An ancient boat discovered buried at the edge of the River Humber in Yorkshire, North East England, was the model for a replica vessel built over the last twelve months in Cornwall using tools presumed to be used at the time, The replica has just been completed and is due to be launched tomorrow (March 6th). Whether it will sink or float is the subject of much debate amongst the large number of people involved in the reconstruction.
The vessel is an open timber boat made from oak planks and ribs, attached together with pliable sticks that were woven together. The boat dates back to an era when the metal bronze was already being made, but there were no iron nails capable of fixing ribs over the planks. The gaps between the planks have been plugged or caulked, to use the boatbuilding term, with tallow and moss.
The whole project has been the brainchild of historians and archaeologists drawn from a number of countries, including Norway, France and Turkey, as well as representatives from the University of Exeter, where the replica has been under construction.
The original design was thought to be unique to the British Isles and as far as is known was one of the earliest of seagoing vessels ever to be discovered being used regularly. The boats were used throughout the larger river systems of England and Ireland and were thought to be capable of carrying up to 20 people who would have sat astride wooden thwarts, or large planks positioned from one side to the other inside the boat. These people would have had to paddle the boats up and down the rivers and even across the Irish Sea between England and Ireland carrying up to 4 tons of cargo. They were thought to have been used especially in the trade for precious metals like copper and tin, used in the making of bronze.
The only three boats to be discovered showed no clear evidence of how the planks and other timber components were sewn together or caulked and it has been a steep learning curve for the replica team. They have been busy experimenting with using yew withies, which are the young branches from the yew tree. The trick was to get the withies fine and supple enough to be used to hold the oak planks together without falling to bits. The actual hull was less of a mystery, as much of the original boat was found intact. The replica was built using two huge oak trees, felled for the purpose. The wider, lower part of the trees served as the keel, with the rest being cut into planks, ribs and stringers, quite painstakingly, using Bronze Age style axes and knives.
The actual caulking was also something of a mystery and it is presumed that the materials used in the replica construction were the ones used in the Bronze Age boats, i.e. tallow and moss, with beeswax to finish off the sealing of gaps which could potentially sink the boats once immersed in water.
The proof of this particular prehistoric maritime pudding will be tested at the launching tomorrow at Falmouth Water Sports Centre.