Category Archives: Nautical Archaeology

Ancient Mariners and Boat-Builders

Now here’s an excavation that I think is worth watching. Archaeologists at Gimhae National Museum in South Korea will return next week to the site of Bibong-ri, along the country’s southern coast,  to expand their excavations.   Some five to six years ago, archaeologists  working at the  shell-midden site made a stunning discovery:  the waterlogged hull of an ancient wooden boat.    Subsequent radiocarbon dating revealed that the wooden vessel was 7700 years old–the earliest known boat to date.

At first glance,  this might not seem particularly exciting.  Archaeologists now know that human beings became seafarers at least 50,000 years ago,  when modern humans crossed nearly a dozen straits to reach Australia from Southeast Asia.  And the new archaeological evidence of stone hand-axes from Crete suggests that ancient humans may have been island-hopping  in the Mediterranean 130,000 years ago or earlier.

What kind of watercraft did these early seafarers favor?  We simply don’t know, although some archaeologists speculate that the early mariners from Southeast Asia voyaged to Australia on rafts made from giant bamboo.  But the big problem is that archaeologists have yet to excavate any watercraft from such an early period.

So the discovery of an 7700-year-old boat in a Korean shell midden is a very important one,  giving archaeologists a precious glimpse of Neolithic nautical technology.  Researchers will have a lot of questions.  Was the boat powered by wind and sail,  for example?  Or was it powered by the muscle of human paddlers?   How was it constructed?  How many sailors did it hold?

I find it interesting that three of the world’s oldest known watercraft–the vessel from Bibong-ri;  a 7500-year-old  wooden boat excavated in China; and a 5600-year old logboat unearthed  in Japan–all come from eastern Asia.   Is this merely a coincidence,  based on random preservation of wood at three sites?  Or could this hint at the deep antiquity of boat-building and seafaring in this part of the world, an antiquity that we have yet to plumb?

These are not idle questions.   Archaeologists have long discussed the possibility of a very ancient coastal migration by boat from western Asia to the Americas.   Indeed one possible scenario,  proposed by University of Oregon archaeologist Jon Erlandson,  has ancient seafarers setting out by boat from coastal Japan some 15,700 years ago–during the last Ice Age–and nudging northward along the shores of Asia to those of the New World.   To do so,  these migrants would have needed some kind of sturdy boat–possibly a kayak or ocean-going canoe.

I’m very keen to see what else the Korean team will find at Bibong-ri this time around.    We badly need more information.

Phoenicians and a Very Big Thirst for Adventure

I confess  I have a great soft spot for the half-mad adventurers who build painstaking replicas of ancient seacraft and then trust their fates to them on long ocean voyages.  Their published narratives speckle my bookshelves–from Thor Heyerdahl’s account of his balsa-wood-raft voyage from South America to the Tuamotu Islands in Polynesia,  to lesser known tomes recounting near-death experiences aboard ox-hide Celtic coracles in the storm-tossed North Atlantic and Viking knarrs navigating iceberg-littered waters off the Newfoundland coast.   The courage of these modern mariners is truly impressive.

The latest in this band of nautical brothers is the crew now sailing around Africa aboard a replica of a 2500-year-old Phoenician ship.  The team,  led by former Royal Navy officer  Philip Beale,  is attempting to recreate what is thought to be the first circumnavigation of Africa by Phoenician sailors around 600 B.C.

The great classical Greek historian Herodotus briefly described this epic three-year-long voyage in The Histories.  According to Herodotus,  the Egyptian pharoah Nekho II commanded a small fleet of Phoenician ships–the master mariners of the day–to explore the African coast from East to West.  After rounding the horn of Africa,  they sailed southward, stopping only to plant and reap grain for ship’s supplies, then passed through the dreaded Pillars of Heracles.  From there,  they returned along the coast of western Africa to Egypt.

Beale and his companions have built what they believe to be a faithful replica of a Phoenician ship of the era,  right down to 8000 olive-wood pins to hold everything together.  Two days ago they docked in the South African port of East London,  and the crew is now preparing to head off to Capetown.  The toughest part of the voyage lies ahead,  as they round the tip of Africa.  If you’re interested in following their voyage,  I’d suggest checking out their info-packed website.  It has a wealth of information on Phoenician history and seafaring.

I certainly wish them kind winds and a safe journey.

The Most Ancient Mariner

When did land-loving humans first trust their fates to simple rafts and begin exploring the world by water?  Most archaeologists would say some 50,000 years ago,  when anatomically modern humans sailed from island southeast Asia to Australia.   But Thomas Strasser, an archaeologist at Providence College in Rhode Island, dropped a bombshell last week at the annual meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America. Strasser reported that he had found several hundred double-edged cutting tools on the island of Crete that dated to at least 130,000 years ago.  Some,  said Strasser,  looked very much like the hand-axes that Homo erectus wielded in Africa 800,000 years ago.

Strasser now proposes that the ancient hominins voyaged out of Africa by primitive boat,  island-hopping from Crete to Europe.  “We’re just going to have to accept that,  as soon as hominids left Africa,  they were long distance seafarers and rapidly spread all over the place,”  Strasser told Science News reporter,  Bruce Bower.

This new evidence sounds immensely intriguing,  and I would certainly like to know much more.  But I think that we are still a long way from seeing Homo erectus as a seafarer.   Other evidence for such primeval ocean voyaging,  after all,  is very thin.   Let me briefly recap.  In 1998,  a team led by Michael Morwood,  an archaeologist at the University of New England in Armidale, Australia,  excavated  stone tools on the island of Flores in Indonesia (the same island that produced the so-called “Hobbit” remains of Homo floresiensis) that dated to some 800,000 years ago.  This was the time period when H. erectus was roaming southeast Asia.

How did the ancient hominin get to Flores?  Morwood himself suggested that they might have held on to logs as simple flotation devices, and kicked their across the narrow strait separating Komodo from Flores.  But a more flamboyant researcher, Robert Bednarik,  an independent scholar who heads The First Mariners project, proposes that H. erectus sailed there by raft.   To demonstrate that such a voyage is indeed possible,  Bednarik and several associates built a bamboo raft with paleolithic stone tools, and then sailed successfully on it from Lombok to the neighboring island of Sunbawa in a ten hour and twenty five minute crossing in rough seas.

So such a voyage is indeed possible in a simple raft.   But most archaeologists working on the subject of coastal migration have been exceedingly reluctant to buy into the idea of seafaring H. erectus.  When I interviewed half a dozen of the world’s leading experts on the subject two years ago while working on an article on ancient seafaring for Discover magazine,  most suggested that that ancient hominins likely floated to Flores accidentally,  after being blown out to sea in a storm.

A major sticking point for many is the cognitive ability of H. erectus.  Many researchers believe that only modern humans possessed the necessary technological creativity to build a raft and the requisite intellectual ability to navigate at sea.   But if Strasser’s new findings are accepted (and you can be sure that people will be looking very carefully at both the stone tools themselves  and at the proposed dates), then it could be a whole new ballgame.    I personally will be following this research with great interest.

The Accidental Discoverer on Skye

I read with real delight today the BBC  news  story about the Hebridean farmer who turned up a possible Viking anchor on the Isle of Skye.   The farmer,  Graeme Mackenzie,  was out trying to clear the drain from a pasture he wanted to turn into a potato field,  when,  lo and behold, he came across  what  looked to be a 10-cm-long rusted iron spike.   When Mr. Mackenzie went to pry it out, the piece of iron seemed to go on and on under the peat,  and eventually he had himself  a four-foot-long medieval anchor.

I have a great fondness for people who stumble upon important artifacts while out puttering around the garden or pasture,  and who then report their treasure to the authorities.  First of all, these accidental discoveries always open up the tantalizing possibility that any one of us could unearth something really crucial to archaeology while digging a new flower bed,  say, or putting in a  garage–especially if you live in the British Isles.   Moreover, people who find these dirt-crusted marvels often say really wonderful things to reporters,  quite off the cuff. Mr. Mackenzie, a former skipper,  admitted with modest pride,  for example,  to having ” some knowledge on anchors.”  He then went on to lay out his argument for the anchor being of Viking origin.  ” The metalwork,” he said, ” is totally different from the modern anchors.  It felt like a blacksmith had hammered it.  On the internet I saw a picture of a Viking anchor and it looked exactly the same as mine.”

Whether or not this will prove to be a Viking anchor,  however, remains to be seen.  Viking ship experts will want to take a very close look at the evidence before making any pronouncements.  But a Viking find of this nature would be very important for the Isle of Skye. History tells us that the Norse were a major presence on this North Atlantic  island from the 9th to the mid-13th century A.D.   Indeed,  there’s an absolutely fabulous line from a 13th century Norse saga,  Heimskringla,  about an ancient battle in Skye:    “The hunger battle-birds were filled in Skye with blood of foemen killed.”

But for all the long Norse presence on  Skye,  rather few Norse artifacts have yet turned up.  I sincerely hope,  for the sake of all Norse historians and archaeologists and all the Hebrideans who take such pride in their Norse heritage,  that Mr. Mackenzie is right about the Viking anchor.

By Heather Pringle

Who Discovered Australia?

An Australian newspaper carried a fascinating story yesterday  of a mystery shipwreck,  a team of  nautical archaeologists,  and a ocean-going expedition that may end up rewriting a crucial chapter in Australian history.   According to the Sydney Morning Herald,  a team of archaeologists led by Kieran Hosty, a curator at the Australian National Maritime Museum, sailed this morning for Wreck Reef in search of debris from a ship that may have carried American whalers to Australia before James Cook claimed the continent for Great Britain.

Very quickly,  here’s the (slender) evidence.  In 1803,  more than 30 years after James Cook sailed the Australian coast,  a British sloop under the command of  Lieutenant Robert Fowler   slammed at night into an uncharted reef  some 700 miles north of Sydney.   Fowler remained aboard,  but some of the crew explored the sandy reef.  They discovered to their amazement pieces of wooden nautical wreckage.   They later reported that the debris likely came from the stern of large 40- ton ship and that it had been there for a long time.

The crew must have been sopping wet and cold,  because they built a roaring fire with the ship’s timber,  thereby disposing of the prime evidence.  But the Australian archaeologists hope to find other clues on the reef.  Hosty himself thinks its unlikely that the wreckage came from a Dutch  or British ship.  The Dutch sailed further north and British maritime records make no mention of such a shipwreck from the area during this period.  So Hosty now suspects American whalers,  who did sail west to South Pacific waters in search of prey.

I will be following this story with great  interest.  Nautical archaeology is exceptionally expensive,  which is why serious researchers  encounter real difficulties  raising funds to conduct important underwater exploration. (We mainly see newspaper reports of finds made by treasure hunters looking for gold and silver).  And this is an inherently fascinating story.

But I would like to point out that the newspaper headlines miss a critical point.  While James Cook may have claimed Australia for Great Britain,  the ancestors of the Australia’s indigenous people landed on the shores of the continent some 50,000 years earlier.   To get there from mainland Asia,  they crossed at least 10 ocean straits:  one of these crossings was  greater than 44 miles. As Jon Erlandson, an archaeologist at the University of Oregon and one of the world’s experts on coastal archaeology once told me,  it would have been “a real exercise to get across, and the magnitude of that is illustrated by the fact that, before anatomically modern humans make the leap, no large-bodied animal ever gets all the way across.”

I wish  the Australian team the best of luck in their search for the mystery wreck.  But I sure would like to see  more researchers turn their attention to the real discovery of the Australian continent.