Stephen is a Curator at the Australian National Maritime Museum. In 2014 he developed the War at Sea - The Navy in WWI exhibition. He was previously responsible for the collection areas of Environment and Industry. In 2015 Stephen developed a display showcasing Australian and Indonesian maritime connections. He has research interests in early colonial Australian history, Pirates and Vikings.
Indonesian sailors in Sydney in 1945 listening to the proclamation of Indonesian independence, recreated for the 1946 film Indonesia Calling by Joris Ivens. National Film and Sound Archive, Australia
This weekend (25-26th February 2017) the President of Indonesia will visit Australia for the first time since being elected in 2014. President Joko Widodo will be talking with the Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. Much of the discussion – typical of Australia’s long relationship with its northern neighbour – will undoubtedly be about maritime related affairs. As Indonesia furthers its policy of focusing on maritime development as one of fundamental importance in an archaepeligo of around 18,000 islands, the historical maritime links between the two countries should not be forgotten.
In honour of the President’s visit to Sydney over the weekend, the museum will display an exhibition that explores one of the most significant – and largely forgotten – periods of strong bonds based on maritime links in the two nations histories. The display Black Armada – Australia’s support for Indonesian Independence 1945-1949was developed for the 75th anniversary of independence in August 2015. The exhibition has been on display at the Museum Benteng Vredeburg in Jogjakarta, the ARMA museum in Bali, as well as here in Darling Harbour.
You can read more about this fascinating and important period of Australian links with Indonesia in the museum’s Feature Story.
Worimi man Steve Brereton paddles a nawi in Darling Harbour in 2012. Image: Andrew Frolows/ANMM.
On 26 January the museum has often sailed the HMB Endeavour replica in the Tall Ships Race on Sydney Harbour. This year, Endeavour will not be out, but another important vessel linked to the museum will be involved in the 26 January events.
At 7.30am on Thursday at Barangaroo Reserve a bark canoe – or nawi in the Sydney Aboriginal language – will bring ashore a small fire from the Tribal Warriorvessel. The fire will be lit as part of the WugulOra (One Mob) ceremony that will begin Australia Day events in Sydney by ‘recognising our shared history’. Previously held at the Opera House, WugulOra will be at the new Barangaroo parkland site for the first time this year.
A traditional Aboriginal woven eel trap made by Yvonne Koolmatrie in 1991. The trap is made from a bundle of sedge reed stems coiled with a loop stitch. Yvonne Koolmatrie is from the Ngarrindjeri community in South Australia. Traps such as these were used in conjunction with complex stone arrangements. Reproduced courtesy of Yvonne Koolmatrie ANMM Collection 00015871
Traditional owners will find out next month if their push for a 6,000-year-old network of eel traps in south-west Victoria is to be supported for inclusion on the UNESCO World Heritage List. The eel-farms were built by the Gunditjmara people in south west Victoria to manage eels in Lake Condah and nearby Darlot Creek. They are among the earliest surviving examples of aquaculture in the world.
The eel farms cover more than 75 square kilometres and include artificial channels and ponds for separating eels, as well as smoking trees for preserving the eels for export to other parts of Australia. Just to be clear, this industry and the complex of stone arrangements including houses began around 6,000 years ago – before Stonehenge and the Pyramids.
Some of the Tribal Warrior crew practising for the Sydney to Hobart Race. Photo courtesy Daniel Daley.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have thousands of years of maritime history. More recently, Saltwater people were prominent in early colonial Australian voyages, such as Bungaree, the first Australian to circumnavigate Australia, with Matthew Flinders in 1802-3. Now, a crew from Sydney and south coast New South Wales are attempting to make history as the first Indigenous crew to enter the Sydney to Hobart yacht race.
Balinese Independence hero Ngurah Rai features on the 50000 rupiah bank note
Australians usually go to Bali for the beaches or scuba diving. Some go for the surfing, others to experience Balinese food and culture or see the volcanoes, monkeys, temples and rice fields. Recently, a team from the Australian National Maritime Museum went to Bali for a very different reason – to open an exhibition and lead a seminar on some amazing but largely forgotten shared histories of the two countries.
The Seafarers Memorial Anchors in September 2016. Photograph Andrew Frollows
Since the early 1990s the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) has held an annual commemoration for World Maritime Day (29 September) at the museum. The union members gather to remember fallen merchant sailors during wartime and the dangerous work of seafarers in the past and present. They march across the Pyrmont Bridge at Darling Harbour and lay wreaths at the two large anchors in front of the museum.
Maritime Union of Australia members march across Pyrmont Bridge to the Seafarers Memorial
This is the last note in this series of Viking ‘journeys’. After nearly three months in Stockholm, it was time to see some of the famous museums, burial sites and stone arrangements across Scandinavia. And some not so famous.
First stop was the island of Birka for a sail on Aifur, the reconstructed Viking Age vessel that travelled by sail, by oars on rivers and overland on wheels from the Baltic to the Caspian Sea in the 1990s. It was one of several important journeys of historical reconstruction that make it beyond doubt the Vikings could have travelled so far to the east.
Diving on the 1660 wreck of Resande Mannen. In the foreground are a bronze sheave and a box with square, glass medicine bottles, nestled between two deck beams. Image: Jens Lindström May 2016.
In 2003 underwater sonar was being used to locate a Swedish reconnaissance plane that had been shot down in the Baltic Sea in 1952 during the cold war. They came across, as archaeologists call them, an ‘anomaly’ that indicated a possible shipwreck. At 130 metres depth, an ROV (Remotely Operated Vehicle) was sent down to investigate. To the surprise of all, they saw a 17th century ship sitting upright on the bottom of the sea floor, quite intact, looking like it was ready to be crewed and set sail again. In fact it, was so complete that spars and rigging lying on the deck could tell them the last sail settings – and hence manoeuvre – before the ship sank. It was such an eerie sight that archaeologists instantly named it ‘The Ghost Ship’.
In early May this year I was privileged to be shown some of the recent conservation work being conducted on the iconic 17th century Swedish ship Vasa. The richly decorated and powerfully armed vessel, built between 1626 and 1628 for the King of Sweden Gustavus Adolphus, sank just a few minutes into its maiden voyage and lay on the bed of the busy Stockholm harbour for over 300 hundred years. In the 1950s when an amateur archaeologist located the wreck and Swedish navy salvage divers investigated, they found it was still very much intact, resting in the mud. An audacious, what was to be 40 year-long project of retrieving the wreck, conserving, housing and display began. It has proven to be an ongoing and challenging conservation project – far from over just yet.
Recently, the Swedish History Museum in Stockholm was taken over by the walking dead for a weekend. Well, it seemed like there were a bunch of ‘viking zombies’ wandering the museum. Vendel zombies in fact – from the period just before the Viking Age, around 550 to 790 AD. A group of historical reenactors were there to give a seminar on their work in recreating historical artefacts, and what they had found out about them in the process.
The thing is, these reenactors have reproduced the individual grave goods of a person from a particular grave find, often a burial chamber. When talking to the public, the reenactors were referring to each other as ‘Valsgårde 8’ or ‘Vendel 14’ – the names for the graves as described by archaeologists. There was something quite eerie about this – like the dead had got up and started walking around the museum.
This is the second part of two blog posts on maritime archaeology at Birka, Sweden.
Spoiler alert – Bjorn Ironside from the television series The Vikings dies in the end. I know because I walked over his grave mound – the biggest one on the most prominent peak in a line of hills of the island of Munsö, just northwest of Stockholm in Sweden.
After being invited to assist in curating a display of Birka Viking Age at Birka, it was time to install the display case at the Birka Museum on the island of Björkö in Lake Mälaren. And to visit the grave mound of Bjorn Ironside, son of Ragnar Lothbrok. Not the guy from the TV series, but pretty certainly the actual, historical guy.
I didn’t realise there was an International Viking Day – until Facebook told me there was one. Apparently it falls on 8 May each year since 2013. It is a time to ‘get off the bedstraws, polish the swords and prepare the ships to visit friends and enemies near and far’, according to the Destination Viking Scandinavian tourism website at least.
Luckily, I was doing my bit for International Viking Day, roaming the Swedish island of Gotland researching Viking Age picture stones and ship stone arrangements.
In my first week of a professional development fellowship based at the Historiska Museet in Stockholm I was pleasantly surprised to be handling Viking Age objects and assisting in selecting some for a display of maritime finds at the famous World Heritage site Birka.
‘The nips are getting bigger / I’d better go and get somethin’ harder’ by Karla Dickens.
In late 2015 the museum acquired an important artwork by Indigenous artist Karla Dickens.Titled ‘The nips are getting bigger / I’d better go and get somethin’ harder’, this collection of Captain-Cook-shaped whisky bottles has been usurped and turned into a commentary on the devastating influences of alcohol and disease on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples since the arrival of Europeans in Australia.
The museum, overlooking the Swan River mouth, is an outstanding example of a maritime museum. It is perched on the edge of the old heart of Fremantle harbour, still surrounded with operational wharves and port authority buildings, as well sheds and equipment displaying the heritage of the working harbour.