This book covers the relatively new specialization of water transport in archaeology. It is a delightful and informative book that is illustrated throughout with single colour sketches and photographs. Water transport has been curiously under-covered, even though it was of vital importance to developing civilizations and continues to be important today. This is a book that should be widely read because it recounts the way in which water and water transport has shaped human development. Highly recommended.
NAME: Early Ships and Seafaring, European Water Transport
AUTHOR: Sean McGrail
PUBLISHER: Pen & Sword
BINDING: hard back
GENRE: Non Fiction
SUBJECT: Stone Age, Mediterranean, Atlantic Europe, Medieval, Britain, Romans, Saxons, Vikings, Normans, sea levels, maritime geography, navigation, ship design, ship construction, oars, sails, trade vessels, warships
DESCRIPTION: This book covers the relatively new specialization of water transport in archaeology. It is a delightful and informative book that is illustrated throughout with single colour sketches and photographs. Water transport has been curiously under-covered, even though it was of vital importance to developing civilizations and continues to be important today. This is a book that should be widely read because it recounts the way in which water and water transport has shaped human development. Highly recommended.
As archaeology continues to develop, and be supported by an increasing array of forensic and recording equipment, the history of man stretches further back in time. Until very recently, man’s understanding of his history was based on folk lore and religious texts that suggested a species with less than 10,000 years of history. Isolated discoveries have pushed back human history hundreds of thousands of years before that point and produced some very surprising finds. Over this significantly longer period of the Earth’s history there have been many changes to climate, sea levels, location of landmass, position and size of human habitation. In this growing volume of data, there are also signs of advanced civilizations in places and periods when it was previously thought that nothing existed. Archaeologists have also uncovered artefacts that strongly question previous assumptions, such as the electric battery that was discovered at an ancient site in the Middle East. The next challenge is in considering what this means. A simple but effective electric battery could have been used for many things, including uses that modern man has yet to discover.
What has become clear is that water transport is an ancient form of movement and is likely to have predated the use of pack and riding animals, and the use of sledges and wheeled transport. The assumption is that man started by taking rides on trees that were being washed along rivers and across lakes. From that opportunistic use of water transport, man learned to improve the shape of trees to move more efficiently in water, and to provide safer and more comfortable transport by hollowing out a tree trunk that had been shaped at bow and stern. It is known that simple societies are able to construct these canoe-like vessels, where size is limited by the size of available trees, and where the use of fire and stone axe can shape the vessel. There are still parts of the world where simple societies exist and where they employ these methods of boat construction. It is reasonable to assume that these skills date far back into pre-history, but the use of wood in this may mean that it is very rare to discover an ancient boat built in this way. If remains are discovered and dated to a particular point in pre-history, there is a probability that an even older example will be discovered in the future and our accepted wisdom of the course of history will re-examined.
Professor McGrail has provided a very helpful format that introduces the reader to the relatively recent archaeological discipline of studying water transport and shows how the earliest known vessels were built and operated without navigational instruments. He then opens the discussion up, considering geological and climate changes with the heart of his text taking focus on the Mediterranean and Atlantic Europe.
There is still much to discover and there is still a jumble of ‘finds’ that require further investigation and testing. The author has assembled convincing facts that present a comprehensive and accurate picture of early European boat building as it is known today.
It is now known that the Vikings crossed oceans and established settlements in North America. It is also known that they sailed down the rivers from the Baltic to the Mediterranean, but there are indications that they sailed much further. The Romans, Greeks and Egyptians voyaged around the Mediterranean and the Black Sea, but there are indications that they also travelled much further and the Egyptians may have sailed the Indian Ocean and voyaged even to the Pacific. The Vikings also took their ships across land between river systems and across narrow land masses. Where the distance between water was longer, or the terrain more challenging, than they could conveniently move their ships, they carried on across the land and built new ships at the next waterway. It is not surprising that very few Viking ships have yet been discovered.
Navigation is another area that leaves unanswered questions. The discovery by divers in the Mediterranean of an ancient shipwreck produced the surprising find of a mechanical computer that appears to have been an advanced navigational instrument. The Vikings used a number of navigation aids, including the compass and the sun wheel. The use of these instruments is now well understood. What is not understood is the Viking sun stone and there has been active debate as to whether it really existed or is just an item of folk law. If it existed, its form is unknown and there is no knowledge of what it was, or how it worked.
At the end of this book, the reader will take away a greatly enhanced understanding of the early ships and how they were sailed, together with an idea of how to spot ancient remains. There will also be a better understanding of how much is yet to be discovered.