The Maritime Archaeology Collection: Part 2 Islands and Reefs

Written by Dr Maddy Fowler, Museum of Tropical Queensland

Following from Part 1 Shipwrecks, which detailed the 17 named shipwrecks represented by artefacts in the Museum of Tropical Queensland collection, Part 2 explores objects discovered at islands and reefs that are not ascribed to a known shipwreck. With the Great Barrier Reef, one of Australia’s greatest ship-traps, lying off the Queensland coast, it is unsurprising that shipwreck material occurs on many of the islands, reefs and cays both there and further offshore in the Coral Sea.

In saying that, artefacts from the following locations may relate to vessels: Moulter Cay the ship Sapphire (1859); Great Detached Reef the ship Aerd Van Nes (1854); Polmaise Reef the barque Tambaroora (1879) and the barque Deutschland (1883); and Double Island Point the brig Missie (1866). Further research needs to be undertaken to determine how conclusive these identifications are.

Northern Great Barrier Reef

Island or reef name Number of records*
Torres Strait 6
Moulter Cay 12
Raine Island 198
Great Detached Reef 11
Cockburn Reef 14
Sir Charles Hardy Island 1
Wishbone Reef 8
Little Broadhurst Reef 1

Many of these artefacts, while not identified to individual vessels, are ship-related objects. These include parts of the ship such as fastenings (bolts, nails, spikes, staples, tacks), rigging (block components) and miscellaneous objects (ballast, planking). Other ship-related objects are ship’s furniture and fittings such as slate, brick, window glass, metal sheeting (copper and lead sheeting, hull sheathing), hinges, drawer handles, door fittings and locks and plumbing. Maritime-specific tools include navigational instruments like binnacle or compass components.

Although, some objects may not pinpoint a shipwreck, but rather relate to shipping mishaps or objects discarded overboard. This includes weapons and accessories such as ammunition (iron and lead shot), and domestic and personal equipment like food and drink consumption and storage vessels (earthenware, glass bottles, stemware, barrel hoops) and clay pipes.

Southern Great Barrier Reef

Island or reef name Number of records*
Heron Island 9
Polmaise Reef 20
Lady Elliot Island 34
Double Island Point 11

While most artefacts pertain to a submerged environment, some of those from islands actually represent island-based industries rather than shipwreck events or shipping mishaps. The largest site-specific collection, Raine Island, is an excellent example of this, used for convict labour (constructing the stone beacon), as a beche-de-mer fishery and for guano mining.

Given the remote location of many sites in the Great Barrier Reef and Coral Sea, the collection of these artefacts often occurred on the basis of which organisations were in the area. Queensland Museum (QM) maritime archaeology staff collected the majority of these artefacts, often with the support of volunteers from the Maritime Archaeology Association of Queensland (MAAQ), in the 1980s and 1990s, when QM was the State delegate for the Historic Shipwrecks Act 1976. In other cases, organisations such as the Queensland National Parks & Wildlife Service were responsible for their collection. The Raine Island Corporation field trips excavated the Raine Island collection. Individuals have donated very few artefacts.

Coral Sea

Island or reef name Number of records*
Mellish Reef 2
Dart Reef 6
Wreck Reef 3
Porpoise Cay 57
Whalebone Cay (Hope Cay) 1
Kenn Reefs 18
Observatory Cay 2
Bird Island 1

*The ‘number of records’ refers to the number of individual entries recorded against each island or reef in the Museum’s database. It does not quantify the number of individual artefacts, as some records relate to more than one object.

The records from islands and reefs make up 6% of the collection, compared to named shipwrecks. This collection reminds us that many of these fastenings or bottles, for example, lose meaning when removed from their context. The significance of these objects diminishes without accurate provenance. It is time to revisit these objects and connect them back to the stories of Queensland’s islands and reefs.

To learn more about the artefacts from the islands and reefs listed here, please contact the Museum of Tropical Queensland +61 (0) 7 4726 0600 or