Transcript

29 Jul 2011

Marine archaeology

Mark Staniforth

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Transcript

Matt Smith:

Welcome to a La Trobe University podcast. I would be your host Matt Smith and today we'll be hearing from marine archaeologist Associate Professor Mark Staniforth. Archaeology can be a challenging career at the best of times but exploring sites in a marine environment presents extra difficulties. So what are you in for if you want to be a marine archaeologist?

Mark Staniforth:

Well, that's an interesting question. I suppose the primary difference is that you need to be able to scuba dive to go to work. But essentially the other aspects to marine archaeology are the same as any other kind of archaeology. One of the great marine archaeologists of the world, George Bass, basically said that archaeology is archaeology – maritime archaeology is archaeology. We want to do the same kinds of things that all archaeologists want to do. We want to understand the past, we want to understand human behaviour in the past, and these are things that all archaeologists want to do, whether we're trying to understand something that's only a hundred years ago or something that's three hundred and fifty years ago, or something that's ten thousand years ago. It's essentially the same process. We're looking at material culture to try and understand what people did and how they did it. So I think there's a lot of similarities between it. The main difference is that you're actually working underwater on a site and that has any number of logistical difficulties, organisational difficulties. I mean, one of the things, it's really obvious, but you can't usually talk to the people who you're trying to work with. And that becomes difficult in not being able to communicate, you've got to have a pretty good understanding of what you're trying to do down there, how you're trying to do it, because nobody's actually going to explain it to you on the sea bed. You're down there and you've got to do a job, so it's more difficult in some respects. It can be much slower, that's another aspect to it, because the water's usually cold. You can't stay down all day. Whereas on a terrestrial site and I've always worked in recent years both underwater and on land – on land you can put in an eight hour day, not too many sites where you can put in an eight hour day underwater. The water's got to be very, very warm to be able to do that. Many sites you only get maybe an hour, two hours, three hours a day out of each person who's there on site. And that makes it much slower than working on land.

Matt Smith:

Now Australia, being girt by sea as it is, you would imagine would have a rich maritime history, so what sort of archaeological sites can you find?

Mark Staniforth:

There are many, many shipwrecks. The Federal Government has a Historic Shipwrecks Database which includes listing of probably six or seven thousand shipwrecks around Australia. So steamships, sailing ships, all those sorts of things. So the shipwreck part of it has always been in the majority of what maritime archaeologists do in Australia. But as you can imagine there are other things which are underwater for one reason or another – aircraft are becoming of interest, because there's quite a number of aircraft, particularly from the Second World War and that sort of period which are being found underwater all the time. There are also things like what we call maritime infrastructure or jetties, wharves, piers, those sorts of things. I've been working on what's known as a dry dock, or a place where they brought ships to repair them and sometimes to build them, and that's on the Murray River. So there's not only things in the ocean, but there are also things in the river, and some of which are underwater, and they require investigation in some cases, protection in other cases, etc.

Matt Smith:

You were involved in an ARC grant to work on a ship called the Clarence. Can you tell me a bit about that ship and about the project?

Mark Staniforth:

OK, the project goes back a very long way. About twenty five years ago I was the State Maritime Archaeologist here in Victoria. I worked for the State Government at the time. One of the shipwrecks that had been found at the time was this small Australian-built vessel called the Clarence. And it's down near St Leonards in Port Phillip, down towards Queenscliff, and it's a small Australian-built trading vessel, and the interesting thing of course about Australian-built ships is that if you think about it, when people came to Australia, they knew how to build ships. If they were coming from Britain, they had a centuries old tradition of building ships. One of the issues that they had of course was that the timbers that they are familiar with, like oak and ash and beech and elm, aren't available to them here in Australia and what they have are a bunch of Australian endemic timbers. And so one of the immediate questions becomes – which timbers do they use, how quickly do they learn which timbers are suitable for what type of purpose on ships? And that's a really interesting question for an archaeologist because the historical record doesn't answer it. We can't actually go and look up, oh we built the ship out of these timbers and we used this timber for that purpose because we figured out fairly quickly that it was the best timber to use. And so one of the questions we have with the whole program of Australian shipbuilding that we've had going now for the last twenty five years is – how did Australians learn about the timbers? How quickly did they start to put certain kinds of timbers to use in Australian shipbuilding? And so, the Australian shipbuilding side of this is very important. And that's why we're interested in Clarence. And of course there was a hiatus really from the 1980s through to a week ago, when we got an ARC grant. So we're now going to be doing research for the next three, three and a half years, on the Clarence, to look at the way in which the Clarence was constructed, the timbers that were used in the various parts of the ship itself, because ships are never built of one timber, they're always built of multiple timbers, but the other part of this project is also quite important because we're looking at excavation and the re-burial of material. We did a little bit of excavation on Clarence back in the 1980s and the reason effectively that we stopped was that we didn't have the conservation facilities to look after the material that we were raising from Clarence. Conservation is time-consuming, highly expensive and at the end of it, you have material which may end up just going back into storage. And you just can't justify spending vast amounts of money on the conservation of artefacts. And so part of this exercise is to excavate, document that material. So we'll be photographing it, drawing it, fully recording it, putting it back into plastic bags and boxes, and re-burying it. Not necessarily on the site itself, but somewhere close to the site, which will allow us to, if we want to go and see it again, or someone wants to go and see it again, to go and dig it up. But it does mean that we then don't have to do the conservation that is required on that material, because there simply isn't enough money. Maritime archaeology doesn't generate enough support to justify the millions of dollars that would be required to excavate and fully conserve a lot of shipwreck sites. Only very, very special shipwreck sites, like Batavia can justify the large amounts of money that are spent on conservation. And for Batavia, that project became a million dollars a year for probably twenty years. That's a lot of money that the museum in Western Australia have invested in that project over a very long period of time. I think it's fully justified, but many people would say, why do you spend twenty million dollars on a project like that?

Matt Smith:

You're involved in a regional conference for the Asia-Pacific region into underwater cultural heritage? Did you want to tell me about that conference? And what do you hope to get out of that?

Mark Staniforth:

One of the things that happened about ten years ago was that UNESCO brought in a convention for the protection of underwater heritage, because one of the problems with underwater cultural heritage is that people to tend it as a finders keepers area. Now, in archaeology on the land, people have kind of stopped being able to pick stuff up or buy antiquities – they've stopped going to places like Greece and Egypt and dig things up, take them home, sell them on the open market. That's been the case now for at least fifty years. You can't really do that any more. Underwater unfortunately, it's been much more of a free for all. It's been much more possible for treasure hunters to come along and simply say to countries – we'd like to go and excavate this shipwreck site and we'd like the sell the contents of that shipwreck site on the open market. So there has a been a trade in material from shipwrecks. So the UNESCO convention for the protection of underwater cultural heritage which came in about ten years ago was the first time that the world community had tried to protect underwater cultural heritage. Now in some parts of the world, a lot of countries have ratified the convention. In the Eastern Mediterranean, for example, I went to a conference in Turkey last year where of eighteen countries that were represented, fourteen had ratified the convention. And that means that they are willing to do things to protect their underwater cultural heritage. Now in our region, unfortunately, of the forty eight countries in the Asia-Pacific region, only two have ratified the UNESCO convention. Unfortunately, Australia is not one of the two. And therefore there is a lot of things going on in many of the countries of the region which are not considered ethical practice in archaeology. There's a lot of treasure hunting going on, there are a lot of sites which are being literally mined for their contents, then that material is being sold on the open market. You can go onto the web and buy this stuff. You can go to auctions, some very big auction houses, and buy material from shipwreck sites. And that unfortunately means that we lose a lot of knowledge, the work isn't done archaeologically, it's not done with a view to trying to learn anything, it's done with a view to how quickly can we get this material up from the seabed and into an auction room where we can sell it, because it's commercial activity. And the UNESCO convention basically attempts to put an end to commercial exploitation of underwater sites. And really, what we're trying to do with the conference which is happening in November in the Philippines, is to persuade, influence a number of countries in the Asia-Pacific region towards ratifying the convention, towards protecting their underwater cultural heritage, instead of mining it and selling it. Cultural heritage belongs to nations. It belongs to the world. So if you think about it, a nation might have an interest in a particular part of cultural heritage, the Dutch of course have an interest in Batavia. And they've had an interest for a long time. Australia has had a bi-lateral agreement with the Netherlands since 1972 and therefore we've recognised that interest, we've always negotiated with the Dutch about what happens to the material, and every bit of the material from Batavia is held in public collections in Western Australia. So that it's available to people to see in the museum, it's available to archaeologists like me to go and study if we want to, and that material is very important. It's part of the cultural heritage of this country, it's part of the cultural heritage of the Netherlands, and I suppose, of the world, so that anybody in the world who wants to know about the Dutch East India Company ships for example, a primary source on Dutch East India ships is the Batavia work that has been done over the last thirty, thirty five years.

Matt Smith:

That's all the time we've got for the La Trobe University podcast for today. If you have any questions, comments or feedback about this podcast, or any other, then send us an email at podcast@latrobe.edu.au. Mark Staniforth, thank you for your time today.

Mark Staniforth:

OK. Thanks, Matt.

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