Northern ships before the Romans
It is a remarkable fact that, apart from ships still actually in use, the farther we go back from our own days the more we know of Northern shipping from actual remains. For the eighteenth century the Victory is almost our only direct evidence. Between her date and the days of the Vikings the known remains of ships might be counted on the fingers of one hand: for the Viking period we should have to use both hands; for earlier days still quite an imposing list might be made.
To some extent this must be due to the fact that remains of very early vessels would have had more time to get deeply buried before natural changes and the increase of cultivation and of building made it likely that they would be disturbed. Their smaller size would have the same effect. Again, the fact that they were made of a single log of wood naturally gave them more chance of being preserved in recognizable condition than the more complicated, and therefore more fragile, vessels of later times. Whatever the reason for this survival of very early craft, it is a fortunate thing, since it gives us first-hand evidence for vessels of which we should otherwise know little or nothing.
Without going deeply into the question of how or where men first began to transport themselves by water without swimming, it is safe to say that there are at least four distinct kinds of primitive craft: the reedbundle boat, the coracle, or skin boat, the raft, and the dug-out canoe. All of these may still be found in use in various parts of the world. The first is not likely to have been used to any great extent in the North, because of the lack of really suitable material, but the dug-out and the coracle were certainly in use before the Roman invasion.
Naturally it is the dug-outs that have been preserved . No doubt these began as simple logs on which
the earliest navigators sat. Finding by accident that a hollow log would carry more than a sound one of the same size, or perhaps copying some other hollow object that floated well, men began to scoop out logs, and thus produced dug-outs such as they still use in most primitive countries.
One of the finest specimens of a Northern European dug-out that has yet been discovered was found in 1886 at Brigg in Lincolnshire and is now in the Museum at Hull (Fig. 24). When found, before it began to warp and shrink as the wood dried, it was about 48 feet long and 4 feet 6 inches wide. The oak-tree from which it was made must have been quite 6 feet thick and nearly 50 feet from the ground to its lowest branches—much bigger than any that grow in this country now. Probably it had become partly hollow from decay. The lower end of the trunk, quite close to the root, was used for the stern, and the builders went just beyond the first two branches for the bow. These two branches left knots, which fell out and made it necessary to cut plugs for the holes.
At the bow the tree was sound enough to let the boat be finished off by leaving the wood as it was, but at the stern she had to be closed off by a separate board, which fitted into a groove cut all round the part hollowed out (Fig. 25). The joint was packed, or 'caulked,' with moss, and two holes were cut in the projecting sides of the boat to take a lashing which would
hold the sides together and thus keep the stern-board in place. Other holes were cut along the sides, and by means of lashings through these and cross-pieces of wood between them the sides were prevented from falling either inward or outward.
Either from an accident or from a natural crack in the tree there was a split on one side of the boat. The way in which this had been repaired is perhaps the most interesting point about this Brigg boat. Having nothing in the way of nails or bolts, these early shipwrights worked up a thick piece of wood into the shape shown in Fig. 26, something like the wooden part of a blacklead brush with three handles instead of one. They put this on the outside of the boat with the handles through the crack, caulked the joint with moss, stuck wooden pins through the handles on the inside to hold the patch firmly in place, and finally sewed the whole thing to the boat with leather thongs passing through small holes bored through the boat and all round the edge of the patch. With the same tools and materials it would be difficult to think of a better way of doing the job.
Canoes of very much the same kind have been found in many places, particularly at Glasgow and at Bremen in Germany. Most of them are much smaller than the Brigg boat, being about ten or fifteen feet long, or even less. Two that come near her in size are those found in the Valermoor Marsh in Schleswig-Holstein in 1878 and in Loch Arthur near Dumfries in 1876. The second of these and many of the smaller specimens have • the same type of stern as the
Brigg boat while the Valer- moor boat has the same kind of patch to mend a crack. This boat had ribs added inside to strengthen her.
The carrying power of a dug-out is not very great. The ordinary shape of a tree-trunk makes it impossible to make them very deep, and the thickness of their sides makes them heavy for their size. In anything like rough water, either on a lake or on the sea, they must have shipped a lot of water. To get over this difficulty men hit on the idea of lashing or pegging an extra piece of wood along the side. When once this had been done it would be a simple step to add a second strip. Later on, as tools improved and it became easier to cut or split wood into pieces of any size required, the planking grew and the original dug-out shrank till it was nothing more than a heavy keel, and the true plank-built boat came into existence. Examples of the first stage of this development have been found at Giggleswick in Yorkshire and at Danzig in Germany.
Dug-outs are the most widespread of all primitive types of boat. They are still found almost all over the world and have been in use since long before the dawn of history. A Chinese drawing of about a hundred years ago (Fig. 27) may serve to give some sort of an idea of what the Brigg boat may have looked like when afloat. It is interesting for its own sake too. The drum and the gong, the man beating time with a fan, the little idol in a box, the steersman with his large paddle, and the decorations of bow and stern are all worth attention. Quite near the Brigg boat, though on the other side
of the present course of the river Ancholme, there was found an extraordinary raft, 40 feet long and 9 feet wide in the middle. It was built up of five planks, each running the whole length, shaped so that the width was reduced to 5! feet at one end and 6| at the other. On each plank there were ten ' handles' just like those on the patch in the dug-out. Cross-bars were stuck through the rows of handles and wedged tight, while the joints between the planks were not only caulked with moss, but were covered with thin strips of wood lashed in place by thongs passing through rows of holes along the edges of the planks. The date of this raft is uncertain ; it may perhaps belong properly to the next chapter, but it is mentioned here because it was found so close to the better-known dug-out.
The skin boat was in use in the southern parts of England before the arrival of the Romans. This we know not from remains, but from Latin authors. Such craft on a very small scale are still found in Wales, where bowl-shaped coracles to carry one man only are used for river-fishing. Canvas is used instead of skins for a covering to the framework of wickerwork or of bent laths (Fig. 28), but otherwise these coracles are probably very much the same as they were two thousand or more years ago. In Ireland a similar vessel called a ' curragh ' is larger and more boat-shaped.
Still, the craft of which the Romans wrote must have been bigger and more seaworthy than either of these, since there was certainly some cross-Channel traffic. Besides, when Caesar wanted to cross a river in Spain he set his soldiers to build boats " like those used by the Britons," and he describes them as having keels and ribs of light timber, the rest of the hull being woven out of osier and covered with skins. These must have been bigger than coracles, for it would have been absurd to transport an army in one-man craft. We know that the Britons were such good basket-workers that the Romans took them back to Rome to teach the art there. If one of them could build a boat to carry himself it
is reasonable to suppose that, within limits, several of them might build a vessel to carry them all. After all this is exactly what is done by the Eskimo, who were until quite lately in much the same state of civilization as the early Britons. Their boats are
made of skin stretched over a frame of whalebone, or of wood when it is to be had, and they are of two kinds: the 'kayak ' (Fig. 29), used by a single man for hunting and fishing, and the 'umiak' (Fig. 30), a much bigger
vessel used to carry a whole family or more. There can be little doubt that the ancient Britons had craft that were quite as seaworthy as these. Something of the sort is found in a drawing made about 1670 of a "portable vessel of wicker ordinarily used by the Wild Irish.'' This drawing, from the Pepysian Library at Cambridge, shows not only the boat under sail, but also a view of her under construction, and makes it clear that she was something very like the boats built by Csesar's soldiers, with light wooden keel and ribs and with sides of wickerwork covered with skins. The whole appearance of this boat (Fig. 31) is primitive, but sea,worthy. The mast, with a natural fork used as a lead for the halliards and with leaves left on it for ornament, the ox-head on the stem, and the stone and wood anchor hanging on the side are all things that must have looked strange to more civilized eyes even in the seventeenth century. Stone anchors of this sort were used countless centuries ago and are still found in some places. The specimen drawn in Fig. 32 was in use quite recently at Cape Cod in America.
It seems probable that the Britons had real wooden planked ships as well. At any rate we know that such vessels were used by the Veneti, a people living in the south of Brittany just west of the mouth of the Loire. Caesar fought a naval battle against them in the year 56 B.C., and his description of their ships shows that they were far more advanced than would be expected: Their ships were built and rigged in this manner. The hulls were somewhat flatter than those of our ships, so that they were more suitable for the shallows and the ebbing of the tide. The bows were rather upright and they and the sterns were suited to the great size of the stormy seas. The ships were built entirely of oak, so as to stand any shock.
The cross-timbers were made of beams a foot deep fastened by iron nails an inch thick. The anchors were fitted with iron chains instead of ropes. The sails were of skins and thin leather, either for lack of flax and ignorance of its use or (as is more likely) because sails [of canvas] were not considered able to support such force of wind and drive such heavy ships. Csesar must have been used to seeing ships very nearly as advanced as the Roman merchantmen in Figs. 21 and 22, and yet these ships of Brittany seem to have impressed him. There were ships from the west of England in the same fleet, and it seems fair to suppose that they were not so very different; if they had been wicker vessels surely Caesar would have mentioned the two distinct types. The chain cables are particularly interesting because such things died out entirely and were not revived until the nineteenth century.
Now the territory of the Veneti was one of the places where the Phoenicians used to come for tin, and Cornwall was another. There must have been plenty of opportunities for both Veneti and Britons to examine Phoenician ships, and after once grasping the principles of strong wooden shipbuilding they would go on building in the same way after the Phoenicians had disappeared . It is worth mentioning that Cornish legend says that St la floated over from Ireland on a leaf, and this is just how people accustomed to big, solidly built wooden ships might be expected to describe a coracle built of green wood.
After the actual remains of dug-outs in England and Germany, or even after the descriptions of British coracles and Venetan ships, the representations of Scandinavian vessels that were carved on rocks in Norway and Sweden at some time in the last thousand years B.C. are very disappointing. In fact, if it were not for the extraordinary number of these carvings, all very much alike, they might be dismissed as the work of some one who had no idea what he was drawing.
Most of them are far more like sledges than any form of ship which we can imagine, and the fact that there are often dogs in the pictures and never fish rather helps to support the sledge idea. Still they are always found near the coast, and it must be admitted that they are generally accepted as ships. Besides, men are shown fighting in them, and this is certainly more suitable for ships than for sledges. The end that is usually supposed to be the bow is not unlike the double bow of some Central African canoes, but the other end, as a stern, is unique. It is, in fact, so like a ram bow that it is difficult to look on it as anything else. Compare these rock-carvings (Fig. 33) and the similar ships on Danish bronze knives (Fig. 34) with the ships on early Greek vases and the likeness is startling. Whether it was a real ram bow or merely one shaped to imitate a ram depends on how these vessels were built, and of this we know nothing for certain. Probably they were builtup boats of some kind rather than dug-outs. The more complicated carvings seem to show some sort of framework, and some of the Danish vessels look as if they were planked, but all this is very doubtful. It has been suggested that they were built of birch-bark, like the North American canoes. In that case the shape of the bow must have been more a matter of imitation than of design for warlike purposes.
A Swedish writer has recently suggested that these carvings are meant for 'outrigger canoes,' which are dug-outs made less apt to capsize by having on one side a long log of wood joined to the main hull by two or more cross-pieces called 'booms.' Such canoes are very common in the Pacific and the East Indies, but so far there is no other evidence that they were ever used in Europe. Still, it must be admitted that models of such outrigger canoes as drawn by children have produced designs wonderfully like those on the rock-carvings.
On the whole it seems probable that some of the peoples on the shores of the North Sea must have had real planked ships long before the Roman conquest of Britain. Apparently there was intercourse between Scotland and Norway, and such intercourse could never have been carried on in either dug-outs or bark canoes.
It must be admitted that our evidence for this intercourse depends on a rather doubtful source: , the supposed travels of Pytheas in the North, and the identification of his "Thule " with Norway. Pytheas, whose accounts of his voyages we know only from quotations by later writers, was a Greek astronomer from Marseilles. He sailed from the Mediterranean to England somewhere about 300 B.C., and from the northernmost point of Scotland went on to an inhabited land called Thule, where the longest day was as long as twenty-one or twenty-two hours, and where he heard tales of the midnight sun still farther to the north. It is difficult to find any country save Norway that will fit the description, and it seems clear that Pytheas went there deliberately and not by accident. Thus the way must have been known, and either Norse or Scottish vessels must have crossed the North Sea many times before.
The peoples of Northern Europe may have been barbarians in some ways before they came in contact with the civilization of Rome, but if they could build ships fit to cross the North Sea and fit to meet those of Rome in battle they cannot have been so far behind in the matter of shipbuilding and seamanship.