McGrail, Seán Francis 1928-
McGRAIL, Seán Francis 1928-
PERSONAL: Born May 5, 1928; married Ursula Anne Yates, 1955; children: Frances, Mary, Catherine, Hugh. Education: University of Bristol, B.A., 1971; attended Institute of Archaeology, London, 1972-73; University College of London, Ph.D., 1978; Campion Hall, Oxford, M.A., 1987, D.Sc., 1989. Hobbies and other interests: Strategic gardening, real ale.
ADDRESSES: Office—Institute of Archaeology, 36 Beaumont Street, Oxford OX12PG, England.
CAREER: Professor of Maritime Archaeology; writer. National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, England, chief archaeologist and director of Archaeological Research Centre, 1976-86; Oxford University, Oxford, England, visiting professor of maritime archaeology, 1986-93; Danish National Museum Center for Maritime Archaeology, Roskilde, visiting professor, 1994; University of Haifa, Haifa, Israel, visiting professor, 1995; University of Southampton, visiting professor, 1991—. Department of National Heritage advisory committee on historic wrecks, member, 1974-98; Wardour Catholic Cemetery Trust, member, 1976—, treasurer, 1999—; Trust for Preservation of Oxford College Barges, vice chairman, 1987-95. Military service: British Royal Navy, 1946-68, served as seaman officer; became pilot, 1952; became master mariner.
(Editor) Sources and Techniques in Boat Archaeology: Papers Based on Those Presented to a Symposium at Greenwich in September, 1976, British Archaeological Reports (Oxford, England), 1977.
Logboats of England and Wales, with Comparative Material from European and Other Countries, British Archaeological Reports (Oxford, England), 1978.
(Editor) The Archaeology of Medieval Ships and Harbours in Northern Europe: Papers Based on Those Presented to an International Symposium on Boat and Ship Archaeology at Bremerhaven in 1979, British Archaeological Reports (Oxford, England), 1979.
(Prepared for publication) Paul Johnstone, The Sea-Craft of Prehistory, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 1980.
(Editor) The Brigg "Raft" and Her Prehistoric Environment, British Archaeological Reports (Oxford, England), 1981.
Rafts, Boats, and Ships from Prehistoric Times to the Medieval Era, H.M.S.O. (London, England), 1981.
Ancient Boats, Shire Publications (Aylesbury, England), 1983.
(Editor) Aspects of Maritime Archaeology and Ethnography: Papers Based on Those Presented to an International Seminar Held at the University of Bristol in March, 1982, Trustees of the National Maritime Museum (London, England), 1984.
(Editor, with John Coates) The Greek Trireme of the Fifth Century B.C.: Discussion of a Projected Reconstruction, National Maritime Museum (London, England), 1985.
(Editor, with Eric Kentley) Sewn Plank Boats: Archaeological and Ethnographic Papers Basedon Those Presented to a Conference at Greenwich in November, 1984, British Archaeological Reports (Oxford, England), 1985.
Ancient Boats in Northwest Europe: The Archaeology of Water Transport to A.D. 1500, Longman (New York, NY), 1987.
(Editor) Maritime Celts, Frisians, and Saxons: Papers Presented to a Conference at Oxford in November 1988, Council for British Archaeology (London, England), 1990.
Medieval Boat and Ship Timbers from Dublin, Royal Irish Academy (Dublin, Ireland), 1993.
Contributor of articles to archaeological and maritime journals, including Mariner's Mirror and South Asian Studies.
SIDELIGHTS: Seán McGrail is a visiting professor of maritime archaeology at the University of Southampton, England, and a master mariner. He has published over one hundred books and articles on maritime history, archaeology, and ethnography. "McGrail is Britain's leading authority on maritime archaeology," Basil Greenhill wrote in the Times Literary Supplement.
Before embarking on an academic career, McGrail spent twenty years serving in the Royal Navy. He was forty years old before he enrolled in the University of Bristol, receiving a bachelor of arts in math and history; he has since then gone on to study at the University of London and Oxford University, where he received graduate degrees. He began publishing in 1974 while at the National Maritime Museum, where he soon became head of the Archaeological Research Centre. McGrail has taught as a visiting professor at institutes all over the world, including at Oxford and in Denmark and Israel. For almost twenty years he worked on various prehistoric and medieval excavations in Norway, Denmark, Ireland, Britain, and the Orkney Islands; more recently, since 1994 he has been doing fieldwork in Bangladesh and around the east coast of India for the Society for South Asian Studies, part of the British Academy.
From the beginning, McGrail's work has been informed by his extensive experience with maritime matters gathered during his twenty years as a royal seaman; this insight is perhaps one of the reasons his research has always been at the forefront of his field. Aspects of Maritime Archaeology and Ethnography: Papers Based on Those Presented to an International Seminar Held at the University of Bristol in March, 1982,, which he edited in 1984, is a collection of essays by McGrail and other specialists from around the globe. Archaeologists, ethnographers, and historians presented papers and followed them with informal discussions—all of which are included in the collection. Greenhill, writing for Antiquaries Journal, called the book "a fascinating and stimulating report" that illuminates "the changes which have taken place in this increasingly scientific, multi-disciplinary part of the field of archaeological studies."
Ancient Boats in Northwest Europe: The Archaeology of Water Transport to A.D. 1500 is an example of McGrail's specialization. An exhaustive study of the history of boats that reaches from the Paleolithic era to the late Middle Ages, touching on Egyptian, Greek, and Roman maritime architecture, the book "will fascinate the general reader and inform the specialist," wrote Choice's C. C. Lamberg-Karlovsky. McGrail is careful to employ ethnographic analyses whenever possible, which makes the book more accessible, according to Lamberg-Karlovsky. Margaret Rule, though, writing for Antiquaries Journal, felt that McGrail's insider knowledge presented difficulties for some readers—especially on the issue of dating evidence and hypothesizing on it. Poor preservation and partial excavation can be misleading, she noted; "Professor McGrail, who knows the limitations, has assumed that his readers are similarly critical of the quality of evidence removed from underwater sites." Still, she wrote, "the book provides an essential and easily accessible synthesis of information." Greenhill gave it an even stronger recommendation in Antiquity, calling the book "outstanding, of an importance in its field rare in any single publication."
McGrail edited Maritime Celts, Frisians, and Saxons: Papers Presented to a Conference at Oxford in November 1988, a collection that also garnered critical acclaim for being at the forefront of the maritime ethnography field. English Historical Review's J. P. Maddicott discussed in detail some of the essays, including McGrail's contribution about prehistoric boats on the English Channel: "This is worth reading, among other reasons, for its demonstration that for trading purposes such boats were usually not docked, but beached on a falling tide and then unloaded." This observation draws some interesting parallels between Anglo-Saxon England and Iron Age England, Maddicott noted.
One of McGrail's more recent books, Boats of the World: From the Stone Age to Medieval Times, again drew acclaim for its masterly approach to the subject. "This is a remarkable tour-de-force on watercraft through history," wrote L. E. Babits in Choice. The book is based in an examination of the prehistory of rafts, boats, and ships, beginning with the Egyptian dynasties and tracing its way through the Middle East, the Mediterranean, Europe, Asia, Australia, and Oceania. McGrail's "knowledge of the complexities of boat construction shed light on a subject which can easily become obscured by technical detail," Greenhill wrote in the Times Literary Supplement. Still, McGrail is careful to explore the larger ethnographic context. "A boat is part of an economic, social, cultural and geographical complex," Greenhill wrote. "It helps to unravel that complex if there is an understanding of the ways in which the people who built and used her lived and thought." McGrail reminds the reader that maritime transportation has played a large and important role in the early development of civilizations, providing trading routes and allowing for a broader system of communication and exploration. He also touches on the importance of examining modern-day pre-industrial societies that still employ rafts and boats as main means for transportation. A successfully comprehensive and integrated study, Boats of the World, as Greenhill wrote, "shows how McGrail's approach to his subject has broadened and deepened."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Antiquaries Journal, 1986, Basil Greenhill, review of Aspects of Maritime Archaeology and Ethnography: Papers Based on Those Presented to an International Seminar Held at the University of Bristol in March, 1982, p. 135; 1988, Margaret Rule, review of Aspects of Maritime Archaeology and Ethnography, pp. 337-338.
Antiquity, November, 1987, Basil Greenhill, review of Ancient Boats in Northwest Europe: The Archaeology of Water Transport to A.D. 1500, pp. 483-484.
Choice, July, 1987, C. C. Lamberg-Karlovsky, review of Ancient Boats in Northwest Europe, p. 1728; November, 2002, L. E. Babits, review of Boats of the World: From the Stone Age to Medieval Times, p. 526.
English Historical Review, September, 1994, J. R. Maddicott, review of Maritime Celts, Frisians, and Saxons: Papers Presented to a Conference at Oxford in November 1988, pp. 985-986.
Journal of Roman Studies, 1994, volume 84, Heinrich Harke, review of Maritime Celts, Frisians, and Saxons, pp. A329-331.
Times Literary Supplement, August 2, 2002, Basil Greenhill, review of Boats of the World, p. 29.
Oxford University Press Web site,http://www.oup-usa.org/ (May 29, 2003).
University of Southampton Archaeology Department Web site,http://www.arch.soton.ac.uk/ (May 29, 2003), "Seán McGrail."*