Sea Gypsies to Sultans: Meeting the mariners of the Java Sea

Arriving at Pasongsongan, Madura, to inspect a flamboyant fishing fleet returned from its nightly fishery on the Java Sea. All photography by Jeffrey Mellefont.

Arriving at Pasongsongan, Madura, to inspect a flamboyant fishing fleet returned from its nightly fishery on the Java Sea. All photography by Jeffrey Mellefont.

Thirty years ago, field-research for the museum took me to a remote little Indonesian island called Raas in the Java Sea. It was so far off regular motor-ship routes that I took passage on an engineless trading prahu propelled by a huge lateen sail. Prahus like these, called lete-lete, provided transport and livelihoods for Raas and adjacent islands, and some of them were sailed on long-haul fishing expeditions into northern Australian waters. The museum, which at that time was just beginning to develop its collections and first exhibitions, wanted to learn more about various types of maritime contacts linking Australia and Indonesia.

This autumn I returned to these same waters, leading a small group of visitors from Australia, the UK and Canada who were eager to meet some of Indonesia’s least-known maritime communities, in a region of the Java Sea where tourism has not yet arrived.

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Travelling the Maritime Silk Road in Ningbo, China

Chinese junk from the David Waters collection, Royal Museum Greenwich, circa 1930.

Chinese junk from the David Waters collection, Royal Museum Greenwich, circa 1930.

Ningbo is a smallish city near Shanghai of just 7 million people. It was once one of the five ‘Treaty Ports’, when colonial powers were forcing China into trading concessions during the 19th century. Ningbo had always historically been an important juncture of trade networks between China, Korea and Japan – and beyond. Its maritime history was the focus of a conference I recently attended, exploring what is now called the ‘Maritime Silk Road’ – the incredible trade routes that stretched from China to Africa over the past one thousand years or so. The sight of Chinese junks and Sampans in the Indian Ocean is now reasonably well known and forming the basis of a possible World Heritage listing for the maritime silk road. However, there was little knowledge and some interest at the conference in my research paper on the history of Chinese junks and sampans that were built in Australia between 1870 and 1910.

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Visiting the JFK Library in search of the President’s rescue coconut

Coconut on President John F. Kennedy's Desk. Image: JFK Library, KN-C23153.

The coconut on President John F. Kennedy’s Desk. Image: JFK Library, KN-C23153.

After the Battle of the Coral Sea Commemoration dinner on the USS Intrepid, I was up early and on the train to Boston and the John F. Kennedy Presidental Library and Museum.

I seem to have bad luck visiting this northern city, teaming rain, windy, 6 degrees (celsius) – just like my last three visits! Bad to worse, the train ran late by half an hour and when I arrived at the JFK Library for my meeting with Karen Abramson, Head of Archives, building works nearby had cut their cable to the outside world. So, with no computers, no phones, and no voicemail, the friendly docent (US word for volunteer) at Reception did not have any mobile numbers, couldn’t look them up and didn’t have access to ‘go fetch’ Karen, and the security officer didn’t have a radio and couldn’t leave his post.

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Dinner on an aircraft carrier: Remembering the Battle of the Coral Sea

Last Thursday I had the privilege to attend the commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the Battle of the Coral Sea on board USS Intrepid, a WWII aircraft carrier, where the museum’s new documentary Clash of the Carriers, premiered in front of Prime Minister of Australia, Malcolm Turnbull and Mrs Turnbull, President of the United States, Donald and Mrs Trump, veterans of the battle and 700 guests.

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BIG IS BETTER: ‘Ovation of the Seas’ comes to Australia.

No help needed. Image: David Payne / ANMM.

No help needed. Image: David Payne / ANMM.

Big is best,
Big wins
Big is like – OMG – gigantic
Big is beautiful!

Look what’s outside my hotel window in Hobart: Ovation of the Seasone of the biggest ocean cruise ships in the world. It’s here, you can’t miss it, it seems longer than the docks, wider than the widest sea, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound – anything goes in this department.

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‘Freedom or Death!’ in Bali

Balinese Independence hero Ngurah Rai features on the 50000 rupiah bank note

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.

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Of ships, stones and graves

Viking boat prows, Roskilde, Denmark

Viking boat prows, Roskilde Vikingeskibsmuseet, Denmark

This is part of a series by Curator Dr Stephen Gapps who received an Endeavour Executive Fellowship from April to July 2016. Stephen is based at the Swedish History Museum and the National Maritime Museum (including the Vasa Museum) in Stockholm, Sweden. He is working on several Viking Age and other maritime history and archaeology related projects.

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.

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Boats in Sulawesi: An illustrated journey

Fishing port, Ampana. Image: Richard Gregory.

Fishing port, Ampana. Image: Richard Gregory.

A glimpse of some traditional boats: Fifty-six days in Sulawesi, Indonesia, 2015 

This visit began in Manado at the northern tip of the Indonesian island of Sulawesi and included a ferry journey from Gorontalo to Ampana via the Togean Islands, a week’s stay in Tentena on the shores of Lake Poso, three weeks in the Toraja highlands, a few days in Makassar and four days at Bira Beach on the southern tip of Sulawesi.

Throughout much of the journey I rendered many drawings directly from life and they include a number of studies of traditional boats. It’s these images that I wish to share along with these notes, visuals and maps about boatbuilding in Sulawesi, and its wider context.

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Ghost Ships and a travelling man: Amazing wrecks in the Baltic Sea

Diving on the 1660 wreck of Resande Mannen. In the foreground are a bronze sheave and a box with square medicine glass bottles, nestled between two deck beams. Photograph Jens Lindström May 2016

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’.

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A single-object museum? The Vasa shipwreck

Vasa shipwreck

This is part of a series by Curator Dr Stephen Gapps who received an Endeavour Executive Fellowship from April to July 2016. Stephen is based at the Swedish History Museum and the National Maritime Museum (including the Vasa Museum) in Stockholm, Sweden. He is working on several Viking Age and other maritime history and archaeology related projects.

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.

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The walking dead – bringing 1500 year-old graves to life

dudes

This is part of a series by Curator Dr Stephen Gapps who received an Endeavour Executive Fellowship from April to July 2016. Stephen is based at the Swedish History Museum and the National Maritime Museum (including the Vasa Museum) in Stockholm, Sweden. He is working on several Viking Age and other maritime history and archaeology related projects

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.

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From Birka to Bjorn Ironside – Working with Viking Age archaeology

Viking Age burial mounds at Birka, Sweden

Viking Age burial mounds at Birka, Sweden

This is part of a series by Curator Dr Stephen Gapps who received an Endeavour Executive Fellowship from April to July 2016. Stephen is based at the Swedish History Museum and the National Maritime Museum (including the Vasa Museum) in Stockholm, Sweden. He is working on several Viking Age and other maritime history and archaeology related projects

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.

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What did you do for International Viking Day?

A Viking Age picture stone in the Gotlands museum

A Viking Age picture stone in the Gotlands museum

This is part of a series by Curator Dr Stephen Gapps who received an Endeavour Executive Fellowship from April to July 2016. Stephen is based at the Swedish History Museum and the National Maritime Museum (including the Vasa Museum) in Stockholm, Sweden. He is working on several Viking Age and other maritime history and archaeology related projects.

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.

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Maritime archaeology at the Viking Age site of Birka

A small selection of maritime Birka finds

A small selection of maritime Birka finds

This is part of a series by ANMM curator Dr Stephen Gapps who received an Endeavour Executive Fellowship from April to July 2016. Stephen is based at the Swedish History Museum, the National Maritime Museum and the Vasa Museum in Stockholm, Sweden. He will be posting regular blog updates about Viking Age history and archaeology over the next few weeks under the blog category Journeys.

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.

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