Maritime archaeologists and technicians study the shipboard computer screens during the 3D photographic survey of submarine HMAS AE1, in early 2018. Image courtesy Navigea Ltd.
Expanding the Archaeologist’s toolkit
Once upon a time, the archaeologist’s toolkit was likely to consist of a shovel, trowel, bucket, brush, stakes and string. Today it includes a multitude of technological tools such as magnetometers, drones, ground-penetrating radar, 3D imaging and all sorts of acronyms including DGPS, LIDAR, ROVs, AUVs and many more. In the past, archaeologists were digging trenches in the ground or diving in shallow waters. These days even the roughest terrain and deepest of waters can be part of the archaeologists working environment. What was once thought impossible is increasingly possible – for example, the search for Australia’s first submarine AE1, lost in 1914 and thought one of the greatest unsolved Australian maritime mysteries, is now complete.
Today, an archaeologist can ‘look’ below the ground without even digging, they can send remote operating vehicles to incredible depths under water, and some are even investigating the potential for an ‘archaeology of the air’. And now with DNA analysis archaeologists can construct very human pictures from old bones.
Part of AE1‘s hull, showing extensive corrosion. After 103 years since her loss, AE1 was located in waters off the Duke of York Island group in Papua New Guinea in December 2017. Image: Find the Men of AE1 Ltd.
Australia’s greatest naval mystery is solved at last
It is more than a century since Australia’s first submarine, HMAS AE1, disappeared without trace in the waters off Papua New Guinea. Its fate remained a mystery until late last year, when the most recent of many searches finally found its wreck.
This past September, Kieran Hosty and I travelled to Newport, Rhode Island to assist an ongoing effort to archaeologically document eighteenth-century shipwreck sites in the city’s harbour associated with the American War of Independence (1775-1783). We were invited to Newport by Dr Kathy Abbass, Director of the Rhode Island Marine Archaeology Project (RIMAP), an all-volunteer organisation that has been locating, documenting and investigating the maritime cultural heritage of Newport Harbor and its adjacent waterways since the late 1990s. Maritime archaeologists affiliated with the museum have been working with RIMAP since 1999, and a team comprising Kieran Hosty and the museum’s Head of Research, Dr Nigel Erskine, visited Newport as recently as September of last year to assist with the project.
Our interest in RIMAP’s research stems from the investigation of a fleet of British transports scuttled at Newport during the Battle of Rhode Island in August 1778— a story that has already been chronicled in a previous blog by Kieran and an article by Nigel in the scholarly journal The Great Circle. Among these vessels was the Lord Sandwich, a 368-ton bark that attained international recognition under its previous name, HMB Endeavour. Endeavour, of course, is best known for its voyage of exploration between 1768 and 1771 under the command of Lieutenant James Cook, during which it became the first European vessel to reach Australia’s east coast.
Shipwrecks and maritime archaeology are key parts of understanding Australian’s history as a land that is gurt by sea. Image: Measuring artefacts in situ, during an archaeological dive on the Great Barrier Reef, 2013 / ANMM.
Invasive corallimorphs have colonised a modern shipwreck at Palmyra Atoll in the Line Islands. The corallimorphs have benefitted from a phase shift in the reef’s ecosystem brought on by the shipwreck’s iron components leaching into the water column. Image: Susan White/US Fish and Wildlife Service.
This past January, a collaborative research team comprising maritime archaeologists from the Silentworld Foundation and the museum conducted a shipwreck survey at Kenn Reefs in Australia’s Coral Sea Territory. The team relocated a number of historic shipwrecks documented by the Queensland Museum in the 1980s, as well as four new wreck sites. The Kenn Reefs complex is a seamount system located within the ‘Outer Route’, a seaway used by nineteenth-century mariners in an effort to avoid the Great Barrier Reef when travelling to and from Australia’s east coast. The discovery of multiple shipwreck sites of nineteenth-century vintage at Kenn Reefs demonstrates the hazards faced by mariners as they transited through waters that were insufficiently charted. Field investigations included reef-top inspections, metal detector and magnetometer surveys, and diver-based ground-truthing of observed features and buried anomalies.
Installing the statue of Hermanubis with the assistance of a forklift. Image: Will Mather / ANMM.
Several of the most unusual and interesting items in Escape from Pompeii are from the Museum of the Parco Archeologico dei Campi Flegrei housed in the Castle at Baia on the Bay of Naples. The Archaeological park covers the ancient sites of Cumae, Puteoli (modern Pozzuoli) and Baiae which were a lot more famous to ancient Romans than Pompeii and Herculaneum. The sites are on northern side of the Bay as it stretches past Mount Vesuvius and Naples.
All three sites are situated in or around the Campi Flegrei, which translates as the fields of fire. The Campi Flegrei is one very large ground level volcano with gaseous fumeroles, boiling mud pools, and numerous smaller craters – about 24 of them – some of them flooded like Lake Avernus. The caldera of the volcano continues underwater into the Bay of Naples. If it were erupt it would be catastrophic.
The rostrum in Escape from Pompeii. Image: Andrew Frolows / ANMM.
One of the most amazing objects in Escape from Pompeii: The Untold Roman Rescue is a rostrum from a Roman warship. A rostrum is a bronze ram attached to the bow of an ancient warship. It was used to punch holes into the hull of enemy ships to disable or sink them. The Roman historian Livy gives a description of their use at the Battle of Side in 190 BC:
Whenever a ship encountered an enemy vessel head on, it either shattered its prow, or sheared off its oars; or else it sailed through the open space in the line and rammed it in the stern
Textile artist Melinda Piesse with her Batavia tapestry. Photographer Kristina Kingston, reproduced courtesy Melinda Piesse
Last week we unveiled a new large-scale embroidered work by Melbourne textile artist Melinda Piesse at the museum. Known as the Batavia tapestry (2017), it illustrates the tragic story of the wreck of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) flagship Batavia in the Indian Ocean, off the coast of Western Australia, on 4 June 1629 and the sorry fate of the ship’s company.
Pete Illidge measures the cannons at site KR12 while Renee Malliaros records information on an underwater slate. Image: Julia Sumerling/Silentworld Foundation.
Flush with the exhilaration of discovering site KR12 and the ship’s bell, the team set to work the following morning (16 January) to document finds. John, Jacqui, Pete, Renee, Lee and Jules entered the water and conducted a baseline offset survey of the site, followed by detailed recording of the cannons and anchors. Jules then took close-up photographs of each anchor and cannon while Lee carried out a photogrammetric survey of these and other features, including the rudder hardware found in association with the bell. Continue reading →
Lee Graham and his trusty tow-board. Image: Julia Sumerling/Silentworld Foundation.
While the dive team was busy documenting sites KR10 and KR11 on the morning and afternoon of 14 January, the magnetometer team took advantage of the calm weather and sea conditions to run a survey along the outside of the entire Kenn Reefs system. The first area surveyed was along the outside fringe of the ‘foot and ankle’, with specific emphasis placed on detecting offshore components of known shipwreck sites (such as KR1, KR2 and KR4). Because sea conditions were calm, the team also ‘deployed’ Lee on a tow-board behind the magnetometer.
The tow-board (also known as a ‘Manta-board’) is a flat, hydrodynamic-shaped board with handles that is connected to a towing vessel with a length of line. The person using the tow-board grips the handles, is pulled through the water at low speed, and can visually search the seabed for shipwreck material. Most tow-boards are designed so that their users can turn, dive and ascend through the water column at will, simply by changing its orientation with the handles. Lee was positioned 10 metres behind the magnetometer in the hope he might be able to visually spot and identify any anomalies it detected.
Pete Illidge and Renee Malliaros prove that site mapping and synchronised swimming are not mutually exclusive tasks. Image: Julia Sumerling/Silentworld Foundation.
One of the major goals of the Kenn Reefs expedition was to find Hope, the small cutter built from material salvaged from Bona Vista, and later lost during the rescue of the brig’s crew. According to historical accounts, two boats were sent from the rescuing vessel (the ship Asia) to Observatory Cay, where they recovered most of Bona Vista’s crew, the brig’s allocation of specie (gold and silver coin brought aboard Bona Vista for trading purposes), and brought them aboard Asia. A skeleton crew of thirteen and the personal belongings of all of the brig’s officers and men remained aboard Hope, as did unspecified salvaged goods valued at £1,000. However, as Asia got underway and took Hope under tow, tragedy struck:
Silentworld Foundation CEO and project team leader John Mullen uses a metal detector to search for artefacts in shallows off Observatory Cay, while Jacqui Mullen (background) documents a find. Image: Julia Sumerling/Silentworld Foundation.
While the magnetometer crew conducted its initial search west of Observatory Cay, a second team embarked upon a metal detector survey of the cay itself and searched for evidence of survivor camps associated with the wrecked vessels Bona Vista and Jenny Lind.
Observatory Cay and part of the ‘foot and ankle’ are visible from the bow of Silentworld shortly after its arrival at Kenn Reefs. Image: Julia Sumerling/Silentworld Foundation.
The Australian National Maritime Museum and Silentworld Foundation recently led an expedition to the Australian Coral Sea Territory to conduct an archaeological survey of historic shipwrecks lost at Kenn Reefs during the nineteenth century. The Kenn Reefs expedition is a continuation of an ongoing collaborative project between the museum and Silentworld Foundation that commenced in 2009 and led to the discovery that same year of the wreck of the colonial government schooner Mermaid (lost in 1829 on what is now known as Flora Reef). No less than eight vessels are known to have wrecked at Kenn Reefs between 1828 and 1884, and most grounded in relatively close proximity to one another on the largest of the southernmost reefs in the chain, as it was located within an oft-travelled shipping route, but poorly charted until the mid-nineteenth century.
Oil painting of Sobraon (later Tingira), by William Barnett Spencer, c 1866. Image: ANMM Collection 00009342.
On a cold sunny morning in June 2016, Silentworld Foundation Director and maritime archaeologist Paul Hundley steered the survey vessel Maggie III into shallow water at the head of Berrys Bay on Sydney’s North Shore. Accompanying him were the museum’s maritime archaeologists Kieran Hosty and myself, staring intently at a laptop computer as it displayed readings from a marine magnetometer towed a short distance behind the boat. As Maggie III’s hull glided through water less than a metre deep, we watched for any indication that remnants of a unique sailing ship might lie buried in the silt below. Continue reading →
Dirk Hartog plate, 1616. Tin (metal), 36.5 cm (diameter). Reproduced courtesy Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam
Four hundred years ago, Dutch mariner Dirk Hartog (1580–1621) sailed into history when, on 25 October 1616, he made the first documented European landing on the west coast of Australia in the Dutch East India Company (VOC) ship Eendracht (‘Concord’ or ‘Unity’). Today his name is synonymous with the inscribed ‘Hartog plate’ that marked his landfall at Cape Inscription on Dirk Hartog Island in Shark Bay, Western Australia. This evocative pewter relic, now held in Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum, provides tangible evidence of one of the earliest European encounters with the mysterious Terra Australis Incognita – the unknown southern land. Continue reading →