Tag Archives: Hinchinbrook Island

From Belle to Bust: An 1880 Shipwreck

Cyclone Yasi devastated North Queensland on the 3rd of February 2011, destroying towns and changing the lives of thousands of people in its wake. Yasi also decimated many of the islands off the coast of Queensland, ripping back the dunes 20-30m and dropping the sand levels 5-10m, leaving the beach itself wider and more exposed than it had been in more than a hundred years. Yet, Yasi had uncovered something wonderful. Local anglers Phil Lowry, David Pearson and Denis King spotted the outline of a shipwreck visible in the sand at Ramsay Bay, Hinchinbrook Island (The Queensland Cabinet Ministerial Directory (QCMD) 2011:1; Townsville Bulletin 3 September 2013).

There were five possibilities for the identification of this shipwreck and the probability of positive identification was murky. Queensland Department of Environment and Heritage Protection’s (DEHP) principal heritage investigator Paddy Waterson and his team, with Museum of Tropical Queensland’s then maritime archaeologist and curator Ed Slaughter, investigated the wreck, took wood samples and, along with colloquial misinterpretations, Belle was identified (QCMD 2011:2).

View of Belle from the waters of Ramsay Bay in 2011 (DEHP 2011:5).

View of Belle from the waters of Ramsay Bay in 2011 (DEHP 2011:5).

View of Belle from a dune of Ramsay Bay in 2011, looking south east (DEHP 2011:10).

View of Belle from a dune of Ramsay Bay in 2011, looking south east (DEHP 2011:10).

Fast forward two years and you arrive at a couple of weeks ago. In preparation for North Queelsnad weather and to get our hands dirty, five students (Chelsea Pasch, Kurt Bennett, Daniel Petraccaro, Jane Mitchell and myself), a Flinders University archaeologist and supervisor (Debra Shefi), and three Queensland Heritage staff (Paddy Waterson, Amelia Lacey and Ed Slaughter) ventured to Hinchinbrook Island.

The Site

It was clear that a catastrophic event had occurred on Hinchinbrook Island. The sand dunes had obviously receded and left trees at odd angles, while dead trees lay on the beach where they once stood.  A lot of flotsam had collected and was pushed up onto the beach, including fishing floats, eskies, timbers and even airplane landing wheels.

Wheels from an airplane at the base of sand dunes. Photo courtesy of Chelsea Pasch.

Wheels from an airplane at the base of sand dunes. Photo courtesy of Chelsea Pasch.

All that we could see that indicated there was anything of interest were 2 iron wheels poking just above the sand, 1.975m apart, suggestive of a pump (Paddy Waterson, personal communication 2013). We used GPS coordinates from the 2011 survey to pinpoint the wreck itself and ground truthed to establish that we had the correct spot. There are no two ways about it: this was quick and dirty archaeology due to time constraints of daylight and intertidal zoning.

The wheels of the possible pump at the Belle site. Photo courtesy of Chelsea Pasch.

The wheels of the possible pump at the Belle site. Photo courtesy of Chelsea Pasch.

2013 Fieldwork

There were several goals for the Belle fieldwork that Queensland DEHP wanted to achieve. These included:

  • Travel to the GPS coordinates from 2011
  • Understand how much sand was now covering the site
  • Ground truth the GPS coordinates if the wreck was covered
  • Try to ascertain if a pile of cable or chain was associates with Belle
  • Metal detect and probe the site (Waterson 2013:3)
  • Key targets to be excavated, recorded, mapped and re-covered
  • Excavation of the stern port quarter to determine if wreck was salvaged and/or suffered historic damage (Waterson 2013:3)
  • Metal detect and probe South of Belle at 2011 GPS coordinates to determine if an identified debris field is associated with Belle and determine what is actually there (Waterson 2013:3)

Days 2 and 3 of fieldwork were devoted to Ramsay Bay, Belle and the south extension debris field (SEDF). On the 9th of July, we left camp and took a boat through the mangroves of Hinchinbrook to Ramsay Bay and walked north to Belle. Normally, Queensland has lovely weather compared to Adelaide this time of year. Let me tell you a little story of rain, winds of 20-35 knots and grey, Melbourne-esque skies. Ramsay Bay is also very exposed and south east winds whip across the beach, collecting sand and making it ripple like waves on its surface.

Belle’s orientation and position on the beach at Ramsay Bay (Waterson 2013:2).

Belle’s orientation and position on the beach at Ramsay Bay (Waterson 2013:2).

We excavated a number of frames and the bow of Belle with the break in the bow clearly visible under the 38cm of sand covering the site. Mr Waterson confirmed that this had not changed much since 2011.  A pile of chain or cable was also excavated, and this in now thought to be cable un-associated with Belle wreck itself but it might have been used in the salvage of Belle.

Break in bow and 4 ribs of Belle. Photo courtesy of Chelsea Pasch.

Break in bow and 4 ribs of Belle. Photo courtesy of Chelsea Pasch.

Day 3 was spent metal detecting, probing and excavating the SEDF, which is about 350m south of Belle. Only a small amount of timber was noted on the excavated iron remains. Five trenches in total were excavated and these revealed:

  • Trench 1- circular rings attached to square rings of the same size. Hypothesised to be used for logging.
  • Trench 2- long cylindrical iron, possibly piping
  • Trench 3- narrow cylindrical iron, possibly railing or cable
  • Trench 4- very small piece of narrow cylindrical iron, possibly railing or cable
  • Trench 5- iron fly wheel rod and gear
Trench 1 at Belle site. Photo courtesy of Debra Shefi.

Trench 1 at Belle site. Photo courtesy of Debra Shefi.

There are two hypotheses for the SEDF:

  1. The SEDF is not linked to the Belle site as the iron and metal objects were dumped by timber salvers either at one event or over a period of time.
  2. The remains are linked to a mast either of Belle or a more contemporary wreck (Debra Shefi, personal communication 2013).

Belle and its Demise

Belle was a 30m brigantine sailing vessel of 197.87 ton, built in 1865 in Prince Edward Island, Canada. Soon after construction, Belle was transporting goods to and from Adelaide and Newcastle. After being sold in 1872, Belle was sold again in 1875 and began operating out of Melbourne, occasionally taking supplies up to Far North Queensland and returning with cedar from the Daintree (The Queensland Cabinet Ministerial Directory 2011:3).

Another vessel, Merchant had been wrecked at Ramsay Bay with a load of cedar on-board and two other vessels had been engaged and wrecked while attempting to salvage the cedar from Merchant. Unfortunately for Belle, the same fate awaited on the 26th of January 1880, while attempting the cedar salvage, as a gale drove the ship ashore and the vessel wrecked. No lives were lost and all were rescued from the beach (Australian National Shipwreck Database 2011).

Although not an 1865 Brigantine, this is what Belle may have looked like in full sail (Wolf 2009:1).

Although not an 1865 Brigantine, this is what Belle may have looked like in full sail (Wolf 2009:1).

Belle is a good example of a shallow-hulled Canadian built trader sailing Australia’s coast.  Its wrecking gives us an excellent insight into secondary and tertiary salvage according to what the colony needed at the time and the advantages and disadvantages of a mid 19th century brigantine. Certainly, there is more research to be done on the SEDF and its possible links to Belle, but also into the salvage practices of those companies charged with the task. Belle is protected under the Historic Shipwreck Act 1972.


Australian National Shipwreck Database  2011 View Shipwreck- Belle. Electronic document, http://www.environment.gov.au/shipwreck/public/wreck/wreck.do?key=2227, accessed July 4, 2013

Department Environment and Heritage Protection (DEHP)  2011 Shipwreck Heritage: The Belle. PowerPoint on file at Department Environment and Heritage Protection, Queensland

The Queensland Cabinet Ministerial Directory  2011 Media Statements: Mystery wreck uncovered by Yasi now has a name. Electronic document, http://statements.qld.gov.au/Statement/Id/76364, accessed July 4, 2013

Waterson, Paddy  2013 Hinchinbrook Field Practicum 7-15 July 2013: Information for Participants. Document on file at Department Environment and Heritage Protection, Queensland

Wolf, Kenneth Baxter  2009 Wolf family history: From Württemberg to California. Electronic document, http://pages.pomona.edu/~kbw14747/wolftree2.htm, accessed July 4, 2013

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.

Out of the textbook, into the trenches: the practicality of a field practicum

There is nothing more frightening for a fresh university graduate then traversing the job market for the first time with their new degree and a realistic fear of not gaining employment in their field. The ‘real world’ can be a scary place and with a specialized profession, like archaeology, the positions that are available may be rare and highly competitive. Undertaking a field practicum while obtaining your degree can be a great way to get a ‘leg up’ on the competition. This July, I undertook ARCH 8159-Maritime Archaeology Field Practicum that took place over a week on Hinchinbrook Island in far North Queensland. Besides the obvious benefits of obtaining 4.5 credits, in only a week, towards my Masters in Maritime Archaeology degree (MMARCH) and spending that week on a beautiful uninhabited tropical island, I also gained valuable work experience; established resourceful personal contacts, and; received practical guidance from course supervisors and peers.

[In transit to Hinchinbrook Island on a small charter ferry from Port Hinchinbrook, QLD in the early morning of 8 July, 2013; photo courtesy of: Chelsea Pasch]

[In transit to Hinchinbrook Island on a small charter ferry from Port Hinchinbrook, QLD in the early morning of 8 July, 2013; photo courtesy of: Chelsea Pasch]

It is through practical courses, like field schools and practicums, that one finds out what the physical aspects of ‘the job’ entails; archaeology as a verb, an action. As a student, you know about research, report writing, and deadlines. These translate well into the life of a professional archaeologist and little transition is needed besides learning new formats or report requirements. It’s the adaptability needed in the field, the uncertainty of variables like weather and transportation, and the psychological components, that can sometimes find their way on to your project, that are impossible to teach in a classroom. For example, over the course of the week we had five out of seven days with winds over 30 knots (over 55 kilometers per hour). We had four out of seven days with rain for the majority of the day, and showers just about every day. It is also difficult, for anyone, to live an entire week on an island spending all of your ‘awake time’ (and ‘sleep time’, as we shared tents) with the same eight people. While things can get tense, you can choose to take away insight into different personalities, how to deal with them, mediate, and help build your emotional intelligence, or workplace empathy skills. Alas, there is no syllabus written about “how to keep your field logbook dry and legible when it’s constantly raining” or “how to not take everything personally in the field”. Its experiential knowledge gained from ‘mistakes made’ and ‘lessons learned’ while one is out in the field. I guarantee that what you pack for your first field experience is nothing like what you’re going to pack on your second or twentieth field project. Suddenly having a fresh pair of pants every day is not worth the extra kilos in your pack by the tenth time you lift it onto your shoulders, and that expensive new jacket that’s supposed to be waterproof is only water resistant. You learn quickly what you don’t need and what you do. After digging numerous trenches by hand, I would’ve gladly traded my snorkeling gear for a shovel. During this past practicum I have experienced everything from a Cane toad jumping on my face whilst sound asleep in my tent, to hiking five kilometers in the sand in order to ‘dig holes’ quicker than the tide could fill them back up, and then hike five kilometers back to the start all while carrying gear. These are just a couple examples of some of the unexpected parts of working in the field that can only be understood by those who have experienced ‘doing archaeology’.

You may be asking; “what makes a field practicum different from a field school?” For the MMARCH program, ARCH 8152-Maritime Archaeology Field School is a core topic, meaning that it must be completed in order to fulfill the requirements of the degree. It is in the field school where you are first introduced to the practical component of Maritime Archaeology; where you are taught the foundations of how to ‘do Maritime Archaeology’. But it’s also where you are still undeniably a student in a class, an unconventional class, but a class none the less. The practicum is a topic elective that must be chosen by the student and is more likened to a job or internship. You must have completed the field school as a prerequisite to ensure at least some familiarity with fieldwork but it is expected that the students essentially be employees for the time they are in the field. You are expected to pull your own weight, like carrying gear every day to and from site, taking turns on the metal detector (which can start to weigh heavily on your arm after 15 minutes or so), or jumping in to help everyone back-fill the many trenches that were dug just about every day. We share the burdens and the triumphs.  This is where the true value of a field practicum lies.

[The practicum participants walking back to camp from North Shepherds Bay, Hinchinbrook Island, Queensland on 8 July, 2013; photo courtesy of: Chelsea Pasch]

[The practicum participants walking back to camp from North Shepherds Bay, Hinchinbrook Island, Queensland on 8 July, 2013; photo courtesy of: Chelsea Pasch]

Having completed now both the field school and the practicum, I can truly appreciate the experience I have gained by both, and recognize the variances between them. The field school is valuable as an introduction to fieldwork, field methods, and team dynamics; and the practicum for its introduction to the need for adaptability in the field and for the luxury of being able to make mistakes, learn from them, and have professionals available for guidance. Where you’re just not feeling like an overwhelmed student worrying about notes, terms, and performing academically, but having the confidence of a peer or employee; trusted with important project tasks, minimal supervision, and the pressure of performing professionally. The purpose of a practicum course is to provide invaluable field experience to students so they may feel confident in their abilities as an archaeologist in the field and so that they may successfully transfer the ‘proactively’ driven ‘book smarts’ of their degree to the ‘reactively’ driven reality of a project in the field.

It is no secret that I am an advocate for practicums in post-graduate degrees, especially ones as practical as archaeology. Flinders University offers an additional practicum course (ARCH 8156-Advanced Maritime Archaeology Fieldwork Practicum) as well as numerous field schools ranging from conservation (ARCH 8802) to geophysics (ARCH 8808). While the theory and research studied and performed while undertaking your advanced degree are equally important, it is the ability to know how to work in the field and the confidence of “been there, done that” that can really set you apart when the illusive job posting surfaces and you have more field experience than the other applicants. It may be enough to tip the scales in your favour. Even the personal connections you make on practicum, whether peers, supervisors, or informants, can be beneficial resources or references for future employment, projects, or field opportunities. I am not saying that doing the practicums will guarantee you a job, but I can guarantee it will not be looked upon as a waste of time or credits.