Walking… and a little bit of archaeology

Surveying for Shipwrecked Mariner Graves off Loch Sloy, Kangaroo Island, SA

By Maddy Fowler and Cassandra Morris

On the 27th March, Kyle Lent, Cassandra Morris and Maddy Fowler, maritime archaeology students at Flinders University, embarked on the Sealink Ferry to Kangaroo Island to participate in the 2012 survey of historic shipwreck burial sites lead by Amer Khan from the Department for Environment and Natural Resources (DENR). This project involved conducting an archaeological survey to investigate possible locations of the burials of twelve bodies recovered from the sea following the wreck of Loch Sloy. The vessel was bound for Port Adelaide when it wrecked north of Cape de Couedic in the early morning of 24th April 1899. The location of the remains of the shipwreck is at present unknown.

Upon arriving at the point where we would be leaving the vehicles and begin what turned out to be a four hour walk to site, the remoteness and isolation of where we were was suddenly impressed upon us. The walk took us along the cliff tops of the western coast of Kangaroo Island. There was no path to follow and the terrain was rough with broken limestone and low-lying vegetation. The feat of the four survivors of the wrecking event (one of which would perish before reaching help) was appreciated once the harsh environment into which they were thrown surrounded us.

When we reached the northern limit of the survey area we split into two teams and the survey team began by assessing the sea conditions. After some initial observations were undertaken from the cliff top, the survey team climbed down to the base of the cliffs, where a flat rock shelf softens the impact of the waves (Figure 1). At this point it was clear that the tide was too high for a survey to be undertaken along the base of the cliffs as at high tide waves sweep up to the cliff face.

Figure 1: The northern extent of the survey area. Note the rock shelf to the left and the tide. (C. Morris)

It was decided that a survey along the top of the cliff would be undertaken. Historical documents pointed to the burials being placed at the base of the cliff, although it is quite possible that some bodies were buried at the top. The survey team walked a transect from the northern point of the survey area to where the excavation team were located, approximately 200 metres (m), and two possible burial sites were identified. Key points to look for in the landscape include: arranged stones usually in lines or with possible corner angles, upright stones, stones small enough to lift but big enough to hold back sediment, and an east-west alignment (to indicate Christian burials). The team recorded these two possible sites by taking GPS positions.

In the initial site survey, which took place in December 2011, a cliff top survey was undertaken with some possible burial sites located. The excavation team further investigated one of these sites. A scale drawing was made of the linear rock feature that appeared to be a possible grave. The grave ran in an east west direction with three rocks creating a line on the western end and a very distinct line along the northern edge. The rock feature was roughly rectangular and approximately human sized and the rocks were small enough to be easily lifted by people (Figure 2). Detailed photographs were also taken at this point. Both teams then traced their way back across the landscape to the vehicles.

Figure 2: Possible gravesite investigated by excavation team. (C. Hartnell)

Due to the long and difficult walk to and from the site, a different approach was taken on the subsequent trip—approaching the site from the north rather than the south. This involved walking down a ravine, over a headland, along a beach and then over another headland. On this day two people from the ABC News crew joined us. Conditions on the following visit were improved as it was just after low tide, and the survey team was able to undertake a search along the rock shelf at the base of the cliffs. Within the central section of the survey area, the rock shelf presented itself as a beach, with masses of rocks and boulders fallen from the cliffs (Figure 3). Amongst the fallen cliff faces was a multitude of deposited timber remains, buoys, and odd pieces of rubbish (a can of insect spray with Spanish packaging perhaps the strangest piece, along with the occasional flip-flop). In order to keep in contact with the other team, three volunteers remained at the top of the cliffs with one of the UHF radios to relay messages if need be.

Figure 3: Fallen rocks and debris at base of cliff. (A. Khan)

Beginning the survey, possible sites were searched for while another team member acted as a spotter, watching the ocean in case of large waves. Clambering over the rock fall, there were few sites above the high water mark with enough sediment to bury a body. From historical accounts, written by those conducting the burials, the graves were described as being above the high water mark, at the base of the cliff. To pinpoint many of these areas required climbing up a sand hill or fallen boulders. Continuing along the base of the cliff until the beach ran out, only two possible sites had been found—both along the same ridge but impossible to get to, lessening the likelihood of being burials. Following this, the team moved on to survey the southern extent of the area (Figure 4).

Figure 4: The southern extent of the survey area. Beach extends along the shore to the left for a short distance. (C. Morris)

This survey was short as no possible area could be identified along the rock shelf. Concluding the entire survey, it was decided that should the burials have been placed at the bottom of the cliffs, no trace remains to this day. The only possible location left unexplored was under the rocks and boulders. Observing the coast with the knowledge of the violent winter storms that occur every year, it is thought to be unlikely that the burials would have lasted through the first storm, let alone surviving 100 years on the rugged coastline.

While the survey was undertaken, the excavation team placed a 50 centimetre (cm) by 50 cm test pit and excavated to determine whether the primary possible gravesite contained human remains. This test pit was conducted using trowels to remove sediment in 10 cm spits. The spoil from each spit was sieved and the trench was photographed at each level (Figure 5). Bedrock was reached at approximately 50 cm depth and no cultural material was identified. It is therefore unlikely that the rock feature represents a gravesite, however it cannot be ruled out entirely. It is possible that the test pit targeted the wrong area of the site.

Figure 5: Kyle Lent and Maddy Fowler excavating possible grave. (C. Hartnell)

Along with the grave survey, we also undertook other survey projects. One project was to relocate and record a small vessel located in the Ravine des Casoars that had been reported to DENR by the park rangers when it was exposed in October of last year. Based on a GPS position we conducted a metal detector survey and dug test pits but were unable to relocate it (Figure 6). The river which flows nearby and exposed the wreck during high levels had also helped to cover the wreck in sand when it decreased.

Figure 6: Kyle Lent and Amer Khan conducting metal detector survey. (M. Fowler)

Another project undertaken was to identify the location of a shelter hut at West Bay, built to assist people who came ashore in the area after wrecking. We used an historical photograph to try to find the location and conducted a pedestrian survey through the dunes. No remains could be located on the surface but an approximate area for the structure was identified (Figure 7).

Figure 7: Possible location of shelter hut based on historic photograph. (K. Lent)

A final task was to relocate a threshing floor near American River. This site, built in the 1950s, is a ring of rocks with a flat dirt floor in which sheaves of grain would be placed to be ‘threshed’—a process to tear grain from the stalks and loosen the husks. Listed on the government register, this site had not been relocated for many years, despite several attempts being made. We left the road on a bearing towards a rough GPS position. Part way to the GPS point we discovered a stone feature in a right-angled linear arrangement. This arrangement was recorded as it possibly relates to the threshing floor. The threshing floor was then located approximately 100 m further on. Viewing the site amongst the tall grass and bushes, the construction of the ring was flawless—stones were all the same height and length and had been placed upright, fitting together perfectly. The site was recorded and a new GPS point taken about 20 m away from the original mark.

We would like to thank Amer Khan and Cameron Hartnell from DENR for giving us the opportunity to volunteer on such a unique project. Also Terry Drew, Lynda Bignell and Steve Saville for supplying a box of Mars Bars and entertaining stories. Finally our appreciation to the Flinders Chase National Park rangers: Charlotte, Caroline and Alison, ABC news crew: Caroline and Chris, and all the volunteers with the Kangaroo Island Walking Group for carrying our equipment.

Please tune into ABC at 7:30 on Friday 20th to see the news feature about the site and the Loch Sloy.

The Team. From Left to Right: Maddy Fowler, Cameron Hartnell, Amer Khan, Chris (ABC News), Kyle Lent, Cassandra Morris. (C. Morris)

5 Responses to Walking… and a little bit of archaeology

  1. Crew

    Captain: Peter Nicol.
    First Officer: James MacMillan , 25.
    Second Officer: Geoffrey J. Twidale, 24.
    Third Officer: Thomas Allan Cleland, 21.
    Carpenter: Hugh McBride 25.
    Sailmaker: Robert Birnie. 22.
    Chief Steward: William M. Hardinge.
    Second Steward: J. A. Browne.
    Cook: John Chisholm, 34.

    Five Apprentices

    William ‘Willie’ John Simpson 19.
    George W. Youden, 19.
    Thomas H. Leach, 18
    R. Mulligan
    F. Lyons

    Able Seamen

    Peter Cleland AB.
    John Buchanan AB.
    John Finlayson AB, 29.
    Johan ‘John’ Olsson AB, 35.
    Paul Blanowski AB.
    John Terry AB, 38.
    William Mitchell AB, 43.
    Duncan McMillan AB, 43.
    George Keckler AB.
    James Mosborne AB, 25 (real name Iseder Sterne).
    Robert John Haddow Smith AB, 27.

    Ordinary Seamen

    J. Archie Martin OS.
    J.H. Smith OS.
    Patrick ‘Paddy’ Cummins Stow-away OS ‘Deckboy’.

  2. Chief Steward: William M. Hardinge, 48, married with 3 sons.

  3. Lynda Bignell

    You also might like to know that apart from supplying mars bars and medication for really bad blisters, that Lynda Terry and Adrian Brown have been working on the research behind this 2 day dig since last October. Many hours have been spent visiting various government departments, accessing Trove, investigating various museums and primary sources, eg Police Historical Society, interviewing descendents of the May family and liaising with various people and groups of Kangaroo Island and having a preliminary visit last December. It’s always good to remember that there are many facets to an archaeological investigation before field archaeologists are called in to excavat.

  4. cmorris01

    Absolutely Lynda. Really the three students were there for support. We worked only off the research conducted by yourself, Terry and Adrian and really without that prior study we wouldn’t have been out there to begin with. Unfortunately usually it is perceived that archaeologists only dig stuff up, but in actuality 90% of work is conducted at a desk surrounded by books, historical documents and many phone calls. In this instance we weren’t able to give you the results that were hoped for but we defiantly added to the broader picture.

  5. cmorris01

    Heres the link to the ABC feature which covers some of the field work as well as the background story of the Loch Sloy: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2012-04-23/tales-emerge-of-tragic-loch-sloy-sinking/3966856