By Cameron Mackay, Graduate Diploma in Maritime Archaeology
This is the first of four blogs to be written in conjunction with my directed studies research topic taken with Heritage Victoria.
The main aim of the research is to create a list of the top 20 undiscovered shipwrecks within Victoria by using significance criteria to prioritise sites within the Victorian Heritage Database (VHD). The sites prioritised will be those that can yield the most public interest, contribute to Australia’s cultural/local area history and establish possibilities for further understanding of shipbuilding and experimental building techniques.
The question also arises as to what wreck remains will still exist at the sites and what these remains could reveal, in addition to what cargo may have survived. These questions are to be addressed later in the research, however, and will be an underlying factor throughout the research.
As the research is focused on the idea of significance it is important to understand what that actually means to begin with.
“the quality of being significant or having a meaning.”
Macquarie Dictionary. 2016. [Online]
Significance in the context of archaeology is difficult to define with absolute certainty, and is subject to change. This is due to the changing information, opinions and requirements individuals may have at any time, which changes the meaning of significance. As such, significance may be defined as a fluid, ever-changing idea that is based on changing individual views, beliefs, opinions, needs and objectives. It is important to note that significance must be constantly reviewed, revisited and checked.
Significance plays an important role in archaeology, particularly in assessing cultural heritage, in terms of the creation of criteria to assess sites and establish values in different areas. With its fluctuating meanings, however, significance criteria to assess sites and establish values must be reviewed constantly to ensure that all aims and objectives are being met. Such review also ensures that the significance stays relevant to the research being conducted.
In assessing significance, my project is influenced by the works of:
- NSW Environment and Heritage: Evaluate the significance of shipwrecks (2012)
- Victoria State Government Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning: Criteria for assessing cultural heritage significance (2015)
- MacLeod, Harvey: Management of Historic Shipwrecks Through a Combination of Significance and Conservation Assessments (2014)
- Russel, Winkworth: Significance 2.0, A guide to Assessing the Significance of Collections
- Marquis- Kyle, Walker: The Illustrated Burra Charter. Good Practice for Heritage Places.
These sources use significance criteria in order to prioritise or rank sites to establish significance. This methodology will form the foundation of my research and assist in forming a path for the research to travel.
These assessments all use a similar process, beginning with researching the history of sites for information. This information is then assessed against a defined set of criteria, and expressed as a statement of significance.
For my project, instead of writing a statement of significance, I will use the defined set of criteria to rank sites. This will allow me to establish a list of the top 20, while removing as much subjectivity as possible through a grading system.
A major issue will be combing through the VHD, and correctly being able to research and place sites against each criterion, while reducing subjectivity. This is so that no site is overlooked and all steps in a site’s ranking are clear and logical.
Criteria are fundamentally the same across all significance assessments. I have been able to form a set of basic criteria to begin with, which will be reviewed and refined at a later date. My criteria list is:
As a note, for a site to be deemed significant it isn’t required to meet all criteria, but only needs to meet a minimum of one.
It is this basic list which the HVD will be placed against, to begin forming a significance list. This criteria will be revised and refined at a later date in order to create a ranking system and create a top 20 shipwrecks list for Victoria.
NSW Environment and Heritage 2012 Evaluate the Significance of Shipwrecks. Retrieved 10 August 2016 from
Victoria State Government Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning 2015 Criteria for Assessing Cultural Heritage Significance. Retrieved 10 August 2016 from
MacLeod, I. and P. Harvey 2014 Management of historic shipwrecks through a combination of significance and conservation assessments. Conservation and Management of Archaeological Sites 16(3):245-267.
Russell, R and K. Winkworth 2009 Significance 2.0. A Guide to Assessing the Significance of Collections. Adelaide: Collections Council of Australia.
Marquis-Kyle, P. and M. Walker 2004 The Illustrated Burra Charter. Good Practice for Heritage Places. Melbourne: Australia ICOMOS.