Disintegration of the ship

Study of the processes surrounding Pandora's equilibrium between disintegration and preservation over the years is very important from several perspectives. Pertaining to the human skeletal remains that were found, careful study of these natural processes can lead to an improved understanding of how the remains originated in the wreck. Information can be gleaned from close observation of the bones, by looking at how they have 'changed' over the years. This closely relates to an area known as 'skeletal taphonomy'.

Pandora sank within an area now known as Pandora Entrance, an opening between two large sections of reef which separate the Coral Sea from the Torres Straits (Gesner 1991). This region is exposed to full ocean swells and suffers strong shifting currents from tidal movement. Consequently, large volumes of water shift through the location of the wreck, sometimes surprisingly quickly (Coleman pers. comm.).

Wave action would have certainly played an early role in the structural breakdown of the ship, most significantly affecting protruding objects such as masts and other exposed items. As these items were broken off, it is likely they took parts of the ship's upper structure with them (Gesner 1991), thus accelerating further collapse of the ship. A similar effect would have been produced as marine borers (Teredo navalis and other polychaetes) ate away at the structural timbers causing further collapse and disorder of the wreck in general (Coleman pers. comm.).

Had this degree of disintegration continued indefinitely, it is unlikely the wreck would have survived two centuries of immersion in the way it did. Obviously, other factors have come in to play which have preserved not only the wreck itself, but also the skeletal remains within the wreck. Ironically, environmental breakdown of Pandora has also directly contributed to her preservation.

Exposure to the ocean can cause a rapid and volatile environment for the destruction of relic material, but several factors have contributed to the preservation of buried artefacts, including the skeletal remains. Concretion is one way in which an item may be protected from direct exposure to the ocean currents. Another, more extensive, way in which the ship has been conserved is by significant deposition of silt and reef sand on and around the wreck. Small spaces in and around the hull and remaining artefacts of the ship have been filled with compacted fine or coarse particle sediments. This can create a stable anaerobic environment, inhibiting further activity of oxygen-dependent marine borers, and also preventing further oxidative destruction of the ship (Gesner 1991). These conditions have resulted in one of the best-preserved wrecks in Australian waters (Henderson 1979), and have contributed to the recovery of human skeletal remains, some of which are, to say the least, in an exceptional state of preservation.


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Last updated: Thu Mar 28 2002