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The life of an archaeologist is fraught with peril – just ask Indiana Jones or Lara Croft. We were nevertheless quite unprepared for the excitement of one day on site late last year. We had been excavating the ruin of the farmhouse in the driveway, enjoying the shade offered by an old oak tree that looms over the site. The site however proved reluctant to offer up its secrets without some resistance: one particularly windy day there was a rather loud cracking noise and the large branch that extended over the ruin came crashing down – right in between our buckets and shovels. Fortunately at that moment we were engaged in that crucial archaeological pastime – lunch – and neither of us was nearby!

Undaunted we have pressed on with excavations and have fleshed out our understanding of the building that was first exposed by UCT archaeologists in 2005. The dwelling consists of four rooms. The most northerly room appears to have been the entire original structure, possibly the original dwelling on the farm from when it was granted in 1690. We know that the first two owners of Delta held hunting rights in the valley and this structure could have been related to hunting activities. The room had a finely cobbled floor with a drainage channel through the cobbles; this sort of floor is often associated with stables, but could here be related to preparing game for transport and sale. When the building was enlarged, this room was entirely enclosed by the new walls, with two rooms built on to the south and another to the southeast. The southernmost room is the only one with internal divisions and it is possible that this was a kitchen. A small room within this area had a neatly laid brick floor and this could have been a pantry or larder with the flooring helping to deter rodents. Little of the flooring in the rest of the building has survived intact.

The interpretation of this structure as representing the foundations of the original farm dwelling remains the most likely. In an attempt to date the ruin accurately, we have uncovered and excavated through intact floor levels where these have survived. Whatever artefacts we recover from below the floors must be older than the floors themselves and therefore predate the construction of the building. If we were to find nineteenth century ceramics, for example, we would know the building cannot be older than the 1800s; happily, all ceramics found thus far support an early date for the building. These include Oriental porcelain, Dutch pipe stems and coarse, cheap, utilitarian European ceramics.

The tree itself is a clue to the antiquity of the building: positioned as it is within one of the rooms, we can assume that the building had been demolished before the tree was planted. As the tree is at least 200 years old, we know the building must be even older than that.

Establishing when the building was demolished and who the last occupants were might be impossible, but the abundance of window glass, a costly luxury in the early years of the Cape, is a possible clue. The second owner of the farm, Christoffel Snyman, married Marguerite de Savoye, the daughter of one of the richest men in the valley. It is quite possible that were living in this dwelling and were responsible for its extension – if so, might she not have insisted on the comfort and status that glazed windows would have offered?

Katie Smuts, resident archaeologist, Solms-Delta