Artefacts as windows to the past: Answers from #AskAnArchaeologist

Archaeology on the Great Barrier Reef. Image: ANMM.

Archaeology on the Great Barrier Reef. Image: ANMM.

In the spirit of National Archaeology Week 2016 we took the opportunity to open the floor to you, our audience and community, with the hashtag #AskAnArchaeologist. This was a chance for you to ask your questions about all things archaeology and maritime heritage to our team.

Maritime archaeology is a unique approach to researching our past and investigating the stories we tell. Shipwrecks are a common theme and quests for sunken treasure immediately come to mind but those are just the beginning. Maritime history is a diverse subject, encapsulating industries such as whaling, periods of exploration, leaps in technological innovation and a variety of lives connected to the water – sailors and the navy, Indigenous cultures, migrants to broadly name a few.

The stories we tell and the research we conduct do not happen in a vacuum. At the Australian National Maritime Museum, we seek to conserve, share and engage with the all audiences as a national centre for maritime collections, exhibitions, research and archaeology. It is part of our core mission to have a dialogue with you, our audience and community.

This is to say, your questions are important to us…and we love trying to answer them to the best of our ability. Now, without further ado, here are the answers!

As a maritime archaeologist, do you have the opportunity to travel a lot? If so, where is the best place you have been to and the most exciting discovery? – Maria

Our team have travelled across the globe in their careers:

  • South and east coasts of the USA
  • Caribbean in search of the Spanish slave ship Trouvadore
  • Surveying WWII battle sites in the Mariana Islands
  • New Zealand researching torpedo boats and documenting ships graveyards in Auckland, Christchurch and Dunedin

Exciting discoveries by our team include:

  • A briar smoking pipe (still filled with unsmoked tobacco) aboard L. Hunley, a confederate submarine from the American Civil War. The pipe was most likely packed with tobacco before the mission by its owner, who had the intention of smoking it upon the crew’s safe return.
  • Candle from the Hunley. The candle was discovered within its crudely-manufactured wooden holder and was used by Hunley’s crew to illuminate the submarine’s interior, and provide an indication of its air quality (the candle’s flame would flicker and then extinguish based on the amount of available oxygen).

How do I go about getting a career in archaeology? If I go to uni, what types of jobs will I be able to do as an Archaeologist? – Madeline

It is strongly recommended that you should study archaeology at a tertiary level – either in a Bachelors or Masters program. Several universities around Australia offer archaeology majors, including Flinders University, Australian National University, University of Western Australia, and University of Sydney. Fieldwork experience and volunteering are also important steps towards developing a career in archaeology.

There are four main types of jobs or sectors archaeologists work in: private consulting, federal and state government heritage agencies, academic university positions and museum work, like our curators. The private consulting and government jobs are mostly management oriented and involve extensive site survey and testing. Academic university positions emphasise research and teaching/lecturing. Working in museums – such as the ANMM – offers a combination of the above: historical research, documentation of sites, and engagement with the public through exhibitions, answering enquires and opportunities such as #AskAnArchaeologist.

Given the amount of vessels scuttled at Newport to block the French access and the subsequent deterioration of those vessels, how is it possible to positively identify the wrecks? – John

The search for the wreck of the Endeavour is an interesting example of comparing what is known from the historical record with any possible archaeological evidence we uncover.

A lot of detail is recorded in historical sources about Endeavour (or Lord Sandwich as it was called at the time of its scuttling). For example, there are very accurate records of the size and construction of the ship which note the timbers used in the hull and even the spacing of the hull frames. Endeavour was the largest of five British transport ships sunk in that part of Newport Harbor, ideally making it easier to identify.

Endeavour was also the only ship at Newport which is known to have been repaired in Australia and Indonesia. Therefore, it might be possible to compare timber samples with species from either Australia or Indonesia to confirm if the wreck is indeed the Endeavour.

Any artefacts associated with the wrecks in Newport could also play a role in positively identifying the vessel. The Lord Sandwich was used as a British troop transport and then a prison hulk prior to sinking and artefacts such as a button off a uniform could be used to identify the wreck.

The Australian National Maritime Museum’s replica of HMB Endeavour. Image: ANMM.

The Australian National Maritime Museum’s replica of HMB Endeavour. Image: ANMM.

What is the oldest object to come from a shell midden and how was it dated? – Mark

Shell middens are often excavated on sites relating to Indigenous occupation. A midden is where the remains of a meal were piled and offer insights to the eating, foraging and hunting methods used by the Indigenous populations of an area. They can contain shells, animal bones, seeds, ash from campfires and broken tools.

Middens can be from a single use or built upon over many years. They are often located in sand dunes along the coastal areas of Australia.

There are conflicting dates for artefacts from shell middens, due to changes and advancements in dating techniques over the past 20 years. Middens in the Northern Territory were previously estimated as being over 100,000 years old but are now thought to be around 10,000 years old. In Sydney, there is evidence from layers of middens that Botany Bay has been occupied at various times over 3,000 years.

What’s the strangest or most shocking thing you’ve found on a dig/at a site? – Wade

The team have come across some unusual uncharted man-made reefs while investigating magnetometer results. For example, James encountered a circa-1960s Volkswagen van sitting upright on the seabed while working on a shipwreck survey in Florida during the 1990s.

James also saw a complete—but heavily corroded—modern motorbike during another project. It was located near the stern of a Revolutionary War-era shipwreck in Maine (USA). The ship was scuttled in 1779, so clearly the motorbike was a relatively new addition to the site. At the time James worked on the project, the team were unsure as to HOW exactly the bike ended up on the site. The most likely explanation was that it was placed there deliberately; however, winter ice movement in the river where the wreck is located could also have deposited the motorbike there.

Are there any current projects exploring sites around Sydney Harbour? – Teresa  

What’s the oldest known shipwreck in Sydney Harbour? – Michelle

Two answers for the price of one: the team are currently helping survey the wreck of the barque Edward Lombe. Located near Middle Head, this is the earliest large ship wrecked in Sydney Harbour and was lost in August 1834.

James and Kieran, in collaboration with the Silentworld Foundation, are also looking into using a drone-deployed magnetometer to survey an area which might contain the abandoned hull of the Royal Australian Navy training ship HMAS Tingira.

Diving on the Royal Shepherd. Image: ANMM.

Diving on the Royal Shepherd. Image: ANMM.

What are the ethics associated with human remains and underwater archaeology? – Anne

The short answer is that all human remains should be handled with respect and care, and where possible it is best not to disturb them. Human remains on shipwreck sites are effectively grave sites and should be treated accordingly.

Often human remains are only removed from an archaeological site for two primary reasons:

  • The recovery and appropriate study of the remains is of great historical and archaeological significance. Examination of the remains contributes to our understanding of the site and/or people associated with it.
  • The site is in danger of being damaged or destroyed.

When James was working on the excavation of H.L. Hunley it was the first time he dealt with human remains. The complete skeletal remains of all eight crew members were exhumed from the interior of the submarine. Not much was known about the crew from the historical record – after the Civil War ended the Confederates are thought to have destroyed much of the written evidence of Hunley’s development and operation. After initial documentation of the site was completed, forensic examiners were brought in to conduct a full investigation on the crew.

An interesting picture began to emerge: four of the crew were born in the USA, while the other four originated in Europe. Their ages ranged from 20 to 45 years old. The crew were from a mix of Confederate army and navy units, and one was even a former crewman in the Union Navy. Junior crew member Frank Collins was 6 feet (1.8 m) tall, meaning he would have been rather cramped in the approximate 4 ft (1.2 m) high, 3.5 ft (1.06 m) wide confines of Hunley’s crew compartment. The oldest member of the crew, currently known by the last name ‘Miller’, was a heavy smoker and suffering the beginning stages of chronic arthritis.

Hunley’s commander, George Dixon, was the only crewmember with a relatively well-documented life: newspapers of the time report he was prominent in social circles in Mobile, Alabama, as well as handsome and well-dressed. Indeed, remnants of his fine clothing were found with him, including a cashmere vest with European-made buckles, red suspenders (manufactured from one of the earliest known examples of elastic) with monogrammed silver clasps, a gold British-made pocket watch, and a diamond-studded gold brooch. Archival sources suggest Dixon was at least 6 feet tall, but his skeleton revealed otherwise. His actual height – 5ft 9in (1.7 m) – was augmented with lifts attached to the bottoms of this leather boots.

Hunley’s crewmen were interred in a funeral service once the forensic examination of their remains was completed.

Our Conservation team cleaning the HMS Sirius anchor. Image: ANMM.

Our Conservation team cleaning the HMS Sirius anchor. Image: ANMM.

How do we preserve organic under water finds? – Anne

It depends on the type of material in the artefact – bone, leather, cloth all preserve under different conditions and require a range of conservation processes once they are excavated and recovered. Freeze drying, using chemicals to impregnate an organic object’s cellulose structure, and keeping artefacts in water or otherwise mimicking the environment from which they were removed, are all common techniques used to preserve finds.

Are there any discoveries left out there that you are afraid of the consequences if we find it? – Mike

The ongoing threat to treasure shipwrecks is a concern, as is the misguided idea that most historic shipwrecks are overflowing with valuable loot. Unfortunately, the desire to ‘get the goods’—be it treasure or ‘everyday’ artefacts valued as trinkets or collectors’ items—motivates some to overlook or outright ignore the archaeological value and significance of a site, which in turn often results in it being irrevocably damaged or destroyed.

The real value of maritime archaeology is what it can tell us about the human past—and this can only be teased out of an archaeological site through careful excavation, fastidious documentation, thorough analysis and interpretation, and well-planned conservation and preservation.

What is better preserved: a ship covered by sand or that which sits on the ocean floor? – Eva

Around Australia maritime environments vary, from the rocky cliffs at Loch Ard Gorge, Victoria to the silty coasts of the Northern territory. When it comes to preservation of submerged archaeological sites, quite a lot really depends on the prevalent seafloor conditions. For example, a rocky or coralline seabed is not ideal for preservation. By contrast, a silty bottom is soft and often allows material culture to gently sink into it and become encapsulated in an environment devoid of light, oxygen and hungry sea creatures.

Generally, waterlogged environments preserve artefacts better than the open air. In particular, underwater zones that are dark, deep, cold and deoxygenated are the most ideal for the preservation of archaeological material.

Western Australian Museum maritime archaeologist Kevin Edwards conducts a 3D photogrammetric survey of Samuel Wright’s hull. Image: Pat Baker / Western Australian Museum.

Western Australian Museum maritime archaeologist Kevin Edwards conducts a 3D photogrammetric survey of Samuel Wright’s hull. Image: Pat Baker / Western Australian Museum.

What digital skills should an Archaeologist have in their arsenal? – Kate

Digital skills are becoming a key part of a modern archaeologist’s toolkit. Digital skills and techniques such as surveying sites with GroPro cameras to create 3D photomosaics offer the team a possible alternative to traditional, labour- and time-intensive mapping by hand.

Research is still needed to determine how accurate and applicable 3D survey techniques are for maritime archaeology purposes, but pioneering efforts are being made in this field to enable quick, efficient and accurate documentation of sites with limited resources or accessibility issues (such as depth). One ground-breaking example of the applicability of these techniques to documentation of historic shipwrecks is the Western Australian Museum’s efforts to three-dimensionally map HMAS Sydney (II) and its opponent HSK Kormoran off the coast of Western Australia.

What does archaeology mean to you?

James: Archaeology is an important key to learning more about the past. Sites and artefacts provide a portal through which we may discover things about past humans that weren’t recorded in written or visual (i.e., photographic) records. Similarly, comparing and contrasting the historical record with archaeological data can often raise interesting questions about our understanding of historical people and events. Archaeology often reveals physical evidence of a story that can be more interesting or surprising than what is written down.

One good example that springs to mind is the technology used to detonate the torpedo used by H.L. Hunley. The few available historical and written sources were adamant that an explosive canister that served as Hunley’s torpedo was designed to be covertly rammed into an enemy ship’s hull beneath the water line and left in place as the submarine backed away to a safe distance. When the 5m long iron pole or ‘spar’ that held the torpedo was examined in 2013, this was found to be false. Fragments of the torpedo’s exploded copper canister were still attached to the end of the spar, indicating that the weapon detonated on contact.

– Kate Pentecost, Digital Curator

Can’t get enough maritime archaeology? You can read our previous blogs on the awesome subject.

You can find out more about the Hunley at the Friends of the Hunley and Warren Lasch Conservation Center pages.

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