Mt. Dutton Bay Maritime Archaeology Field School: one student’s experience

By Pete Colvin

Each year Flinders University runs a maritime archaeology field school as a part of its commitment to student skills development. This year was no exception: from the 31st January to 12th February 2011, an intensive period of field work was conducted in the Mount Dutton Bay region. In previous visits made to this area Mount Dutton Bay was known to have significant historic and maritime cultural heritage potential. It was from these previous visits that the 2011 field school developed, its aim was to conduct further survey and excavation work on the historic shipwreck Caprice and to further develop and understand the maritime cultural landscape of the area.

Mt. Dutton Bay Maritime Archaeology Field School students and staff, 2011

Mount Dutton Bay is situated in the waterways of Coffin Bay which is located on the southern coastal tip of South Australia’s Eyre Peninsula. The site is roughly 52kms northwest of Port Lincoln on the Flinders Highway and approximately 750 kilometres west of Adelaide. The field work was conducted by 14 students, the majority being maritime archaeology masters students, although, there where some archaeology undergraduates and other disciplines (marine sciences) student involved. This year’s field school was lucky enough to have volunteer support with a wide array of skills and expertise to help with the field work and student development. Fourteen individuals took part as supervisors during the two-week period, these individuals range from staff of Flinders University and the maritime archaeology program, current and past Flinders students (master and PhD candidates), and practicing archaeological professionals.

Students learning how to dredge Cassandra Morris (left), Josh Jones (middle left), Zidian James (middle right), Denise Kuijlaars (right), photograph courtesy of Darren Cooper 2011.

Student involvement was based on two teams conducting diving operations assessing the jetty and Caprice and a terrestrial team surveying the surrounding area of the Mount Dutton Bay Jetty and Woolshed. For the two-week period a diving system was established where the teams would be assigned to either the jetty or Caprice for a week. The teams were required to create diving or fieldwork plans for assessing each site, establishing what methods to be used, why they were chosen, what information they trying to obtain and why. By giving the students more managerial considerations it allowed them to gain a different insight into conducting fieldwork only often felt by supervisors and project leaders. Each team was also required to have a team leader each day that would be responsible not only for the diving paper work, but also the organisation of the team on that day and for the next, as well as making sure that all tasks were completed or on track to be completed from that day’s diving.

Work on Caprice also had set tasks that were vital to the development of other projects outside of the field school program. The work conducted on Caprice was designed to help a current Flinders master student’s thesis project, which is trying to determine the history of this vessel and its construction and relating this to the wider use and development of cutter rigged vessels used and built-in Australia. As a result this student’s focus was in all aspects of the work conducted on Caprice and was diving for both weeks on this site. This was a great benefit to the student and shows how Flinders promotes students’ involvement in projects and allows them to become deeply involved in projects taking on more responsibilities.

During this two-week period students had the opportunity to use and conduct basic survey or recording methods like arc searches, jack stay corridor searches, trilateration, baseline offsets, total station work, as well as plan and profile drawings. Throughout the field school students were granted opportunities to conduct and use a wider array of underwater operations and equipment beyond the scope of non-disturbance surveys. The ability of Flinders to offer experience in activities that are not offered on many other projects is a great advantage to the students. Students were involved in conducting metal detector searches, probe surveys, excavation using a dredge, photographic recording, and biological surveys.

The field school experience was not only based on the diving work or fieldwork, emphasis was placed on students being involved in many different areas of the project. Anything from preparation of equipment, clean up of work areas and accommodation, tank fills, and post fieldwork analysis. It soon became clear that the day does not finish when the diving or field work stops and that just as much time needs to be carried out on assessing and re-recording the information collected. This was carried out in many different ways like photographic copies, drawn records, setting up a database for finds, and continual research. Each team was also given responsibility for their own diving paperwork, and to determine individual’s availability to conduct dives under DCIEM tables. It was made clear that it was the responsibility of all individuals to make sure that health and safety procedures were adhered to.

The result of the work conducted during the 2011 field school has produced some interesting information about the substantial construction features of the wreck. The initial inspections and biological surveys had noticed that this site has some wood borer deterioration, however, the timbers protruding from the surface are still in reasonably good condition. A probe survey was conducted around the main timber (believed to be the keel), but unfortunately no timber “hits” were recorded. The survey was extended to the northwest of the main timber were finds and other materials were recorded in 2009. This area proved to have some timber returns on this survey and it was decided to conduct the first excavation unit in this area. This was designated Unit 1 which produce substantial clinker planking and frames, on an east and west orientation.

A further four units were excavated in this area; three produced little in the way of timber construction with only a few broken and burnt pieces. The last unit excavated designated Unit 5 showed a continuation of the features from Unit 1, Unit 5 construction changed as the framing doubled and became bigger. This could indicate an area in the vessel that would have been under greater stress and needed more support, possibly either the bow or stern of the vessel or where the mast would have been located. The artefacts throughout the excavation consisted largely of burnt pieces of timber, fasteners, and different types of ballast and concretions. There were some interesting artefacts like a rigging toggle, a brass hinge, lead roll possibly used for repairs, glass, fasteners, and wire rope are just some of the artefacts recorded during excavation. All artefacts were recorded in the places they were found (quadrants in each unit) then recorded on land and returned to each unit. At the end of all the work the site was backfilled using a combination of sand bags and loose sand.Other surveys like the metal detector and arc searches provided some interesting details. Very limited metal finds were found around the main timber, which could indicate that there was limited timber around that feature, as degraded wood would leave a trace of the metal fasteners behind. It should be noted that although there were a few hits recorded with this search very few actually produced artefacts once investigated. The arc searches showed there was a scattering of timber and fasteners around the area of the wreck site. One find was of considerable interest found near Units 1 and 5 which had a semi circular hole cut in it and is possibly associated with mast construction.

Throughout this process the importance of continually doing research became evident, particularly when a document turned up that stated that Caprice was actually a Carvel built vessel. This produces an intriguing question: do we indeed have the Caprice or another vessel entirely? What is a certainty is that more background and historical research are needed for this site. Further local knowledge was also invaluable to this site as a construction detail on the main keel timber – which confused even the more experienced supervisors – was identified by a local. The feature which was at first was believed to be a centre board was in fact a construction feature of fishing wells called a “baffle.” Again there is a difference between fact and what someone tells you but it is important to use this knowledge to do more research about these features, to determine if what you have been told is accurate or not.

What is clear is that this project would not be possible without the involvement and work put in by the Maritime Archaeology Program and Flinders University staff. As well as those professionals who volunteer their time (often at cost to them) to help on these projects, their experience, expertise, and knowledge is an invaluable resource to student education, and the development of the future of the maritime archaeology.

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2 responses to “Mt. Dutton Bay Maritime Archaeology Field School: one student’s experience

  1. Great job on the post Pete! It was an amazing 2 weeks.

  2. Jason Raupp

    Nice one Pete!