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Daily Archives: October 5, 2008

Namibia: race against time to save ancient Portuguese shipwreck

by Brigitte Weidlich*

Archaeologists are racing against the little time left to salvage a fortune in coins and items from a 500-year-old Portuguese shipwreck found recently off Namibia's rough southern coast.
Despite its importance, the project, in a restricted diamond mining area, is itself costing a fortune in sea-walling that cannot be sustained after October 10.
"The vast amounts of gold coins would possibly make this discovery the largest one in Africa outside Egypt," said Francisco Alves, a Lisbon-based maritime archaeologist.
"This vessel is the best preserved of its time outside Portugal," he said.
"But the cultural uniqueness of this find is priceless."
Alves is part of a multi-national team combing the seabed where the wreck was discovered six months ago.
The 16th-century "Portuguese trade vessel was found by chance this April as mine workers created an artificial sand wall with bulldozers to push back the sea for diamond dredging," Namibian archaeologist Dieter Noli told reporters invited to view the site.
"One of them noticed an unusual wooden structure and round stones, which turned out to be cannon balls," he said.
The abundance of objects unearthed where the ship ran aground along Namibia's notorious Skeleton coast, where hundreds of vessels were wrecked over the centuries, has amazed even hardened experts.
Six bronze cannons, several tonnes of copper, huge elephant tusks, pewter tableware, navigational instruments, and a variety of weapons including swords, sabres and knives have all been tugged out of the beach sand.
"Over 2,300 gold coins weighing some 21 kilograms (46 pounds) and 1.5 kilograms of silver coins were found — worth over 100 million dollars," Alves said, adding that the ship's contents suggest it was bound for India or somewhere in Asia.
"About 70 percent of the gold coins are Spanish, the rest Portuguese," Alves said. Precise dating was possible thanks to examination of the coin rims that showed "some of them were minted in October 1525 in Portugal."
About 13 tonnes of copper ingots, eight tonnes of tin and over 50 large ivory elephant tusks together weighing some 600 kilograms have also been excavated from the seabed.

This discovery is the largest in Africa outside Egypt

"The copper ingots are all marked with a trident indent, which was used by Germany's famous Fugger family of traders and bankers in Augsburg, who delivered to the Portuguese five centuries ago," said South African archaeologist Bruno Werz.
The team also includes experts from the United States and Zimbabwe, and the salvation efforts were made possible by the erection of sea walls to keep back the fierce Atlantic surf.
Namibia's culture ministry and Namdeb, the state diamond mining company, have shared the enormous expense, which "costs some 100,000 Namibian dollars (12,500 US dollars, 8,500 euros) per day," according to Peingeondjabi Shipoh, the culture ministry expert in charge of the recovery project.
But that is shortly coming to an end, even though "I believe there is still more to be found," he told reporters.
"From October 10, the walls will not be maintained anymore and the ship's remnants left to the elements again."
At one point it was thought the wreck was that of legendary Portuguese explorer Bartolomeo Diaz, the first known European to sail around the southern tip of Africa in 1488.
In line with the custom of Portuguese explorers of the time, Diaz left a huge stone cross to the glory of his country's king, called a "padrao", that same year at what is today's harbour town of Luderitz, which Diaz baptised Angra Pequena or "small cove", 750 kilometres (465 miles) southwest of the capital Windhoek.
Around 1500, he and his sailing vessel went missing and were never found.
But hope that the Oranjemund find might end the mystery was laid to rest when it was established that the coins on the shipwreck were put into circulation 25 years after Diaz' disappearance.
Under international maritime laws, a wreck and its treasures belong to the country where they were found, and all the coins are now locked in the vaults of the Bank of Namibia in Windhoek.
The government said it plans at some point to mount an exhibition of the findings and later erect a special museum in Oranjemund to house the incredible collection.


Africa awash in sunlight, but not solar energy

by Jerome Cartillier*

From household solar panels to thermal generators big enough to power a town, sun power has enjoyed explosive growth around the world.
Everywhere, that is, except on the sun-drenched continent of Africa.
With an average daily dose of five to seven kilowatts per hour (kWh) for every square metre, Africa has more potential for producing energy from the sun than almost anywhere on Earth, with the possible exception of northern Australia or the Arabian peninsula.
Yet the continent accounts for only a miniscule percentage of the world's solar energy output. And most of what it does generate is produced in one country, South Africa.
"In Africa, there is a growing awareness of the potential benefits of solar, especially as the conventional grid continues to prove unreliable. Lots of people are looking for alternatives," said Lawrence Agbemabiese, a Paris-based energy expert at the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).
And the need for energy could hardly be more urgent: in sub-Saharan Africa barely one person out of four has access to grid electricity. And in the region's rural areas, this falls to just a tenth.
At the micro scale, grassroots groups are pushing solar through simple, low-tech applications. One such example is the solar cooker, in which a polished concave dish focuses sunbeams onto a pot, slowly heating water.
But on a macro scale, solar power is almost untapped. Why so?
Most reasons boil down to money.
Solar panels, or photovoltaic systems, use semiconductors to generate electricity, and can be used for individual buildings or villages. Another solar source, but in a collective role, is solar thermal, which uses the sun to create steam that turns a turbine to generate electricity.
Both technologies are sprouting across wealthier economies, but only thanks to tax breaks and discounts that remain beyond the reach of the planet's poorest continent.
"The photovoltaic boom in Europe and Japan depend on a very generous pricing structure. It is a policy found only in rich countries," explained Yves Bruno Civel, head of France's Renewable Energy Observatory, based in Paris.

Africa will not be able to surf on the current solar wave

"One has to be realistic: Africa will not be able to surf on the current wave. That will happen when economies of scale result in a drop in prices," said Agbemabiese.
Beyond financial constraints, solar technologies suffer from an image problem in parts of Africa, because they usually operate on a small scale and in isolation.
Indeed, some rural areas continue to resist solar energy out of fear that it will preclude later access to national or regional electricity networks.
But there is a silver lining: in the same way that cell phones are a cost-efficient alternative to laying telephone lines, the very fact that solar panels can be installed in the remotest of regions can make them a more affordable solution than connecting to existing power grids.
There can be hidden costs of depending on a centralised source of energy, explained Agbemabiese.
For rural hospitals, for example, an eight-hour power cut by the electricity grid can destroy thousands of dollars' worth of medicine, he said.
Some governments have initiated policies to promote use of solar energy at village level.
In west Africa, for example, Burkina Faso offers state-backed micro-credit loans, paid back over two or three years, that make it possible for a family to purchase a solar panel. Ghana is also looking at how to set up a system of financial incentives.
The continent is also making its first tentative steps towards large-scale solar generators big enough to power an entire region.
A "solar plan" sketched by the newly-minted Union for the Mediterranean — a grouping of European Union (EU) nations and non-EU countries — aims to create gargantuan thermodynamic generators in the middle of the Sahara Desert.
With a projected output of 100 gigawatts by 2050, a project initiated by Middle Eastern and North African nations called "Desertec" could not only help power large swathes of northern Africa, but parts of Europe as well via trans-Mediterranean cables.
One gigawatt is enough to power a city the size of San Francisco.
Concerns about soaring oil costs, dependence on Russian natural gas, and climate change have made some EU nations keen to push the project forward.
But sub-Saharan Africa — far from Europe, lacking infrastructure and in some places prone to chronic instability — will have a hard time attracting such investments, experts say.