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The Killer Coast of Kangaroo Island

By Lynda Bignell
Masters Candidate, Flinders University, South Australia

In September 2011 I was invited to do some research on a maritime archaeology project on Kangaroo Island, South Australia.  This opportunity arose from me expressing my interest in coastal archaeology to Jennifer McKinnon, lecturer at Flinders University.

I was to work with Amer Khan, maritime archaeologist at DEWNR (Department of Environment, Water and Natural Resources), South Australia, on a project investigating coastal archaeology on a section of Kangaroo Island from Cape Borda to Cape du Couedic.  In particular, we were investigating four shipwrecks along that coast.  These were the Emily Smith (1877), the Mars (1885), the Loch Sloy (1899) and the Loch Vennachar(1905).  These are well known shipwrecks and the task was focussed on finding the graves of the victims of the Loch Sloy shipwreck.

Funding had been acquired from the Commonwealth Government for projects involving coastal archaeology, in an attempt to learn more about the coastal history and archaeology of Australia.  Other research volunteers, who were already working on the project were Terry Smith and Adrian Brown.

My first task was to follow up some enquiries that Adrian Brown had initiated with State Records at the facility at Gepps Cross, Adelaide.   I had used the State Records facility in the city a few years ago, and it was easy to re-activate my membership card.  The archivists were very helpful, both in instructing me in the use of the database search system and suggesting other resources that could be helpful.

There were two obvious resources that could have given us information on the location of the graves.  These were the official inquiry records and the coroner’s report.  The coroner’s report was quickly discounted as these records had been recycled in World War II.  The inquiry records proved to be more useful, and I photographed each page, as reading it there would have been too time consuming.   These records are handwritten and obviously written at the time of the inquiry, making the writing more and more illegible.  However, they produced a lot of useful information that would lead to further sources of information.

The inquiry included information about the ship, the crew, the cargo and the passengers and its movements from Glasgow to Adelaide.  The Loch Sloy was owned by the Glasgow Shipping Company and was part of a fleet including the Loch Vennachar, which also sank in this area off Kangaroo Island.  The inquiry interviewed people associated with the shipwreck including the apprentice Simpson, one of the survivors.  It also gave an indication as to where the ship had foundered, which was of particular interest to the project group.

In my next blog, I will talk about the oral histories we conducted and how we met the descendants of the May family, who assisted the survivors, and also how easy it is to become addicted to Trove, the online newspaper resource of the National Library of Australia.

Searching for a Saint’s Stables (a tale of one site, two trenches, seven days of excavation, 16 archaeologists, 100 primary school students and hundreds of domestic artefacts)

Sarah Nahabedian excavating in Trench A

Mary MacKillop may be Australia’s first saint, but a core part of her story revolves around her passion for providing schooling for all children.  At Penola she and her two sisters began teaching the Catholic children of the district in their own cottage, then the church, and finally a disused stables owned by William McDonald on an allotment at the corner of Queen and Bowden Streets.  The stables were only used as a school for one year between 1866 and May 1867 until a purpose-built school was ready, but it was on the 19th March 1866 that Mary is generally acknowledged to have begun to lead a religious life.  This is the date that the Sisters of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart is officially recognised as being founded (, giving the site of the stables a critical role to play in the Mary MacKillop story.  The property remained in the McDonald family until 1925 when it was transferred to The Congregation of the Sisters of Saint Joseph of the Sacred Heart, South Australia Inc.  The stables were demolished sometime between 1909 and 1925 and the site is now known as MacKillop Memorial Park.

How many archaeologists does it take to survey a site ...?

We excavated one trench at the front of the block (where a previous electromag survey had identified a ‘hot spot’.  In the end this turned out to be the limestone bedrock that gives the Limestone Coast its name and nothing to do with archaeological artefact signatures) and two at the rear, hoping to intersect the site of the stables.  Trench A at the front turned out to be the photogenic trench and contained the majority of artefacts, but Trench B kept the classes from the Mary MacKillop Memorial School enthused for days by giving them the chance to excavate a real site.  We now know that it’s possible to fit at least a dozen kids in a 2 x 2m trench, along with four archaeologists, without crowding.

Black glass ‘whistle’ button recovered from Trench A

Hardly a day went by without visitors to the excavation, almost all of whom had watched Time Team and were excited just to see the process of archaeology in action.  Some were driving through Penola en route to Melbourne or Adelaide (one couple had come from Perth, heard about it on the radio and decided to drop in on their way), others were locals who remembered the site.  One visitor was the great grandson of William McDonald, who originally owned the allotment and allowed Mary MacKillop to use the stables as a temporary school, another was a council worker who helped landscape it into a park in 1971; two others had played on the block as children in the 1920s and 30s.  All of them were curious to know more about what we were doing and what we’d found.

Kerosene lamp base in situ in Trench A

Despite the rain (and the cold) everyone persevered and worked to excavate a wide range of domestic items, including ceramic and glass fragments, black facetted glass buttons, glass and ceramic beads, shell buttons, copper alloy hooks and eyes, thimbles, pins, a lamp base and coins dating variously from 1839, 1860 and the 1870s.  Because the artefact bearing layers were mainly clay, we wet sieved most of Trench A’s deposits, recovering many (many) tiny glass beads, some so small that they lodged in the 2mm mesh of the smallest sieves.

A carved bone artefact from ... you guessed it ... Trench A. Is it part of a tambour hook, a crochet hook, a lace making bobbin, or something else?

Some of the most interesting items in terms of our original goal were the 20 or so slate pencils, most of which were recovered from Trench A (the single one that was recovered from Trench B towards the very end of the excavations prompted cheering), along with small fragments of possible writing slate.

We didn’t find the location of the stables building (the concensus by the end of the week was that it was most likely located in the one third of the block that we didn’t excavate), but the high number of slate pencils does suggest a schooling function for the site.  Slate fragments, slate pencils (sometimes wax, graphite and steatite pencils as well), buttons, pins, marbles and stoneware ink bottles are all common finds on school house sites in the US (see papers in Beisaw and Gibb 2009 The Archaeology of Institutional Life), as well as Australia.  They are also found on ordinary domestic (house) sites as well, although in fewer numbers.  William McDonald also ran a school at Penola, however, so we can’t be certain yet whether these items relate to Mary MacKillop’s time there or not.

Shaun Adams being interviewed by James Wakelin from TEN News

The Team:  Shaun Adams, Rhiannon Agutter, Susan Arthure, Angeline Buckler, Cherrie Delieuen, Samantha Fidge, Rikke Hammer, Mark Hoey, Sarah Hutchinson, Scott Jacob, Clare Leevers, Sarah Nahabedian, Vanessa Orange, Rachel Power, Hayley Prentice and Chantal Wight.

You can see the TEN and Nine network television news coverage of the excavations (including interviews with Clare, Shaun and Sister Chris) here.

Sister Chris in action in Trench A (hat courtesy of Shaun Adams)

We would like to thank the wonderful Penola community for their support of the project (especially Tony for loaning us his shed and Sisters Chris and Mary from the Sisters of St Joseph for their wonderful hand-made morning teas and lunches) and for visiting us on site.  The ladies at the Mary MacKillop Interpretive Centre gave us a fabulous dinner on Thursday night, complete with entertainment and a tour of the St Joseph’s school house and centre.  Andy, Darren and Bear at Whiskas Woolshed gave us a four course farewell dinner on the last night.  Thanks also to Andy for organising the impromptu tour of Yallum Park so that we could meet his dad and marvel at his magnificent house.

Flexibility, Fieldwork and Flinders Graduate Study

If you’ve read the current (July) edition of Engage: The Magazine of the Graduate Programs in Archaeology, Cultural Heritage Management and Maritime Archaeology, you’ll have seen the article on ‘Where does a Graduate Degree Take You?’.  In it, some of our graduated students discuss where they’re working now, what they’ve learnt since leaving university (including what topics proved to be most useful to them and why.  This part makes Alice very happy), and how their degree experience prepared them to work in the heritage industry (if you haven’t seen Engage yet, then make sure you read it at our website  It contains all this and more).

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