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2. An Archaeology of the Sea

Island and coastal communities are important when considering maritime transport as seafaring is implicit in their trading and migration. Any artefacts originating outside the area, such as stone axes and pottery, attest to the use of boats to carry goods and people across the sea. Certainly from as early as the Mesolithic, prehistoric people were journeying by boat along the coastlines of the British Isles and travelling to islands including the Inner and Outer Hebrides of Scotland, Scilly and the Isle of Man (Garrow and Sturt 2011; Robinson 2007). Such movements are demonstrated through the presence of traces of settlement and the movement of resources, such as Arran pitchstone and Rhum Bloodstone (Ballin 2006; Mithen 2001; Ritchie 1968; Wickham-Jones 1990). During the Mesolithic/Neolithic transition the resources necessary for Neolithic farming must have been transported across the English Channel by boat (Case 1969; Rowley-Conwy 2011; Stevens and Fuller 2012). The western seaways of Britain have long been considered crucial, geographically, to any understanding of the transition (Callaghan and Scarre 2009; Garrow and Sturt 2011; Sheridan 2010). Further weight has recently been added to this hypothesis, in that many of the earliest traces of Neolithic practices and material culture occur within and around western Britain and Ireland. Such evidence includes: the bones of domestic cattle from a midden, at Ferriter's Cove in south west Ireland, dating to 4495-4195 cal BC (Woodman and McCarthy 2003: 32-36); early evidence for cereal pollen from Ballachrink in the Isle of Man, dating from 4931–4777 cal BC (Innes et al. 2003: 605); an Early Neolithic passage grave at Broadsands, Devon, dating to 3845–3726 cal BC (Sheridan et al. 2008: 15) and the occurrence of Early Neolithic pottery in Western Scotland which shows marked parallels to Continental pottery styles (Sheridan 2000: 1).

Throughout the Neolithic and Bronze Age contact by sea is demonstrated by the exchange and trade of stone and metal artefacts (Patton 1991; Peacock and Cutler 2010; Waddell 1991/1992). There is ample evidence for Neolithic journeys from France to Britain in the form of jadeite and Breton axes (Clough and Cummins 1988; Sheridan 2007). However, the discovery at Maiden Castle of a large Neolithic saddle-quern of French provenance demonstrates evidence for the transportation of large stone objects during the Neolithic (Peacock and Cutler 2010). The quern from Maiden Castle weighs over 16kg and is the largest and heaviest artefact to have been demonstrated to have crossed the Channel in Neolithic times. (Peacock and Cutler 2010, 122). The transportation by sea of large stone objects re-opens the problem of the nature of maritime transport in this early period.

The Early Bronze Age is viewed as a period during which long-distance networks of interaction were important (O'Connor 1980; Needham et al. 2006; Needham 2009). Beaker pottery is found across a wide area of Western Europe (Vander Linden 2007), and the raw materials required for bronze were moved over long distances (Ottaway and Roberts 2008). Boats played a key role in proposed elite exchange and trade networks (Van de Noort 2006) and caches of bronze artefacts and tin ingots recovered from probable wreck sites off Salcombe in south Devon, from near Dover and from the sea floor at the mouth of the estuary of the River Erme, show that such cargoes were being transported in this region in the Bronze Age (Fox 1995; Muckelroy 1980; Needham et al. in prep.).

The archaeological evidence from Britain and Ireland suggests the constant use of seaworthy boats, handled by competent crews, throughout prehistory (McGrail 2001). However, while the importance of the sea and the use of boats are clearly central to key debates within British prehistory, the logistics of human engagement with the sea have actually received little consideration. Similarly, while large-scale movements by boat have been key to ideas of colonisation, invasion, diffusion, and elite exchange networks, little discussion has been given to the small-scale everyday use of the sea by coastal and island communities. It will be argued that in order to begin to explore how prehistoric communities might have engaged with the sea, we need to draw from a range of complementary fields of research: landscape archaeology; maritime archaeology and maritime anthropology.


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