Dug out canoes found in record haul in Cambridgeshire were Bronze Age Britons' 'run-abouts' of choice, say archaeologists


Ancient Britons made hundreds of thousands of dugout canoes, archaeologists now believe.

Detailed analysis of a key long-buried ancient river channel in Cambridgeshire suggests that canoes, made of tree trunks, were the personal transport ‘run-abouts’ of choice in prehistoric times.

Now archaeologists and conservators have launched the largest ever conservation program for prehistoric artefacts in an attempt to save eight of the remarkable craft for the nation.

The ancient canoes will be treated with chemicals in a specially designed cold store conservation facility, funded by English Heritage, at a Bronze Age site and museum at Flag Fen near Peterborough.

Archaeologists, from Cambridge Archaeological Unit,  have been studying the finely made craft since they were lifted from the still water-logged bed of a long-vanished river at Must Farm, Whittlesey, Cambridgeshire  in 2011 and early 2012. Further analysis of the vessels will take place during conservation.

Examination of the boats – dating from 1600 to 1000BC – has so far revealed that Bronze Age Britons developed a much wider range of dug-out boat design than previously thought.

Four of the eight craft were extremely light-weight – with sides on average just two centimetres thick. Two of these light-weight boats had been deliberately made from less heavy, more easily carved, timber – lime and alder. Fast and easily manoeuvrable, they would have accommodated just one or two crew.

The other four boats discovered were robust, heavy-duty vessels all made of oak. One was 8.4 metres long and 85 cm wide – and would have been capable of carrying up to 20 people or, alternatively, up to a tonne of cargo.

Another heavy-duty dugout, capable of carrying up to ten people or up to half a tonne of cargo, was richly decorated with criss-cross designs. It is the first decorated boat ever found in Britain.

“Dugout canoes were a major form of personal transport in prehistoric times. They were the ancient British equivalent of cars or bicycles. Today, only a few dozen British examples are so far known to have survived – but the Must Farm evidence – 8 examples along just a 300 metre length of one small river – suggests that vast numbers must have once existed in other similar rivers throughout much of Britain.

“The evidence from Must  Farm and elsewhere in Britain suggests that literally hundreds of thousands must have been made and used in the Mesolithic, Neolithic, Bronze Age and Iron Age periods,” said one of Britain’s leading ancient boat specialists, Richard Darrah.

The different types of dugout canoes – all made from single logs of wood – would have been ideal for different types of activity.

The small vessels would have been suitable for spear-fishing, birding and personal transport, while the larger vessels would have been better for warfare, cargo transport, seasonal migration and the transport of animals.

All the vessels would have required substantial skill to operate. With a freeboard of only a few centimetres, the crew would have had to develop a particularly keen sense of balance, especially when standing up to spear fish or net birds.

It is the largest collection of prehistoric dugout canoes ever found in Britain or indeed Europe as a whole. Their discovery is down to three factors – water-logged conditions, unique archaeological methodology being pioneered by Cambridge Archaeological Unit and the unusually great depth (5 metres) at which the excavation took place, courtesy of  commercial operations by Hanson UK, a  brick-making and aggregates company.  

The excavations at Must Farm - and the recovery of the eight dugout canoes - were directed by archaeologist Kerry Murrell of Cambridge Archaeological Unit. The conservation work at Flag Fen on the boats is being designed by York Archaeological Trust’s principal conservator, Ian Panter.

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