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Students go back in time through ‘proxy shipwrecks’

Barry McNamara
Matthew Polasik works with a model of a Siamese rice boat last fall in history professor Michelle Damian's "Maritime Archaeology" class.
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MONMOUTH, Ill. – Months before social distancing was a thing, Monmouth College history professor Michelle Damian faced another type of distancing issue: she had no way of getting students in her “Maritime Archaeology” class from Illinois to places where they could get hands-on experience with shipwrecks.

“How do you do fieldwork on a shipwreck when you aren’t certified to scuba dive and don’t even live near a large body of water?” she wondered.

Damian’s solution was gaining access to Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History, which houses an extensive collection of ship models, many of which were accessioned by the museum after the closing of the World’s Columbian Exposition, better known as the World’s Fair, hosted by Chicago in 1893.

“With the cooperation of the Field Museum, we treated the ship models as ‘proxy shipwrecks,’” said Damian. “Head of Anthropological Collections Jaime Kelly kindly arranged for us to get a closer look at some of the models.”

The students chose models that became the focus of their semester-long project last fall: a simulation of an archaeological project on an actual shipwreck site.

“I took the class as the last requirement of my history minor, but also because I’ve had a long-time curiosity about shipwrecks,” said Emma Hildebrand ’20, a political science major from Mendon, Ill., who also gained access to a larger replica. “I was able to work with one of Professor Damian’s friends who is a professor in Georgia and happened to have a real Norwegian Oselvar boat replica that was built for use in the opening ceremony of the 1996 Olympics.”

Adam Curry ’21 of Abingdon, Ill., was also hooked by the subject matter.

“Shows about shipwrecks are always a must-watch for me on Nat Geo,” he said. “Working with the museum and being able to work with Professor Damian with the ship models that we were lucky enough to actually get our hands on was amazing and was something not many around the Monmouth area are fortunate enough to experience.”

Students needed to first record their museum model by taking measurements, drawing it and recording information from the museum’s files about their boat. Over the course of the semester, the students researched the ship construction represented in the models to find out more about the vessels themselves.

“They identified particular diagnostic features that suggested more information about where and when an actual boat represented by that model might have sailed,” said Damian. “Later, they went on to do more research about the seafaring culture associated with their vessel, trying to determine who might have sailed on their boat and why. This was meant to reproduce the research that would accompany an archaeological site, as once we’ve excavated a shipwreck we need to learn more about it.”

The students’ final task was the same as that of any archaeologist: to disseminate information about their work. They chose three images that best represented their particular ship model and, based on the information from their earlier research, wrote accompanying labels for the museum exhibit.

“The contents found on board this merchant vessel include: three oars (two large, one small), one gillnet and one anchor,” wrote Curry in his description of an Indian merchant vessel on the museum’s website. “These items point towards the ship being involved in the fishing trade of the late seventeenth century. ... The large rudder supports the idea of open ocean fishing because it was strong enough to navigate the rough waters.”

The students weren’t able to board their particular vessels, but Hildebrand said the innovative project transported her just the same.

“This unique project definitely took me back to coastal Norway in the 1700s,” said Hildebrand. “I imagined myself living in that time period and having to row the small Oselvar everywhere, whether it was to move cattle, go to the market, or head to church services. Now, those same areas of Norway have roads and bridges across every small stream and the Oselvar is used solely as a method of historical preservation, competitive sports and personal leisure.”

Curry agreed that he’d been transported.

“I certainly did feel as though I was back in the time of the construction of my model,” he said. “One thing that was interesting to me was that the particular model that I chose appears to have been handcrafted in Gujarat, India. This class was an experience I would recommend to anyone, as is any class with Professor Damian."
The virtual exhibit can be viewed at