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“By Way of the Sea: Exploring a Bronze Age maritory in NW Europe” by Peter Clark

Peter Clark and Professor Anne Lehoërff present the results of recent research into ‘one of the great archaeological discoveries of the twentieth century’; a perfectly preserved Bronze Age boat, now known to be one of the earliest sea-going boats in the world.

“By Way of the Sea: Exploring a Bronze Age maritory in NW Europe” by Peter Clark BA MIfA FSA Scot, Canterbury Archaeological Trust and Anne Lehoërff, University of Lille 3.  Recorded at the Royal Society of Edinburgh on 12 January 2015.

It was 1992. In France, people were celebrating the opening of the new Disneyland in Paris, whilst in Belgium, citizens mourned the passing of Peyo, creator of the Smurfs. In England, workmen were building a new road through the heart of Dover, destined to be a link between the ancient port and the Channel Tunnel, which, when it opened just two years later, was to be the first land link between Britain and the continent for over 10,000 years. Archaeologists working alongside the roadbuilders seized the chance of a pause in construction work to inspect the base of a deep shaft being dug for a drainage pump. There, six metres below the modern street, they found what has been described as ‘one of the great archaeological discoveries of the twentieth century’; a perfectly preserved Bronze Age boat, now known to be one of the earliest sea-going boats in the world.

The boat has been radiocarbon dated to 1,550 BC, and the technological sophistication of its design is astonishing to modern eyes. Built of thick planks hewn from half-trunks of oak, carefully carved to leave upstanding cleats and rails to receive a complicated system of wedges and transverse timbers that joined the two flat bottom planks together, curving side planks were then stitched to the bottom using twisted withies of yew; the sides were literally sewn onto the bottom. With no keel plank, the seams between the timbers were made watertight using moss, held in place by thin laths of oak hammered under the wedges and yew stitches. The holes through the timbers for the stitches were sealed with a mixture of beeswax and animal fat. Sealed beneath 6 metres of overburden for millennia, preservation was so good that the species of moss could still be identified, and even the marks of the tools used by the Bronze Age shipwrights could clearly be seen.

A frantic race to rescue the boat immediately followed its discovery, as the fragile timbers started to decay on exposure to oxygen. In the end, a nine metre length of the vessel was recovered, around 2.3m wide, but cut into 32 pieces to allow its retrieval by crane from the bottom of the deep, narrow shaft. Following conservation by the Mary Rose Trust in Portsmouth, the boat pieces returned to Dover in 1998, where they were painstakingly re-assembled at Dover Museum, where the boat took pride of place in an award-winning new gallery opened in November 1999, just in time for the new millennium. Of the millions of people who travel through Dover on their way to and from the continent, few pause to visit Dover itself, unaware that this modest port is home to one of the great archaeological treasures of the world.

The Dover Bronze Age boat is a hugely important testimony to the technical skills of our Bronze Age ancestors and the history of water transport and sea travel. But it is also symbolic of the voyages that once were made; the experts studying the vessel had to ask what was the boat used for? How far did it travel, and what distant shores did it visit? The boat did not have a cargo when it was found; it seems to have been deliberately abandoned and broken up in the shallow fresh waters of the ancient river in Dover. However, lying on the bottom of the boat was a small piece of shale that might give a clue to where it travelled to; laboratory analysis showed that it originated from Kimmeridge Bay in Dorset, some 220km (120 nautical miles) to the west. This might make sense, as the raw materials for making bronze only exist in the far west of Britain; all the bronze in south-east England had to be imported over long distances and perhaps it was boats like that from Dover that were used for this.

Another possibility is the boat crossed the channel to the western coast of mainland Europe. Since the discovery of the boat, commercial archaeology in England, north-western France and western Belgium has unearthed more and more evidence that material culture was very similar on both sides of the channel during the Bronze Age; people lived in the same kinds of houses, used the same types of tools and pottery, buried their dead with the same rites and ceremonies. It seems that there was a community along both coasts that was held together by the sea, rather than being separated by it as we perceive things today.

It was this intriguing possibility that brought together a group of archaeologists from France, Belgium and England in 2011 to form an international project to explore this new evidence of a common cultural heritage and present the results to the public – ‘Boat 1550 BC’. Part-funded by the European Union, the project mounted a major exhibition of the new finds in the three countries, set up a major educational programme in schools in the region, and built a half-scale replica of the Dover Bronze Age boat as a symbol of these ancient Bronze Age cross-channel connections.

The replica of the boat was built by a team led by the ancient woodworking specialist Richard Darrah early in 2012. This was an important piece of experimental archaeology, firmly based on the archaeological evidence but requiring some speculation, as not all of the original boat was recovered. The finished replica is about 9m long, 1m broad amidships, and weighs around a tonne. A huge amount of new information about ancient techniques of boat building through this exercise, and though the vessel had a few teething troubles when she was first launched, these were eventually resolved and the boat made its first sea voyage off the coast of Dover in September 2013.

The boat is now berthed in Dover Marina thanks to the generosity of Dover Harbour Board and is taken out each weekend by an enthusiastic amateur crew; she also appears at various public events and regattas in the southeast, and next year it is hoped she will return to the continent to appear in the Ghent regatta in Belgium and ‘La Fête de la Mer’ in Boulogne-sur-Mer, France. This paper will describe the origins, results and implications of the ‘Boat 1550 BC’ project, which came to an end in June 2014, as well as exploring its legacy for future research.

Generously supported by Sir Angus Grossart QC CBE DL LLD DLitt FRSE FSA Scot