Students resume archaeological dig on KI

As the state prepares to launch into the annual South Australian History Festival activities during May, Flinders University’s Associate Professor in Maritime Archaeology Wendy van Duivenvoorde has been leading a student group to continue archaeological investigation of the American River Fish Cannery on Kangaroo Island in the past week.

This work by Flinders staff and students aims to generate better understandings of one of the earliest fish canneries in South Australia. The team investigated how much of an archaeological footprint the cannery business left in the two years it operated  from 1887 to 1889, and has attempted to identify the function of the remaining buildings and identify the location of the locations of the cooling and smoking rooms.

“We hope this will deepen our understanding of the colonial history of American River and regional maritime activity, in particular the fishing industry in the early 19th century, and aid the American River Progress Association and local community with the development of better signage on and information about the site,” says Associate Professor van Duivenvoorde.

The area of investigation is located about 2km north of the town of American River on Kangaroo Island. The site spans an area of about 10,000 square metres and has ruins of the buildings that once serviced the cannery. The ruins of the buildings consist of partial standing stone dry walls between the beach and hill side. The site is covered by sparse, low, coastal vegetation.

In 2006, Flinders University Maritime Archaeology Program staff and students undertook an archaeological survey to assess the fish cannery remains and attempt to study the maritime landscape of the American River area. Finds included pieces of lead sheathing and a lodging knee (most likely from a wooden ship). This lead presumably remained from the fish canning works, and no other finds were reported.

Based on historical documentation, it is known that a small group of Chinese fish-curers processed fish in American River and Kingscote from the 1860s. Their stake and participation into South Australia’s early fishing industry has been largely overlooked and historic sources on their activities is patchy.

In 1887, Charles Shand, a Scottish-born brewer and ‘hereditary fish preserver’, commenced the fish cannery in 1887 and his newly revived Kingscote Fish Preserving Company Limited Adelaide office was registered in March 1888. The fish cannery had at least three main stonework buildings, a well, a kiln and a smoking oven. Up to 40 men were occasionally employed at the cannery over the two years that it operated.

This continuing investigation work by the Flinders archaeology department complements SA History Month activities being staged in the American River area, which fit the 2021 History Festival theme of “exploring change”. A group of volunteer shipbuilders has embarked on a project to recreate the first maritime vessel built in South Australia in 1803 – the sealing vessel Independence – and they will discuss the project in a talk delivered in the Rebuild Independence Group boathouse at American River from 11am to noon on Sunday May 9.

The American sealers who built Independence in 1803 gave this tiny fishing village its name, and now the reproduction of the wooden boat is being built on the original site. After the history talk, visitors will be encouraged to climb Prospect Hill, just as did navigator Captain Matthew Flinders did when he first landed on Kangaroo Island in 1802, to look over the island from a spectacular elevated panoramic view.

Bookings for the May 9 event can be made by phoning Anne A’Herran on 0421 176 418 or email

For further details about the rebuilding Independence project, visit the website.


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