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Dr Maddy McAllister. Picture: Matt Curnock.
From excavating a whaleship in a Bunbury carpark to examining thousands of artefacts recovered from shipwrecks along the Great Barrier Reef, Dr Maddy McAllister is unlocking the mysteries of Australia’s rich maritime past, one deep dive at a time.
The James Cook University maritime archaeology lecturer and Queensland Museum Network senior curator has spent the better part of 15 years delving into a lost world of seafarers, a passion which began in part thanks to a random presentation given at an RSL when she was a teenager.
“I grew up in the south-west of Western Australia near the beach. I loved fish and the ocean but at the same time I loved reading about history and was fascinated with things like ancient Egypt,” Maddy said.
“I got my scuba diving qualification at 14, which allowed me to go and explore underwater. My step-dad told me about this upcoming RSL lecture he had heard about on the radio, so my mum and I went along and it was delivered by Ross Anderson a curator for the Australian Museum of Shipwrecks.
“He gave a wonderful lecture, not just on maritime archaeology but also about shipwrecks in the local area, and there were some incredible stories about seafaring and navigating the coast that really captured my imagination.”
With the course of her future career now set, Maddy embarked on a Bachelor of Archaeology at Flinders University in South Australia before going on to do her Master of Maritime Archaeology degree, finishing in 2012.
“I say this to any student – if you’re doing your undergrad, don’t be shy to find people at uni who have the career you want and reach out. Most of us are here to teach, share and guide and we often have projects going with volunteer opportunities.
“The field work, volunteering and hands-on experience you can get on top of your degree makes the difference.”
One of those experiences for Maddy was being part of the remarkable Koombana Bay archaeological excavations near Bunbury in 2011 and 2016 – which uncovered three 19th century North American whaling ships.
“That gave me a real-world chance to put everything I’d done at uni into practice,” she said.
“These ships had wrecked on the beach in a storm and were there for centuries, and when a groyne was built for shipping and cargo, they were just buried.”
“It wasn’t just a research project, there was a management aspect too as there were plans to build on top of this area and they had to do a historical significance assessment.
“From the research, we managed to identify these wrecks before they were buried again and there’s now a park there that recognises the site’s significance.”
Working as an Assistant Curator of Maritime Archaeology at the then WA Museum, Maddy returned to study in 2015 when she embarked on her PhD at the University of Western Australia, focusing on reinvestigating the biggest and most famous shipwrecks in WA with new technology.
“We looked at applying what’s called 3D photogrammetry, which involved creating a 3D model of this shipwreck site that had never been created before,” Maddy said.
“I looked at Batavia, which is one of Australia’s most famous shipwrecks. Using this technology allows the public to view the wreck without having to dive on it but also benefits archaeologists so when they pack up from the field work and go home, they have a way of revisiting the site in a digital recreation.”
After a stint working in Melbourne at Heritage Victoria as a state maritime archaeologist, Maddy headed north to Townsville in 2019, where she took up a co-appointment as a senior curator of maritime archaeology for JCU’s College and Arts, Society and Education and the Queensland Museum Network’s Museum of Tropical Queensland (MTQ) campus.
With her research focusing on 18th to 20th century ship construction and investigating unidentified shipwrecks on the Great Barrier Reef, Maddy is also responsible for managing some 8000 artefacts recovered from about 30 shipwrecks.
She believes there are approximately 900 ship and aircraft wrecks scattered across the Reef, including the ill-fated SS Yongala.
“The story of Yongala is incredible. It’s Australia’s version of Titanic and it is a grave site. 122 people went down with the ship and it was a mystery as to what happened to it for 40 years after it disappeared in 1911,” Maddy said.
“What I’m pushing towards is a survey of wrecks along the Reef and gathering that baseline data because of things like climate change and other stressors that are having an impact.
“Wrecks are non-renewable resources. Once they’re gone, we lose them forever. That’s my interest, looking at that big picture. Finding as many wrecks as we can and document them for generations to come.
“I know they’re just out there waiting to be found.”