Tag Archives: Field methods

Baby Killing

By Liam Blines, Diploma in Archaeology and Cultural Heritage Management Student

Cataloguing the Pharmaceutical Society of Australia South Australian branch collection has been a great learning opportunity for me. Each stage to date of this project has proved beneficial and, with limited prior cataloguing experience, this project has enabled me to test and develop the skills gained from my undergraduate degree. While yet to complete this project, I already feel a sense of pride due to my small contribution to the cultural heritage record.

Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup

One item in particular caught my eye while removing and sorting objects from one of the initial storage boxes: a stopper-less glass bottle embossed with Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup, as shown in the above photo. I am still unsure what exactly drew my attention to this bottle, but I found myself eager to research the bottle and its seemingly innocent ‘soothing syrup’ contents.

I was surprised by the volume of information available.  This ‘soothing syrup’ was a medicinal product created by Mrs. Charlotte N. Winslow, a physician and nurse who had worked with children for nearly 30 years. In 1807, Mrs. Winslow created the soothing syrup to ease the restlessness of her children, particularly when her infant daughters were suffering from painful teething issues.

Mrs. Winslow later gave the syrup’s recipe to her son-in-law, Jeremiah Curtis, and his business partner, Benjamin A Perkins, druggists trading as Curtis & Perkins Co of Maine, USA. This company actively marketed Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup to North America and the British Commonwealth, placing highly maternal illustrations in recipe books, on trading cards and in calendars. 

Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup for Children Teething advertisement in 1885 (Canet and Castillo 2012:6-8)

The syrup’s formula consisted of morphine sulphate (related to heroin), aqua ammonia (a cleaning agent), sodium carbonate (a water softener) and spirits foeniculi (an alcohol specific to this syrup).  Initially, the soothing syrup contained 65mg of morphine per fluid ounce, but, following implementation of regulations in the early twentieth century, this amount was significantly reduced to 26mg in 1911 and finally totally removed from the formula in 1915.

In 1911, the American Medical Association published an article in its publication Nostrums and Quackery, in which they incriminated Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup by reporting it as a “baby killer”, based on claims the syrup was responsible for causing the deaths of young children.  Surprisingly, production continued, with the soothing syrup not withdrawn from sale in the UK until 1930.

Another unusual fact about this product is that a composition was written by the English composer Edward Elga in 1879 entitled ‘Mrs Winslow’s soothing syrup’!

Little did I know that such a plain looking bottle would have such a controversial history.


Canet J. and J. Castillo 2012 Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup. Anesthesiology 116:6-8.

Society of Historical Archaeology 2016 Bottle Typing/Diagnostic Shapes: Medicinal/Chemical/Druggist Bottles. Retrieved 26 May 2017 from

Finding A Shipwreck You Can’t See: Detection and Survey Methods from Hinchinbrook Island

By Kurt Bennett

I have just finished a week-long field practicum in tropical Queensland. The field practicum took place on Hinchinbrook Island between the 7th and 14th of July. Five students (including myself) from Flinders University helped the Heritage Branch of the Department of Environment and Heritage Protection (QLD) locate possible shipwreck sites. Multiple survey methods were employed to locate cultural material buried beneath the sand. This blog will focus on one site that was investigated during the field practicum. It is located on the north end of North Shepherd Bay (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Location of the ‘possible’ shipwreck and our campsite (Google 2013).

Figure 1: Location of the ‘possible’ shipwreck and our campsite (Google 2013).

Queensland Parks Service observed timbers in North Shepherd Bay after Cyclone Yasi, in 2011, removed sand from the beaches on the eastern side of Hinchinbrook Island. The GPS (Global Positioning System) coordinates were taken and passed on to Paddy Waterson, Senior Heritage Officer at the Heritage Branch. The pictures taken by Parks resembled possible ships timbers. On Monday the 8th July and Friday the 12th 2013, the GPS points were visited. The GPS points were located approximately 3.6 kilometres (km) from our campsite (South Macushla) along a walking track. The walking track finished on the southern end of North Ramsey Bay and required a 1.6 km walk along the beach to the approximate area. No cultural remains were visible upon arrival and therefore certain archaeological methods were needed to locate the previously seen cultural material. The following will discuss the methods employed in order to find the cultural material and determine what remains on the beach.

The first step was a mixture of two methods using both a GPS and a metal detector. The aim was to locate the original marks with the GPS and establish a central point for what was originally witnessed. A 20 metre (m) square was placed around the central GPS point, marking an area to be metal detected. The metal detector, Excalibur II, was set to exclude non-ferrous metals. This enabled the metal detector to detect iron concentrations. The metal detection was systematically executed, with the user following an east-west pattern every one metre along the 20 m grid. Every ‘hit’ was marked with a pin flag and measurements taken using the baseline offset method (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Metal detector hits with baseline. Photo facing NE, North Shepherd Bay (Kurt Bennett, 8 July 2013).

Figure 2: Metal detector hits with baseline. Photo facing NE, North Shepherd Bay (Kurt Bennett, 8 July 2013).

Once the designated area had been covered and all the hits were marked, the next step was to probe the points of interest (hits). This was to determine whether solid material was buried beneath the sand. Both metal and wood were detected, with metal being distinguishable from wood due to the vibrations and the sudden jolt felt by the probe, as opposed to the stickiness felt with waterlogged wood. The probing also indicated the depth of cultural material. The wood and metal was located at a depth of approximately 30 centimetres (cm) below the sediment surface. The sand proved to be a challenge to probe as it was wet and compacted due to being located in the intertidal area.

Once the probing indicated there was material below the beach surface, a 1 m square was placed around the GPS point; this also proved to be a concentration of iron from the metal detection survey. The trench was then excavated with shovel and trowel until material was found. Timber was uncovered, which was possibly a ship’s timber with an iron brace and a treenail (Figure 3). Photographs and measurements were taken of the timber. The trench could not be excavated any deeper than 30cm due to water seepage caused by the intertidal zone. Therefore only the top face of the timber and iron brace was seen, with the rest left submerged in watery sand. The trench also uncovered rocks that were thought to be metal when detected by the probe. This posed a challenge when trying to distinguish between metal and rock, as the rock had the same reaction as metal when probed.

This became more evident when the site was revisited on Friday the 8th.  Photographs were taken of the uncovered timber and the trench was backfilled. Our investigation was limited due to the tide and daylight dictating the time we could spend at the beach. The trench could not have been dug if the tide was in and therefore the site had to be visited during low tide. This left the team approximately four hours to investigate the site. Not to mention we had to be back at camp by nightfall for health and safety reasons. Apparently dusk is the time that crocodiles come out to feed, and that is definitely not the way I planned on finishing my field practicum.

Figure 3: One metre square excavated showing ships timber, North Shepherd Bay. Timber being measured by Flinders students (Kurt Bennett, 8 July 2013).

Figure 3: One metre square excavated showing ship’s timber, North Shepherd Bay. Timber being measured by Flinders students (Kurt Bennett, 8 July 2013).

North Shepherd Bay was revisited on Friday the 12th and this time the aim was to establish the full extent of the site. Again the metal detector was employed and this time we extended our square to 20 m north south of Monday’s metal detection area. To our disappointment the hits did not resemble the shape of a ship’s hull, but more a scatter of debris. This was still exciting, as it could still resemble a wrecking event. The only way to find out was to dig and dig we did!

Several holes were dug, with the longest being over four metres in length (Figure 4). This trench was a continuation from the previous ship timbers. Two additional timbers were uncovered and what appeared to be the beach substrate with a rocky base. It proved to be a little frustrating, since we set out to find a shipwreck. The timbers uncovered were measured and detailed drawings were produced, providing an accurate recording of what had been found. The lengths of the two timber were approximately 1.5 m. The rest of the metal detector hits uncovered a mixture of items that may have washed in over time, including a chain block and pulley, and buried car batteries. The metal detection survey was extended a further 250 metres, walking south along the beach, but it had to be cut short due to daylight running out.

Figure 4: Red arrows indicating points of interest dug for material. Photo facing SE, North Shepherd Bay (Kurt Bennett, 12 July 2013).

Figure 4: Red arrows indicating points of interest dug for material. Photo facing SE, North Shepherd Bay (Kurt Bennett, 12 July 2013).

The aim of visiting North Shepherd Bay was to investigate the known GPS marks. The timbers uncovered and seen after the cyclone may be a result of washed up material, possibly from a shipwreck in another location, or they could be the last remaining pieces of a shipwreck. The methods employed were systematically executed to try and determine if a shipwreck lay beneath the sand, however our thorough searching and non-stop digging proved it was a beach littered with cultural material that could span a whole century. The methods mentioned above will provide a basic plan for any archaeologist wishing to investigate buried shipwrecks on a beach.

The Cultural Maritime Landscape of Ramsey Bay, Hinchinbrook Island

By Daniel Petraccaro, Master of Maritime Archaeology Student (Flinders University)


The maritime archaeology fieldwork on Hinchinbrook Island (figure one) was conducted by the Queensland Department of Environment and Heritage Protection (DEHP) with the grateful support of the Hinchinbrook National Park. The aim was to locate, identify and record the maritime heritage sites on and around Hinchinbrook Island. This blog will discuss two sites investigated: The wreck of Belle in Ramsay Bay (figure one; figure two) and a nearby concentration of possible ships’ fittings to the south of Belle. Masters students and staff from the Flinders University Archaeology Department were lucky enough to assist DEHP with the recording and interpretation of maritime archaeological sites on the island.

hinchinbrook map. dp.

Figure One: Map of Hinchinbrook Island and Location of Belle in Ramsey Bay. Google Earth.


Figure two: Belle after Cyclone Yasi in 2011. http://www.townsvillebulletin.com.au/article/2011/09/03/263161_news.html. Accessed 25/07/13.

Using the archaeological results of the fieldwork, I will discuss in this blog how the sites investigated at Ramsey Bay are interconnected within the concept of a maritime cultural landscape. I will also hopefully show how human behaviour and the natural landscape play a part in the maritime setting. The maritime cultural landscape signifies human utilisation (economy) of maritime space: boats, settlement, fishing, hunting and shipping (Westerdahl 1992: 5).

Background: Hinchinbrook Island

Hinchinbrook Island is the perfect tropical paradise. The island is part of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and protected within the Hinchinbrook Island National Park. Hinchinbrook Island is eight kilometres east from the Queensland coast at Cardwell (figure three). Spectacular natural vegetation includes mangroves, scrublands and tropical rainforests. Sandy isolated beaches and the view from the prestige coastline are breathtaking! If you are interesting in visiting the island, the only way to access Hinchinbrook Island is using shipping transport launched from Cardwell or Lucinda; if you are prone to seasickness, I suggest you bring some medication along!


Figure three: Sunrise at Cardwell. Hinchinbrook Island in the distance. Photo courtesy of Daniel Petraccaro

Historical Background: Hinchinbrook Island    

I found most of the historical research on Hinchinbrook Island in Douglass Barrie’s book: Minding My Business; an interesting read. Hinchinbrook Island contains natural resources extracted by European Australians from the 1850s until the early 1930s. Cedar oak, a valuable hardy timber, was logged during the 1850s (Barrie 2003: 120). Shell middens were also mined during the 1860s and processed into lime (Barrie 2003: 121). The lack of jetty structures, the isolated conditions of the island, and shallow bays (figure four) made for difficult access, which in turn prevented the further development of these industries. Sugar plantations were also established on the island during the late 1800s but were abandoned due to seasonal cyclone damage and gale force winds (Barrie 2003: 121 – 123).


Figure four: Flat tidal zone ( tide is out) at Ramsey Bay. Photo courtesy of Daniel Petraccaro

The Hinchinbrook Channel was also an important shipping route from the 1850s until the early 1900s (Barrie 2003: 114, 117, 124). The 22 kilometre channel separates the mainland from the island (figure one). The channel was an important trading route for vessels shipping cedar from the great forests in Cairns and Atherton to Melbourne and Sydney (North Queensland Register 1900: 31). The Hinchinbrook Channel was also an important route, as much of the surrounding Great Barrier Reef was uncharted and exposed by strong winds and waves.

The Shipwreck Sequence at Ramsey Bay, Hinchinbrook Island

Ramsey Bay was of interest to this field study due to historical accounts of four ships known to have wrecked while attempting to retrieve a cargo of cedar washed up on shore after the Merchant wrecked on the 5th March 1878 (North Queensland Register 1900: 31). Merchant was a steamer built in the USA in 1862. While Merchant was en route to Melbourne from Port Douglas, the ship hit a reef and vanished. The exact wreckage location of Merchant was never found. Once reports reached Cardwell of the cedar logs washing up in Ramsey Bay, the Harriet Armitage (Barque) was sent to retrieve the cargo (North Queensland Register: 1900: 31). The cedar was considered more valuable than the lives sent on the salvage mission (Barrie 2003: 111). Despite the efforts of Harriet Armitage, gale winds in Ramsey Bay caused the ship to run ashore and wreck in July 1879. Three other ships followed Harriet Armitage, unfortunately, strong gales caused all three ships to wreck in Ramsey Bay. Charlotte Andrews (Barque) wrecked in October 1879, Rebecca Jane (Brigantine) wrecked in July 1880 and Belle (figure two; figure five) (Brigantine) wrecked in February 1880 (Morning Bulletin 1925: 5). The cedar was eventually salvaged by a fifth shipping vessel and sold at auction in Townsville (Morning Bulletin 1925: 5).

The Natural Landscape at Ramsey Bay, Hinchinbrook Island

The natural landscape played a crucial role in the wreckage sequence and process at Ramsey Bay. While Merchant struck a reef hundreds of kilometres away, winds and strong surf caused the cargo to drift until it finally beached at Ramsey Bay.  One survivor from the Harriet Armitage noted the tremendous surf on the beach and claimed the wind and sea rose extremely rapidly (North Queensland Register 1900: 31). Without any jetty infrastructures, the shallow waters also proved to be a difficult task for ships trying to reach Ramsey Bay, the only logical access point for the vessels trying to retrieve cargo washed onto shore. Ramsey Bay is naturally encompassed by mangrove forests to the north-east and south (figure one; figure five), which is impossible to travel through by foot or sailing vessel.

ramsey bay arial

Figure five: Ramsey Bay showing the location of Belle and southern artefact concentration. Google Earth.

The Maritime Cultural Landscape at Ramsey Bay

You would be surprised to hear of the amount of rubbish washed up on Ramsey Bay. The dunes were littered with bottles, plastic, iron drums, wood and the largest variety of thongs I have ever seen. While one might only see rubbish, I saw a landscape and a deposition event that has occurred within the bay for the past 150 years. It was an interesting task rummaging through the rubbish hoping to find the remains of a wreck! No luck, however. Similar to how the rubbish had washed up on  shore, it is easy to forget the cargo of cedar timber followed the same pattern when it washed up in Ramsey Bay in 1878.

It is also interesting to note that Cyclone Yasi in 2011 (figure six) drastically altered the maritime landscape. The cyclone caused a drastic change in the sand dune, exposing the wreckage of Belle (figure two) (Waterson 2012) and a site called ‘Southern Artefact Concentration’, located eight-hundred and fifty meters south from Belle. However, during the current fieldwork, shifting dune sands had covered most of Belle and the remains of ‘Southern Artefact Concentration’ under a minimum of 10 cm of sand, suggesting the sand dune has recovered since the cyclone two years ago. The remains of Belle identified during previous surveys include the frames, metal brackets and windlass (Waterson 2012). Iron cable was also identified west of the ship’s bow. During the current fieldwork, the remains of iron bolts, rods and mast caps (courtesy of Paddy Waterson who helped with the identification) (figure seven; figure eight) were identified within the upper tidal zone and sand dune at ‘Southern Artefact Concentration.’


Figure six: Path of cyclone Yasi in 2011. bom.gov.com.au. Accessed 25/07/13.

Discussion: The Maritime Landscape at Ramsey Bay, Hinchinbrook Island

The results of both Belle and the ‘Southern Artefact Concentration’ suggest there is evidence of interaction between the sea and the wreckage history of shipping vessels at Ramsey Bay. The identification of Belle within the tidal zone at Ramsey Bay supports the theory that strong winds and surf caused the ship to wreck. One newspaper article states that Belle, when fully loaded, parted her cables and drifted ‘whole’ onto the beach (Morning Bulletin 1925: 5). The location of the cables east of Belle were identified during the study and therefore conform to the historical accounts regarding how the ship wrecked. Furthermore, the lack of any remains from Belle conforms to historical accounts that the cargo was eventually salvaged. The mast caps identified from  ‘Southern Artefact Concentration’  are from either Belle or another wreck (figure seven; figure eight). The results support the theory that remains such as  wood and other cargo was salvaged, while the mast caps and another other iron items were left behind.


Figure seven: (LEFT) Mast Caps from ‘Southern Artefact Concentration’. Photo Courtesy of Paddy Waterson.
Figure eight: (RIGHT): Mast caps. (Paasch 1890: plate 93).

The natural landscape could aid in identifying the possible location of the other known wrecks in Ramsey Bay. Belle was known to have wrecked during strong gale winds so there is no surprise the ship ended up stranded in the tidal zone (figure five). The three other wrecks known to have wrecked in Ramsey Bay are also most likely to be located in the tidal zone. The three other ships all were wrecked during strong winds while trying to salvage timber. They are most likely to be located within the same vicinity as Belle. These wrecks are also likely to be salvaged and therefore few archaeological remains would be present.

Summary: The Cultural Maritime Landscape of Ramsey Bay

The sea and the maritime cultural landscape of Hinchinbrook Island have influenced the economic development and wrecking process of shiping vessels at Ramsey Bay. Merchant wrecked while attempting to travel from Cairns to Melbourne following charted trading routes and the Hinchinbrook Channel. It is clear that the sites and shipwrecks identified at Ramsey Bay have resulted from salvage events, commencing with the cedar timber cargo from Merchant. The only way to salvage cargo at Ramsey Bay is via ship. However, the shallow coastline, gale winds and tides at Ramsey Bay caused the wreckage of four ships. The cedar and the shipwrecks were eventually salvaged. Items with little monetary value, such as iron, were left behind. Therefore, when examining a maritime landscape, it is important to include all factors relating to, and influencing, the maritime activity within an area. Overall, this type of archaeological investigation shows how human behaviour and natural landscapes play an important part in the maritime setting. In summary, I hope you have all learnt something about the cultural maritime landscape history of Ramsey Bay!


A special thanks to the Department of Environment and Heritage Protection (DEHP) for allowing the Flinders students to participate in the fieldwork, and, the Hinchinbrook National Park for granting access. A warm thanks goes out to Paddy Waterson (DEHP), Amelia Lacey (DEHP) and Ed Slaughter (Queensland Museum).


Barrie, Douglas 2003.  Minding my Business: The History of Bemerside and the Lower Herbert River District of North Queensland Australia. S and D Barrie, Ingham, Queensland.

Morning Bulletin 1929. http://trove.nla.gov.au/ndp/del/article/54641887. Accessed 22/07/2013.

North Queensland Register 1900. http://trove.nla.gov.au/ndp/del/article/82342975. Accessed 22/07/2013.

Paasch, Hermann 1890. Illustrated Marine Encyclopedia. Argus Books, England.

Waterson, Paddy 2012. Shipwreck Heritage: The Belle. Unpublished powerpoint report. QEHP, Queensland.

Westerdahl, Christer 1992. The maritime cultural landscape. The International Journal of Nautical Archaeology 21(1):5-14.

The Three Hour Trench

Forget any ideas you’ve got about lost cities, exotic travel, and digging up the world. We do not follow maps to buried treasure, and ‘X’ never, ever marks the spot. Seventy percent of all archaeology is done in the library. Research. Reading.

Indiana Jones in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

Indiana Jones may not have great credibility within the archaeological world, but he did get one thing right: no matter what you discover out in the field, you will inevitably be required to read, research and question what you find.

This blog post is about the contents of a trench, just one of many that were dug during the July 2013 Flinders University Maritime Archaeology practicum. But the contents of this trench proved difficult to identify and taught me a valuable lesson.

This year’s practicum took place on the beaches of Hinchinbrook Island, one of the largest island national parks in the world, with an area of 39,350 hectares (Thorsborne 1988). It lies almost exactly midway between Cairns and Townsville and is just offshore from the sleepy coastal town of Cardwell. On February 2011, this area lay directly in the path of Cyclone Yasi, the first cyclone since 1918 to hit the coast with the maximum intensity of category five (The Australian 2012).

Cardwell was almost completely flattened and Hinchinbrook Island was badly damaged, with trees pushed over and sand dunes literally washed out to sea. Out of the devastation, however, appeared an archaeologist’s dream – the timbers of an almost complete ship’s hull on the beach of Ramsay Bay on the north-eastern side of the island.

Archaeologists from the Queensland Department of Environment and Heritage Protection (QEHP) inspected the hull in June 2011 and completed a baseline-offset survey of the wreck. Timber samples helped determine that this was the wreck of the Brigantine Belle (Waterson 2012). But there are at least eight recorded wrecks or remnants of shipwrecks along this stretch of the island’s coast (Barrie 2003:115). So what else could be here?

Hinchinbrook Fieldwork Ramsay Bay June 2011

Results of June 2011 survey. Metal artefact debris field located at the bottom left. Wreck site of Belle is located to the north. Photo courtesy of QEHP.

During the 2011 investigations, a concentration of metal artefacts, dubbed the ‘debris field’, was observed south of Belle’s hull. Only basic recording was completed on the visible sections of these artefacts at the time. Part of our task was to attempt to identify the nature and purpose of the artefacts in the area; perhaps they were a part of Belle, perhaps another wreck. Our job was to identify key targets using metal detector surveys, then excavate, record and re-bury  what we found – all within one tidal cycle (Waterson 2013:3). Including travel time to and from site, that gave us approximately three hours.

Since 2011, the sand has started to wash back onto Ramsay Bay’s beach and once again covered Belle’s hull. When we arrived at the GPS marks this year, no part of the debris field was visible anymore either.

Since part of our task was to determine if this site was related in any way to Belle, we needed to confirm the distance between the two sites. So first steps first (if you’ll pardon the pun): one of the QLD archaeologists, Amelia Lacey, and I paced out the distance between the 2011 GPS marks of both sites. We discovered that the distance between the two was 527 paces – or 389 metres in a more useful measurement. So while I now knew  I had a standard pace of 0.75 metres, we still didn’t know if the Belle’s hull and the debris field were related—were they too far apart for wreckage to end up through the forces of nature?

While Amelia and I were pacing between sites, the rest of the crew were conducting the metal detector survey over the debris field and by the time we returned had marked out the best places to set trenches.

And so Amelia and I found ourselves turning the sand in Trench 1 of the Ramsay Bay debris field. High up on the beach, we began to dig. It took us an hour of digging before we hit metal … which spurred us on to keep going.

Amelia Lacey (top) and Jane Mitchell negotiating the space in Trench 1. Photo courtesy Paddy Waterson, 10/07/2013

Amelia Lacey (top) and Jane Mitchell negotiating the space in Trench 1. Photo courtesy Paddy Waterson, 10/07/2013

And going …

Running out of time to get to the bottom ... Photo courtesy Paddy Waterson, 10/07/2013.

Running out of time to get to the bottom … Photo courtesy Paddy Waterson, 10/07/2013.

After having to extend the trench so that it didn’t cave in on us we uncovered this:

Trench 1, Ramsay Bay Hinchinbrook Island. Photo by Jane Mitchell, 10/07/2013.

Trench 1, Ramsay Bay Hinchinbrook Island. Photo by Jane Mitchell, 10/07/2013.

As we had uncovered each piece, speculation continued. What were we looking at … portholes? Logging equipment? Ship fittings? Unfortunately due to time constraints—and safety—we couldn’t extend the trench to find the outer edges of all the artefacts, which means we don’t have the entire picture and we aren’t even sure of the size of that picture.

Many words can be used to describe fieldwork: fun, challenging, interesting, exhilarating, intriguing, even occasionally disheartening and terrifying. Because of the depth of our trench and the time it took to dig, we had approximately half an hour to record, measure, photograph and rebury the artefacts before we had to head back to camp. You get one chance to record an artefact; make too many mistakes and the information may be lost forever.  Get enough information and your research question may be answered or you might discover new information.

By the time we left, my field notebook was a tangled mess of lines and numbers and hurried notes with—fingers crossed—enough information to solve the riddle of the shapes we’d uncovered in the sand.

An archaeologist’s field notebook is a personal thing … I had 20 minutes to measure in the artefacts … the interpretation afterwards took some work! Photo courtesy Jane Mitchell, 10/07/2013.

An archaeologist’s field notebook is a personal thing … I had 20 minutes to measure in the artefacts … the interpretation afterwards took some work! Photo courtesy Jane Mitchell, 10/07/2013.

There were obviously a few different artefacts within the trench, but the two shapes in the centre—the only ones we had managed to uncover completely—intrigued me. An iron square and a circle attached by a shared centre bar. The circle had iron eyelets on either side and both shared a diameter of approximately 28 to 29 cms. They were like collars, with a width of 15 centimetres.

Closeup of both excavated unidentified artefacts, trench 1 Ramsay Bay. Photo by Jane Mitchell, 10/07/2013.

Closeup of both excavated unidentified artefacts, trench 1 Ramsay Bay. Photo by Jane Mitchell, 10/07/2013.

Close-up of unidentified artefact in trench 1, Ramsay Bay. Photo courtesy Jane Mitchell, 10/7/2013

Close-up of unidentified artefact in trench 1, Ramsay Bay. Photo courtesy Jane Mitchell, 10/7/2013

A two-hour journey back to camp provided plenty of opportunity to discuss the day and throw around theories, but we were generally stumped. The other trenches had revealed nothing other than a seemingly random collection of iron artefacts. Trench 1 was the only trench that turned out to contain something that could have a potentially identifiable use. One of the team thinks her grandfather may have an object similar to the square/circle collar artefact on his barn wall, perhaps a tool to help stack logs for transport; a possibility since logging was a common industry in North Queensland in the late 19th, early 20th centuries.

One disadvantage of archaeological detective work on an idyllic tropical island is the lack of access to the Internet and an inability to cart along notes and resource books. If I stood on one leg on a rock outside our camp kitchen and held my breath I might get enough internet to my phone to have a look at my emails or check the weather, but there would be no chance of serious searching of databases or library archives.

Our field library consisted of two books: The Elements of Wood Ship Construction, a reprint of a 1919 edition written by W.H Curtis, a naval architect and engineer, and Minding my Business: The History of Bemerside and the Lower Herbert River District of Queensland Australia, written by local Douglas R Barrie. Since we hadn’t uncovered any timber, the former revealed nothing obvious and there was nothing in the latter to suggest the origin of the trench 1 artefacts.

One of the difficulties with this particular artefact is context. Ramsay Bay is an exposed beach open to the sea. On our 5km walk to site each day, we observed all kinds of flotsam and jetsam: mooring buoys, marker buoys, chest freezer doors, nets and a surprising amount of single thongs (flip-flops or jandles if you prefer). One day we even encountered a set of airplane wheels. There is no obvious ship wreckage near the debris field, no timber, nothing other than a bundle of iron artefacts in a relatively small area of beach.

I had a quick stopover in Townsville on my way back to Melbourne and I went to the local history section of the city library. Still chasing the logging angle, I asked the local history librarian for any information she had, particularly images on the timber industry in North Queensland. The only logging book in their archives was The Trees that Fell: A History and Description of the Timber Industry of North Queensland from 1898 to 1988, but within its pages I found nothing that looked remotely like the artefacts we’d found.

An afternoon at the State Library of Victoria focussing on logging also yielded no results. Using logging, logging in North Queensland and logging equipment in the late 19th century as search terms I found no descriptions or images that correlated with the artefacts we found. Perhaps these artefacts were nothing to do with logging at all?

Archaeology requires an open mind. Someone suggested an affiliation with logging and I had run with it, but I had found no evidence to support that theory. And it served as a valuable reminder that other avenues shouldn’t be ignored. So in conjuction with consulting other maritime archaeologists, I sent the artefact images out to wider fields, including an aeronautical engineer, a plasterer specialising in historical restorations … even my mother.

But it was Captain Paasch all the way from 1890 (courtesy of Heritage Victoria’s Peter Harvey) who helped solved the mystery: our artefacts turned out to be lower mast caps. These caps would help connect a lower mast to the next one. The lower mast would be squared off at the top, and the square section of the mast cap would help stop the mast rotating under the strain of sailing.

Lower Mast Caps Capt Paasch plate 93

Label B: Lower Mast Caps. (Paasch 1890 : Plate 93)

It now looks like we had uncovered a salvor’s pile of iron ship fittings. In three hours we had managed to answer one question, but raised others. Are the mast caps from Belle or from one or more of the other wrecks that are known to have ended up in Ramsay Bay? Is this a salvor’s pile that was used more than once? Could this pile of iron be used to help identify other ships wrecked on the beach?

Archaeology is like that—one question answered invariably opens up others. The search for answers will continue …

Barrie, Douglas R. 2003 Minding my Business: The History of Bemerside and the Lower Herbert River District of Queensland Australia. S & D Barrie, Ingham

Curtis, W.H. 1919 The Elements of Wood Ship Construction. 1st ed. McGraw-Hill, New York.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade 1989 Motion Picture, Paramount Pictures, United States.

McKenna, Michael & Tony Koch 2012 Cyclone Yasi crosses coast in North’s darkest hour, The Australian, 17 September, accessed 18 July 2013,

Paasch, H. 1890, Illustrated Marine Encyclopedia. Argus Books, England.

Smith, L.W. & North Queensland Logging Association 1991 The Trees that Fell: A History and Description of the Timber Industry of North Queensland from 1898 to 1988, With Reminiscence and Factual Information from the North Queensland Logging Association. L. W Smith, Ravenshoe.

Thorsborne, Margaret & Arthur Thorsborne 1988, Hinchinbrook Island: The Land Time Forgot. Weldons, McMahons Point.

Waterson, Paddy 2012 Shipwreck Heritage: The Belle. Unpublished powerpoint report. QEHP, QLD.

Waterson, Paddy 2013 Hinchinbrook fieldwork practicum 7-15 July: Information for participants. Unpublished handbook. QEHP, QLD.

Cycle in the Paddocks of Red Banks

Trudging back and forth across endless metres of the bare, sun-baked, Redbanks paddock, hunters scour the ground for treasures scattered across its surface to be flagged. Others stand by their tools and instruments retrieving the treasures already identified. As the hours pass by the hunters continue their search for the lost Seven Stars Hotel, recording every action and discovery to add to their treasure maps, in the hopes that they will be guided towards their prize, all the while being worn down by the unrelenting sun and flies. Finally as the sun begins to set the hunters scramble to return to their camp, eager to escape the patch of dirt where they have toiled since the early hours of the morning.

Trudging across the Redbanks paddock.
Photo courtesy of Jessica Lumb.

Upon arriving back at the camp, some move off to wash away the pain of the day beneath water, while other sidle off to wash away the pain by emptying glasses at the pub. As night sets in, most would think that the hunters, after having spent around nine hours working outdoors, battling sun, dirt and flies, would retire to their beds and recuperate, ready for the burden of the following day. But instead they gather in the meeting room and arrange themselves around the long table and begin the task of arranging what they have recorded during the day. Once again these hunters take up their instruments and tools and push on into the night. Eventually the group comes to a consensus and then in gradual waves, so as to not leave a comrade behind, they break away to collapse into their tents, to catch a few hours sleep before repeating the process all over again.

Working into the night.
Photo courtesy of Sam Deer.

For a week this routine continues until by the end, the hunters, or archaeologists as they should be called, collected around 1000 artefacts and mapped their scatter across the north-western corner of that Redbanks paddock.

Background Noise: A Double-Edged Sword

Most archaeologists working in the field know far too well of the bothers that can be caused by background noise when looking for artefacts at a site. This little trickster comes in a variety of forms, usually depending on what field you’re working in – e.g. for Indigenous archaeologists looking for stone artefacts background noise usually rears its ugly head in the form of stone fragments of the “non-artefactual” variety.

While investigating the site of the Seven Stars Hotel at Red Banks, SA, with a group of approximately 18 Flinders University students and staff, background noise proved to be a bit of a double edged sword, mischievously messing with not just the usual one, but two of the most important senses necessary to carry out a worthwhile investigation in such a setting.

The Seven Stars Hotel was a popular drinking hole for locals in the 1860s and 70s and got its name from its location at the time – at the intersection of (yes, you guessed it) seven roads. Today the pub is non-existent to the naked eye – the only remnants are thousands of artefact fragments (bottles, ceramics, bricks and more) scattered throughout a field and the surrounding area. As would be expected when working on a site that’s been cultivated and ploughed extensively, background noise played tricks on the visual senses of field workers in the form of artefact-resembling rocks, remnants of crops, clumps of soil, grass and snail shells (see image above).

Situated right on the roadside (and quite possibly underneath it), the fieldwork being done on the site was hindered even further at the hands of background noise from passing traffic – every time a vehicle drove past the site a deafening roar filled the air and rendered any communication being attempted at that moment pointless. Conversations and instructions had to be repeated regularly, and we found ourselves on more than one occasion having to wait patiently as a convoy of cars cleared the area. This proved to be quite infuriating, especially when trying to communicate GPS co-ordinates across an open field with the wind also blaring in the background.

On the upside, we managed to defeat background noise and make the project and field school a great success – more than a thousand artefacts were collected from the site!

The Mallala Museum: Brilliant AND Creepy!

An old cart from the Mallala Museum.. Also slightly creepy manikin

On a fair Wednesday night, after a long day in the field, many of the students (myself included) of the Flinders University Archaeology Team were winding down at the local pub. What a start to the night! A few beers and some chatter. But this is not what this story is about, it is what came next; a trip to the Mallala Museum to discover the exhibition that the local historical society had put on to display the past of their town. It was apparent the locals of the area had a proud passion for their history as was obvious with the large amounts of items on show from the past of such a small township. Upon walking through the front doors we immediately found something our team had not been able to find in the field; a complete artefact from the Seven Stars Hotel: a desk. This is one of the only known items from the Hotel. Moving further through the building, we come across a room stocked with items from the First and Second World Wars. This town showed its pride in this room, with pictures and original clothing from the wars all displayed elegantly. Next was the back room, which showcased various larger items such as old cars and fuel pumps. Finally, we discovered the upstairs room, which contained various knick-knacks, and a doll which looked like it came straight from a horror movie (pictured below).

The Creepy Doll in the Mallala Museum

This doll caused distress among some, while others joyed at trying to cause more distress by getting people to look at it. It was then that many chose to leave the museum and as it got quieter, it became spookier. Thus concluded our tour of this fine museum which turned out to be quite educational and everyone learned something they did not know about the small town of Mallala. Now, back to the pub!

(Photos courtesy of Sam Deer, one of the not so distressed people)