Dr Maddy McAllister

What it’s like to be a maritime archaeologist

How did such a large ship and experienced crew come to be wrecked? What is the full story of HMS Pandora that now lies at the bottom of the ocean? To celebrate National Archaeology Week, we’re chatting to Queensland Museum’s only underwater archaeologist Dr Maddy McAllister. You might know her from Instagram as the @ShipwreckMermaid.

In this episode we reveal the difference between underwater and maritime archaeology, common challenges for conducting research in the field, what it’s like working on the story of Pandora and seeing shipwrecks in person as well as the best part of sharing her experience and stories online.

Meet our guest

Dr McAllister is the senior curator of Maritime Archaeology based at Queensland Museum Tropics campus in Townsville. Her position is co-appointed with the College of Arts, Society and Education at James Cook University.

Maddy’s research focus is on the visualisation of underwater shipwrecks and the way that new technology enhances the information we can learn from sites in the tropical sphere. There is a large collection of legacy data from the Museum’s research into shipwrecks. Like the Pandora, and Maddy is working on ways of digitising this collection – with particular emphasis on 3D digital modelling from photographs and finding new ways to communicate archaeological knowledge.

View Maddy's profile

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Follow Maddy on social media

Twitter: @shipwreckmermaid
Instagram: @shipwreckmermaid
Facebook: @shipwreckmermaid

In case you prefer to read

How did such a large ship and experienced crew come to be wrecked? What is the full story of HMS Pandora that now lies at the bottom of the ocean? These are some of the questions Maritime and underwater archaeologists work to answer. So no, archaeology isn’t just digging up old objects from the ground! For National Archaeology Week and to kick of Museum Revealed Season two, Dr Maddy McAllister (MM), Senior Curator for Maritime Archaeology at the Queensland Museum Tropics in Townsville is here today with me, Laura Cantrell (LC) – Museum Graphic Designer and sometimes podcast host, to reveal what it’s like to work on these incredible shipwrecks and some of the challenges faced… including sharks! You might know her from Instagram as the Shipwreck Mermaid.

LC: Welcome.

MM: Thank you. I’m very excited to be here for National Archaeology Week.

LC: Yay! Well, let’s begin with can you define the difference between underwater and maritime archaeology?

MM: Yeah, awesome. That is a question that I do get very regularly, for just simply really underwater archaeology is exactly that anything that you work on underwater. So that includes shipwrecks. That includes aircraft wrecks. It also includes submerged landscapes and habitation sites, as well as harbours and jetties. And then if you think about maritime archaeology, that is a bit more holistic and involves everything that’s underwater, but then also comes out on land. So you study ports and towns and seascapes that aren’t necessarily underwater. That also includes rivers and creeks and estuaries. I certainly have quite a few colleagues that only work in there and would be upset if I didn’t mention the rivers so much more wide.

LC: What do you have any fears when diving? And the big one is obviously sharks.

MM: Yes, I grew up on the West Australian coastline, so certainly sharks were a prominent feature of our growing up and swimming there. And any work that you did in the water. I accept the risk that I get in the water and I’m in an environment where these animals live. I have to say that I’m facing new fears working up here and living in north Queensland because of crocs, which are a whole new kettle of fish for me. On top of that, I’d actually say really that most underwater archaeologists would say that the biggest sort of risk and fears we have a much more to do with the environment and the conditions that we’re in, particularly if you think about shipwrecks, they often don’t wreck in the most perfect tropical, lovely, calm waters. They’re often on reef edges and dynamic swell or in places where it’s really quite dangerous. So we have to plan pretty hard how to do the work that we want to do on these sites.

LC: Well, what are some of the other challenges specifically for conducting research underwater?

MM: I often get asked this and thank you, that’s a good question to sort of introduce how we do our work as well. Many people forget that a lot of our field work, it is underwater and your diving and the first thing there is that you straightaway lose the ability to talk to anybody underwater so you can’t have detailed conversations with your partner or your dive buddy down on the site. You have to rely on sign language or pre-approved signs to do what you do. So we have to plan everything really, really well purely just to get to the site and to start work. So that’s the first one. We can’t talk underwater. It’s probably a blessing for some people, actually, I would say the second one then is that we actually have amazing tools now for recording sites. So everything from drawing on paper that’s waterproof to 3D modelling tools now that allow us to work underwater when we previously couldn’t.

LC: And how does your fieldwork translate to your work as a senior curator at the museum?

MM: I have the pleasure of working on some very famous and very significant shipwreck sites that are found here in Queensland that includes everything from HMS Pandora to the S.S. Yongala shipwreck and many, many more along our coastline. I get to work on them because we are actually the states sort of delegated holders for the maritime archaeology collection for Queensland. So we have about around ten thousand objects from about 20 to 30 shipwrecks in our collection here. And a lot of that involves research around where they’ve come from and that requires visiting these sites and helping to manage them.

LC: So you’ve worked a lot on the HMS Pandora project, but what other projects stand out for you in your career?

MM: I have been lucky enough to work as a student and a PhD student before I started here on some very significant projects. One was the shipwrecks of the roaring 1940s Australian Research Council project, a linkage project in Western Australia that looked at the last 40 years of discoveries of shipwrecks and particularly looked at very famous Dutch East India Company wrecks in the West Australian coast and revisited them with new technology. So I got to help out with that. My PhD was on 3D modelling of the Batavia shipwreck site, which sunk in 1629 over there, and probably most amazingly for me was that I actually got to help forensic anthropologist excavate burials over there of people who died or were killed during the mutiny of Batavia. So very infamous story and certainly something that maritime archaeologists probably don’t get to do very often.

LC: Now, I know that you’re well known for telling shipwreck stories on your Instagram and the museum social media channels. What do you most like about posting online?

MM: I really love that I get to translate this work that we do that is highly academic, highly scientific, or really just very, very detailed into a way that really resonates with people in the public. And I think, you know, I was one of them sort of 14 years old. I was fascinated by tales of shipwrecks and seafaring and nautical legends. And I like really reiterating that for the public today. I like also the fact that now I can do that and I can add real facts to it. So this sort of shows what underwater archaeologists do. We do the research. We find out amazing things and we can sort of put that truth to the sea tales that you probably grew up with.

LC: And what has been the reaction from your audience?

MM: I’ve probably been bagged out a bit by my other underwater archaeology colleagues, mainly for the choice of the Shipwreck Mermaid as a name. But that’s all very friendly banter. It’s certainly been a good reaction. I would say to it. People are fascinated and probably most surprising to me is that people often want the details that I didn’t think they would want. You know, I think they’d want the general stories and they’re fascinated by the really tiny objects and things like that.

LC: You recently posted about diving around the SS Yongala, which sank in 1911. What’s it like to see it in person?

MM: That is amazing. I compare that to people by saying, imagine you have read and learnt all of your career about a ship that is Australia’s equivalent of the Titanic, and you can actually go at once or twice a week however many times you want and you can dive this site and you can actually be there for yourself and see it. So Yongala sits in about 30 metres of water. It’s certainly not an easy dive, but it is just incredible. It’s a hundred metre long shipwreck, mostly with an intact hull that sits on one side on the seabed and has become this incredible oasis and home for remarkable underwater marine life and coral. So it’s incredible for me because it has such a morbid past. No one survived. They didn’t even know what had happened to Yongala until many decades later. And yet now it’s become this sort of paradise that people will trek from all over the world to go and say it’s become sort of a new home, which is really amazing. It always takes my breath away when I see it come out of the depths.

LC: I can understand why people really like following it on social media must have such interesting experiences. We’re gonna wrap up now with the rapid fire around museum in a minute. Are you ready?

MM: Yes, I’m ready.

LC: Favourite museum objects?

MM: Oh, my gosh. It’s a bottle of whisky from a shipwreck Scottish prince, which sunk in 1897. And I have no idea what it says about me that my favourite object is a bottle of whisky.

LC: What did you want to be when you grew up?

MM: I actually wanted to be a palaeontologist, which will make Espen laugh, my colleague up here. So yes, I did want to dig up dinosaurs until I figured I could dig up shipwrecks.

LC: What was your favourite museum memory?

MM: Favourite museum memory. Walking into the shipwreck gallery. At Fremantle in WA and seeing the real hull of Batavia sitting there, which was just amazing,

LC: Which is more iconic, HMS Pandora or S.S. Yongala?

MM: Oh no. Oh, iconic, I would say Yongala because I’m in Townsville.

LC: Thank you. That’s a minute. Thank you very much for joining us today, Maddy.

MM: No worries. I had fun. And I hope you guys learnt as much as you want to know about shipwrecks and certainly the interesting rapid fire round that put me on. So that was good.

LC: I suspect people want to hear more from you, so we might have to have you back some time. If you’re in Townsville, our North Queensland campus, Queensland Museum Tropics and check out the recently reopened Pandora exhibition, which was curated by Maddy.

LC: Thanks for joining us on the Museum Revealed podcast. Interested in uncovering more stories? Click the follow button to be notified of the latest podcast episodes, follow Queensland Museum on social media at @qldmuseum, or head to our website at qm.qld.gov.au and while you’re there sign up to our eNews list to be the first to know what’s on at our museums. Until next time, stay curious!

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