A History of the World in Twelve Shipwrecks (3 page)

BOOK: A History of the World in Twelve Shipwrecks
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The story that can be told from the Dover Boat straddles two of the greatest scientific breakthroughs in archaeology since the nineteenth century. The first is radiocarbon dating, which as we have seen gives a date for the boat of about 1550
BC
. The second is DNA analysis, which can indicate whether or not changes in material culture – including pottery styles, the decoration and shapes of metalwork, and burial practices – were associated with the arrival of new peoples, by analysing samples of human bone dated before, during and after these changes. In 2021 a ground-breaking study of Bronze Age DNA was published by scientists from the University of York, Harvard Medical School, the University of Vienna and the Natural History Museum in London. The analysis of bone from nearly 800 inhumation and cremation burials revealed evidence for two large-scale migrations, the first in the late third millennium
BC
and the second about 1300–800
BC
. In both cases the migrations are likely to have come from the area of northern France. The point of arrival for the first migration was the south-eastern coast of Kent, probably including Dover itself, with isotope evidence from some individuals from a site on the Isle of Thanet showing that they had spent their childhoods in continental Europe. While the early migration, associated with the ‘Beaker Folk', may have been precipitated by crisis – war, population pressure and food shortage are all possibilities – the later migration may have been spread over several centuries and been more a function of trade and intermarriage. These later migrations may have brought with them the Celtic language spoken by Britons during the Roman period and been responsible for perhaps half of the genetic ancestry of people living in Britain at that time.

The implications of this for our picture of the Dover Boat are profound. The sophisticated joinery already evident in the earliest Ferriby
boat, dating to soon after the arrival of the ‘Beaker Folk', suggests that this technique of boat-building was brought with the migrants rather than being an invention of the British Bronze Age. Robust, flat-bottomed boats suited to tidal foreshores may originally have been designed for river transport, perhaps in the area of central Europe from which the migrants had fled. By the time of the Dover Boat several centuries later, vessels built in the same way were used to take people back across the Channel, not for migration but as part of a network of exchange, communication and social ties, meaning that people on either side of the Channel probably had more in common with each other than with communities inland. Having been a means of escape, and then perhaps a barrier, the sea became a unifier and a conduit for the spread of agriculture and trade in metal, with boats drawing people together across wide expanses of sea and inland waterway – a theme of maritime transport through much of the history covered in this book.

Remarkably for such a utilitarian artefact, the Dover Boat may also allow us a rare glimpse into the belief systems of the Bronze Age. Despite impressive monuments such as Stonehenge, we know little for certain about the nature of religion in British prehistory. We do not know when the concept of gods originated, how gods might have been worshipped or whether belief in a spirit world was dominant. One problem is that there were no stone-built temples or other places of worship that can be identified archaeologically; Stonehenge and the other great monuments of the Neolithic were probably still sacred places and served a ritual purpose but remain enigmatic. It is not until the arrival of the Romans that we know anything in detail of the gods and beliefs of the ancient Britons, with classical authors describing how worship happened in sacred groves, Julius Caesar's famous account of the Druids and the syncretism of local and Roman gods – for example, the water-god Sulis and the Roman god Minerva in Aquae Sulis, the sacred springs of Bath. Some aspects of prehistoric religion may have survived into early Christian practice in Britain, including veneration of the yew tree. The Druids are particularly interesting because they may have been shamans, and thus part of a belief system that originated with the early hunter-gatherers. Nevertheless, the successive waves of migration into Britain during prehistory means that there can be no certainty that the gods and beliefs observed by the Romans were similar to those two and a half thousand years earlier
when Stonehenge was first built, or a thousand years after that at the time of the Dover Boat.

A crucial period for the development of religion may have been the interface between the hunter-gatherer world of the Palaeolithic – the old Stone Age – and the settled agriculture of the Neolithic, between a belief system that may have been based on the idea of a parallel spirit world and one based on gods. Our evidence for the former comes from the extraordinary cave art of the upper Palaeolithic, showing animals sought by hunters and perhaps involving the agency of shamans. The idea that gods were a creation of the first settled communities – perhaps associated with the consolidation of power by the earliest priest-kings – may be seen in the site of Göbekli Tepe in southern Anatolia, a complex of circular enclosures dating to the ninth millennium
BC
with stone pillars that may be the earliest representations of gods. In Britain, the transition to agriculture was not followed by the rapid rise of urban civilisation as happened in the Near East, where the worship of gods became widespread. Instead, people continued to live much as they had in the millennia since the retreat of the glaciers, with belief systems that may have altered little from the final period of the Palaeolithic.

Some of the best evidence that we have for religion in Britain comes from changes in burial practice. The collective burials seen in the long barrows of the Neolithic gave way to a proliferation of smaller round barrows in the Bronze Age, places for individual or family use. These changes may reflect the arrival of new populations and also a shift from large-scale communal activities such as the construction of henges to a more individualistic society in which leaders of small communities would be the focus of economic success and power. The burial of bronze axes and weapons with those individuals shows not only the prestige value of such items – the scarcity of tin meant that bronze always had high value – but also a belief system in which favoured items bound up with the lives of those individuals went to the afterlife with them. The discovery of hordes or isolated items of bronze, sometimes broken or disabled in a way that suggests it was deliberate, may be further evidence of this practice. Whereas in the Palaeolithic the main portal to the spirit world may have been caves, by the Bronze Age it included the rivers and pools and marshland where these artefacts are often found. It may be that the reflection on the surface of the water elicited a sense of looking into the world
beyond, to a place where ancestors resided, and shamans may have had special access. The idea of sacred pools or wells to which offerings were made is well-documented in Norse literature and survived in Britain into recent times.

The possibility that the Dover Boat may have been deliberately ‘broken' and buried in the riverbed is suggested by the removal of the end-board and the upper planks, with the yew withies having been cut along both sides, and by the deliberate severing of one of the cleats holding the two lower timbers together. In all other respects the boat appears still to have been seaworthy and does not seem to have been abandoned while repairs were being carried out. A fascinating possibility is that it may have been disabled and buried as part of a funerary ritual for the boatbuilder and captain. Such a person would have had high status in the community, with the boat being their most prized item and the key to their prosperity beyond farming and fishing, and the boat may have accompanied him or her to the spirit-world with the timbers removed from the hull perhaps forming part of their cremation pyre. If so, the Dover Boat may be the earliest known in the tradition of boat burials that we see spectacularly evidenced in the sixth century
AD
royal ship burials at Sutton Hoo on the eastern coast of England and in the longship burials of Norse Scandinavia over the following centuries – discoveries that underline the significance of ships as conveyances for people and their belongings not just in this world but also the next.

Amazingly, the boat is not the only evidence for Bronze Age seafaring to have been found at Dover. On 14 August 1974, two members of the local sub-aqua club went diving in Langdon Bay, immediately off the eastern breakwater of the ferry terminal below the White Cliffs and about 2 kilometres from the site where the Dover Boat was to be found. They were exploring an area in 5 to 12 metres depth of flat chalk with eroded cracks and fissures where they had previously found artefacts including ammunition from the Second World War. Langdon Bay is a challenging place to dive – the seabed is covered with chalky silt that can reduce the visibility to a milky-white haze, and there are strong currents. To their great excitement they found a bronze axe in a gully, and by the end of the dive had found four more. The curator of the Dover Museum confirmed that they were prehistoric and encouraged the divers to continue the search. By the end of the
season they had found 86 artefacts, many of them of middle Bronze Age type.

That collection, as well as further finds made in the following year, were acquired in 1977 by the British Museum, whose initial study confirmed the importance of the assemblage and the near certainty that they represented a wreck. Keith Muckelroy, a research student at the University of Cambridge at the time, secured designation for the site under the Protection of Wrecks Act 1973 and carried out an excavation in 1978–80 that produced a further 94 artefacts. By the time of the last reported find from the site in 1990, a total of 361 had been recovered – making it the largest assemblage of bronze artefacts of the period excavated in Britain as well as the oldest shipwreck cargo known in north-west Europe. It includes 95 axes, 187 knives and longer blades and some 80 smaller ornaments and tools of uncertain use, many of them worn or broken at the time of their loss and therefore likely to have been carried as scrap cargo for their metal value alone.

Whereas the Dover Boat was dated from its stratigraphic location beneath Roman remains, by radiocarbon analysis of the wood and by dendrochronology, the dating of the Langdon Bay assemblage was dependent on artefact typology – another of the building blocks of archaeology, in this case resting on the idea that the forms of tools become more efficient through time. The axes that make up the largest component of the assemblage are one of the characteristic artefacts of the British Bronze Age, evolving from the flat axes of the early period through the flanged axes of the middle second millennium
BC
to the socketed axes of the late Bronze Age. The Langdon Bay assemblage includes so-called ‘palstaves', which were cast with flanges to keep the wooden haft in place and a side-loop for twine or rawhide to bind the head to the handle. As well as showing the common evolution of these forms over much of north-west Europe, itself a function of seafaring in spreading tools and technology over a wide area, typological research reveals small regional variations in shape and decoration that may represent cultural differences. In the case of the Langdon Bay assemblage, these show affinities with tools and weapons made in Continental Europe and suggest that the cargo may have originated in northern France.

With many of the items being worn or damaged it seems likely that this was a cargo destined for re-smelting, perhaps by a smith in Dover itself. Bronze smelting was an easier process than blacksmithing, with
the temperature required to melt copper and tin – about 900 degrees Celsius – being reached using a simple bellows and charcoal fire. Tools were made by pouring molten metal into moulds of clay, stone or bronze, with the castings then being quenched in water and hammered, polished and sharpened. Gold that was cold-hammered into ornaments and jewellery provided a form of portable wealth just as today, but it is in bronze that we see the greatest accumulated wealth of communities and their leaders – providing not only for utilitarian needs, but also prestige items for wealth display and ceremonial use, perhaps including the type of reciprocal exchange between chieftains that anthropologists first observed among the island communities of Melanesia and Polynesia in the Pacific.

The date of the Langdon Bay assemblage, about 1200
BC
, puts it some 350 years later than the Dover Boat, but it forms part of the same picture of cross-Channel trade in the Bronze Age and it is appropriate that the bronzes are displayed together with the boat in the museum in Dover; the axes also show the type of tools that were used to fell the timber and build the boat. An exciting addition to this picture came with the discovery of a second Bronze Age site off southern Britain in 1977. At Moor Sand, off Salcombe in Devon – some 370 kilometres west of Dover – divers found two beautiful bronze swords, of a type identified as originating in northern France or southern Germany and also dating to about 1200
BC
. These are among the oldest swords discovered in Britain and represent the earliest cross-Channel transport of these weapons, which were then copied and produced locally. Swords first appear in the seventeenth century
BC
in the Black Sea and Aegean region but do not become widespread in north-western Europe for another five hundred years. The reasons for this are open to speculation; by the time of the Dover Boat, it seems likely that seafarers from Britain would have come into contact with metal traders from the Mediterranean who may have had swords with them. One possibility is that they saw little use for swords, which were solely intended as weapons; spears could serve that purpose if necessary, while being mainly for hunting. It could be that warfare was not yet endemic in Britain and that the importation of weapons of war was resisted, opening up the fascinating idea that pacifism and ‘non-proliferation' may have been as much an aspiration in prehistory as it is today.

BOOK: A History of the World in Twelve Shipwrecks
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