The development of an office and retail site in Prestwich Street, Green Point, has come to a halt to allow archaeologists to dig up what are believed to be about 1 000 skeletons at an informal, 300-year-old cemetery.
University of Cape Town (UCT) archaeologists suspect that the skeletal remains are those of slaves buried at the unmarked cemetery between 1700 and 1830.
The site had been excavated for about a month when construction workers found the human remains.
The find was reported to the South African Heritage Resources Agency, which ruled that, in terms of the law, the work must stop and a public participation process be conducted to determine what to do with the remains.
According to Antonia Malan of UCT's Cultural Sites and Resources Forum, new heritage legislation required public participation.
"So it is for the community to decide what happens to the remains," she said at a press conference at the site on Wednesday.
A public meeting will be held at 4.30pm at the St Stephen's Church on Riebeeck Square next Tuesday.
Malan said she did not know how long the excavation would take, but it might be necessary to raise funds.
"This is very expensive and takes a lot of expertise," she said.
At present, as required by the law, the developer is funding the excavation.
So far, about 260 skeletons have been found, including those of babies, children and adults, and archaeology students, who were digging up the remains on Wednesday, said it took about an hour to exhume one skeleton.
The students and other volunteers were scraping the earth away with brushes and other tools to find the bones.
Parts of skulls and bits of broken bone protruded from various areas at the site, where people had been buried in relatively shallow graves.
Most of them had been buried on their backs, facing eastwards, with their hands over their pelvises or at their sides.
Jayson Orton of UCT's department of archaeology said he was sure that the remains belonged to slaves because they had been buried without any show of respect. Some of the skeletons had tooth modifications associated with African slaves.
Graves were dug open and coffins placed inside before parts of other skeletons were thrown on top of them, Orton said.
He said the volunteers continued digging for bones until they reached undisturbed ground.
The bones are expected to be sent for physical and chemical analyses, which would determine more about the identity of the people.
Archaeologist Judy Sealy said material in the bones and teeth would indicate the type of diet the people followed and the physical properties of the bones could indicate whether they performed physical labour.
Anyone who wishes to attend the public meeting can contact the Cultural Sites and Resources Forum on 021 650 2358.