Boats and Boatbuilding

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Archaeologists recovered a great deal of information during the last half of the twentieth century concerning the variety of boats used in central and northern Europe c. a.d. 400–1000. Detailed practical studies also have been carried out regarding the methods, tools, and materials used to build boats and ships at this time. The level of study of the material and its geographic spread is very uneven, however; the larger planked craft of southern Scandinavia are fairly well known, but the important shipbuilding traditions to the south, east, and west are far less well known or studied. This essay deals mainly with small boats and boatbuilding but also draws attention to the lesser known larger ships of the Angles, Saxons, Frisians, Slavs, Celts, and others.

Dugout boats, between 2.5 and 7 meters long, were the most common small boats in early medieval central and northern Europe, and many survive in museums across the Continent. Indeed, it is clear that in countries where systematic surveys have been conducted, such as the British Isles, most dated dugout boat finds belong to this early medieval period. The variety of early medieval dugout vessels built in Britain and central Europe was considerable, reflecting local peasant boatbuilding traditions, the function of the craft, and the locally available trees. Most vessels were built from large whole or halved oak trunks between about 0.6 and 1.0 meters in diameter. By the end of the early medieval period in the tenth and eleventh centuries, it is clear that the very highest quality large oak trees were out of reach to small dugout boatbuilders in some intensively settled regions, such as England and Denmark. The best trees were reserved for building the large, high-status planked ships, such as the ninth-century long ship from Hedeby, Jutland. The low status of dugout vessels also is indicated by the lack of historical and pictorial sources for them. On the western fringes of Europe, in parts of Britain and Ireland, it is thought that skin-covered boats ("coracles" and more elongated "curraghs") were used, but the archaeological evidence for them is slight. It also is very likely that rafts were used on some inland waterways where light pines, firs, and spruces grew, in montane central Europe and northern areas.

Detailed experimental work has been done in England in the field of building small early medieval dugout boats (fig. 1), following detailed analysis of evidence, such as surviving tool marks and the trees used. It is clear that such craft were built with axes, adzes, and splitting techniques to remove the waste wood, rather than by fire hollowing. It has been discovered that fire was used in building some dugout vessels, as a means of softening the timber of thin hulls to expand them, as is still done in some parts of the world today. The wider shape, with uplifted ends, produced by this extraordinary process provided a more seaworthy, capacious shape than can be carved from a single log, and it often was extended upward with the use of overlapping planking. It is clear that this method was employed throughout the early medieval period in some areas, such as northwestern Germany, Denmark, England, and the Netherlands and probably elsewhere. An early example of an expanded dugout boat with one added plank on each side is the Vaaler Moor boat from northwestern Germany.

Use of replica craft and desk-based studies have shown that these often humble boats had a key role in developing the early medieval economy in lands with poor roads. They must have been used for expected purposes, such as ferrying, local travel of small numbers of people, fishing, fowling, and hunting, but many also were capable of carrying the equivalent of cart or packhorse loads of local produce or traded goods. For example, the 3.75-meter-long, Clapton boat, dating to the tenth century a.d. and found in London, could carry a crew and as much as 110 kilograms of cargo.

Larger cargo craft based on dugout hulls expanded by fire, extended by planks, and fitted with frames also were used in the Low Countries and around the southern North Sea region. These craft appear to have been known as "hulcs"; tenth-century fragments of such a seagoing trading vessel from the Low Countries were found in London. The most complete inland version of this type of vessel can be seen in Utrecht in the Netherlands. The overlapping planks of the upper hulls were waterproofed in a distinctive manner, with moss held in place by battens secured with small iron staples (sintels).

Most large trading, fishing, and war vessels that were built in early medieval northern Europe, however, were made in the clinker-planked "keel" style ("lapstrake"). In this case, a shell of partially overlapping planks was fastened to a central beam (also a "keel") and end posts to form a hull pointed at both ends. The planks were split out of large trees rather than sawn, as in Roman vessels. The use of clinker planks with light frames certainly also was employed late in this period for some quite small boats, such as the 4-meter-long, tenth-century Arby boat from central Sweden.

In the Slav and Baltic lands to the east of Scandinavia and in England to the west, local styles of clinker shipbuilding developed both before and after contact with the Vikings. In both regions the use of wooden pegs ("treenails") to fasten the overlapping boards commonly is found alongside rather heavier frame timbers than were used in the Scandinavian craft. Perhaps the most thoroughly investigated non-Scandinavian-built planked vessel of this period is the Graveney boat, dating to the tenth or eleventh century, which was a small trading vessel. This craft was found in northern Kent in southeastern England in 1970 and had a fairly flat, but rounded bottom with a straight, sloping stern post and an original length of some 14 to 15 meters. Fragments of craft built in the same broad style have been found in London, reused in riverside construction during the tenth century.

Other traditions of planked vessel construction will undoubtedly emerge in the coming years with increasingly systematic archaeological work being carried out on land, sea, and the intertidal zone. One of these new finds being studied in detail is the Port-Berteau II wreck from the Charente River in southwestern France. In this vessel the planking was laid edge to edge, in the manner of carvel-built ships from later medieval times. The boat may even have been built frame first, rather than with framing added to a planked shell, as was typical farther north—even though it initially was dated well before a.d. 1000.

See alsoTrackways and Boats (vol. 1, part 4); Viking Ships (vol. 2, part 7).


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