Research Profile #3: Kimberly Monk, Maritime Archaeologist

This month’s focus is on Dr. Kimberly Monk, Department of Archaeology & Anthropology, Bristol University, UK. To see the first and second post in this series, click  here for Dr. Adam Csank (dendrochronologist) and here for Dr. Kirby Calvert (energy geographer).

Q: What is your specialization? I am a maritime archaeologist with a specialization on historic ships — their design, construction, employment and disposal or loss. Part of my work involves examining historical documents at archives and libraries; the other part involves the physical study of shipwrecks through archaeological study – from survey through excavation. Combined, they are essential to formulating a ship’s history, the one subject illuminating the other.

Q: Why are you interested in the project? To investigate the nature and dynamics of the timber trade alongside other specialists engaging their particular expertise is very exciting. It expands our interpretation from being one-dimensional, by exploring it from different axis. Neither geography, nor history, nor archaeology alone can provide adequate information with which to formulate an objective view of this research. Yet as a whole, they are invaluable sources of information that provide details of the general processes that occurred, such as economic prosperity and decline, social information on labour and climate change, and the overall adaptation of these communities to economic stress and stagnation. In my opinion, a contextual approach – to fully interpret both the physical and social characteristics of the timber trade – makes our understanding of the trade more human, instead of simply a sterile statistical analysis of scientifically derived data.

Q: What will you contribute to the team? Archaeologically, I will be identifying and collecting wood samples from shipwrecks toward establishing if and how BNA timber was employed in British shipbuilding. Historically, I will be gathering information on the nature of shipping, including creating a biography of a typical timber ship. Through biography we are able to gain insight into the individual thereby interpreting their role in the wider context. In this case, I will characterise the life history of the timber trade through examination of the design, employment and demise of its ships. Furthermore, biography allows us to humanise the trade, and those whose livelihoods – both individuals and communities – relied on its success.

Q: What are you hoping to find out? I am eager to understand how British North American timber was employed on both merchant and naval ships. Historical records suggest that only BNA softwoods, such as pine, were used in shipbuilding due to the inferiority of BNA oak supplies. This would suggest that the key scantling (ie: keel, keelson, frames) were still British or Baltic timber, whilst BNA softwoods were employed on masts, decking, planking etc. Our sampling of shipwrecks in Bermuda will provide an opportunity to test the historical literature and see if in fact merchant shipbuilders conformed to standard practice.

Q: What do you think will surprise you? I suspect that British North American timber was employed more frequently and extensively than historical records suggest. Whilst the Royal Navy may have limited its use, merchant shipbuilders would have been less rigid. Moreover, its lower cost would have been too tempting for a struggling shipbuilder to snub. These secrets lie in Davy Jones locker, and so will await our dives with baited breath. Q: Why do you love your work? I am fascinated by ships – from their histories to their soggy remains on the seafloor – and the legacies they’ve left behind. Documenting ships allows us to better understand the people who conceived their design, and employed them to fulfil a particular function. And so it allows me to become part-historian, part-anthropologist, and part-explorer – to document our past and preserve it for the future. Plus sunny climes and diving gin-clear water make for an agreeable work environment!

One thought on “Research Profile #3: Kimberly Monk, Maritime Archaeologist

  1. Pingback: History Carnival: Facets of Environmental History | Historical DeWitticisms

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