British Boats of the Roman Era and their possible survivals:
a preliminary sketch
Edwin Deady 2003
The Romans came by sea and they moved goods around Britain by water. This paper will examine the types of inshore and inland craft available to the Romans and their methods of construction as well as including some reference to open sea examples.
Frank Lloyd Wright truly said that form follows function. Boats are a very special case of this truism, available materials and skills are the elements that determine what particular form will evolve to fulfil a specific function and will affect the how well that function is performed.
At the start of the Roman era in Britain there were examples of native skin craft and dugouts, I have sketched impressions each. The upper, skin Currach, is after the sort built as an experiment by Peter Faulkner using only hazel, willow and rough cured cow's hide, the lower dugout is drawn from the Finnish Rus-Project experiment. Flat or scow-ended examples are known from UK Bronze and Iron Age periods, as are more elaborate sewn-plank boats such as the Ferriby series.
top: Basketwork skin-covered currach
bottom: Dugout log canoe
(also known as the "The Civil War")
Caesar in Spain
When Sicoris kept his banks, the shallop light
Of hoary willow bark they build, which bent
On hides of oxen, bore the weight of man
And swam the torrent. Thus on sluggish Po
Venetians float; and on th' encircling sea (8)
150 Are borne Britannia's nations;...
The essentials of a skin boat are the frame and the covering. Barry Cunliffe and others have pointed out that the settlements of the Iron Age inhabitants in the pre-Roman era resembled nothing so much as a collection of greater and lesser baskets. Evidence of wickerwork to support this has been found at Flag Fen, for example. Leather working is known from bog deposits where actual example of leather has been found. It is also possible that lighter craft with textile coverings might have been used as the weaving skills were certainly present and so were the means to make a waterproofing tree sap based tar. The 19th Century Welsh coracle of flannel and tar was supposed to be half the weight of a hide covered version (Geraint Jenkins, Nets and Coracles).
The Currach, also known as Curragh, Navog and Dingle Canoe, is of a “proper" boat shape with a length to width ratio of about 5:1 while the coracle is almost round or, at best, oblong.
The performance of these craft has also been tested in real life fishing and farming operations in Ireland (Mac Cullagh, The Irish Currach Folk) and in reproductions (Moffat, The Sea Kingdoms). The essence of both coracle and Currach is that they are sea-kindly and responsive. Trying out a hide-covered coracle built with the help of Peter Faulkner I found this to be true. Easily upset, they may be turned more easily than a canoe although one would want the aid of a river current to travel any distance.
While a suitably trussed cow may be carried in a Currach to an offshore island and four people are known to have been ferried across the River Severn at one time standing up in a coracle to carry serious amounts of freight the Romans would have needed to find or introduce sturdier more burdensome craft. The possible native and introduced vessels of log and plank construction will be outlined in the next section.
The gold model of a possible skin boat "Currach" is part of a hoard unearthed by a farmer's plough in 1896 in town land at Broighter on Lough Foyle near Derry.
Pictish inscriptions include the Weymiss cave image.
Picture of the inscription has been coloured to enhance features.
The impression that Njall of the Nine Hostages' Currach may have given on a raiding expedition in the crucial years of the early 5th Century.
(Picture from "Seals and the Currach" by RM Lockley Dent 1954)
A modern version of the ancient skin covered Currach in action
Peter Faulkner (standing in pink shirt) commanding the cowhide Currach built by himself.
Coracles at Newbury Show 2002.
Built by Peter Faulkner.
The sea-going boats
"They have flat bottoms which enables them to sail in shallow coastal water. Their high bows and sterns protect them from heavy seas and violent storms, as do their strong hulls made entirely from oak. The cross-timbers -- beams a foot wide -- are secured with iron nails as thick as a man's thumb. Their anchors are secured with chains not ropes, while their sails are made of raw hide or thin leather, so as to stand up to the violent Atlantic winds." (Johnstone, The Sea-Craft of Prehistory)
"This Roman ship was discovered by Peter Marsden in 1962 in the bed of the River Thames, off Blackfriars in the City of London, and excavated in 1962-1963. The ship was a wreck that lay about 120 metres from the Roman shore at the southwest corner of the Roman city of Londinium.
The construction of the ship was dated to about AD 150 by dendrochronology,...The wreck was about 14m long and 6.5m wide, and comprised the bottom and parts of the collapsed sides of a Romano-Celtic ship. The vessel was built of oak (Quercus) and had no keel, but instead two broad keel-planks. A stempost lay at the bow and a sternpost at the stern. The planks were carvel laid and fastened by large iron nails to oak frames - massive floor-timbers in the bottom, and lighter side-frames at the sides"
The inland boats
The sequence of examples for the expanded logboat form may be seen in the Hjortspring, Nydam and "Viking" boats from Scandinavia. For Britain we have the Ferriby series and the Dover Bronze Age Boat. Survivals of the native type can be seen in such boats as the Severn Salmon Punt with its three strong bottom planks joined by through iron bolts. It is also interesting to note the fact ( Albany Major, The Early Wars of Wessex) that there is a range of boats peculiar to Southern England that seem to offer a combination of Celtic and Northern European thinking. The Parret Turf Boat and the Combwich Flatner from Somerset are similar to the boats along the South Coast that have flat or slightly dished bottoms made up of three cross-joined planks and are double-ended with overlapping (clinker) side planks.
The Ferriby boats. Remains of three boats on the same place in the Humber. Discovered by Ted Wright between 1937 and 1962. Constructed of planks stitched together. According to new analysis in 2001 the oldest is dated to c 2030 BC (formerly dated to ca 1500-1700 BC). According to the older analysis the youngest boats are dated to c 800-1100 BC. Reconstruction drawing of Ferriby I by Axel Nelson. Construction detail of Ferriby I, by Axel Nelson.
Ref: British Museum Encyclopaedia of Underwater and Maritime Archaeology
Illustration (Majors, Early Wars of Wessex) showing the possible combined features of the Celtic and Northern European boat building styles.
Note the flat-bottom and the three overlapping strakes for the sides.
As an interim and to get a thing that will float why not build a Romano-Celtic river craft? The nice thing is that as long as you keep it in proportion it can be any size you want, afford, can transport.
Simplest punt is this one the Charleston Bateau
The key to the "celtic" construction, as in the bateau, are planks heavily nailed to timbers and through them with the nail turned over and driven back in. Planks for sides are flush not overlapped. cross bottom timbers with separate timbers nailed to planks. Seams luted with linen thread or moss and beeswax or resinn(can be mixed) for authentic or modern sealant for efficiency. Hand forged nails perhaps.
Illustration in Osprey Late Roman Infantryman "Plate G Special Operations Rhine crossing"
One function and possible form for the "grain tax boats"
Floating Volume in cubic feet multiplied by the weight of a cubic foot of water, 62.5 lbs.
Raftery, Pagan Celtic Ireland.
The flush or carvel oak planks can be seen with an indication of the mortice and peg plank fastenings at the ends.
Another possibility for grain carrying, a version of the Severn Salmon Long Net Punt, note the three plank cross-joined flat bottom.
See: www.salmonboats.co.uk Only the 15 foot mid-section has been recovered but was this the type of boat that fed the taxes from villa to collecting fort, that journeyed across the Wiltshire Downs from Chiseldon to Cunetio? We have no idea of the boatmen but in the fourth-century they might have been composed of tough, time-expired veteran auxiliaries from the Rhine poling downstream with spears they would be ready to use.
Head of reproduction Angon, were these used to defend the vital grain shipments?
They have been found in early Anglo-Saxon graves (Swanton, Spearheads of the Anglo-Saxon Settlements)
Jouneys and safe havens ?
The strand below Tintagel, a possible beach landing area for late Roman era and Dark Age trade.
River Og, a possible grain route from Chiseldon to the River Kennet and Cunetio.
Taken from the bridge near Wetpit in Ogbourne St. Andrew.
See: The Og website
Where the grain tax boats may have docked at Littlecote, Berkshire, on the River Kennet.
(Ellis, Roman Wiltshire and After)
|Peter Ellis ed||Roman Wiltshire and After||WANHS||2001|
|J. Geraint Jenkins||Nets and Coracles||David and Charles||1974|
|Paul Johnstone T||he Sea-Craft of Prehistory||Routledge||1980|
|Richard Mac Cullagh||The Irish Currach Folk||Wolfhound Press||1992|
|Eric McKee||Working Boats of Britain||Conway||1983|
|Shaum McGrail et al||The Earliest Ships|
Conway History of the Ship
|Albany Major||Early Wars of Wessex||Blandford Press||1978|
|Alistair Moffat||The Sea Kingdoms||Harper Collins||2001|
|Barry Raftery||Pagan Celtic Ireland||Thames and Hudson||1994|
|M J Swanton||TheSpearheads of the Anglo-Saxon Settlements||RAI||1973|
|Richard Underwood||Anglo-Saxon Weapons And Warfare||Tempus||1999|
|Joan du Plat Taylor & Henry Cleere (editors)||Roman Shipping and Trade: Britain and the Rhine Province |
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