Port MacDonnell Jetty: Is that a pylon, or a pile??

By Maddy McAllister (MMA Student)

The recent Flinders University Advanced Maritime Archaeology Practicum was held in Port MacDonnell and saw 8 students and volunteers assist two post-grad students in their field research, under the supervision of Jennifer McKinnon and Wendy van Duivenvoorde. Maddy Fowler’s research looked into an unidentified shipwreck site on the beach, while Purdina Guerra’s Master’s thesis saw most of us spend a lot of long hours on a seemingly simple, short jetty.

Port MacDonnell Jetty
Port MacDonnell Jetty

On the first day we set out, keen and believing we were completely prepared to record the features and structure of the 296m (exactly) long jetty. It might take us a while and we knew we would be facing deck planking, iron train tracks, bolts and pylons (at least). However we soon realised that we only vaguely knew terms for different parts on the jetty, in fact none of us knew the difference between a pile and a pylon. Oh and what is the name of those large beams attached to the top of them? They could be crossheads, as Wendy’s diagram suggested, or halfcaps….maybe. Someone, I think it was me, was throwing around the term crossbeams, which I probably made up…

We decided that we would stick to a set of names so that going over the measurements later on would not become confusing and we ourselves wouldn’t be confused when on the jetty. These terms  were pylons, crossbeams, stringers and deck planking.

Ania, showing a genius method of keeping out of the cold whilst taking measurements

That afternoon, when we were driven off the jetty by rain, wind and a rising tide, we feasted on sandwiches and brainstormed over journal articles, theses, lectures, PowerPoint presentations and historical documents until we  we sure that we knew mostly accurate terms for this little jetty.

It soon became apparent that there was in fact no difference between ‘piles’ and ‘pylons’ and a group vote unanimously decided we liked the term ‘piles’ much better then ‘pylons’. So that was settled.

Moving onto the ‘crossbeams’/’crossheads’/’halfcaps’ we soon figured out that I had conveniently created the term ‘crossbeam’, which left ‘crosshead’ versus ‘halfcap’.  Being good uni students we referred to our recent lecture given by Amer Khan, on jetties, wharves and piers. Amer had used ‘crosshead’ as the term to name this feature. Other sources suggested ‘halfcap’ but, as we knew Amer would actually be coming out to see what we were doing, it was probably a good idea to follow his lead and use ‘crosshead’.

We visited the Port MacDonnell Maritime Museum and found a very interesting document that refered to the Port MacDonnell jetty. It was dated to 1883 and seemed to be a description of specifications for modifying or building a ‘wharf’ or ‘jetty’ at Port MacDonnell. After looking at the plans, we found that the terms that had been used for naming structural parts were different again. Terms like ‘headstocks’, ‘girders’ and ‘wall plates’ were used instead of ‘crossheads’, ‘corbels’ and ‘stringers’. So, new problem: do we use these historic terms, in case we were to come across more information that used the same terms, or keep with the terms we had decided to use? Without a doubt delving into historical documents and trying to decipher terms that may not be used anymore, and comparing them with modern terms used to name jetty structure can become difficult and time consuming.

Luckily, we figured out that the historical document was simply a proposal to modify the Port MacDonnell jetty and that it was never followed through. However, the description of the materials that were considered best at the time and descriptions of how it was to be built may be useful to Purdina’s research into the jetty.

So in the end we decided to use the terms that we had discerned from the lectures and diagrams we had with us.

Profile of Jetty, Shows terms we decided to use for features

Every time we had the opportunity to sit down and discuss the work we had done, (that would include the numerous coffee breaks, morning tea, lunchtime, afternoon tea and of course after dinner every evening…pretty much every time we had to defrost our fingers and toes) it was invaluable the different opinions and ideas that were brought up. This was simply due to having the benefit of a large group of people all sitting together and readily helping out with any problems or offering theories or advice. New terms and names were thrown around and discussing which one was best was far easier and more in depth than simply between one or two people.

This also meant we had more chance of having more resources, people had their lecture notes, slides and weekly readings saved onto their laptops and we could access them quickly. This is definitely one of the big lessons I learnt from this practicum. Taking as many resources out with you can become invaluable and very useful, as undoubtedly, you will come across features and structures that are completely unknown to everybody.

This entire part of the research we did on the jetty, finding and studying historical documents and photographs, and all of the data we collected showed us all how misleading and confusing names, terms and labels can be. Terms change over time. Historical terms and names may be completely unfamiliar to us, or completely different to terms we use in the present to identify general structures.

Without knowing all of the vital, structural features of the jetty and the correct terms for recording them, we could not have measured or photographed some of the important, diagnostic structures that may be vital for Purdina’s future research.

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2 responses to “Port MacDonnell Jetty: Is that a pylon, or a pile??

  1. Hey Max,

    Awesome blog, I saved it in my favourites:) You guys sound like you were breaking a mental sweat as well as a physical one! (yeah, I just drpped a zoolander reference. Apologies.)

    I’m still a little confused as to why you chose to stay with your own terms rather than use the historical ones. Won’t it make comparisons difficult if you manage to find other documents discussing the construction of the jetty? Or is this now not very likely? Just from your blog it becomes clear indeed how the terms evolve over time! I have a new appreciation for just how complicated and detailed your discipline can be!

    For myself, going into the field involves a trip to Paris and a complete immersion in the ups and downs (and seeming black holes) of French culture, where the biggest theoretical dilemmas to be faced are along the lines of “is it more French to have coffee with my croissant, or a vanilla scented Parisienne cigarette?” Mind-boggling, I know.

    Keep up the good…digging?:)


  2. maddymac89

    Hey Ally,
    Well….we ended up deciding not to use the historical terms because that plan was never actually used? We don’t know where (if it still, or ever, exists) the plans for the jetty are. So we figured it was best to use the terms that we all know and can remember. I guess Purdina can cross that bridge with the more research she does, background literature and historical reviews.
    We were lucky enough to find that reference as it was.