ARCHAEOLOGY / An early crossing of the Channel: A Bronze Age boat was excavated from a Dover street two years ago. David Keys reports on developments

David Keys
Monday 21 September 2015 12:23

THE world's oldest well-preserved seagoing boat - a preservation fund for which was launched earlier this month - is currently being examined by a team of archaeologists and scientists.

Discovered two years ago 23 feet beneath the streets of Dover, the 3,300-year-old vessel is giving prehistorians an unprecedented opportunity to study British technology in the Bronze Age.

Preliminary examination of the remains - co-ordinated by Paul Bennett of Canterbury Archaeology Trust - is revealing that the carpentry was not only very sophisticated, but also practised on a grand scale. At almost 60 feet in length, the boat would have been twice the length of a double-decker bus.

Constructed without the use of nails, the vessel's six main timbers were sewn together using slender lengths of wood - highly pliable yew - lubricated with animal fat and caulked with beeswax and three different types of moss.

Building the craft would have been a major undertaking, requiring a substantial communal investment in time and energy. Some estimates suggest the boat would have taken five men about 18 weeks to construct.

Felling the trees, splitting them, shaping the resultant timbers, and gathering wood, beeswax, moss and other raw materials would have taken the prehistoric shipwrights a grand total of around 6,000 man-hours.

Timber experts believe the boat was made of wood obtained from three massive 200 - 300-year-old oak trees. Each tree would have been up to 130ft tall when it was felled.

It seems that Bronze Age shipwrights chose trees with relatively fast growth rates, perhaps to ensure straightness of grain and a lack of knots - the characteristics required for an evenly stressed boat timber.

Once the trees had been selected and felled, the shipbuilders set about splitting and shaping the wood. Using bronze axes, adzes, chisels and gouges, they would have done much of the work deep in the forest before moving the roughly shaped timbers down to the river-bank.

Here the finer carpentry was carried out, some of it with flint rather than metal tools. Archaeologists are now busy studying the tool marks on the timbers, in an effort to work out exactly the size and type of tools used.

Once completed, the vessel was almost certainly used for coastal and cross-Channel trade, as it was too large for the river Dour, the remnants of which still flow under Dover.

The boat seems not to have possessed a sail, and would therefore have been driven by human power alone - probably around 24 crew equipped with paddles. Although maximum speeds could have reached eight or nine knots, the top cruising speed would have been only about four knots. At that speed, it would have taken only around five hours to cross the Channel.

In the Bronze Age, speed was an essential ingredient for successful cross-Channel operations. Voyages could only be undertaken in relatively calm sea conditions, and Channel crossings therefore had to be carried out rapidly while good conditions lasted. The longer the journey time, the greater the risk of a change in sea conditions.

An example of one type of cargo the Dover Bronze Age boat may have carried - and what happened to vessels in bad weather - was found on the sea-bed off Dover in 1974. Local amateur divers discovered part of the cargo of a Bronze Age vessel wrecked in around 1200BC.

The boat has never been found, but 60 kilos of cargo - scrap metal, consisting of 352 mostly broken axes, daggers, rapiers, swords, spearheads and chisels originating from Europe - were brought to the surface.

Apart from metalwork, the boat would probably have carried high- value goods such as jewellery, amber, top-quality textiles, metalwork and even pottery. It was probably only in use for around 10 years - 20 at the maximum - according to marine archaeologists studying the vessel.

The end came for the Dover boat one autumn around 3,300 years ago. The vessel was dumped on top of the fresh corpse of an Atlantic salmon lying at the edge of a small freshwater creek. The archaeological evidence shows that after the vessel was dumped, it was partially dismantled. However, whether this was to provide timbers for other boats, or if it was some sort of decommissioning ritual is not known.

According to research carried out by University College London, the vessel and its immediate surroundings were used either as a site for animal butchery (probably cattle and red deer), or as a dumping ground for their butchered carcasses.

In design terms, the Dover boat is one step up from a dug-out canoe. Simple plank-built vessels were the next logical development when dug-outs became too small for all requirements, and when sea voyages became commonplace. The Dover craft is the oldest substantially complete seagoing vessel found anywhere in the world.

However, there are much older river and lake vessels which have been found, and there is indirect evidence of seagoing boats pre- dating the Dover vessel by tens of thousands of years.

As long as 50,000-60,000 years ago, the ancestors of the Australian Aborigines almost certainly used seagoing craft of some description to cross the 40 miles of sea from what is now Indonesia to Australia. By 30,000 years ago, the people of the New Guinea area had begun using more sophisticated craft, in order to sail across 100 miles of ocean to places such as the Solomon Islands in Melanesia.

The oldest surviving boat remains ever found are those of a 9,000-year-old river craft - a dug- out canoe - discovered in Holland. However, much more sophisticated river vessels, beautiful 4,500-year-old Egyptian Nile boats were found ritually buried adjacent to the Pyramids.

Archaeological remains of the cargoes (although not much fabric) of ancient seagoing ships older than the Dover vessel have been found in the Mediterranean. The cargo-rich site of a shipwreck off the coast of Turkey dates from 1500BC.

Scientists and other specialists from the universities of London, York, Cambridge, Wales (Bangor) and Sheffield, as well as the Museum of London and English Heritage, are studying the vessel and the Dover Bronze Age Boat Trust has been formed to raise the pounds 1.3m needed to conserve the vessel, and then put it on permanent display to the public.

(Photograph and graphic omitted)

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