3.2 Plank-built boats

Bronze Age sewn-plank boats are, to date, unique to the British Isles. All known examples are built of oak planks with bevelled edges, sewn or stitched together using yew withies and with an integral system of cleats and transverse timbers that provide rigidity to the hull. One of the most complete plank boats is that from Dover, which measured 14m long and 2.25m wide. The boat was constructed from carved oak planks stitched together using yew withies and caulked with moss (Clark 2004a; 2004b). It has been argued that the technology of sewing planks together in the construction of boats may have developed from the long technological evolution of skinboats (McGrail 1993; Wright et al. 2001, 733). However, this view is not one universally held. Crumlin-Pedersen argues that the process of carving out the solid elements of a plank-built boat share much in common with the techniques normally associated with the construction of logboats (2010, 22). He argues that British Bronze Age sewn-plank boats are best understood as a gradual specialisation in boat building, from the construction of carved ordinary logboats, to the construction of boats comprised of several carved out individually shaped elements, stitched together and made watertight with moss caulked between seams (Crumlin-Pedersen 2010, 60).

A total of ten Bronze Age plank-built boats, or boat fragments, have been identified from Britain (Table 1). These boats include:

Table 1: The dates of the ten Bronze Age sewn-plank built boats from Britain (source: modified from Van de Noort 2006, 274, table 2)
Sewn-plank boat Date (cal BC) Reference
Ferriby 3 2030-1780(Wright et al. 2001)
Ferriby 2 1940-1720(Wright et al. 2001)
Ferriby 1 1880-1680(Wright et al. 2001)
Caldicot 1 1870-1680(Nayling and Caseldine 1997)
Kilnsea 1750-1620 (Van de Noort et al. 1999)
Dover 1575-1520 BC(Bayliss et al. 2004)
Testwood Lakes c. 1500
Goldcliff c. 1170(Bell et al. 2000)
Caldicot 2 c. 1000 cal(McGrail 1997)
Brigg raft 825–760 cal(Switsur 1981)

Discussions as to whether the early plank boats could have been used for seafaring, or were merely used for cross-estuary and riverine transport, are on-going (McGrail 2007). The remains of dated plank boats have been discovered either in estuaries, such as Ferriby 1 to 3 and Goldcliff, or in tidal rivers near estuaries or the coast, including the boats from Kilnsea, Brigg, Caldicot, Testwood and, most significantly, Dover, but not on inland rivers. This distribution appears to be significant, especially when compared to the distribution of logboats, which are typically found in association with tidal rivers and inland waters, but only rarely estuaries or coasts (Van de Noort 2006). Van de Noort suggests that such a distribution may indicate that sewn-plank boats could potentially be used under favourable conditions as sea-going vessels (2004a; 2006; 2004b: 413).

However, the seaworthiness of these boats has been questioned and debate continues as to their potential range (McGrail 2007). McGrail's analysis of the Ferriby 1 boat and the Brigg raft suggests that neither have the shape nor structure necessary to match the stability and freeboard required for a boat regularly used at sea (2004, 59). He argues that Ferriby 1 would have been better suited as a ferry within the Humber Estuary, and the Brigg raft as a ferry across a tidal creek over what is now the River Ancholme (McGrail 1981, 248-9).

McGrail's dismissal of the seaworthiness of the Ferriby 1 boat is contradicted by a number of authors. The construction and testing of a half-scale model of Ferriby 1 has demonstrated the boat to be substantially more seaworthy than previous assessments had suggested (Gifford and Gifford 2004; Gifford et al. 2006, 62). Similarly, McGrail's reconstruction and assessment of the Brigg Raft has been called into question. While McGrail reconstructs a box-shaped ferry for the Brigg raft (McGrail 1981), Roberts has reconstructed an entirely different-shaped vessel, one with curved hull lines, longitudinally as well as in cross-section (Roberts 1992). Crumlin-Pedersen argues that whichever of these reconstructions is the more accurate, one thing is clear: the Brigg raft is certainly not a raft (Crumlin-Pederesen 2010, 60).

Clark (2004a; 2004b) has proposed that the Dover boat may have functioned as a cargo vessel, with a crew of 16 and a 3 tonne capacity, probably plying the south coast of Britain. A piece of Kimmeridge Shale found in the vessel indicates this directionality, although Clark thinks the preferred cargo would have been copper, tin and/or bronze objects from the ore-rich south-west peninsula (2004b). However, Roberts in his assessment of the Dover Boat stated that, while potentially seaworthy, any seafarer would have to have been optimistic to go to sea (2004, 35). However, this single view is not universally shared. For example, a recent reassessment and reconstruction has demonstrated an astonishing seaworthy set of lines to the Dover Boat (Darrah 2012, 44-9).

The full sophistication of Bronze Age sewn-plank boats is only now beginning to be appreciated. These boats mark a major technological innovation in boat design and construction, creating strong seaworthy vessels potentially capable of crossing back and forth across the English Channel (Van de Noort 2004b, 413).


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