologists and, of course, the museum.

Historical Background

In essence, the site now partially occupied by Lovedale College traces its origins to 1847 when Sir Harry Smith, Governor of the Cape Colony, established King William’s Town as the administrative and military capital of British Kaffraria. Smith immediately gave orders for the construction of an extensive complex of military buildings in a specially demarcated area known as the Military Reserve.

Several imperial and colonial units were stationed there from 1847 to 1913. During the wars of Mlanjeni (1850-53), Ngcayechibi (1877-78), the Morosi campaign (1879) and the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902), the area was the scene of considerable activity. One of the Union Defence Force’s senior units, the Cape Mounted Riflemen (CMR), subsequently named the South African Mounted Riflemen, had its headquarters in King for a considerable period. When the CMR was disbanded in 1913 the Military Reserve was abandoned.

In 1925 Excelsior School took over part of the Military Reserve and in the process, a large number of barracks, stores and other military buildings were demolished. The demolition process continued well into the 1980’s when only a few military buildings were left. As a result, a mixture of old and new structures existed within the grounds of Excelsior School and it became difficult to get a sense of the Military Reserve as a whole, the area being broken up by a National road and with the buildings now owned by various government and non-governmental departments including the school (subsequently the college), the Public Works, the Prisons Department and SAHRA itself.

The three Provincial heritage sites which do exist on the premises of Lovedale College can therefore only be seen as ‘symbolic of the Military Reserve’, and it can be argued that there has been little public acknowledgement of the site’s military past. You might well ask why this is important. The answer is simple. The Military Reserve is the largest complex of military buildings in the Eastern Cape.

The Reserve has a troubled preservation record. Several military objects have been unearthed on the site over the years. In 1986 and 1997, for example, the Amathole Museum was involved in the excavation of historic weapons and ammunition at Lovedale College. The 1997 excavation took place right next to the present find. In addition, many illegal finds in the vicinity of the Military Reserve have been rumoured to have occurred in the past adding to the area’s chequered preservation record. This highlights the lack of action on the part of heritage authorities, stretching back many years, in establishing a policy in regard to the site as a whole.

Dating of the Find and Identification of Firearms

Preliminary research indicates that when the Military Reserve was abandoned in 1913 a large amount of obsolete military ordinance was purposely destroyed. The archaeological record suggests such an interpretation and the disposal of the weapons is estimated to have taken place between the end of the Anglo-Boer War (1902) and the commencement of the First World War (1914). The estimation is based on the presence of .303 rounds in the find, which are of Anglo-Boer War provenance. The rounds present the most recent elements identified in the cache. However, further historical research is required to establish the exact date of their disposal.

Major Tony Step, of the Buffalo Volunteers, kindly assisted the museum with the identification of the firearms. Contrary to a front-page article in the Daily Dispatch that proclaimed the find to be ‘Anglo-Boer War weapons’, Step’s findings were that the cache is important because it is inclusive of virtually all the firearms issued to the British army from 1760 to 1902.

Response from the Media and the Public

The local media, in particular the Daily Dispatch, reported on the find. It published a front-page article as well as a follow-up report on the cache.[1] In addition, a Dispatch intern featured a rather historically inaccurate video[2] on the newspaper’s website, in which the campus manager and particularly the site manager attempted to sketch the historical significance of the find. That occurred in spite of the museum forwarding a news release to the reporter. The factually incorrect front-page header, ‘Huge Boer war weapons found’, in particular received widespread response.

Several members of the public phoned the museum to respond to the Anglo-Boer War claim, but many more phoned to enquire what it was they had to do to get their hands on some of the ‘buried treasure’, mainly because it was felt that it would make an excellent addition to their pub memorabilia.

On a more serious note, the Daily Dispatch blog[3] highlighted some of the strong feelings the public had to the find. Some respondents reported on various illegal caches found in King William’s Town in the past. But the mere mention of the Anglo-Boer War also resulted in several angry responses. Not even a comment from ‘plastikbayethe’, a museum colleague’s pseudonym, pointing out that the rifles pictured in the article are of frontier war provenance used by, inter alia, Mfengu and colonial units could divert bloggers from raging on about the effects of imperialism and colonialism. As one blogger exclaimed, ‘you guys can get your knickers in a knot over a coupla kilos of rusted metal.’ However, the above example illustrates a very important point, i.e. that the site is quite sensitive and the public’s response to it was accordingly very emotive and even personal.

In a follow-up article on 25 January 2010[4] the Dispatch again included several historical inaccuracies about the find,[5] but it stated the case for the proper excavation, recording and commemoration of the find and the Military Reserve as a whole. In addition, it also reported that the halting of construction on the planned classrooms was costing the college money, students and in the foreseeable future, possibly even jobs. Although one has sympathy for the college, one can argue that its administration knew that the probability of finding an additional cache so close to the 1997 find was very real and should therefore have made provision for possible delays.

Fort Hill

SAHRA subsequently commissioned an archaeologist, David Halkett, of the Archaeology Contracts Office at the University of Cape Town, to complete a preliminary report on the find.[6] The museum assisted Halkett with historical information and maps of the site. During Halkett’s visit to the site, he pointed to stone foundations that the construction workers had exposed. In our subsequent e-mail correspondence, Halkett pointed out that he was convinced that the foundations were those of Fort Hill, a large redoubt that dates back to 1835 and therefore predates the establishment of the Military Reserve in 1847. The fortification had low earthen walls, flanking bastions for three field guns, accommodation for 400 men, as well as a hospital and a prison.

The star-shaped fort was rebuilt in brick during the War of the Axe (1846-1847) and the War of Mlanjeni (1850-1853). It was enlarged and internally restructured, but generally the shape was retained. By 1852 the fortification consisted of three commissariat stores, a double-roomed ordnance store, a general administrative office, a magazine, an engine shed, a lock-up and a guardroom. Fort Hill is included on an 1864 map of the Military Reserve, but must have fallen into disrepair in subsequent years.[7]

Halkett superimposed an 1848 plan of the Fort and surrounding area onto a present-day Google Earth map. Using buildings extant on both the historic and present-day maps, the approximate position of the fort was calculated. It became clear that the planned classrooms would be positioned almost on top of the old fort and possibly on what could have been a magazine. That in itself is exciting because the exact position of the fort has been debated in historical circles for many years.

The importance of Fort Hill has been previously acknowledged and attempts were made by the heritage authorities to place its importance on record. A 1988 report in the museum’s possession states that a ‘plaque commemorating the fort has been cast by the National Monuments Council and plans have been afoot for some time to erect a suitable cairn on the site of the fort. Due to problems being experienced finding suitable stonemasons the plaque has yet to be erected.'[8] Unfortunately, the plaque was never erected and an opportunity to give some historical credence to the site was, once again, lost.

Recommendations made in the Preliminary Report

In January 2010 the College allowed me to read Halkett’s preliminary report, but I was not allowed to make any copies. That was, indeed, strange as Lovedale FET College was the client and therefore was footing the bill.

Halkett correctly stated in his report that very little of the original fort remained and therefore recommended that the classrooms should be erected, although archaeological monitoring of the construction activities was advisable. In the process, the exact position of the fort is unlikely to ever be pinpointed.

Regarding the cache of historical weapons, he recommended the careful removal of remaining artefacts under the supervision of an archaeologist. He recommended that a representative collection of the weapons be retained for conservation and storage in a museum. The site should also be checked with a metal detector to ensure that no ammunition caches are buried there, and the balance of the artefacts disposed of in a manner acceptable to SAHRA. In addition, all future construction/landscaping should occur subject to a permit application to SAHRA.

At the end of January 2010, SAHRA requested a letter from the museum stating that we agree to serve as a repository for a small selection of the excavated objects, as well as the archaeological records associated with the excavation at Lovedale College.[9] A permit for the excavation was subsequently received from SAHRA and two archaeologists, Dave Halkett and Tim Hart, of the Archaeology Contracts Office arrived in February with a clear mandate to excavate, record and assess the cache of historic weapons.

The Excavation

What was originally planned as a 5-day excavation turned out to be a two week on-site project. The write-up and conservation of selected artefacts will still take several months.

The initial cache of rifles and bayonets turned out to be several thousands of rifle barrels, bayonets, scabbards, rounds of ammunition, gun parts, pistols, locking mechanisms, gun plates, powder caskets, swords and assegais excavated from three separate pits. The ordnance’s disposal took place in an amazingly organised manner. The historic weapons were systematically and purposefully destroyed. In addition, various firearm barrels, mechanisms and ammunition were separately and carefully stacked in specially dug trenches and covered up.[10]

Tim Hart states that the cache represented ‘a loss of what is already known in terms of weaponry.’ ‘There are a lot of museum examples’ around. Many people ‘still shoot with Martini Henri’s.’ Where we can contribute is to try and understand the event, i.e. the disposal of ordnance, which happened here.’

* Here you can see rifle barrels categorised according to type. By far the dominant firearms are Enfield pattern percussion rifles, also percussion cap rifles, flintlocks, like the Brown Bess, early breech loaders, Martini Henri’s, Enfield Snider rifle barrels, and double-barrel shotguns.

* Here are some of the swords excavated as part of the cache.

* The spears are particularly interesting. We think that they were thrown in with the cache because they were probably captured during the 19th century frontier wars and held in the armoury until it was decided to dispose of the entire cache. The archaeologists are of the opinion that the spears are rare objects so a representative collection will be cleaned and conserved and stored in museums.

* Powder caskets – made of a thin brass. Interesting variations in design are present, all highly ornamented with individual scenes depicting antelope and decorated scrolls.

Archaeologist, Tim Hart, interviewed on site, commented that the site was ‘complicated’ and judging from the public’s remarks quite ‘sensitive’. He wished that they had ‘more time, more resources and more people.’ He added that the site ‘probably deserves much bigger status than what it seems to have, which is unfortunate’. He was anxious about the site, owing to the fact that a ‘large network of conservators and powerful laboratories’ do not exist in the Eastern Cape to ‘see to the conservation of the material.’

In Conclusion: Some Points to Ponder

* The decision not to excavate the remains of Fort Hill is disappointing, though understandable when one considers that limited resources are available, that little of the fort probably remains and that detailed maps of the fortification are already available. In the process, however, we have probably lost the opportunity indefinitely to pinpoint the exact location of the fort, which an archaeological excavation would have provided and the construction of the new classrooms will now prevent.

* The local press did inform its readers of the historical importance of the find and through its website provided a platform for the public to comment at some length. Inaccurate historical information contained in both articles and the video did, however, affect the press coverage of the find and accordingly influenced the public’s reaction to it.

* In a follow-up article the Dispatch stated the case for preservation, but the college was of the opinion that halting construction was costing them money, education opportunities and probably jobs. Although one has sympathy with their situation, the college administration knew that the probability of finding an additional cache to the 1997 one was very real.

Finally, it should be noted that SAHRA in its national capacity was the only heritage authority involved in the find. ECPHRA was notably absent. Thus the museum, in a sense, became the provincial heritage representative. It is my belief that there was a noted difference between the management of the 1997 and 2010 excavations. The former was provincially managed and the latter nationally. For example, the archaeological records for the 1997 excavation have been misplaced, no provision was made for the cleaning and correct storage of the excavated material and no future recommendations were made as to the preservation of the site. It is the responsibility of museums to ensure that provincial heritage assets are preserved.

* With apologies to Ernest Hemingway’s novel A Farewell to Arms.

[1] Mfengu, M. Huge Boer war weapons found, Daily Dispatch, 05.11.2009 p. 1; Mfengu, M. ‘Weapons Cache Halts Building’, Daily Dispatch, 25.01.2010 p. 3

[2]Anglo Boer War Weapons discovered in King William’s Town, it’s folder name is wargunsvid. Cf.

[3] Cf. (viewed on 16.02.2010). 65 Responses were recorded.

[4] Msindisi Mfengu ‘Weapons Cache Halts Building’, Daily Dispatch, 25.01.2010 p. 3

[5] Cf. e-mail correspondence between Stephanie Victor and Msindisi Mfengu.

[6] Halkett, David A Report on the Discovery and Context of a Cache of Historic Weapons at a Construction Site on Erf 5217, the Lovedale Public F.E.T. College Campus, King Williams Town, November 2009, unpublished report in possession of Lovedale Public FET College.

[7] Webb, Denver Report on the Military Reserve and the Buildings that Remain in the Grounds of Excelsior School, unpublished report, December 1988, p. 6-7; Coetzee, C.G. Forts of the Eastern Cape: Securing a Frontier 1799-1878, University of Fort Hare, n.d.; Unpublished notes in Military Reserve file, Amathole Museum.

[8] Webb, D. Report on the Military Reserve…, p. 7.

[9] Letter to Mary Leslie, SAHRA from the Amathole Museum, 27.01.2010; Re: Repository of objects and records, Lovedale FET College excavation.

[10] Oral Interview with Tim Hart, 18 February 2010.