Shipwreck gives up secrets even as it’s being reclaimed by the ocean

Maritime archaeologists surveying one of South Australia’s most important colonial shipwrecks say the remains are being covered over by seabed sediment – and they couldn’t be happier.

On 8 December 1837 the barque South Australian, loaded with whale oil and ready for departure to Hobart, was caught in a south easterly gale and wrecked in a bay off Victor Harbor, on South Australia’s southern coast.

There were no fatalities, and the ship ultimately broke up, and was then scavenged by local European and Indigenous inhabitants.  It was forgotten until the 1990s, when a few searches were undertaken by South Australia’s maritime heritage agency, but wasn’t rediscovered in April 2018.

Remnants of the ship exposed above the seabed included timber framing and hull planking, copper keel bolts, and fragments of glass and pottery.

At the time Dr James Hunter, the Australian National Maritime Museum’s Curator of Naval Heritage and Archaeology, was worried that seabed changes were uncovering the wreck, and he called for efforts to stabilise the site to ensure its future preservation.

He  says “The South Australian’s historical and archaeological significance cannot be overstated.

“As South Australia’s oldest recorded European shipwreck, and one of its earliest immigration vessels, it has the potential to enhance our understanding of the state’s initial colonisation and occupation—including the establishment of extractive mercantile activities, such as shore-based whaling and interactions between European colonists and Aboriginal people.

“Similarly, the site’s distinction as one of only two (former) 19th-century British sailing-packet shipwrecks to undergo archaeological scrutiny brings an international dimension to its significance.”

In the past five years or so the seabed has gradually reclaimed South Australian.

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Basal fragment of Derbyshire stoneware jug in situ. (Photo by Irini Malliaros; courtesy of SAILS.)

“The shipwreck has naturally covered back over in several spots, so it is not in as precarious a condition as it was back in 2018 and 2019,” Hunter told Cosmos this week.

“At that time, the site was uncovering rapidly, and our concern was that its fragile organic components —such as hull timbers — would be exposed to natural processes such as sand scour, marine predation, and wave action.

“There are several options available to stabilise submerged historic shipwreck sites, but the common goal among all of them is to completely bury the surviving hull and artefacts in sediment, and occasionally other material such as sandbags and geotextile, as it creates a stable, deoxygenated environment.”

The wreck is not much more than a good swim offshore and is certainly accessible by snorkellers and scuba divers.

“In terms of human impacts, it may come as a bit of a surprise, but we’re less concerned about the site being looted by divers, as its proximity to shore means it is under near-constant surveillance by the local community — many of whom recognise South Australian’s heritage significance and are very protective of it.”

Shipwreck off Tasmania

Hunter is excited about prospects for the wreck to continue to deliver insights into colonial maritime heritage.

“The surviving hull and its associated artefacts can be instructive as to the types of ships that were engaged in colonial activities such as whaling, how they were outfitted, and the composition of their crew.“

South Australian was not originally built for whaling, but was adapted to that task, and there may be surviving elements of its hull construction that demonstrate specific modifications that made it fit for purpose, he says.

“We know from archival sources that the vessel’s lower hold was flooded when it wrecked and was therefore inaccessible and couldn’t be salvaged. There may be equipment and other implements associated with whaling that remain buried in the surviving hull that tell us what it was specifically outfitted with to perform its whaling role.

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Fragment of decorated pearlware. (Photo: Irini Malliaros/SAILS).

“We’ve already encountered artefacts—such as glass bottles and ceramic fragments—that provide an indication of the crew’s socioeconomic status. For example, we’ve found decorated pottery in the midships/stern section that is indicative of one or more individuals with some degree of wealth, and refined taste that might not necessarily be expected for a whaling ship’s crew.

“The way we can ‘unearth’ that potential is to continue to visit the shipwreck site, document it as extensively as possible, and analyse and interpret data—in the form of the surviving hull and artefacts—in conjunction with ongoing historical research.”

Hunter and colleagues have published a new article about South Australian in the scholarly journal Historical Archaeology. He has also worked with another colleague in Germany to develop a graphic novel and virtual reality experience about the shipwreck and its history.

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