are here: /main/research
2006/ Day 10
Putting Together a Jigsaw Puzzle:
Marine Archaeology in Action
Paulo Maurin, University of Hawai`i
Marine Archeologist Tane Casserley carefully swims over the anchor,
with underwater paper in hand. Photo: Paulo Maurin
A few days ago we saw the maritime archeologists practice their technique of trilateration on
the ship for cataloguing artifacts found on a shipwreck, and today we actually
them in action. In the large lagoon of Kure Atoll, there are two sites that
the team is working on: the USS Saginaw and an unknown whaler, most likely the Parker. The education team conducted a REEF
fish count at a third site: the Hoei Maru, a Japanese whaling vessel that wrecked about 30 years ago.
The Hoei Maru ran aground on the outer edge of the reef, but it was
during such a ferocious storm that the ship broke in half, and the bow was actually
carried over the reef crest by the waves, and deposited
on the inner part of the atoll, where it can be seen protruding out of the water.
Wrecks often become prime real estate for fish, looking for shelter. Schooling
fish tend to be attracted to the many hiding
places a wreck provides – there were nehu (Hawaiian anchovy), yellowfin goatfish,
and yellowstripe goatfish in abundance, the first one being over a hundred fish.
The archeology team, however, is not
studying this modern wreck. Their energy is devoted to the two older other wreck
In an area where shipwrecks are numerous, how does a marine archeology team
prioritize their work? There are four criteria that determine the importance
of a wreck: 1) the historical value of the wreck, 2) its association with a famous person,
3) the uniqueness of the vessel, and 4) potential for archeological data. Based
on these criteria, the team is studying two other wrecks: the USS Saginaw,
and the Parker.
The USS Saginaw is
a ship that has a fascinating history, making it
a priority wreck to study – it was used during the American involvement in the
Pacific, protecting US citizens in Japan and China, and suppressing local pirates
in the area. Later
it was involved during the Civil War preventing Confederate activities, and finally
sent to Midway to help support engineering activities meant to transform the
atoll into a coaling station.
It sank off Kure
when it was passing by to look for any castaways in this northernmost atoll in
the Hawaiian chain. Most of the wreck is located in the outer reef area, an
area more exposed to the open seas and
more difficult to work on. As a result, archeological work is constrained by
good weather to
conduct their research.
Identifying shipwrecks is like detective’s work. Some wrecks are more than a
century old, and the information available tends to be fairly limited. It is
only recently that more or less accurate
records on ships and their wrecks have been kept. The identity of the second
wreck at Kure Atoll is still a bit of a mystery, but records seem to indicate
that it’s the Parker,
a whaling vessel that wrecked on the reef in 1842. Many of the remnants of this
are located within the lagoon area of the atoll, where the ship has been resting
since it was wrecked. The site of the wreck is shallow, between 10 to 20
from the rough seas,
in relatively warm waters and surrounded by an active coral reef, this wreck
to be among the most beautiful wreck sites in the world.
We observed the archeological team at work on the Parker wreck today. Six divers were in the water,
cataloging each of the artifacts they found. Each one has a small area of about 50 feet to cover
and, using underwater paper and a pencil, they make sketches of artifacts found. After spending a
full day in the field, marine archeologists have many individual sketches that are like small
pieces of a giant Jigsaw puzzle – it only makes sense when they are put together with all of the
other sketches. Then, and only then, you can see the big picture. Once this “big picture”
is created, archeologists can make informed inferences about the nature of the wreck (how
violent it was), and can asses both the impact of the environment on the wreck (how far are
pieces being carried away), and also the impact of the wreck on the environment (coral reefs
destroyed, animals that colonize it, etc).
Lindsey Thomas, of the archeology team, ponders deeply how to best
her dive sketches of the day onto the site map. Photo: Paulo
To obtain this big picture, they gather all of their individual sketches (each one drawn in a regular
sized paper) and transcribe them into a single site map using pencil, compasses, rulers, and art.
They make all drawings fit in a page that measures several feet long, placed across a long table
back at the ship. Solving this giant jigsaw puzzle takes many years – the archeology team
estimates that, after many dives, it has only cataloged 60% of this wreck. But by patiently
putting together one piece at a time, the puzzle will eventually be completed, and a mosaic
of a shipwreck will emerge.
Wreck information obtained from Kure and Midway Atoll Maritime Heritage Survey, 2003, by Dr.
Hans Van Tilburg.
Talk About It!
Names for Kure Atoll
Asked by Christopher on Dec 8, 2008.
Is Kure also known as Ocean Island?
Answered by Dan from University of Hawaii on Jul 2, 2009.
I have always known the atoll as Kure Atoll and the main island as Green Island, but an online search reveals a number of sources indicating it is also known as Ocean Island, or by its Hawaiian name Mokupāpapa.