Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Protecting the H.M.S. Sirius Wrecksite and her Artefacts

Last week we celebrated the 224th anniversary of the wrecking of the flagship of the First Fleet, H.M.S. Sirius on the reef at Slaughter Bay. Her role as the flagship places her as Australia’s most important shipwreck and her artefacts are the most significant array of First Fleet cultural heritage held anywhere in Australia. She was the lead ship of those coming to start the new colony, and is therefore positioned right at the very beginnings of what was to become our Nation. The story of the first two years of settlement at Port Jackson and Norfolk Island are together the story of the start of Australia and the wrecking of the Sirius here was a defining event for both colonies. What is astounding is that as a whole we do not know or are not taught at school, about Norfolk Island’s role and the final resting place for the Sirius. I imagine every American child knows what happened to the Mayflower?

The site of the shipwrecking and eventual spread of her artefacts received National and Commonwealth Heritage Listing in 2011. Given her importance it is also not surprising that there is Legislation that protects the wrecksite of the Sirius, along with other Historic Shipwrecks around Australia. This is the Commonwealth Historic Shipwrecks Act 1976. This legislation covers the ownership and sale of historic shipwreck artefacts and also shipwreck sites. The aims of the Act are to ensure that historic shipwrecks are protected for their heritage values and maintained for recreational, scientific and educational purposes. The Act also seeks to control any actions which could result in damage, interference, removal or destruction of an historic shipwreck site or relic. It does not prevent private ownership of relics, or their sale or disposal, but it does regulate their transfer.
NIMAA members snorkelling on the last Sirius anchor still on the sea floor
It is also important for locals to know that while they may have Sirius or other historic shipwreck artefacts currently in their possession, the Act does not allow further removal of objects from wreck sites or disturbance of sites. Relics can only be removed if a permit has been issued (which is what occurred for the official expeditions to recover the Sirius objects). A permit can be issued by the Museum Director as the appointed Officer under the Act. For the Sirius site, there are no restrictions on the use of the site by divers, surfers or swimmers. When the Norfolk Island Maritime Archaeology Association (NIMAA) members were recently diving with visiting maritime archaeologists they were lucky enough to have conditions that do not occur very often over the site, being calm and with little current or swell, and could snorkel over the remaining anchor still visible on the sea floor (see photo).

It is important to know though that no-one may remove relics or disturb the physical fabric of the site. The reason for this of course is that we want the Sirius wreck site and artefacts to be around for future generations to see and learn from. Private owners have an obligation to ensure the artefacts they hold are looked after properly. Working with the Sirius collection on a daily basis we know the conservation work that is required to ensure that these objects do not deteriorate. We had a great example of this presented to us recently when a copper bolt was taken from the site without the diver, Jamie Ryves, being aware that this was illegal. Jamie is an experienced and very responsible diver – but was unaware of the HSP Legislation. The bolt he recovered is likely to be a keel bolt and is an exciting find. However after being under the water for 224 years, it immediately began to corrode once taken out of the water and quickly coloured bright green – a lovely colour in any other circumstances, but one that gave us a clear alarm bell that active corrosion was underway.

Janelle with the keel bolt and its 'tank'
Once we alerted Jamie to the importance of the bolt and that it shouldn’t have been taken off the site without a permit, he immediately donated it to the museum. Janelle Blucher quickly worked on its conservation by rinsing it in fresh water then removing the attached accretions.  This provided an even surface for treatment by immersion in a citric acid / thiourea solution.  The citric acid assists in the removal of the remaining salt laden calcareous concretions and the thiourea prevents the citric acid from attacking the underlying good metal.  The bolt is over 900mm long so a vessel long enough for the immersion in the solution was created (thanks Raewyn and Christian Bailey-Agencies!).  The bolt spent a few weeks in solution and was recently removed and will soon be ready for its next phase of treatment including immersing in sodium sesquicarbonate solution to remove salt contaminations in the metal. This process should remove all the salt and it will then be ready for a protective coating and display.

We sincerely thank Jamie for not only donating the bolt but approving of us publically relaying his actions as a way of publicising that the purpose of the Act, is protection of the artefacts. We hope that everyone will understand that the issue at stake here is not about denying the right to collect objects or ownership per se – it is about ensuring that our children’s children will be able to inherit their rightful heritage by us being good custodians during our lifetime. We are very happy to offer conservation advice and assistance with any artefacts anyone has that they may be worried about. Please call down and see us at the Museum or call on 23788.

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