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.

Basketwork skin-covered currach and Dugout log canoeAt 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


One of the earliest mentions of coracles is in The History of Herodotus, written about 424 BC. The Greek historian describes boats round like a shield travelling down the river to Babylon. Descended from vessels described by Roman writers, coracles have been used in Great Britain (Wales, Scotland and Ireland) for centuries. In an account Julius Caesar writes of ocean-going currachs with sails that roved the North Atlantic. In the sixth century St. Brendan may have journeyed to America in a Currach and the Dalriadans fought fleet actions with Currachs.

(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 skin boat will almost never have left any direct evidence of its existence in the archaeological record. We do have circumastantial physical evidence to support their existence as well as literary references and there is a wealth of post-Roman literary evidence for the use of both large and small boats made of wickerwork and covered with hide. We do, have archaeological evidence that the inhabitants of Britain did have the means to make the sort of boats they are recorded as using.

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.

Gold model of possible skin boat 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 Pictish inscriptions include the Weymiss cave image.

Picture of the inscription has been coloured to enhance features.

Njall of the Nine Hostages Currach 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)

Currach A modern version of the ancient skin covered Currach in action

Currach Peter Faulkner (standing in pink shirt) commanding the cowhide Currach built by himself.

Coracles Coracles at Newbury Show 2002.
Built by Peter Faulkner.

(My photograph)


Wood is a versatile and strong material and may be used to build a heavy vessel capable of weathering violent storms far out at sea and to build light boats capable of using the smallest streams with a minimal draught.

The sea-going boats

There were Channel-sailing Celtic ships. Julius Caesar recorded direct experiences of heavy-planked boats when conducting naval operations against the Veneti.
"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)
We do have an example of a Roman period ship built in the "Celtic" manner described above and used for cargo carrying, the Blackfriars boat.
"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 mast-step was a rectangular socket in a transverse floor-timber about one-third of the length of the vessel from the bow, and in the bottom of the step was a votive Roman Ship

The inland boats

As well as the heavy timbered "Celtic" style boat there is a long history in Britain of the logboat and of planked boats developed form the original type. Then simple log that is hollowed out to make a canoe can make an efficient and useful craft but its dimensions, particularly its breadth, are limited by the size of the original tree-trunk. There are several ways of overcoming this. The outrigger option common in Oceania and the Far East seems not to have been adopted in the West. The choices of development in the West appear to be between building up and expanding the sides of the logboat or of splitting the hollowed out log and inserting a middle plank making a flat-bottomed boat with very strong "girders" formed from the split halves of the log.

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.
Build your own Roman-Celtic boat

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"

To use the small canals and canalised rivers and small berths provisionally identified at Chiseldon, Wiltshire and Littlecote a particular kind of boats would be needed. It should probably be not more than 4-5 feet wide or 15 feet long in order to negotiate the small streams leading to the Kennet. The draught couldn't exceed more than about six inches. Such a boat could carry a useful payload discovered by the formula:
Floating Volume in cubic feet multiplied by the weight of a cubic foot of water, 62.5 lbs.
Thus 15x5x.5x62.5=2343 lbs which is nearly a ton. Craft carrying half or three-quarters of a ton would still be a better proposition than trying to carry the equivalent load on the roads. There is no reason why a string of "butties" could not have been used with one crew for them all. There is one example from Ireland that may be of Roman origin and matches our specifications and could have been introduced as the "type" boat for small-scale grain transport. This is the Lough Lene Boat, burdensome but light and of Mediterranean Carvel construction. Although an unlikely place to find a Roman boat, there was trade between Ireland and the Empire (Raftery, Pagan Celtic Ireland).

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: 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.
(My photograph)

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 edRoman Wiltshire and AfterWANHS2001
J. Geraint JenkinsNets and CoraclesDavid and Charles1974
Paul Johnstone The Sea-Craft of PrehistoryRoutledge1980
Richard Mac CullaghThe Irish Currach FolkWolfhound Press1992
Eric McKeeWorking Boats of BritainConway1983
Shaum McGrail et alThe Earliest Ships
Conway History of the Ship
Albany Major Early Wars of Wessex Blandford Press1978
Alistair MoffatThe Sea KingdomsHarper Collins2001
Barry RafteryPagan Celtic IrelandThames and Hudson1994
M J SwantonTheSpearheads of the Anglo-Saxon SettlementsRAI1973
Richard Underwood Anglo-Saxon Weapons And WarfareTempus1999
Joan du Plat Taylor & Henry Cleere (editors)Roman Shipping and Trade: Britain and the Rhine Province
(available online)

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