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South Australia’s oldest wreck yields new finds

Broken stoneware mineral-water jug in the bow section (Irini Malliaros / SAILS)
Broken stoneware mineral-water jug in the bow section of the South Australian (Irini Malliaros / SAILS)

A gun flint “strike-a-light”, decorated ceramic fragments, ship’s fasteners, glass bottles and a whetstone used to sharpen tools are among artefacts that have been recovered from South Australia’s oldest-known European shipwreck, named after the state and sunk in 1837.

According to a recently published report, work at the South Australian wreck-site has included recovery of a small selection of “at-risk” objects, all now undergoing conservation, following comprehensive documentation of sections of the hull exposed above the seabed.

Wreck-site at Encounter Bay (James Hunter / SAILS.)
Historic protected wreck-site at Encounter Bay (James Hunter / SAILS)

The archaeological investigation is being conducted by the Australian National Maritime Museum (ANMM) and the charity Silentworld Foundation. Also represented on the SAILS (South Australian Immigration & Labourer Shipwrecks Project) team are the South Australian Maritime Museum (SAMM), the state’s Department for Environment & Water and Flinders University.

The barque South Australian sank in Encounter Bay near what is now the town of Victor Harbor, but was discovered only in 2018.

More than 200 years old, the ship was originally a postal packet called Marquess of Salisbury that delivered mail between England and its colonies from 1820. It went on to serve as the British naval packet HMP Swallow before being bought by the South Australian Company, which renamed it South Australian. The ship carried a lot of sail for its relatively small hull to maximise its speed, says the ANMM.

Possible flint strike-a-light or fire-starter (Irini Malliaros / SAILS)
Possible flint strike-a-light or fire-starter (Irini Malliaros / SAILS)
Fragment of hand-painted pearlware (Irini Malliaros / SAILS)
Fragment of hand-painted pearlware (Irini Malliaros / SAILS)

Under its new owner the South Australian had transported some 80 immigrants to the new colony of South Australia but it was employed primarily as a “cutting-in” vessel on which whale-blubber was removed in the service of Encounter Bay’s shore-based whaling industry.

Preparing to leave for Hobart in Tasmania loaded with whale oil on 8 December, 1837, South Australian was caught in a south-easterly gale and wrecked. All those onboard survived but the wreck was forgotten until the 1990s, when two attempts by South Australia'n’s government to locate it failed. 

However, data from these expeditions combined with archival information led the SAILS team to a new search area and they found the South Australian in shallow depths of 3-4m in April 2018. Visible above the seabed were timber framing and hull-planking, copper keel bolts and glass and pottery fragments.

Divers on the wreck of the South Australian (Irini Malliaros / Silentworld Foundation)
Divers on the wreck of the South Australian (Irini Malliaros / Silentworld Foundation)

The Covid pandemic interrupted the investigation but from last year ANMM maritime archaeologists, a Silentworld conservator and volunteer divers restarted work at the site. Despite challenging weather and compromised visibility, photogrammetric recording and site-mapping were carried out along with a comprehensive conservation assessment, and a digital 3D model was produced of most of the site.

“South Australian’s historical and archaeological significance cannot be overstated,” says the lead author of the new study Dr James Hunter, ANMM naval heritage & archaeology curator and an associate lecturer at Flinders University. 

Seaweed- or fibre-pattern ceramic sherd with iron concretion (Irini Malliaros / SAILS)
Seaweed- or fibre-pattern ceramic sherd with iron concretion (Irini Malliaros / SAILS)
Fragment of Derbyshire stoneware jug (Irini Malliaros / SAILS)
Base of Derbyshire stoneware jug (Irini Malliaros / SAILS)

“As South Australia’s oldest recorded European shipwreck, and one of its earliest immigration vessels, it has the potential to enhance our understanding of the state’s initial colonisation and occupation – including the establishment of extractive mercantile activities, such as shore-based whaling and interactions between European colonists and Aboriginal people.

“Similarly, the site’s distinction as one of only two (former) 19th-century British sailing-packet shipwrecks to undergo archaeological scrutiny brings an international dimension to its significance.” 

The discovery of the South Australian five years ago (Silentworld Foundation)

“While a sizeable percentage of South Australian’s surviving fabric remains buried, recent seabed changes are uncovering the site at an alarming rate,” reports Dr Hunter.

“This has reinforced the need for additional investigation and inquiry and underscores the urgency with which site stabilisation efforts should be adopted and enacted.”

Germany’s University of Applied Sciences is developing a virtual reality experience of the South Australian, and the ship is also the subject of a graphic novel based on research and archival sources, including the original logbook. The team hope to complete its photogrammetric survey this year, and their study is published in Historical Archaeology

Also on Divernet: Australia’s most tragic shipwreck site located, Wartime mystery solved: Wollongbar II found in Tasman Sea, Sole survivor shipwrecked for 3 days didn’t tell family, Wreck illuminates 1840s shipbuilding, Where did Blythe Star go? 50-year mystery solved

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