One of the things we are concerned with as maritime archaeologists is how ships were designed and constructed. Even though ships are objects that are interesting to investigate from a technological point of view, they can also inform us about some less obvious aspects of the past. For example, by examining shipwrecks from the Roman period, we can learn about the design and construction procedures the Romans used to build their ship which have been lost today. Furthermore, by synthesising the data of numerous excavated shipwrecks, archaeologists can track the development of shipbuilding technology through time. This development in technology is an important manifestation of innovation, economical and social change in the past.
The interpretation of shipwrecks can be a complicated matter and is often performed by specialists within the discipline (sometimes called ‘nautical archaeologists’). However, even these specialists can use all the help they can get. Who better to assist and teach them than the boat builders that are still building wooden boats today?
A couple of weeks ago, the 8th annual ‘Faro Rhino Archaeological User Group’ or FRAUG conference took place in Baltimore, Ireland. This year’s organiser, Pat Tanner, a traditional boat builder, 3D scanning expert and PhD researcher at the University of Southampton took it on himself to organise a week of boat building at Hegarty’s traditional boatyard.
For an entire week, a group of maritime archaeologists from a variety of countries thought about how design could have been translated into wood. To kick things off and get into the right state of mind, Juan Pablo Olaberria and Thomas Dhoop of the University of Southampton gave a presentation on the design and construction of Viking Age ships.
The next few days, it was time to put what we as experts write about into practice. Could we actually build a boat? At Hegarty’s shipyard, six keels with stem and stern were ready-made for us. The challenge was to construct a clinker-built boat of about 3,5m (12 feet) long and 1,2m (ca. 4 feet) wide. Two of the boats were to be built with U-shaped moulds, the remaining three without. The moulds are used to bend the planks to shape. This helps to control the final shape of the boat. Several traditional boat builders were on hand to offer (a minimum of) advice and guidance. By Thursday, much to the archaeologist’s and boat builders’ surprise, using a variety of different methods and techniques, every team had built a ‘boat’.
The shapes of the boats differed radically and was largely determined by the techniques that the teams decided to use. One of the teams did not use a mould and decided to use the raw material, 20cm (8 inch) wide planks in their entirety. The boat therefore took the shape that the pliability of the planks would allow it to take, something which resembled a canoe. Another team did use a mould and reduced the planks to half of their original width. This allowed them to put a lot more curvature into the planks while bending them against the mould which consequently resulted in a more flat-bottomed boat.
Engaging with boat building and traditional boat builders in this manner provided valuable insights for us maritime archaeologists. Every tool leaves a certain mark on planks and other parts of a boat. When recorded and interpreted properly, these markings can tell us if a plank was sewn or cleaved, fastened to another plank or a frame, if treenails or nails were used, and so on. Sometimes, the shipwright will even leave instructions for an apprentice such as the places where a hole should be drilled or where the overlap between planks should end. Recognising these tool-marks is an important part of the interpretation of ancient boats. Physically wielding the tools that leave these markings and producing them ourselves while building the boats turned out to be by far the best way to learn how to ‘read’ the marks that the ancient boat builders left for us.
With their wealth of practical experience, boat builders can often advise archaeologists on how to interpret certain tool-marks and can provide valuable insights in how a boat might have been conceived and constructed. However, as archaeologists we should also be aware of the fact that every craftsman will speak from the biased perspective of his own ‘tradition’. A wooden boat builder in Baltimore, Ireland will use a different set of techniques and will construct differently shaped boats than a wooden boat builder in western Norway. This is because, over generations of knowledge being passed down from master to apprentice, boat builders in different places have developed different habits. They developed different ways of doing things which they all consider to be ‘the right way’. We have to keep in mind that, the solutions modern wooden boat builders come up with to solve certain practical problems might not be the same as boat builders in the past would have.