Learning all about prehistoric boats

29/12/2016   |   Eleri Newman


In the first two weeks of December CITiZAN North had the pleasure of hosting a placement student from the University of York.  Eleri, who is reading for an MA in Cultural Heritage Management, helped Megan and Andy organise activities for their up coming YAC leaders weekend, learnt more about inter-tidal archaeology around England at the Thames Discovery Programmes foreshore forum and recorded further exposures of the submerged forest at Cleethorpes.  She also discovered an interest in prehistoric boats, on which she kindly wrote a blog.

Eleri recording the prehistoric submerged forest at Cleethorpes
Eleri recording the prehistoric submerged forest at Cleethorpes

Britain’s coast is rich with archaeological evidence of the island’s seafaring history. Britain’s coast today is radically different then what it would have been like for our prehistoric ancestors. During the Ice Age, Britain was connected to Europe by river valleys, which could be navigated by prehistoric river crafts. This mode of transport would have been quicker than travelling by foot and could allow for more cargo. However with the climate growing warmer and the melting of the ice sheets, Britain became separated from the Continent. There was a need for larger vessels, vessels capable of crossing the sea to stay connected, the first ‘European explorers’. We are provided with a glimpse into this prehistoric past through the remains of prehistoric boats.

Prehistoric boats are very important archaeological finds. They provide evidence for prehistoric boat building and wood work techniques. The prehistoric period has seen a development in the construction of prehistoric boats. Prehistoric rock carvings from Azerbaijan dating to 10,000 BC depict boats made of reed with paddlers.

Prehistoric Rock Carvings and the reed boat
Prehistoric Rock Carvings and the reed boat

The oldest boat on record found by archaeologists is the Pesse Canoe; made from the trunk of a Scots pine. It is believed to have been constructed in the Mesolithic period, around 8,000 BC. Recent archaeological finds in Britain have found prehistoric boats that have been constructed from logs or built from planks sewn together. This development in construction is due to the introduction of new tools and resources. The development of the boat’s form and function also shows the people adapting to the changing environment. What really stands out is the importance of river ways and the coast to the prehistoric people. These boats were first used for travel and eventually for food resources and trade.

Must Farm and Flag Fen: Hanson’s Must Farm Quarry

The archaeological sites of Must Farm and Flag Fen have provided archaeologists with a valuable glimpse into life during the Bronze Age. Both sites undisturbed by later occupation share the same prehistoric landscape. While excavating a section of the lost course of the River Nene, the Cambridge Archaeological Unit discovered within the sediments of the later Bronze Age/ earlier Iron Age watercourse (1300-400BC), a fleet of eight extremely well preserved prehistoric log boats. The anaerobic conditions of the wetland habitat have allowed the boats to be lifted from site virtually intact. Other examples of Bronze Age boats such as the Ferriby boats and the Dover boat had to be cut into pieces for conservation. These log boats in particular have distinctive features such as lifting handles, decoration, grooves for transom boards and evidence of patches and repairs. They represent the ingenuity of the Bronze Age people with a ‘mend and make do’ attitude.

An extremely well-preserved prehistoric logboat
An extremely well-preserved prehistoric logboat
Decoration on a Must Farm logboat
Decoration on a Must Farm logboat

The log boats have since been taken to Flag Fen, located approximately 2km from the site for preservation. The boats have been preserved using the same techniques that were used on the timbers from Seahenge and on the Mary Rose at Portsmouth.

The Ferriby Boats

The discovery of the Ferriby boats was an important archaeological find that provided evidence of a new style of prehistoric vessel. More importantly, they have been identified as the oldest sea going vessels excavated in Europe. The three Bronze Age boats (Ferriby 1-3) were discovered in the Humber Estuary from between 1937-1963. The Wright brothers first spotted Ferriby 1 due to the shift in tidal currents. The boats are constructed from large oak planks sewn together with yew withies and sealed with moss caulking. Ferriby 3 has been dated to the earliest example of a prehistoric ship; it has been dated from around 2030-1780cal BC. The boat was over 50ft (15.24m) long and was large enough for 18 paddlers. Its size and carrying capacity supports the belief that this boat was used by the Bronze Age Man to cross the sea. A replica of Ferriby 1 can be found in the National Maritime Museum Cornwall to learn and further understand Bronze Age building techniques.

Excavating Ferriby Boat number 3
Excavating Ferriby Boat number 3
A reconstruction of how the Ferriby Boats may have looked in the Bronze Age
A reconstruction of how the Ferriby Boats may have looked in the Bronze Age

The Dover boat

In September 1992, a group of archaeologists from the Canterbury Archaeological Trust discovered a large Bronze Age boat dated to 1575-1520 BC buried six metres below the streets of Dover. During construction work taking place building the A20 road link between Folkestone and Dover, one of the archaeologists spotted a group of substantial timbers in the bottom of a contractor’s pit. These substantial timbers were to form part of a wooden, well-preserved prehistoric boat. The sewn-plank boat was preserved by waterlogging and layers of silt. The boat is constructed of large oak planks, waterproofed with moss, held in place with beeswax and animal fat. Its construction shows a clear development in Bronze Age tools from log boats to sewn-plank skills. There is a clear technological advancement here. This was not a smooth excavation, the archaeologists had to make the decision to cut the boats into sections and reassemble it afterwards. 9.5 metres of the boat was successful recovered. A section of the boat was too close to the buildings and buried under a road which made it too dangerous to fully excavate it. It is therefore still unknown today how large this boat originally was. However, its large size and structure suggest a sea-faring nature. It is very possible that this prehistoric boat was used to travel and trade with the continent.

Excavating the Dover Boat
Excavating the Dover Boat
The Dover Boat on display at Dover Museum
The Dover Boat on display at Dover Museum

So to end this post, I will emphasise the threat on coastal archaeological sites from rising sea levels and coastal erosion. The work CITiZAN does is very important in recording these coastal structures before they completely disappear. The Wright brothers only spotted the first Ferriby boat after shifts in tidal currents exposed the planks. The coast is under constant threat so it is important to have a project like this to record and monitor these sites. Perhaps the next storm or the next shift in the tidal current will reveal more about Bronze Age seafaring.

A happy and prosperous New Year to everyone who works at CITiZAN and all their volunteers around England's coast.

Bibliography

The Dover boat

The Ferriby boats

The Must Farm boats

Prehsitoric craft