News from the Director of the Institute for Digital Archaeology – Roger Michel

Our partnership with the SHSC continues to provide us with a steady stream of interesting and exciting work – and great opportunities for other helpful partnerships.

Our efforts in the laboratory examining rivets (courtesy of the National Trust and Sutton Hoo Society) from the 1939 dig have yielded some extraordinary results.  I won’t pre-empt my colleagues by revealing too much.  I will only say that in addition to learning more about where, when and how the rivets were produced (and how we might produce rivets of our own using traditional materials and techniques), we may also have an unexpected opportunity to uncover some very specific data about the wood used to construct the ship. Please stay tuned for more information on these important topics.

On other fronts, an unexpected collaboration has emerged over the past six months in connection with the America’s Cup races to be held in New Zealand this spring.  During the last America’s Cup in Bermuda in 2017, the IDA sponsored a regatta featuring traditional Bermudian watercraft: 25 foot pilot gigs.  It was a great day on the water and – at least in my view – a welcome diversion from the very non-traditional sight of 5mm-thick plastic boats with trick sails skimming across the waters of the Great Sound.

Racing a Bermudan Gig 2017

Flash forward 3 years.  During a wide-ranging hour long interview with Radio New Zealand over the summer on a museum initiative with Oxford, our conversation somehow turned to a Maori translation of Beowulf that I had produced in 2012. From there it was a short hop to a lengthy discussion of the Sutton Hoo reconstruction project – and the many startling parallels between the ancient sea-faring cultures of New Zealand and Britain.  Without thinking too much about the consequences, I suggested that a race between an Anglo-Saxon longboat and a waka might be an appropriate sequel to the gig races of 2017.  Suffice it to say, people in New Zealand were listening.  Offers of technical – and political – support streamed in and now it appears that a waka versus longboat may well be on the America’s Cup 2021 undercard. You can hear the original interview by clicking the link to Roger Michel Radio interview on NZ interview

Although the competition boat would be a locally sourced simulation of a clinker-built Anglo-Saxon warship, the event would provide an excellent opportunity to educate visitors about the Sutton Hoo project – and northern European boatbuilding history generally.  It would also provide us with a chance to attract allies to the SHSC project from among a strongly boat-focused population.  Again, stay tuned.

Finally, yet another potential collaboration has emerged from an unexpected source.  My Oxford contemporary, historian Charles Spencer, has written an extraordinary new book on the White Ship disaster of 1120.  A best-seller right out of the gate, Earl Spencer’s careful chronicle of one of the most tumultuous periods in English medieval history provides a wealth of information about the clinker-built Viking-style boat that lies at the heart of that infamous episode. We expect to learn even more about the White Ship’s construction during a series of recovery dives at the wreck site this spring and summer.  The area has never been subject to any professional archaeological examination, and so may yield interesting new clues about the structure, composition and cargo of the doomed ship.

Given the many physical similarities between the White Ship and the Sutton Hoo Ship, and given also the vastly better surviving information about the architecture and construction of the White Ship as compared to the earlier vessel, examination and study of the former may well help to resolve some of the persistent mysteries surrounding the latter – including possibly providing clues about the Sutton Hoo Ship’s method of propulsion and helping to determine whether it was modified when pressed into service as a burial ship.

Certainly there are differences between the two vessels – the White Ship was a little larger and the upper strakes were pierced for oars instead of being equipped with tholes like our ship.  However the similarities swamp the differences.

Image of the White Ship disaster

In anticipation of the wreck dives to come, Lord Spencer said “I look forward to discovering possible connections between these two historic British ships.” He added that he “hope[s] that learning more about the construction of the White Ship will provide some helpful insights into medieval boatbuilding practices generally.”  

Personally, I am looking forward to a summer of exciting discoveries with Lord Spencer – and bringing to bear what we learn on the beautiful ship that will be starting to emerge day by day in the Longshed.

Perhaps a reconstruction of the White Ship, as well, may be on the cards. Time will tell.