3.3 Skinboats

It is likely that prehistoric people used skinboats within the seas of Western Britain, but direct archaeological evidence is lacking. Historical examples of skinboats are constructed by stretching stitched-together animal skins over a lightweight framework of wood or wicker. This makes a very lightweight boat, which can be bowl-shaped or boat-shaped. Skinboats can vary in length from 1.5m to about 10m in length, 12m being the practical limit for this type of construction (McGrail 1998). Small bowl-shaped boats, similar to the coracle, can be used for fishing with great efficiency on lakes, rivers and estuaries, but would not be suitable for the open sea (Hornell 1938; Jenkins 1988; Meek 2007). Larger skinboats, similar to the Irish currach (Hornell 1938;) or Inuit umiak (Petersen 1986), have been a very successful method of boat building and their origins probably disappear into the beginnings of prehistory (Figure 1).

Figure 1

Figure 1: A fisherman with his currach at Ardara, Co. Donegal, circa. 1897. Used with permission (© National Museum of Ireland. NLI Ref: L­_ROY_01405).

No prehistoric skinboats have yet to be positively identified in the archaeological record. It is acknowledged that while their lightness is an advantage in relation to buoyancy and beaching, it makes their survival in archaeological deposits unlikely (McGrail 2004). Equally, it is important to keep sight of the effects sea-level rise have had on prehistoric coastlines. A small number of excavations claim to have excavated the remains of skinboats but the evidence presented is ambiguous (Bishop and Dore 1988; Ellmers 1984; Sheppard 1926; Watkins 1980). Clark (1965, 283) argues that a contracted human skeleton found in an oval basket in the clay of the Ancholme estuary may have been a coracle-burial.

Other oft-quoted sources of evidence for the presence of skinboats within a European context come in the form of prehistoric depictions in rock art, inscriptions on metalwork and boat models (Kaul 1998). There are depictions of what are assumed to be skinboats among the thousands of prehistoric rock engravings in coastal areas of northern and western Norway and the Baltic islands (Clark 1965; Johnstone 1988; Kristiansen 2004) and on at least 200 late Bronze Age razors (Hale 1980; Kaul 1998). Johnstone (1962, 35) argues on technical grounds that the majority of these images represent skinboats. He points to the consistent downward twist of bow and stern of the depicted boats, arguing that this feature of boat construction is difficult to explain for a wooden boat, but easy to see as the result of using skins to cover the hull framework. However, while these motifs clearly represent boats it is questionable whether they depict skinboats. McGrail suggests caution, pointing out that their identification as skinboats is by no means certain, and some may equally represent wooden vessels (1987, 186).

Figure 2

Figure 2: The Caergwrle Bowl. Used with permission (© Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales).

Two model boats have been identified as possible representations of prehistoric skinboats: the Caergwrle bowl, from Flintshire, North Wales, and the Broighter boat from County Derry, Northern Ireland (Denford and Farrell 1980; Farrell et al. 1975; Johnstone 1980; Praeger 1942). The Caergwrle bowl (Figure 2) dates to the Middle Bronze Age, and was manufactured from shale, tin and gold. It is thought to represent a boat, with its applied gold decoration signifying shields, oars and waves (Johnstone 1988, 124-7). The evidence that this bowl portrays a skinboat is convincing, but the size and character of this boat-shaped bowl suggests that it most likely represents a small coracle-like skinboat rather than a sea-going currach (Johnstone 1988, 124). The Broighter boat (Figure 3) is a gold model of an ocean-going vessel (Johnstone 1988, 127-8). The model originally had nine benches for the rowers and 18 oars with rowlocks, a long oar for steering at the stern, three forked barge poles, a grappling iron or anchor and a mast. While frequently interpreted as an example of a Bronze Age currach, this interpretation is unlikely. Roberts has argued that no feature of the Broighter boat is irreconcilable with the interpretation of it as a wooden boat and that it is most likely a model of an Iron Age wooden sailing boat (2004, 49).

Figure 3

Figure 3: The Broighter Gold Boat. Used with permission (© National Museum of Ireland).

Discussions on technical grounds about whether images or models represent particular forms of boats are limiting. These images cannot be interpreted without consideration of their context within the archaeological record. The Scandinavian rock art is found upon outcrops of rock associated with specific landscape locations, such as coastal inlets, rivers, waterfalls and rapids (Bradley and Phillips 2004; Tilley 1991). Similarly the boat models and razors are found within burial contexts and within hoards of metalwork (Bradley 1998; Roberts 2004). The images of the boats in such contexts may signify the boat as material metaphor or symbol. While these images clearly provide evidence for the presence of Bronze Age boats, discussions over the finer details of what is, and is not, represented are highly contentious.

While it is true that little evidence for skinboats has been identified in the archaeological record, this does not necessarily imply an absence of these craft, and indeed they may once have existed in abundance and played an important role in maritime movement during prehistory. Skinboats are used by some ethnographically known fishing communities, and are more effective than the dugout in rough waters. They are inherently more flexible and are consequently better at absorbing wave action. Although forms such as the umiak and the Irish currach were capable of open-sea travel, they were normally used for inshore hunting, fishing and transport.

Cooney (2004) envisages skin-covered keeled currachs, plying the western seaways from the Neolithic onwards. These larger skinboats would certainly have been suitable for making journeys around the coasts of Britain and across the English Channel and Irish Sea. Case (1969) argued cogently for Neolithic skinboats, and suggests that they may have been of considerable size, capable of transporting livestock as well as people. Skinboats have greater cargo capacity than wooden boats, but are light enough to be carried by their own crew (Case 1969; Rowley-Conwy 2011).

Peacock and Cutler (2010) have recently questioned whether Neolithic coastal communities would have had the necessary technological skills and resources, to build seaworthy skinboats. They argue that in order to construct a skinboat large enough to be used in the open sea, a number of hides would require to be sewn together and fitted over a wooden boat frame. Skin hides and their fittings would require the application of a sealant; making the joins between hides and sewing-holes watertight would have been a major problem (Peacock and Cutler 2010, 121). They argue that no practical waterproofing agent would have been available during prehistory and that the construction of skinboats during the Neolithic would have been much more problematic than scholars have allowed for (Peacock and Cutler 2010, 122). However, ethnographic evidence from the Arctic suggests that the tools and resources necessary to build watertight and seaworthy boats were well within the capabilities of Neolithic and Bronze Age coastal communities within the UK and Ireland. The complexity of the construction and significance of skinboats is perhaps best illustrated by ethnographic accounts of skinboat use and manufacture in the Arctic.


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