Experimental Archaeology in Practice

David Pryor discusses what we are learning about the shape of tholes for the Ship.

We know from the excavations at Sutton Hoo that our Ship was fitted with tholes for oar propulsion – Joe Startin’s (Director) paper “Tholes in the Sutton Hoo Ship” (in the research section of this site) discusses the archaeological evidence.

The midship model section that we are building in the Longshed is designed to accommodate four rowing positions on each side.  Jacq Barnard (Project Manager) explains the purpose in this video.

Working from drawings that Pat Tanner provided as part of the work that was done to produce digital plans for the Ship, members of the Ships Crew constructed four tholes to be mounted on the port side model.  They have also made experimental oars.

The tholes were constructed from softwood, generating a bearing surface on the thole face of 2 inches with the base of the thole piece measuring 3 inches so as to fit onto the 3-inch thick gunwale strake.  That produced a thole with a radius of 3 inches.

However, when Jacq, a very experienced rower, tried using one of the experimental oars on the model she found that it was impossible to get a good purchase on the thole.  The radius of curvature needs to be significantly smaller than 3 inches.

So we are now planning to construct tholes with a much shallower curvature – more like the ones shown on the banner in the Longshed (photo of one section below) which is a reproduction of the image in volume 1 of  Bruce Mitford’s “The Sutton Hoo Ship” (published in 1975).

This one aspect of the Ship reconstruction perfectly exemplifies what experimental archaeology is all about.  Needless to say, there is a lot more to find out about how the hull, the tholes and the oars interact.  At least it is reasonably easy to change things on the model!

David Pryor

April 2021