Small things sometimes mean a whole lot

In honor of the 230th anniversary of the sinking of HMS Pandora, Dr Maddy McAllister, Senior Curator of Maritime Archaeology has selected three objects rarely seen from the extensive collection held at Museum of Tropical Queensland in Townsville.

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HMS Pandora was the British Royal Navy warship dispatched to the South Pacific in pursuit of the infamous Bounty mutineers.

On its return journey, approximately 140km east of Cape York, it struck reef on 28th August 1791. Although the crew tried to salvage the ship, it eventually succumbed and sank in the early hours of 29th August 1791.

Sinking of HMS Pandora by Oswald Brett

The Pandora wreck lay undetected for almost 200 years. Today, it’s one of the most significant shipwrecks in the Southern Hemisphere and a large collection of over 6000 objects excavated from the wreck form part of Queensland Museum’s State Maritime Collection. 

Over the years, to commemorate the anniversary we have revealed many large objects from the collection – the ship’s pintle, cannons, padlocks, ceramics and more.

However this year we dove even further into the collection and picked three tiny objects to show just how incredible the preservation of the Pandora shipwreck is. Plus, these are all from organic material – so incredibly delicate and unique.

A fragment of a gunner’s rule

MA6369

This fragment of an ivory protractor or gunner’s folding rule measures 23mm wide x 10mm high and just 1mm deep. The numbered scale is still clearly visible on the face despite hundreds of years underwater.

A gunner’s rule was a navigation instrument, but was also useful for a wide range of applications including surveying and trade.

Thin rope fragment

Recovered from concretions around the 18-pounder carronade (a short cast-iron cannon which was used by the Royal Navy) this small piece of string approximately 30 cm long is remarkably preserved.

MA4190 – 18-pounder carronade
MA4194

Close examination shows the separate hair string fibres. Preservation of organics like rope is very rare for shipwreck sites – they often deteriorate quite quickly.

Leather scabbard fragment

MA4189

This fragment once belonged to a full leather scabbard for a bladed weapon. A scabbard is a sheath for holding a sword, knife, or other large blade.

This fragment was found in the concretion from the 18-pounder carronade as well, possibly indicating that it once belonged to one of the gunners.

Look closely at the well-preserved double longitudinal stitching along the seam!

The Pandora wreck site

Many people don’t realise that the Pandora wreck is very remote. The wreck site in far northern waters of the Great Barrier Reef is actually closer to Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea than to Townsville or Cairns. Depending on weather and sea conditions, it takes nearly three days for an expedition vessel to get there from Townsville.

After sinking in 1791 damaged but substantially intact – the hull settled into the sea floor on its starboard side and appears to have been buried over time. As layers of sediment were accumulating within and around the hull, the exposed upper levels of the vessel collapsed and disintegrated as a result of attack by marine borers, the effect of currents and, to a lesser extent, wave motion.

In 1995 it was estimated that approximately 590 cubic metres of sediment would require systematic excavation to uncover all of the hull remains. Across nine Queensland Museum expeditions to Pandora, archaeologists excavated approximately 240 cubic metres of sediment. After the final expedition, the site was recovered with sand and sediment and to this day, the hull and many other objects remain in their original resting place over 40m deep on the floor of the Coral Sea.

Dr Maddy McAllister provides an insight into the latest collection pieces now on show in Pandora Gallery.

Compiled by Dr Maddy McAllister. Maddy is the Senior Curator of Maritime Archaeology at the Queensland Museum Network, based at the Museum of Tropical Queensland campus in Townsville. Her position is co-appointed with the College of Arts, Society and Education at James Cook University.

Pandora Gallery is open every day from 9.30am – 4pm. Entry to the exhibition is included with museum admission.

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