Monday, 16 September 2013

The First Age of Sail?

The Bronze Age (c2000-700 BC in Britain) is, perhaps, the most underestimated period in our history. Not only was metal-working introduced, thereby ending the Stone Age, but the period also saw the appearance of the domestic horse, and of the wheel. It may also have been the first age of sail, although specific evidence for this is tantalisingly elusive. Certainly there was a great explosion of trade. Objects made by the same hands, and with the same tools, are found in Ireland, Wiltshire and Brittany.

Bronze Age boats have been found at North Ferriby in Yorkshire, and in Dover Harbour, their planks literally sewn together with willow withies. These boats, however, had neither masts nor oar-locks. They must have been paddled. When the Ferriby boats were first discovered, it was assumed that they were used for river transport, but the discovery at Dover provoked a reassessment. Why would it be there if it were not a sea-going vessel?

One of the Ferriby boats at the time of its discovery in 1963. Photo: W. Wright.

The National Maritime Museum in Cornwall recently built a replica of one of the Ferriby boats and launched it at Falmouth. If it were not for the shipping lanes, I would probably be willing to take my chances crossing the Channel in one of these, as my characters do in Undreamed Shores, but to take one from Cornwall to Brittany or Ireland would be another matter entirely.

The replica Bronze Age boat launched at Falmouth.

The boats or ships depicted in rock art in Sweden, similarly, seem in most cases to lack masts, although one from Tanum might just show a ship under sail.

Depiction of a small boat and larger ship from Tanum, Sweden. Photo: Ch. Purkner (licensed under GNU).

Rock engravings from Haljesta, Sweden. Photo: Olof Ekstrom (licensed under GNU).

The little gold model of a boat found at Broighter in Ireland has both a mast and oar-locks, but this dates to a late stage in the Iron Age (c50 BC).

The Broighter gold boat. Photo: Ardfern (licensed under CCA).

Parts of the Broighter Boat. 1. Mast. 2. Yard. 3. Steering oar. 4. Grappling iron. 5. Forked implement. 6-7. Oars. (Image is in the public domain).

The demand for bronze would, in itself, have been a spur for the development of maritime trade. The components of bronze are copper and tin. There are relatively few sources of tin in western Europe, and one of the most significant is in Cornwall. At some point between 2000 BC and 50 BC, someone must have set sail from Cornwall for the first time, in a boat that looked more like the one from Broighter than the one from Ferriby.

St Michael's Mount, a possible loading point for Cornish tin bound for the continent.

The circumstantial evidence suggests that this happened at quite an early stage in this time-scale. Perhaps, like the vessel in which Tim Severin crossed the Atlantic, it was made of ox-hides stretched over a light wooden frame, in which case the chances of its being preserved archaeologically are minimal. I strongly suspect that, by 1500 BC, such vessels would have been a common sight around British and European shores, and they would have changed forever the relationship between Britain and its continental neighbours.

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores and An Accidental King, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from and For this week only, the e-book versions are available for just 77 pence.

You might like to take a look at the blogs of my fellow authors, all of whom are posting something with a nautical historical theme:

J.M. Aucoin
Helen Hollick
Doug Boren
Linda Collison
Margaret Muir
Julian Stockwin
Anna Belfrage
Andy Millen
V.E. Ulett
T.S. Rhodes
Mark Patton
Katherine Bone
Alaric Bond
Ginger Myrick
Judith Starkston
Seymour Hamilton
Rick Spilman
James L. Nelson
S.J. Turney
Prue Batten
Antoine Vanner
Joan Druett
Edward James
Nighthawk News

Ville-es-Nouaux, the site of the final battle in Undreamed Shores. The monument in the foreground is Zilar's burial place, and that behind it is the "accursed shrine" built by his people, and buried on Meruskine's orders.


  1. Fit's well with Judith Starkson's post - our ancestors were more travelled and advanced than most people think.

  2. Makes me think of Thor Heyerdahl and Kon-tiki & Ra. Interesting post - but it's Tanum, not Tanam ;)(As a Swede, i go all happy when there's a reference to my neck of the woods)

  3. Amazing gold boat and ancient artwork! I thrive on those things. Thanks for sharing them.

  4. Thanks for the comments! Severin's voyage was probably inspired, at least in part, by Heyerdahl's various expeditions, but there is a caveat to these modern "reconstructions." Heyerdahl, Severin and I all start out with a modern understanding of geography. We sail west from Ireland knowing that America is there. Bronze Age mariners may have been the first to venture out of sight of land. This is necessary even to cross the English Channel. One can see the coast of France from the top of Shakespeare's Cliff (Dover), but not from a small boat sailing south from it. I made the crossing in a modern yacht a few years ago, and we were out of sight of any land for around 3 hours. We could see the traffic in the shipping lanes, which was a real source of danger to us, but which, nonetheless, left us in no doubt about where, in our journey, we were. A Bronze Age mariner would have had the experience of total emptiness - nothing visible except sea, sky and birds - on a voyage from Cornwall to Brittany, this might last for more than a day.

  5. I always remember visiting St Michaels Mount when I was a child but never knew it's historical connections. The hsitory of the old ships was all new to me. I enjoyed this very informative post.

  6. Thanks, Margaret. The role of St Michael's Mount is not certain, but it is suggested by Sir Barry Cunliffe in his book, "Pytheas the Greek."

  7. Having just finished Undreamed Shores (and a jolly good read it is too!), I'm curious to know just how extensive the circumstantial evidence is for travel and trade in prehistory. A boat capable of carrying a bluestone as cargo would be quite substantial, and quite some time earlier than 2000BC, wouldn't it? Is this the kind of circumstantial evidence you're referring to?

  8. Hello Stoo, the most recent evidence (subsequent to "Undreamed Shores") suggests that the Stonehenge bluestones may have been transported earlier than we previously thought (c3000 BC). I think it likely that they were moved using rafts, but these may have been lashed to boats like that from Dover, as in my short story, "The Raft and the Waterfall," at

    1. My schoolboy Physics reminds me that buoyancy is based on the weight of water displaced. Which makes a raft a fairly ineffective means of transporting a heavy object because of its shallow draft and the weight of the logs. (It would have to be very big to displace enough water to provide the required buoyancy.) This seems much more fun:

    2. It's an intriguing possibility - one of those ideas which shouldn't logically have worked, but obviously did. My grandfather was there, helping to build the Mulberry Harbour (another idea that shouldn't have worked, but thankfully did).

    3. Necessity is supposed to be the mother of invention. What I find puzzling about Stonehenge, Avebury, Carnac, etc, is that we can see the evidence of the invention, but I've never heard anything that explains the necessity for it.

    4. D-Day is the ultimate example of that necessity but, as for Stonehenge, Avebury, Carnac, I'm not sure - I just hope I live long enough to write that novel!

  9. Do you have a D-Day novel fermenting?

  10. Not as such, although it will play a part in the next novel.

  11. Intriguing!
    When I read Undreamed Shores, I didn't realise that Arthmael was a historical person - the Amesbury Archer. Having read a few things on your website I'm guessing that you've tied into the story Lots of things from the historical record. Are the burials at the end of the book derived from your excavations on Jersey? And Gau-Txeru and Gua-Gwalchmai real objects?

  12. Gau-Txeru, Gau-Arthmael and Gau-Gwalchmai are real objects in the Jersey Museum. Gwalchmai's burial is based on my own excavation (we found the pit and the pot, but no bones). Gau-Ethan features briefly in "An Accidental King."

  13. Do you have any pictures to hand?
    What about Zilar's burial? Did you have to invent that one?

  14. Zilar's burial is Ville-es-Nouaux. I'll post it above. I don't have images of the objects, I'm afraid.

  15. Thanks. Been busy reading Accidental King. I thought it was really rather good! I like the way the structure of the book - jumping back and forth in time - builds up suspense for the main events of the story, and Cogidubnus' tale is really rather touching, isn't it?

    1. Cogidubnus's story may be touching as I tell it, but there is another possibility, which is that he was an avaricious traitor quite willing to sell his own grandmother down the river for a fine palace and all the trappings that went with it. That would probably have been Boudicca's view. The structure is pretty much the only way I could have told the story. It allows me to focus on the bits of the story that are interesting, whilst not mentioning directly that, between 61 AD and Vespasian's accession, Cogidubnus was probably an irrelevant political figure.

    2. Do Cogidubnus' reports to Rome survive?

    3. Absolutely not! Nothing he wrote survives. I extrapolated this from Cassius Dio.