Maritime Archaeology


Where it often starts: a shipwreck. SS Kaiwatiri at Macquarie Heads, about 1907 (AOT, PH30/1/2481)

While the study of maritime archaeological sites in Australian waters has been undertaken since the 1960s, most notably by the Western Australian Museum, no such work occurred in Tasmania before the late 1970s. Initial work on the Sydney Cove shipwreck site, discovered in 1977, was largely undertaken by amateur divers who formed themselves into the Maritime Archaeological Association of Tasmania. As site managers, the Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife Service also supplied staff for diving operations, although the expertise in recording underwater sites was still developing. The Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery at Launceston also became involved with shipwreck sites through its responsibility for the conservation of artefacts from the Sydney Cove.

In 1982 the state government became a signatory to the Commonwealth Historic Shipwrecks Act (1976), and was given responsibility for the protection and management of shipwrecks in Tasmanian waters. With federal funding, the Parks and Wildlife Service established a dedicated maritime archaeology position in 1984 and the focus of the programme shifted to the documentation and inspection of other shipwrecks. More detailed investigations of other sites such as the Litherland (1853), Brahmin (1854) and Bulli (1877) resulted in the nomination of ten shipwrecks for protection under the federal Act during the 1980s. In 1993 the federal legislation was amended so that all shipwreck sites more than 75 years old were automatically protected. Complementary protection for shipwreck sites in internal state waters followed in 1995 with the proclamation of the Tasmanian Historic Cultural Heritage Act. It is within this framework of state and federal legislation that a programme to protect, research and interpret Tasmania's maritime heritage has been undertaken.

The broader study of the state's shipwrecks resulted in the production of a number of general survey reports and the establishment of a shipwrecks database and publications on the 1000-plus wrecks in Tasmanian waters. During the early 1990s the focus of the shipwreck programme returned to the Sydney Cove with a dedicated project to excavate and display material from the state's most significant wreck. The site of the steamship Tasman, wrecked in 1883 and discovered during 1998 in 70 metres of water, has also been the subject of a recording project that has demonstrated the archaeological potential of deep-water wrecks.

Concurrent with work on historic shipwrecks, a number of maritime-related projects have been undertaken in Tasmania, including conservation works on lighthouses and pilot stations, studies of the state's whaling and sealing industries, and surveys of the marine infrastructure of convict establishments at Sarah Island and Port Arthur. Interpretation projects on aspects of Tasmania's maritime history and archaeology have included the development of a website on sub-Antarctic Macquarie Island, signage trails at Adventure Bay, Recherche Bay and King Island, and assistance with the redevelopment of the Maritime Museum of Tasmania at Hobart.

Further reading: G Broxam & M Nash, Tasmanian shipwrecks vol 1, 17971899, and vol 2, 19001999, Canberra, 1998, 2000; G Henderson, Maritime archaeology in Australia, Perth, 1986; M Nash, ' The Tasmanian maritime heritage program', Bulletin of the Australasian Institute for Maritime Archaeology, 2003; M Staniforth and M Nash (eds), Underwater Cultural Heritage - Australian Approaches, New York, 2005.

Mike Nash