The Survivor’s Guide to Practicum: One Man’s Journey to Maritime Fieldwork Enlightenment

The staff and students of the Advanced Maritime Practicum 2011. From Left: Dennis Wilson, Zidian James, Safwan Jalil, Kurt Bennett, Jennifer McKinnon, Danielle Wilkinson, Maddie Fowler, Maddie MacAllister, Purdina Guerra, Wendy van Duivenvoorde, Cass Morris, Ania Legra.

Posted by Dennis Wilson, MMA Student

From July 3rd to the 11th the Maritime Archaeology Program held its Advanced Field Practicum (Arch8156) for 2011. This year the course would be held in Port MacDonnell, historically South Australia’s most southerly port and home to a myriad of historically significant shipwrecks of the nineteenth century. The purpose of the practicum was two-fold, to gather information on an unidentified wreck in the area, as well as map and record the historic jetty in an attempt to better understand the maritime infrastructure of the historic town and surrounding area. The research required on these sites did not require any diving, so Flinders University  waived the prerequisite field school experience that was necessary to enroll in this class. This presented a unique opportunity for myself, since I had not had the experience of a maritime field school. Needless to say, going on my first maritime expedition under these circumstances was daunting, and left me feeling as though I wish there was some better way to prepare mysel for what was in store. I can’t help but feel that many young maritime archaeologists have found themselves having similar feelings before their first trips into the field, and for that reason I have chosen to provide what little wisdom I have gained in an attempt to  terrify ease the eager minds of future maritime archaeologists.

Listed below are a collection helpful hints concerning fieldwork in the Australian winter, I hope you find them to be of use as you prepare for the experience of a lifetime.

Packing Your Bag: You’re Going to Get Wet, and There is No Dryer Where You’re Going.

It is a common misconception that all of Australia experiences sub-tropical climates the entire year through. Now, this may not be helpful to the Aussies reading, but that tid bit may have convinced an unknowing Canadian to pack more than two pairs of pants for the duration of his stay here. Similar notions should apply for packing for practicum, in the case of Port MacDonnell, located in the same state and only a six hour (more like four hours if we let Maddie Macallister drive the entire way) drive from Adelaide. While the cool days in Adelaide are intermingled with small rainfalls that smatter the sidewalks, Port MacDonnell experiences regular winds that I would say fall between “very strong” and “gale force” and rainfalls that come down in such strength that it feels like you’re being struck by hale… which, coincidently, is also a common feature of the Port MacDonnell weather.

In weather that is strong enough to knock even Cass Morris  a seasoned archaeologist off the jetty, there are a few items I suggest you bring to make the trip a little more comfortable for everyone. Firstly and most importantly is socks, it sounds obvious, but I found myself wishing that myself and others had brought several extra pairs of socks in such trying times. There is little that is quite as satisfying as a warm pair of woolies to put on after a long day in the wind and rain. If you’re lacking extra pairs of socks, hanging your wet socks to dry in a room you share with three others can and will cause that room to smell like gym locker.

When I imagined the excavation process for a beached wreck, I thought of shovels and trowels, generally such archaeological tools I’ve always associated with terrestrial excavations. For this reason I packed my bag with the anticipatory work boots and warm clothes, but what I didn’t expect was the probe surveying that we conducted on the wreck site because unseasonably high tides prevented any excavation. While I’ll explain the probe survey more below, the take away lesson for packing your bag is that bringing a wetsuit when going on a maritime practicum is never a bad idea.

When Archaeologists’ Make Plans, The Archaeology Gods Laugh: Accounting for the Factors that are out of one’s control.

Arriving at the wreck site on our first day the idea of having a backup plan was taught in passing, as our arrival was greeted by high tides that forced our crew to simply relocate datums before calling it a day and spending the rest of our day surveying areas of coast and visiting “Carl’s Maritime Museum.” When we arrived at the wreck site on the second day and found similar tidal conditions, the importance of having other work to do became ingrained. Luckily, places like the Port MacDonnell Public Library or the Maritime Museum were very welcoming in times like these, and members of the crew were able to be productive tracking down historic documents and photographs. Others spent time recording anchors for the Big Anchor Project, or other historic items. The rest made our way to the beloved jetty to help gather data for Purdina Guerra’s Masters thesis on the maritime infrastructure of the area.

Having spent all of my life in jobs that work outdoors I understand the correlation between good weather and good results, however the complexities of maritime data collection magnifies this relationship. Factors like weather, tides, and availability of equipment are limiting factors when doing fieldwork, and when working with a time constraint, you’ll have to do away with backup plans and get whatever data the conditions allow for. I learned this fact on the last day of fieldwork, when we made the decision to finish the probe survey that was started the day before. Now, I should explain that a probe survey systematically tests for wood remains under the sand to a depth of 50 centimeters at predetermined intervals to determine site size. In our particular case, it was two-meter intervals to a length of 27 meters from the baseline. To accomplish this, crewmembers would be placed along the tape to maintain a straight line while the metal probe moved down the tape either yielding positive or negative results at each two-meter mark. What I didn’t know at the beginning of the survey was how far into the break 27 meters would place the end of the tape… and apparently neither did Wan Jalil. We foolishly bravely volunteered to hold the tape steady at the 27 meter mark and found ourselves knee deep in the frigid waters. We had to laugh at the ridiculousness of our situation, but it wasn’t until the first wave crashed over Wan’s shoulders that I realized was both the most miserable and entertaining place on the line to be. Nevertheless, the lesson I walked away from after being struck by the cool and refreshing breaks was that while someone has to hold the tape, you probably shouldn’t volunteer for that position.

Kneel, Measure, Repeat: Recording of Historic Structures Isn’t as Simple as a Walk on the Jetty.

Port MacDonnell Jetty was completed in 1863 and currently stands at a length of 296 meters.

Stepping onto the Port MacDonnell Jetty for the first time, I was oblivious to the sheer number of measurements that would be taken on the structure over the coming days. Coming from a mostly Native American archaeology background this was my first crash course lesson on recording historic structures.  I spent the first three days on the jetty recording every bolt, joint, kerb, pipe, and bolt hole in the first 95 meters of the jetty with Ania Legra and needless to say after a few days in the high winds yelling out measurements that inevitably blend together you tend to lose a tiny bit of sanity, which helps to explain the photograph of Ania included below.

Eventually the holwing winds claimed a small piece of Ania's sanity, which she promptly reclaimed by placing a bucket on her head to get out of the wind.

These measurements of bolts, joints, kerbs, pipes, and bolt holes were not the only features of the jetty recorded. Over the course of the week, every pylon was measured from the baseline, GPSd , and then DGPSd. Sketches of detailed sections of the planking at both the middle and the end of the jetty, structural sketches of the piles, cross-beams, and bracing at the middle and the end of the jetty and sketches of the handrail. Offset measurements at an interval of five meters were also recorded for the entire jetty, and photographs of identifying features of the jetty and surrounding area. These photographs include a photo mosaic of a detailed section that was sketched.

We were lucky enough to have Amer Khan, the state Maritime Archaeologist for South Australia join us and lend his expertise and teach us to use the Differential Global Positioning System (DGPS) in order to more accurately record both of our projects. Wan and myself were lucky enough to receive Amer’s tutelage on the DGPS and were responsible for recording the pylons of the jetty, and the datums and features of the shipwreck. It was an excellent opportunity for myself, and Iwas grateful for the chance to learn to use a technology I previously had only cursory interaction with. The only downside to the DGPS was that it only recorded the postions using the geodetic system, and would eventually have to be changed to UTM (Universal Transverse Mercator) measurements.

DGPS recording of Port MacDonnell Jetty

Wan Jalil and myself taking DGPS readings of the Port MacDonnell Jetty.

The sheer amount of raw data recorded over the week was enough to make your head spin, and of course having all these measurements and GPS points recorded in various notebooks would not have been a proper way to hand it over to those using the data, which brings me to my next point.

Processing Data: The All Encompassing Term that will be Waiting for you the Moment you Leave the Field with a Hot Coffee and an Excel Spreadsheet.

After you’re driven from the field by torrential rains or high tides, the data you collected will have to be transferred from the makeshift, frozen fingered tables you threw together in your field notebook to something legible to anyone besides yourself. This means if you’re not comfortable with excel spreadsheets, you’ll learn heaps before you pack up to come home. I reckon I spent the better part of four hours each night deciphering my field notes and organizing them the best way I saw fit in an excel spreadsheet before handing them over to whoever was unlucky enough to be compiling the data. In the case of the five meter interval offset measurements taken, I had proudly organized them into an excel spreadsheet before handing them to Danielle Wilkinson, who planned to add them to her already existing spreadsheet of five meter intervals taken from other parts of the jetty. When she showed me how she had organized her data, I realized there was another problem. Everyone organizes data in their own way, so if you’re unlucky enough to compile data, you’d better brew another coffee and let your eyes adjust to your computer screen so you don’t go cross-eyed… again.

If you’ve managed to avoid inputting your data into a spreadsheet, there are many other ways to contribute while in the cottage we called home for the week. Just ask Kurt Bennett, who was lucky enough to spend the majority of his time over the first few days sketching various anchors and cannons that were recorded earlier in the week. Others who had spent their time in the field photographing had to download their photographs, and rename them with all the pertinent information. Or in the case of Maddie Fowler, who conducted several interviews over the course of week to gather oral histories for her honors thesis, spent many afternoons transcribing those interviews. In my particular case, Wan and I spent the better part of two days creating an excel spreadsheet of geodetic data recorded from the DGPS, and learning how to transfer these to UTM data in the Geo Calculator program. While reading over that previous sentence, I can’t help but feel it is an oversimplification of the hair pulling frustration that transcribing the geodetic data into a format that is Geo Calculator friendly, but I digress. I’m not entirely sure it wouldn’t have been successfully converted if it weren’t for help from our supervisors, which brings me to my next wise words.

Help Comes from Unlikely Places: Sometimes the Best Research is Simply Sitting and Listening.

When we arrived in Port MacDonnell, I was picturing the majority of our research taking place in the field, using shovels and measuring tapes. I quickly learned that this was only one dimension of valuable knowledge that can be extracted while in the field. Interviews conducted with members of the Port MacDonnell community painted a complex picture of the relationship between the community and the influence of the maritime infrastructure over generations, while also allowing those individuals to share artifacts and photographs that are paramount to constructing a more complex archaeological context. I also learned a valuable lesson from a young Port MacDonnell native named Carl Von Stanke, that expertise in a particular field can come in many shapes and forms. The 13 year old was well versed in the history of the area, had knowledge of each shipwreck along the coastline, and had recorded all the information he’d gathered in a set of binders that contained enough information to rival any thesis that could be written on the maritime culture of the area. With the guidance of his father Gary, an amateur historian in his own right, Carl had collected enough artifacts and information to open his own small maritime museum on the Von Stanke property, aptly named “Carl’s Maritime Museum”.

Gary Von Stanke, Wendy van Duivenvoorde, and Amer Khan swap stories while at "Carl's Maritime Museum".

The Port MacDonnell Maritime Museum also proved to be of great help, providing historic photographs and containing valuable artifacts from local shipwrecks as well as historical documents. We all felt welcomed by friendly volunteers and staff who answered all of our questions and shared their knowledge readily with us. It was through these sources that a more complete picture of both the shipwrecks and the community came into focus, and offered a dimension to the fieldwork that would have been lost if we had relied solely on the archaeological record.

Being stuck in a cottage with my professors was a far more pleasant experience than I had anticipated. In fact, I daresay I enjoyed the time spent with my fellow students and my professors. I was lucky enough to get to spend some time speaking with Jen and Wendy about their previous experiences in the field and listened intently to any advice they had to give not only about the fieldwork we were doing, but also ideas for future research opportunities and career advice.  A piece of advice to those who go into the field, Jen McKinnon enjoys a good old fashion practical joke from time to time, and once the look of fear on her face disappears I’m pretty sure she’ll vow revenge  laugh… if only on the inside.

And so it is with great relief I conclude my advice/recounting of my first maritime field experience. I hope that those who have managed their way through this lengthy blog post have learned a little something and feel more comfortable setting off on their first field experience. Just remember, the water is fine, so jump right in.


A special thanks to Jen McKinnon and Wendy van Duivenvoorde for supervising this year’s Advanced Practicum. The Von Stanke family, especially Carl and Gary for their wonderful hospitality and sharing their time and knowledge with us. To Periwinkles Café for patiently serving a dozen frozen students warm coffee at 10am every morning. To the entire Port MacDonnell community, who made us all feel very welcome over the eight days we spent in their quiet town on the coast. Lastly to the crew I was lucky enough to spend my time with everyday, it was an experience I will not soon forget.

4 responses to “The Survivor’s Guide to Practicum: One Man’s Journey to Maritime Fieldwork Enlightenment

  1. This is really good dennis! Highly amusing. Cheers for revealing my ‘slip’ off the jetty. I also note that you appear to have raided my photo stash. Cant wait for the next adventure.

  2. Connie Wilson

    wonderfully entertaining with good insight into the whole process! For those of us with no archeological background, your animated description was reader friendly and fun! Great job!!!

  3. Nancy Renaud

    Well done Dennis!!!!! I thoroughly enjoyed reading your insightful and amusing blog as well as seeing all the pictures. Look forward to more of them in the near future. Stay safe and healthy!!!!

  4. mickmorrison

    Thank you, Dennis, for such a great post that is both really quite helpful and very funny. I look forward to more!