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Bronze Age boat reconstruction is altering archaeologists' view of era

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: May 25, 2013

By Simon Parker

Archaeologists and maritime museum volunteers ease off their paddles after taking the replica Bronze Age boat for sea trials at Falmouth   PICTURE: MICHAEL SWEENEY

Archaeologists and maritime museum volunteers ease off their paddles after taking the replica Bronze Age boat for sea trials at Falmouth PICTURE: MICHAEL SWEENEY

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They were not clad in skins and they did not have to paddle for six hours at a stretch, but the experience of taking a replica Bronze Age boat out to sea was enough to convince archaeologists and boatbuilders of the value of their work.

"Until you build a boat like this, you cannot know the difficulties people in prehistory overcame," said lead archaeologist Robert Van de Noort. "And until you take a vessel out on the water you cannot see how efficient they were."

Professor Van de Noort, along with shipwright Brian Cumby, was the driving force behind a project to build the first full-size replica of a boat used around our shores 4,000 years ago. Hewn from solid oak at the National Maritime Museum in Falmouth and launched in March, the volunteers who undertook the labour, along with several archaeologists, put the boat through its paces this week.

Using specially crafted paddles, 19 men and women were guided in the fine art of powering seven tons of wood through the water. The short voyage was hailed a triumph of collaboration between academic and artisan.

Remarkably stable and relatively quick for its size, the crew was soon able to manoeuvre around buoys and other vessels with ease. Professor Van de Noort, who is based at the University of Exeter, said he was delighted with the results, adding that the project had proved the enormous value of experimental archaeology.

"She moves well in the water – perhaps better than I'd expected," he said. "I could turn her quite easily with the rudder paddle. One thing we've learned already is that because she sits very high in the water, it is likely she can probably carry a much greater load than we first thought.

"Because she is flat-bottomed and has no keel the wind does tend to push her away. But with a few tons of ballast – perhaps tin ingots – she might handle better."

Professor Van de Noort explained that his interest in Bronze Age mariners went back many years. He said the project team consulted drawings made in the 1930s by Ted Wright, who discovered what became known as the Ferriby boats on the Humber.

"I have studied this sort of boat for many years and have written a lot about what they did and what they meant," he said. "But after a while I began to think it was all a bit silly because everything we write is only hypothesis. It was then I decided we should a have a go at building one. Fortunately Brian is a brilliant shipwright and was keen to take it on."

Named Morgawr, after the mythical sea serpent of Falmouth Bay, the boat took a team of 50 volunteers 11 months to construct. A first for "experimental archaeology" and a first for the NMMC, it was built as part of a collaborative project with the University of Exeter. The bulk of the hull was cut, using bronze adzes, from two huge oak trunks. Once shaped, they were "sewn together" using yew withies and sealed with moss and tallow.

"This is experimental archaeology at its best," said archaeologist and NMMC assistant curator Jenny Wittamore. A former student of Prof Van de Noort, she added: "A lot of people have preconceived ideas of what life was like in prehistory and there is an assumption that technology was very limited. So they were surprised to realise technology several thousand years ago was so complex.

"For me it is wonderful to change people's perspectives about what life was like in prehistory."

There are now plans to conduct further experiments to help build a clearer picture of Bronze Age travel and transportation. Screenings of a film by award-winning Cornish cinematographer Mark Jenkin, charting the boat's journey from log to launch, are being arranged for later this year.

For more information, visit nmmc.co.uk.

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2 comments

  • IanMacKinlay  |  May 25 2013, 10:37PM

    I made my above estimates based upon my interpretation of the photograph, displayed with this article. I have since looked at other photographs on the website, and on Facebook, and have realized that there is an apparent foreshortening around a factor of two in the length of the vessel, due to a zoom equivalent of a modest telephoto lens probably being used to take this photograph. I am not going to try to make a detailed estimate based on the photographs available, but making allowance for my change of assumption of vessel length, and one or two other factors, I would suggest a figure of 2.625 tons for passengers and vessel combined. I have been able to discern more passengers than I had originally allowed for, and would now make an allowance for these of 1.425 tons. That leaves 1.2 tons for the vessel itself. My back-of-the-envelope calculation still convinces me that the seven tons mentioned in the article is way too high a figure.

  • IanMacKinlay  |  May 25 2013, 7:28PM

    There is no way that that vessel is seven tons. I would guess that the boat and passengers together would be about 1.65 tons. Allowing about 1.2 tons for the passengers, that would mean that the boat itself is about 0.45 tons. Could the builders please let us readers know the true figures, just as a matter of interest? Thanks.

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