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Humber Boat Building

Apart from trying to help out the committee of the North East Lincs Archaeology and Local History Society (NELALHS), I am also taking an Honours Degree in Archaeology at Hull University. We were researching Environmental Archaeology earlier this year and as part of that work, I was reviewing some case studies for evidence of the use of Environmental Archaeology in current studies. This led me onto the work undertaken to find out and analyse the Dover Bronze Age Boat. In September 1992, the hull of a well preserved sewn-plank boat was found six metres below the ground in Dover. As there was little time available, it was judged to get what could be taken out the ground as quickly as possible and analyse remote to the site. As it was, only part of the boat was available, as one end was under existing buildings and, as such, it was not possible to retrieve the complete boat. However, this amounted to nine point five metres of retrievable artefact and it was two point three metres wide so a considerable section was available to the archaeologists even though time was not on their side. The basic construction of the boat was fairly straight forward. It was essentially four shaped oak planks joined together with twisted yew withy stitches, wedges and transverse timbers. The interesting thing was that it was made watertight by putting moss pads between the planks and compressing them together. The moss used for sealing the planks had five taxa identified and they were found to be fairly common types for north-westEurope. The holes cut for the plank stitching were sealed with a material later analysed to be what appears as a combination of beeswax and a resin of sorts. This was confirmed by the use of an array of instruments such as gas chromatographs, infrared and mass spectrometers. There were many conventional aspects of archaeology applied to this boat such as drawings and dimensional checks and as the boat had to be cut into pieces, it served to illustrate how the oak had been compressed over the years by laying six metres below the surface of the ground. From these measurements however it was ascertained that the boat would have coped with reasonable sea conditions and it was estimated that it would have been possible for the boat to carry up to three tonnes of cargo. The boat had been used for quite some time, confirmed by the outboard surfaces showing much wear and the repairs using moss again as the sealant. Dating of the boat was difficult as the planks were heavily compressed and dendrochronology would not give an acceptable date. Radio carbon dating proved to be more precise in this case and it was agreed that a date of 1575-1520 cal BC was not unreasonable.

This was supported by the analysis of the radio carbon dating of the yew withies and moss sealant used on the boat. Further digging (excuse the pun!) led me on to discover information on the Bronze Age Boats of the Humber, found near North Ferriby. Now, like many others, I realised shipbuilding and ship repairing had been going on along the Humber for many centuries, but this far back in time? Going back to the Dover Boat gives us an approximate date of 1550BC which is not unreasonable. The three Ferriby boats, using the same analysis techniques yielded mid-estimate dates of Boat-1, 1780BC, Boat-2, 1820BC and Boat-3, 1900BC! So based on current evidence, these three are the oldest sea-going plank-built boats found in Europe so far. So boat building on the Humber goes back a bit further than I thought!

There is so much to learn out there.

Peter Allen. NELALHS


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