Making a splash down the ages

Boats of the World
June 20, 2003

Sean Kingsley discovers that ship studies are nothing like trainspotting

The ultimate wonder of wood is not so much its readiness to burn but the fact that it floats. In the age of the electronic information highway and aviation revolution, the central role of shipping in all forms of communication before the industrial revolution - from food transport to diplomatic and military dispatches - remains an under-appreciated feature of world history. This is true even in Britain, despite a multifaceted oceanic heritage that spans Alfred the Great's traditional status as father of the English navy and the thallassocratic colonial exploitation of the East Indies.

Irrespective of the way they symbolise human tenacity, the paradox of the wooden boats at the heart of Sean McGrail's work is that they sank in enormous quantities. Even in 1991, 173 iron ships equipped with state-of-the-art technology foundered with 1,752 thousand tons of cargo and the loss of 1,389 lives. But in antiquity the merchant vessel was a high-risk form of capital investment, and losses were simply enormous.

Juvenal, the early 2nd-century AD Roman satirist, scoffed at the greed of an entire civilisation when he commented on the sea captain, bereft on the streets of Rome, who "must rest content with a rag round his chilly loins, and a crust of bread, while he begs for copper, displaying a picture of the storm that shipwrecked him".

McGrail has witnessed first-hand two "revolutions" in his discipline: first, the invention of the aqualung in the 1940s; second, in the past few years, the worlds of commerce and oceanography entering the planet's final uncharted realm, the abyss. Odyssey Marine Exploration, for example, has identified a group of rare Phoenician ships and a 17th-century English warship at depths of more than 800m, near the Straits of Gibraltar. The future of maritime archaeology has arrived.

It is within this context that the various craft expertly described and explained in this volume must be appraised. McGrail is one of maritime archaeology's rarities: a scholar proficient both in translating the meaning behind worked planks and carpentry marks preserved along rotted sections of hulls, and in reconstructing a ship's history from its shape and provenance to speed and function. This expertise comes from years of archaeological and ethnographic fieldwork.

Sceptics who mistakenly equate ship studies with the tedium of trainspotting will be amazed by humanity's ingenuity in exploiting its natural environment and by the massive variety of water craft developed since at least the 8th millennium BC. In a highly disciplined book suitable for the informed public and university students alike, McGrail describes shipping traditions (with a generous array of illustrations) in Egypt, Arabia, the Mediterranean, the Atlantic, and beyond to the exotic waterways of India, Greater Australia, Southeast Asia, Oceania, China and the Americas.

An underlying theme of regional shipbuilding is environmental compatibility. Vessels built from wooden planks sewn together with rope ligatures prevailed as the shipping form par excellence throughout Arabia into the 15th century AD. Unlike the more rigid ship structures of the Mediterranean, where planking was laboriously inter-connected using up to 10,000 mortise and tenon joints per ship (in the Roman period), sewn plank ships were designed to ride heavy surf and to withstand the impact of beaching along the Red Sea, Persian Gulf and beyond. The discovery of Indian wood at the Roman harbour entrepot of Berenike, along Egypt's Red Sea coast, now confirms the veracity of the 2nd-century AD sailing handbook, the Periplus Maris Erythraei , that described these craft as built of imported Indian teak wood.

McGrail's knowledge and explanation of hardly known sea and river craft and maritime trivia is particularly original. Even specialists will raise an eyebrow at the cross-cultural maritime traditions of Iron Age Britain. A hollowed recess on the Hasholme logboat, a 13m-long boat from c. 300 BC excavated up a creek in the Humber estuary and built from oak of between 600 and 800 years old, is interpreted as the boat's oculus , or eye. Here, native Celtic tradition employing an Atlantic form of water transport adopts a universally applied Mediterranean cultural trait to see its way out of troubled waters.

A great strength of Boats of the World is the blending of sources - archaeology, history, iconography, ethnography. Thus, in combination, merchant seals, ancient ship models from Bahrain and Mesopotamia, and traditional boats surviving in modern Iraq demonstrate how reed bundles fashioned into coiled basketry and coated externally with bitumen became the dominant form of shipping in the Persian Gulf in the late 3rd millennium BC.

Particularly stimulating in this context is an inscription of c. 2300 BC relating how the Assyrian king Sargon of Akkad was put in a river as a baby in just such a basket of rushes. Even though the human processes that may have structured the transmission of myth within the cradle of civilisation are clouded by time, this footnote is but one example of the holistic potency of ship studies.

In cases where the archaeological trail has gone cold, historical testimony serves as the primary source. Thus, the development of the catamaran in southern India introduces pepper merchant Thomas Bowrey's (c. 1650-1713) description of how between four and six shaped logs, bound together with lashings and capable of supporting 3 to 5 tons, would "boldly adventure out of sight of the shore, but indeedthey swimme as naturally as spanyall dogs". In a field of (necessary) shipbuilding technical jargon, first-hand accounts such as these are welcome human ice-breakers.

The content of Boats of the World is impressively encyclopaedic, yet introversion remains my main criticism of this book and of maritime archaeology as a whole. Long-term history and socioeconomic behaviour patterns can be extrapolated from recorded ships. Even though academic institutions are the appropriate domains of acute specialisation, maritime archaeology would benefit greatly from stepping back from an infatuation with individual trees within woods.

Ships do not sail within cultural vacuums, and the discipline will experience far wider adoption of its tools by historians and land-based archaeologists if it becomes more sensitive to the potential impact of ship technologies, sailor communities and cargo rationale on mainstream culture.

Counter-arguments view ship studies as a teenager in terms of data procured and insist that continued sampling of ships and boats must be the prerogative. But certain regions are undeniably ready for serious retrospection. Nevertheless, as McGrail's work vividly shows, the future of the discipline in the 21st century is bright.

Sean Kingsley is managing editor, Minerva: The International Review of Ancient Art and Archaeology .

Boats of the World: From the Stone Age to Medieval Times

Author - Sean McGrail
ISBN - 0 19 814468 7
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £130.00
Pages - 480

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