PREVIOUS   NEXT   CONTENTS   HOME 

8. Coastal Wayfaring

On land, archaeologists reconstruct potential movement through the identification of cultural features (settlements, burial monuments, flint scatters etc.) and how these constitute meaningful locales (Gosden 1993). Such an idea of landscape brings together the spatial and temporal elements of past human action into what Ingold has called taskscapes: an array of related activities spread across the physical landscape (Ingold 1993). It is argued that knowledge of the relationship between locales structures the experience of movement and the creation of pathways within a landscape (Thomas 1993). Physical obstacles such as mountains, cliffs, rivers etc. may restrict how people move within a landscape, but archaeologists also recognise the importance of cultural constraints, such as the correct way to approach a stone circle or burial monument (Tilley 1996).

In contrast, movement at sea is structured, both spatially and temporally, by the shifting patterns of tide, current and weather (Admiralty 1998). Tidal cycles form a predictable temporal pattern of movement that both restricts and facilitates movement on the sea. Through this structuring of movement we can begin to discuss the times, places and problems of movement in and around coastal and offshore waters. Safe passage and pilotage require a detailed knowledge of how to interpret these temporal patterns. Equally, weather prediction, the interpretation of the sky, wind and animal behaviour, are essential to safe movement on the sea. Seafaring as an activity is thus fundamentally bound up in a detailed knowledge of the environment.

Coastal and short passages are governed by tides and winds, boat speeds are low and dependent upon the strength of the crew and the wind. Short sea-coasting relies on route learning of coastline features, knowledge of soundings, handed down wisdom and weather lore. The competence of a crew and their ability to locate themselves correctly in relation to known locales within the sea is essential. Such knowledge is fundamental to both safe passage and success in locating fishing areas.

The fishermen of Coqueiral in Brazil share a generalised knowledge of the area of the sea and the aspect of the land that comprise their fishing universe (Forman 1967). Toward this end they have elaborated a complex system of named fishing grounds and landmarks. The location of the fishing grounds by visual triangulation and the knowledge of the distribution of fish within them in given seasons are transmitted over generations. Particular fishing spots are located within these fishing grounds. They may be identified by jutting rocks, stretches of identifiable reefs, or submerged rocky areas that are frequented by fishermen because they have yielded good catches in the past. All fishing spots are marked and remembered by individual fishermen using a visual system of triangulation that utilises a series of landmarks which can be seen on clear days from most of the fishing grounds (Forman 1967, 421).

Groups practising fishing within sight of land frequently use visual markers for navigation and to locate fishing grounds (Cordell 1974; Forman 1970; Igarashi 1974). Negotiating waters out of sight of land would require additional navigational skills. In more recent times, historical documents record that medieval fishermen off the coast of Ireland frequently used the movement of birds to aid navigation and to locate certain types of fish (Pálsson 1991). Similarly, Polynesian peoples exploited their knowledge of bird behaviour and migration patterns in order to navigate the open sea and locate new lands (Hornell 1946).

Success at sea is also determined by the seaworthiness of boats and the ability of a crew to handle a vessel. On land, the body is the primary way through which the landscape is experienced. In contrast, on the sea bodily experience is channelled through the boat. The boat requires correct handling or else it will drift at the mercy of the sea. The boat provides a surrogate body for the crew, allowing safe access to this watery world. The body is central to the boat – with a knowledgeable body present the boat steers/sails. Because of this close interdependency metaphorical connections are easily drawn between boats and human bodies (Munn 1986; Tilley 1999, 115).

Setting out within Atlantic waters in a small boat is inherently dangerous and to be achieved successfully requires the cooperation of a competent crew. The crew of a small boat forms a discrete social unit with each member depending upon the other. The composition of a crew is therefore fundamental to understanding social relations at sea (Acheson 1981, 278, Norr and Norr 1974; 1978). The act of setting out to sea requires that disputes and grievances between crew members are left behind when a boat is launched (Pollnac 1976).

Even today in an age of accurate weather forecasting, mapping and satellite navigation, seafaring is an inherently dangerous activity, managed through the skill and knowledge of seafarers. Socialisation into seafaring may be undertaken through apprenticeships and through the recounting of stories frequently associated with places, events and creatures, both actual and mythical, associated with the sea (King 2009). Taboo and superstition play an important part in seafaring lore, providing a code of appropriate conduct at sea (Gill 1996; Baker 1979; Lamont-Brown 1972). These social constraints have developed primarily as a means of controlling the unpredictable nature of seafaring, or maximising luck. The sea is unforgiving and demands respect. It has been argued that this element of seafaring, although expressed differently between cultures, represent a common characteristic of seafaring people both today and in the past (Coombe 1998; Gill 1996).


 PREVIOUS   NEXT   CONTENTS   HOME 

Internet Archaeology is an open access journal. Except where otherwise noted, content from this work may be used under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 (CC BY) Unported licence, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided that attribution to the author(s), the title of the work, the Internet Archaeology journal and the relevant URL/DOI are given.

University of York legal statements

File last updated: Fri May 31 2013