If they sailed the oceans, show me the boats

June 29, 2001

Evidence suggests that man must have travelled by boat as early as 40,000BC, but the oldest known craft dates from just 8000BC. Sean McGrail reports.

It is a little-known fact that there were seamen before there were farmers, navigators before potters and boat-builders before wainwrights. Excavations have shown that Australia was peopled before 40,000BC, when, despite lower sea levels, Greater Australia was separated from Asia by water. The first settlers came from Southeast Asia, and must have used some form of water transport.

Maritime archaeology aims to find evidence for man's maritime achievements before 3000BC, when written texts were first compiled, and to provide detailed evidence in later periods to complement historians' research. Fieldwork is undertaken anywhere that evidence survives: under water, in the inter-tidal zone, on river-bank settlements and even at dry-land sites such as the early medieval boat burials at Sutton Hoo in Suffolk.

The earliest known examples of water transport are log boats: the oldest is a pine log boat from Pesse in the Netherlands, from about 8000BC. But log boats might not be the earliest craft. More likely are rafts of logs or reed bundles, or boats of skin or bark, but these are made of ephemeral or readily reusable materials and examples have not yet been excavated. The earliest plank boat, from about 2600BC, is the funerary boat of Pharaoh Cheops of Egypt's 4th dynasty. The next oldest comes from Britain.

Parts of eight sewn-plank boats, ranging in date from 2000BC to 800BC, have been excavated from the Humber and Severn estuaries and from Dover. There is also c.300BC Danish example. Two wrecks from the eastern Mediterranean from about 1300BC (Uluburun) and 1200BC (Cape Gelydonia), were found off southwest Turkey.

It is not until the Hellenistic and Roman eras in the Mediterranean and the Celtic period in northwest Europe, that there have been enough finds of similar boats to recognise boat-building traditions. These include a classical tradition from about 500BC and a Romano-Celtic tradition from about AD100. The characteristic features of the medieval Nordic cog (ship) can also be defined archaeologically.

Excavated evidence for water transport is very much later in other continents. A 5th-century BC log boat has been excavated in Sri Lanka. In Southeast Asia, there is a 2nd-century AD log boat, a group of sewn-plank boats from the 7th century onwards, and five shipwrecks from the 14th to 16th centuries. From the vast area of the South Pacific, which was settled by oceanic voyages between 1500BC and AD1000, there is only one find: an 8th or 9th-century AD log boat.

China has a number of medieval log boats and some 13th-to-14th-century wrecks. In the Americas, there are log boats from 5000BC onwards, and minor remains of hide boats from about AD1000.

There are also early depictions and models of water transport in some regions, but there is little consensus on their interpretation. Much research remains to be done.

One approach to this research is to record the rafts and boats of small scale, pre-industrial, generally illiterate societies that still exist in some parts of the world. This cannot only document today's maritime culture and technology, but also illuminate the past. People in these societies use traditional rafts and boats designed by their ancestors, built of wood, hide, bark or reeds, and propelled by muscle or wind power. For example, the masula, a type of sewn-plank boat used today on India's eastern coasts, was described and drawn 350 years ago by Thomas Bowrey, the master of an English merchant ship, and was likely to have been in use well before then.

Such documentation of traditional boats can also illuminate aspects of European history. Unlike other traditional Indian boats, vattai fishing boats off the Tamil coast are built frame first, with the planking fastened to it afterwards. The framework is designed using methods very similar to those used in 15th-century Venice and Atlantic Europe. There are also structural similarities. It seems likely that the 16th-century Portuguese brought these techniques to India.

Another example is the medieval hulc , a type of northwest European cargo ship frequently mentioned, but not described, in port registers. No hulc has so far been excavated, but representations on town seals, paintings and sculptures often depict the hulc with overlapping (reverse-clinker) planks that curve upwards at bow and stern to form a flat surface. Some scholars harbour doubts that ships could be built with such features. However, patia fishing boats of India's Bay of Bengal have these same characteristics and it is only a matter of time before concrete evidence for the medieval hulc is found.

Sean McGrail is a visiting professor at the Centre for Maritime Archaeology at the University of Southampton, a master mariner and author of Boats of the World , to be published in September by OUP, £80.00.

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