A History of the World in Twelve Shipwrecks (2 page)

BOOK: A History of the World in Twelve Shipwrecks
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1
Early sea traders of prehistory in the 2nd millennium BC

On 28 September 1992 a remarkable discovery was made in Dover, the port on the south coast of England next to the famous White Cliffs. Six metres below the present road surface, workers digging a shaft for a stormwater pump uncovered ancient timbers. The archaeologists who had been monitoring the work immediately called a halt to the digging and went down to investigate. The timbers lay beneath the medieval town wall and a Roman timber breakwater, built at the time when Dover was the base for the fleet that patrolled the English Channel. That meant that the timbers were likely to date to at least the Iron Age, more than two thousand years ago, before the Romans arrived. To their great excitement the archaeologists realised that they were looking at the remains of a boat, and that the nearest parallel for the construction techniques were boat fragments from the north of England dating to the Bronze Age. They knew that their find was of great importance for the study of British prehistory, but at the time they had little idea that it would prove to be the oldest seagoing vessel found anywhere in the world.

The archaeologists from Canterbury Archaeological Trust had only a narrow window of time before the works had to continue, part of a scheme to improve road access through Dover close to the seafront. The section of boat proved to be some 6 metres long and to be made up of four oak planks joined together – two bottom planks joined by a complex system of transverse timbers and wedges driven through cleats and rails, and another plank on either side attached by stitches or ‘withies' of yew twigs sewn through holes along the edges. A second shaft dug alongside revealed a further 3.5 metres of the boat, including one end, allowing a projection to be made of the appearance of the other side of the boat that was buried under the road – where it remains to this day. Uncovering the one end had shown that a board forming part of the bow or stern had been deliberately removed when
the boat had been abandoned, and stitches that had been cut along the tops of the side planks showed that a further plank on either side had also been dismantled and taken away. The timbers were marvellously preserved in the oxygen-free conditions of the mud – the bed of the river that had run through Dover in prehistoric times – but they were too soft for the boat to be raised intact, and the decision was made to cut it into sections. The whole operation took a little over three weeks from the day of discovery, a remarkably short time for such a demanding excavation, but under pressure from the developers at a place where cross-Channel traffic using the ferry port was being disrupted.

Exposure to air meant that the timbers might dry out and disintegrate and be damaged by bacteria, so an arrangement was made for them to be conserved by the Mary Rose Trust in Portsmouth – Britain's premier experts in ship timber conservation following the raising of the sixteenth-century wreck of the
Mary Rose
in 1982. The timbers were soaked for 16 months in polyethylene glycol, a liquid wax that strengthens the cellular structure of wood, and then freeze-dried to expel any remaining water. With conservation underway and a museum display in Dover already envisaged, study of the boat could begin in earnest. Most importantly, the timbers provided excellent samples for radiocarbon dating, measuring the remaining proportion of the radioactive isotope carbon-14 in the wood. Using the latest calibrations, this technique indicated a 95 per cent probability that the boat was constructed in 1575–1520
BC
, with the latest tree-ring date for one timber obtained by dendrochronology – finding a match for the tree-rings in a database extending back to that period – being 1589
BC
. This showed that the timbers had been felled in the middle of the British Bronze Age – mid-way between the first appearance of bronze smelting in the British Isles about 2300
BC
and the arrival of iron technology from Europe and the Mediterranean about 800
BC
. The middle Bronze Age is less clearly visible for us in the landscape of Britain than the preceding and following periods, between the monuments of the Neolithic such as Stonehenge and the hillforts of the Iron Age such as Maiden Castle, but it was a time of great endeavour, with much effort being put into the clearance of land and the development of field systems as well as into technology, trading ventures and long-distance interaction for which the Dover Boat provides such vivid evidence.

By the time the boat was reassembled and installed in a state-of-the-art gallery in Dover Museum in 1999, great strides had been made in understanding its method of construction. A full-scale recreation of part of the hull using replica Bronze Age tools showed that it would have taken ten people about a month to complete the boat, using the timber from three oak trees at least 30 metres tall. Both the felling of trees and the hewing of timbers would have benefitted greatly from the use of bronze tools, which were much superior to copper or flint – the former being too soft to hold a sharp edge for long and the latter prone to breakage. The completed boat would have been some 18 metres long and 2.5 metres wide and weighed 8 tonnes. Study of the joinery showed that it was among the most complex examples of carpentry to survive from early prehistory anywhere in the world.

It was clear that the boat had been a stout and durable vessel, suited to river and coastal transport, and that it had been used – there was evidence of repairs. But it was not until a half-scale replica was made that its seaworthiness was demonstrated. On its maiden voyage in Dover Harbour on 7 September 2013, the boat rode the waves and swell with ease and the team of eight paddlers were able to make good headway. As originally built, the full-scale boat would have required sixteen to twenty paddlers and been able to carry three or four passengers with up to three tons of cargo. Another full-scale replica of a Bronze Age boat launched in Falmouth Harbour in the same year led to similar conclusions. With knowledge of tides, currents and winds it would have been possible to cross the Channel and undertake long coastal voyages, conceivably as far as the Baltic Sea and the Bay of Biscay. The flat bottom of the hull – a feature of ships of north-west Europe in the Roman period as well – would have allowed the boat to rest upright on a tidal foreshore. This experiment suggesting the proficiency of Bronze Age seafaring opened up a whole new perspective on trade and communication, showing that the Channel was less a barrier and more a conduit through which people, goods and ideas could easily travel.

The technique for attaching the planks to the floor timbers – boring holes along the edges and lashing them together with plant fibre, made watertight with moss – is paralleled elsewhere in the world, including modern-day sewn boats in Oman, Sri Lanka and southern India. In Britain the oldest example is one of several boat fragments from Ferriby on the Humber Estuary dated by Accelerator Mass Spectrometry (AMS) radiocarbon to about 2030
BC
, showing that the technique had
existed in Britain since the early Bronze Age and that it was not just restricted to the south-west. The oldest examples in the world are the funerary barges or ‘solar barques' of Egypt in the third millennium
BC
, including the spectacular Khufu ship buried at the foot of the Great Pyramid at Giza about 2500
BC
– its timbers sewn with rope made from esparto grass – and a boat from Abydos dating to the very beginning of the Dynastic period, about 3000
BC
, making it the oldest planked vessel known. These were ceremonial vessels only ever used on the Nile, but the technique was probably used for Egyptian seagoing vessels on the Mediterranean and Red Sea as well. Nevertheless, rather than seeing Egypt as the source of this technique, we are probably looking at parallel innovation in different areas. Sewn-plank joinery probably had its origins in an earlier tradition of boats made with animal hides stretched over a framework of flexible branches lashed together, with the stitching of hides showing how timbers might also be joined. Much in world history can be explained by the spread of ideas from one source, but many innovations such as this are likely to have taken place independently, as people tackled the same problems, applied the same ingenuity and came up with the same solutions in places widely separated both geographically and culturally. The networked global trade that spread innovations in more recent times was still a long way off, dependent on larger seagoing ships and better navigational knowledge as the worldview of populations gradually expanded beyond their home waters.

The layers of artefacts and debris above the Dover Boat reflect the huge expanse of time that had passed since the boat was buried – more than 1,500 years before the next oldest boat finds in Britain, 2,000 years before the Anglo-Saxon ship burials at Sutton Hoo and 2,300 years before the age of the Vikings. Early humans had first arrived in Britain almost a million years previously, crossing a land-bridge that became submerged by 6000
BC
as the glaciers melted and the sea level rose. Seafaring was thus a necessity for the waves of migration that followed, including the people who brought farming with them about 4000
BC
– some 5,000 years after the inception of agriculture in the ‘fertile crescent' of the Near East – and others who arrived about 2300
BC
with knowledge of how to smelt copper and tin to make bronze. These people, called the ‘Beaker Folk' because of their distinctive pots shaped like everted bells, may have been driven from their homeland
in Europe by war – a function of the improved weapons that came with bronze technology, which also provided the tools needed to make better boats than the dugouts and skin vessels of earlier periods. These migrants are likely to have displaced the remnant Neolithic population of southern Britain and to have been the ancestors of the people who built the Dover Boat.

The Bronze Age in Britain is most clearly evidenced in the numerous round barrows that dot the southern uplands, but it is in the expansion and consolidation of agriculture that the greatest impact took place. Rather than directing their energies towards monumental constructions and earthworks as in the Neolithic period, people cleared the land and set up the first extensive field systems. Bronze technology was a key factor, with stronger and sharper axes allowing trees to be felled more quickly and adzes and other tools allowing carpentry to flourish. From that viewpoint the Dover Boat provides a key insight into the sophistication and ingenuity of woodworking as a whole. Another defining feature of the Bronze Age was the expansion of overseas trade and interaction, as people whose ancestors had been migrants returned across the Channel for trade, marriage and other events, strengthening social ties and providing a conduit for the spread of culture and ideas.

The date of the Dover Boat provides a watershed moment for looking at history worldwide. In the Aegean Sea, the volcanic island of Thera had just erupted – one of the largest volcanic events in human history – destroying Bronze Age settlements on the island and causing a tsunami that devastated the Minoan civilisation of Crete. That event may have been the basis for the story of the drowned civilisation of Atlantis recounted by the Greek philosopher Plato a millennium later. In Egypt, the eighteenth-dynasty pharaoh Thutmose I, the first pharaoh to be buried in the Valley of the Kings, had extended his control from the fourth cataract of the Nile to Carchemish on the river Euphrates, creating the greatest empire that Egypt had ever known. More than 7,000 kilometres to the east, the Shang Dynasty of China was becoming established in the valley of the Yellow River and scribes for the first time were writing with Chinese characters. On the other side of the world, the Olmecs, the first great civilisation of Mesoamerica, were beginning to flourish in the tropical lowlands of Mexico and carve the colossal stone head for which they are famous. This was the wider world at the time of the Dover Boat, but one in which the early civilisations provide only part of the picture – many
people, from the Arctic and North America to Africa and Polynesia, still lived mainly as hunter-gatherers, though with the seas and inland waterways providing an ever-increasing part of their day-to-day life, and boats being central to their survival and culture.

Dover in 1550
BC
was very different in appearance from today. The steep slopes of the valley leading down to the sea were probably already denuded of trees, used for firewood and building. The river was a braided stream of many different channels, separated by marshy islets and tidal in its lower course. The prehistoric settlement lies buried under the modern town and is largely unknown, though the excavation around the boat and comparative data from other settlements of the period provide clues. Close to the boat there may have been a small cluster of roundhouses on a spur of land leading down from the slope to the river. They would have been made of wattle and daub, the wooden laths of the walls sealed with mud and dung and with a single central fireplace. As well as being places for family and communal living they would have served as locations for craft activity including textile and basket making and for food preparation. On the slopes above there would have been enclosed plots for vegetables as well as fields for wheat and barley and other crops, and open pasturage for cows, sheep, goats, pigs and horses, with dogs also being domesticated by this period. Deer and wild boar were hunted in the woods with spears and bows and arrows, the river would have provided freshwater fish and waterfowl, and the sea was extensively exploited for fish, crustacea, seaweed and salt, with fish being caught by line and nets just as today.

The intensification of agriculture and higher crop yields meant that more time was freed up for other economic activity – as shown by the construction and use of the Dover Boat – and for ‘life of the mind', something that is difficult to reconstruct in a society that left no written records but is evidenced in burial practice as well as technological innovation, particularly in metallurgy. If scrap bronze and copper and tin ingots were coming into Dover it seems likely that metalworking took place close to the settlement by the side of the river. At this period the forging and tempering of iron was still hundreds of years away in Britain, and metalworking was either the cold hammering of soft metals such as copper and gold or the smelting of copper and tin to make bronze. The discovery that adding a small amount of tin to
molten copper made a much stronger metal was a massive technological breakthrough – the greatest until ironworking arrived in Britain about the eighth century
BC
. Unlike iron ore, which could be found in many areas, copper and especially tin were scarce, and much smelting would have been of recycled metal, including broken and worn-out tools as well as items whose shape and decoration had fallen out of favour. The bronzesmiths were agents not just of utilitarian production but also of cultural expression, with the decoration on tools and weapons probably reflecting artwork in materials that have not survived, such as textiles and wood.

BOOK: A History of the World in Twelve Shipwrecks
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