LEGO® sparks shipwreck interest!

One of my blog followers – an archaeology student in Melbourne – wrote last week of her frustration with the boring presentation of Work Health and Safety in class.

She wondered if there had been a collective agreement that “the information must be delivered in a serious(ly dry) manner.”  She went on to say that “if we have to engage in learning something, we should invest more effort in keeping it engaging”.

I have the answer – LEGO!  Well, not my idea – I simply benefited from whoever had such a wonderful brainwave when I visited an exhibition on Shipwrecks at the Museum of the Great Southern in Western Australia’s southern city of Albany last week.

Yes, I have been travelling again – a week long road tour of part of WA’s South Coast and Great Southern.

The Museum’s current feature exhibition “Brick Wrecks: Sunken ships in LEGO® Bricks” is a winner when it comes to engagement!

Western Australia’s vast coastline is littered with more than 1,600 shipwrecks that we know about – there are likely many more yet to be discovered.  I’ve already heard a lot about these shipwrecks at various displays, but “Brick Wrecks’ captured and held my attention.

One of the ships featured is the Dutch East India company’s Batavia, that came a cropper on her maiden voyage in 1629 off the WA coast.  Forty people sadly drowned. But the good news was that 301 of her passengers and crew reached a tiny island off the coast.  


Now you’d I’ve told you the worst of the story – particularly when I assure you that rescue eventually did arrive thanks to an epic longboat sea journey by the ship’s Commander and a small group of officers and crew. But sadly, in the meantime, shocking violence broke out amongst the remaining survivors that would be at home in a Quentin Tarantino movie – murder, mutiny, sex slavery and other atrocities. It is estimated that 125 men, women and children were slaughtered by the mutineers. The ‘bad guys’ who survived were eventually punished.  Some were marooned on the mainland, while others were executed.  Some had their hands cut off before being hung.

The shocking battle to stay alive for survivors of the Batavia shipwreck

The story is a long and interesting one, and there is plenty on the Internet about it.  So, if you are interested, you’ll easily find information.  There’s also been books and films made about the Batavia.  But telling the story with LEGO® was something new – an initiative that fires up interest in history and captures the imagination of young and old.

The Western Australian Museum began documenting Batavia in 1970, using cameras and sketches. Today digital cameras, 3D modelling, underwater robots, drones and specialised software make the research much easier.

Two other ships with an Australian link featured in the exhibition are the Erebus and Terror, lost in the Arctic on a voyage led by Britain’s Sir John Franklin in 1845 to find the North-West Passage.  All 129 men on board were lost in what was the biggest disaster in British Polar exploration. 

Exhibition photos from Parks Canada of work on the Erebus

The Australian link comes with Sir John, who had previously served as Lieutenant Governor of Van Diemen’s Land – now Tasmania, my birth State.  Sir John arrived in Hobart in 1837, and was recalled to Britain in controversy  in 1843.  One of Hobart’s most famous parks is named after him. I have walked through Franklin Square so many times I couldn’t count them.  Enjoyed my lunch there, and as a News Reporter, covered various Protest rallies there. I never knew until now that the Governor had met his death in the icy waters of the Arctic.

It wasn’t until 2014 that the wreck of Erebus was discovered, with Terror found two years later.  

Large scale replica of a submersible used to explore for shipwrecks

Another ship depicted in LEGO® is the Uluburun, which sank off Turkey over 3,300 years ago. It’s one of the oldest underwater wrecks in the world.  Its cargo included copper, glass and tin ingots, cypriot pottery, beads of amber, gold, jewellery, weapons, tools, and ancient Canaanite jars from the Middle East – one filled with glass beads, others with olives.

Last port of call for the Uluburun?

In a more modern incident that Lego fans will relate to was the loss at sea of a container holding 4.9 million pieces of LEGO® . A freak wave hit the Tokio Express off southwest England in 1997, tilting it 60 degrees one way and then 40 degrees back. The Lego container was one of 62 containers that fell overboard. More than 20 years later, lego pieces are still washing up on British and Irish beaches. Now that’s a bit of inspiration for budding young archeologists!

OOPS! Lego lost at sea from the Tokyo Express

The Cornish Plastic Pollution Coalition has collected some of the Lego lost from the Tokio Express along their beaches, and arranged the pieces on a piece of driftwood as an educational tool.

Brick Wrecks was developed by the Western Australian Museum, the Australian National Maritime Museum and Ryan McNaught, the only LEGO® certified professional in the Southern Hemisphere.

Ryan and his team used 120,000 LEGO® bricks to make the exhibition models, taking more than 820 hours to complete. 

The exhibition will be on display in Albany until May 8, going on to the Museum of the Goldfields in Kalgoorlie on May 21 and then to the Museum of Geraldton on August 27.  

The Western Australian borders are now open to the world again. So, if any of you are travelling here, I highly recommend seeing it. Travel Covid safe!

One comment

  1. Thank you for posting, what interesting stories!

    I am always in awe of large Lego models – amazing feats of coordination and patience. My favourite is here is the depiction of Uluburun.


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