Cape Verde marks the beginning of the maritime archaeology activities of Arqueonautas Worldwide (AWW). In 1995, an exclusive concession agreement was signed with the government of this archipelago nation in West Africa and shortly after, the first archaeological expedition took place.
Cape Verde’s location in the Atlantic Ocean meant that it was on the early maritime trade routes between Europe and Asia, on the transatlantic route between Europe and South America and was an important slave trade post on the route to the Americas. These factors, combined with treacherous reefs, strong winds and inaccurate maritime charts, are responsible for hundreds of historical shipwrecks in the area surrounding the exotic islands of Cape Verde.
This Underwater Cultural Heritage (UCH) had been undisturbed for centuries until new technologies like the Aqualung made access to the seabed easier and affordable. First it was the local lobster fishermen who started looting the many wreck sites in the archipelago, using it as a resource that could be explored when fishing was down and to contribute to their livelihood. Later, it was the professional looters who arrived, with more technological resources and better equipment, who were more methodological and exhaustive and aimed exclusively for profit. Meanwhile, lacking in proper maritime surveillance capabilities, the Cape Verdean authorities had no means to prevent and stop the ravaging of the county’s UCH.
After a first attempt to change this state of affairs, with a South African salvage company, that didn’t achieve the desired results, the local government decided to work with AWW to a) gain a better understanding of the country’s UCH, b) develop a national team of archaeological divers and conservation technicians who could provide the country with some autonomy in the management of their UCH, and c) build a national collection of UCH that could be displayed to the public and help educate the population on its importance in the history of the Cape Verdean nation.
Up until 2001, when the last AWW archaeological expedition took place in Cape Verde, survey missions had been carried out off all the islands and islets of the archipelago, with the exception of the Island of Sal. A total of 80 wreck sites were found and documented and the governmental authorities finally had a Marine Archaeological Chart of the archipelago, with the exact locations and probable identification of the majority of the shipwrecks located.
During those 7 years, a team of local divers were trained, enabling them to perform the vast majority of tasks involved in an underwater archaeological mission. In terms of conservation, AWW rehabilitated a former warehouse where it installed a fully operational conservation centre. By the time AWW had completed its work in Cape Verde, a local team of technicians had been trained on how to perform conservation procedures on recovered UCH. The centre is still operating today curating the cultural material rescued by AWW over the years and other artefacts from occasional finds.
Finally, a large collection of artefacts was recovered during the archaeological excavation of 5 wreck sites and a few other trial excavations were conducted at sites considered to be under eminent threat from looters. The vast majority of these artefacts constitute practically the entire collection of the Archaeology Museum in Praia. A few others can also be found at the Ethnographic Museum, also in the capital of Cape Verde.