Oldest shipwreck back in focus

Archaeologists investigating the wreck of the colonial South Australian barque near Victor Harbor have published a new article about the English vessel.

In the Historical Archaeology journal, Flinders University graduate Dr James Hunter, from the Australian National Maritime Museum (ANMM), and colleagues provide fresh insights into South Australia’s oldest known European shipwreck which holds clues to some of the State’s early settlement and whaling history.

Flinders University Associate Lecturer of Archaeology Dr James Hunter, ANMM’s Curator of Naval Heritage and Archaeology, 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.

While a sizeable percentage of South Australian’s surviving fabric remains buried, recent seabed changes are uncovering the site which reinforces the need for additional investigation and inquiry and the need for future site exploration and stabilisation efforts.”

Broken stoneware mineral water jug under the South Australian’s bow (Photo by Irini Malliaros; courtesy of SAILS)

While weather and water visibility impeded efforts to complete the 3D photogrammetric survey of South Australian in late-2022, imagery from this and prior surveys has since been used to generate a digital 3D model of most of the site. This in turn will form the basis of a virtual reality experience currently under development at Germany’s University of Applied Sciences, Kaiserslautern.

The vessel is also the subject of a graphic novel based on research and archival sources, including the original logbook, which will bring its story to vivid life for new audiences.

The team’s work continues, and they aim to conduct further archaeological investigation of South Australian and finish the photogrammetric survey during the latter half of 2023.

Ongoing work at the site has included comprehensive documentation of exposed hull components and targeted recovery of at-risk diagnostic artefacts. A small selection of objects was also mapped in place and recovered. The items include a gun flint, decorated ceramic fragments, ship’s fasteners, glass bottles and a whetstone used to sharpen tools. All are currently undergoing conservation.

Interpretive signage overlooking South Australian’s wreck site on the Encounter Bay foreshore. (Photo James Hunter, courtesy of SAILS)

Assisted by the not-for-profit Silentworld Foundation, archaeological investigation of the South Australian which was wrecked in 1837 has continued in Encounter Bay since its discovery in 2018. The wreck site project team includes members of the ANMM, Silentworld, the SA Maritime Museum, SA’s Department for Environment and Water, Flinders University and the Flinders Maritime Archaeology Program (MaP) fund.

Originally a postal packet called Marquess of Salisbury, which delivered mail between England and far-flung outposts of the British Empire from 1820, the vessel later operated as a British naval packet, named HMP Swallow, before being procured by the South Australian Company, which re-named the ship South Australian.

The ship was designed to carry a huge amount of sail on a relatively small hull for maximum speed. While it transported approximately 80 immigrants to the new colony, its primary function was as a ‘cutting-in’ vessel, or flensing platform, where blubber was removed from harpooned whales as part of the shore-based whaling industry at Encounter Bay.

While loaded with whale oil and readying for departure to Hobart, South Australian was caught in a south easterly gale and wrecked on 8 December 1837. There were no fatalities, and the ship ultimately broke up and was forgotten until the 1990s, when it was the subject of two unsuccessful shipwreck surveys conducted by the South Australian government.

Data collected during these expeditions and archival information helped the research team to establish a new search area that led to South Australian’s discovery 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.

Covid-19 travel restrictions interrupted further visits to South Australian for two years, but in 2022 maritime archaeologists from the ANMM and an archaeological conservator from the Silentworld Foundation, accompanied by volunteers, returned to continue work at the site. Photogrammetric 3D recording was carried out in conjunction with site mapping. The team also conducted a comprehensive conservation assessment to determine the wreck site’s level of preservation and suggest strategies for its continued protection.

The article, Unearthing South Australia’s Oldest Known Shipwreck: The Bark South Australian (1837) by JW Hunter III, K Hosty, R Bullers, I Malliaros, A Paterson, C Wilson, T Zapor, K Jerbic and W van Duivenvoorde has been published in Historical Archaeology https://doi.org/10.1007/s41636-023-00403-5.

The  Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment and Water supports the Commonwealth component of the South Australian Historic Shipwrecks Program, including field investigations of South Australian and development of its conservation management plan.

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