Boats of early colonial Windsor

The largely disarticulated and scattered remains of three different timber boats were found and lifted between December 2018 and March 2019, during work on Transport for NSW’s Windsor Bridge Replacement project. When boat timbers were dredged up during work to install scour protection on the banks of the river the maritime archaeological firm, Cosmos Archaeology, that had recently undertaken the excavation of the Barangaroo Boat was engaged to assess the site. Recognising the potential heritage and archaeological significance of the find, over 100 submerged timber pieces were recovered under archaeological supervision. When this jigsaw puzzle of waterlogged wood was put together it we found that they represented three different craft – one, to which most of the timbers seemed to belong, a carvel-built vessel, and two more fragmentary collections belonging to craft of clinker construction. Carvel construction refers to the method where the frame is constructed first and the planks are fastened to it with their long edges abutting with no overlap, like a timber floor. In clinker construction planks are laid first, and slightly overlap each other, and frames are added later, as in a weatherboard wall.  Preliminary timber identification analysis reveals an exclusive use of Australian wood species in the construction of the boats.

The boats are assessed as being of local and national significance.  The preliminary analysis of their form, fabric and construction – points to their being built in the early colonial Australian era, and among the oldest known surviving remains of boats built in Australia.

The Windsor Boats, as they are now known, have the potential to reveal rare information on colonial shipbuilding techniques and how traditional craft skills were adapted to make use of native Australian timber.


Raising the Windsor Boats

Excavating the Windsor Boats

The boat timbers were excavated and raised by maritime archaeological divers. Positional information of each timber on the riverbed was recorded before removal. Once each timber had been removed from its resting place, it was individually recorded in more detail. Then the timbers were carefully wrapped in geofabric secured with cable ties to provide physical protection during storage near the recovery site. All the timbers were submerged in a large tank filled with clean water to prevent them drying out and warping or splitting. Black plastic was then used to cover the top of the container to reduce UV penetration and the water was changed regularly.

As work progressed maritime archaeologists were able to form some preliminary theories about the vessels, drawn from each piece of timber they uncovered. It appears that the carvel vessel was quite heavily built and carried a mast. The clinker vessels had too few and disconnected pieces to provide an idea of their complete form but some construction details can be gleaned.

It is exciting to continue exploring the construction, potential use and life of the boats as well as get a rare glimpse into the early life of the colony, as we progress through the conservation phase.


Recording and conserving the boat timbers

The next step: recording & conserving the timbers

The new phase in the story for the Windsor Boats begins with their transport from the storage site at Windsor to the Sydney Metro conservation facility in Sydney’s west. The facility is a purpose specific space designed for the professional documentation and conservation of the Barangaroo Boat hull structural elements. After the Windsor Boats were discovered, Silentworld Foundation worked closely with Transport and Sydney Metro to integrate them into the space and to develop a plan for the detailed digital recording and conservation of the timbers.

How is it done?

Following the relocation of the timbers to the conservation facility, the team followed a sequence of steps in order to process the timbers, record them in detail, then prepare them for treatment and finally place the timbers in tanks for conservation:

  • Unwrap timbers and briefly assess condition
    → wrapping no longer required in this phase
  • Record timber to the highest level possible
    → the team used a structured light scanner to record each timber to high resolution – the resulting 3D digital models are annotated using CAD software in order to point out specific features such as cut marks, fastening holes, jointing and use wear
  • Iron fastener removal
    → iron and wood require different conservation treatments – separating the two materials where possible ensures that each will receive treatment best suited to it; where the fasteners could not be removed, they have been coated to provide protection from corrosion
  • Pretreatment – removing excess iron
    → recorded timbers treated in order to remove excess iron deposited on/in the timbers by the corrosion of the iron nails used in its construction 
  • Treatment – impregnating the timbers with PEG wax
    → polyethylene glycol is a liquid wax – in a slow process it will replace the water in the cells of waterlogged wood, so that when the wood is dried it retains its shape and does not split or warp

In this very exciting phase, Silentworld Foundation has once again teamed up with York Archaeological Trust and Ubi3D, with collaborative support from the Australian National Maritime Museum. Work on the recording and conservation phase began in December 2020.


Updates and insights from the news and our team

🥵When it’s been a long day of moving archaeological boat timbers in the summer heat... 

#WindsorBoats #Conservation #WrapAndPack #Archaeology #DayInTheOffice #ArchaeologyLife #SilentworldConservationProjects
Exciting update 🤩 We are so, SO pleased to welcome the #WindsorBoats to the early colonial Australian boat family! The timbers were excavated and lifted by Cosmos Archaeology during the Windsor Bridge replacement project by Transport for NSW over the Hawkesbury River. We are incredibly happy to share this news and honoured to have the opportunity to ensure that these precious timbers are safe and under conservation treatment alongside Sydney Metro’s Barangaroo Boat. 

For more info on the story of the Windsor Boats, have a little read here

#WindsorBoats #conservation 

Image: SWF conservator Heather Berry in the holding tank with the Windsor Boat timbers on site, overlooking the Hawkesbury River and Windsor Bridge in 2020. Image copyright: Transport for NSW

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