It will be a while yet before the Ship is launched, but last month there was a launch of different kind – a brand new education programme called “Follow the Ship” designed to encourage local schools to visit the Longshed, learn about how the Ship is being built, follow its progress over the next few years, and discover a lot more about our Anglo-Saxon heritage. 28th June saw the first group of young ‘shipmates’ arrive and over the next few days more than 100 children from three local schools (Bawdsey Primary, Woodbridge Primary and Woodbridge School) visited the Longshed.
The programme developed by our sister charity Woodbridge Riverside Trust (WRT), includes: exploring the lifecycle of the wood used to build ships, the tools and techniques Anglo-Saxons employed, the river Deben and its environment, and how that influenced the lives of the people who lived here 1400 years ago. The children split into groups to take part in activities in the ground floor workshop, in The John Gibbins Gallery and outside The Longshed with a team of our local Anglo-Saxon re-enactors.
Each session of “Follow the Ship” links to the National Curriculum. At KS1 it ties into the History curriculum – thinking about ‘significant historical events in their own locality’. It also makes links to Geography as children ‘Interpret a range of sources of geographical information, including maps.’ In the KS2 sessions the children ‘understand how our knowledge of the past is constructed from a range of sources’ and in relation to Geography they ‘describe and understand key aspects of physical geography, including rivers.’ At KS3 it makes links to both Geography and History, and to Science – extending the children’s knowledge of forces and medicine and health.
Mike Sutton from WRT, and Joe Startin from SHSC organised a secure space in the workshop where the children could learn about the wood that is being used to build the ship, how wood is split using mallets made from holly, how to tell the age of a tree, and also have a go at making trenails (tree nails).
The Ship’s Crew team was working throughout the visits, so the children were able to observe – at a safe distance – how axes are used to prepare and shape the planks that will be part of the finished Ship. This photo shows Alec Newland talking to the children about the tools that the Crew are using.
Everyone seemed to have a wonderful time during their visit, and we look forward to welcoming many more local schools to “Follow the Ship”.
We are grateful to everybody on the WRT team who helped make these pilot visits a success. If you want to find out more about the programme please contact Woodbridge Riverside Trust chairman Bryan Knibbs
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!
The Anglo Saxon ship that was buried at Sutton Hoo was of course made out of wood, a widely available, buoyant, and relatively easily worked substance that was the material of choice for ship-building from the earliest times right up until the beginning of the nineteenth century when traditional wooden hulls were gradually replaced with metal hulls, first iron and then steel.
That being the case, all ship-builders until that time, including the Anglo Saxon ship-builders responsible for building the ship that the Sutton Hoo Ship’s Company is reconstructing, had a close affinity with wood: they knew how to source it and how to work it.
So it’s not surprising to learn that Anglo Saxon woodworkers were called ‘treewrights’. This of course suggests strongly that they viewed the means by which trees were selected, felled, worked and turned into whatever was required as one continuous and interlinked series of activities and skills, a natural and organic form of vertical integration not commonly found in today’s timber industry. So the reconstruction of an Anglo Saxon ship inevitably involves rediscovering and learning from the Anglo Saxon artisanal mindset.
But what exactly were the tools the Anglo Saxon treewrights used for constructing the ship whose ghostly remains the Sutton Hoo Ship’s Company sets out to construct. And what did they look like?
Archaeological evidence from excavations and studies of worked timbers of the period suggests very strongly that the treewright’s tool of choice was the axe. We have axes too of course but do they resemble Anglo Saxon axes and if not, how do they differ?
Well, the answer is that broadly speaking, the Anglo Saxon ship-builders used two different types of axe, both with different uses and different shapes: the felling or chopping axe; and the T-shaped axe.
The Felling or Chopping Axe
As its name suggests, the purpose of the felling or chopping axe was twofold. First, it was used to fell the carefully selected trees that were the object of the treewright’s attention. Secondly, it was used for shaping: working the felled wood roughly into the shapes and objects required by the treewright.
The narrow, convex blade of the chopping axe lends itself to removing material quickly and to working on curved sections such as the frames and stems of a ship. So they were most likely used for carving the frames of the ship and the rough shaping of the keel, stems and planking.
What did they look like? Well typically, the felling or chopping axe has a flared blade that makes it particularly suitable for its purpose. The illustration below gives you a good idea of the general shape of the felling or chopping axe. These axes were excavated at Nydam in Denmark between 1859 and 1863 (Fig 1)
The most well-documented examples of Anglo Saxon woodworking axes come from the excavations at Flixborough in Lincolnshire which took place between 1989 and 1991 (Figs 2 and 3 below).
Interestingly, contemporaneous representations of these felling or chopping axes can also be seen in the Bayeux Tapestry (see Fig 5 below).
It is likely that this type of axe was developed from T-shaped axes that were originally used as weapons. It’s a highly specialised tool used only for hewing out planks and smoothing the faces of timber: to get a really fine finish on the planking and flat keel sections, for example.
The T-shaped axe found in Hauxton, Cambridgeshire shown in Figure 4 will give you a good idea of what they looked like.
Again, representations of the T-shaped axe can also be seen in the Bayeux Tapestry (see Fig 5).
Use of axes in the Sutton Hoo Anglo Saxon ship reconstruction
The Sutton Hoo Ship’s Company sets out to make sure that the Anglo Saxon ship that’s being reconstructed in the Longshed at Woodbridge is built as accurately and authentically as possible; and using, as far as possible, replicas or likenesses of the tools with which it would originally have been built.
It’s accepted of course that for pragmatic reasons, compromises inevitably have to be made. For, example, the two trees which were selected in Wiltshire for the keel, and which are now being worked in the Longshed in Woodbridge, were felled using chainsaws. And they were not of course transported to the Longshed by Anglo Saxon methods.
But the Longshed ship-building team is already using T-shaped finishing axes made by blacksmith Alex Pole whose design is based on examples from the Bayeux Tapestry (Fig 6) as well as modern Gransfors Bruks forest axes, one of the closest modern equivalents to the Anglo Saxon felling axe that can be found (Fig 7).
Similarly, they are also using a replica axe which is based on the felling and chopping axes found in the Nydam and Flixborough excavations mentioned above (Fig 8).
Even more impressively, the team is also using a T-shaped finishing axe, based on 6th and 8th century examples from Tuddenham, Suffolk and Hauxton, Cambridgeshire respectively, with a wrought iron body and a forge-welded steel bit made by blacksmith Hector Cole from recycled mediaeval iron (Fig 9).
So there you have it. Construction work has started in earnest using as far as is achievable the methods and tools similar to those that the original ship-builders would have used.
We’ll keep you posted with more news as this exciting and important reconstructive archaeology project moves inexorably forward to the slipway and flotation!
Written by, Peter Drew, with thanks to Alec Newland, Ship’s Company Volunteers
One of the things that we promise our rivet sponsors is to let them know when the rivet goes into the ship – which means that we must have a map of every single one. I’m pleased to say that I have now completed a project mapping and cataloguing rivets and other fixings that were found in the excavation of the Sutton Hoo ship and cross-referencing these with the fixings shown on plans for the reconstruction of the ship.
Not the sort of thing to set pulses racing you might say, but nonetheless indicative of the many pieces of background work needed to inform both the experimental archaeological aspects of the reconstruction of the ship and the archaeological record of the original Sutton Hoo Ship.
The starting point was the plan of the fixings that were found when the Sutton Hoo burial mound was excavated. That plan was included in ‘The Sutton Hoo Ship-Burial’ by Rupert Bruce-Mitford (published by the British Museum in 1975). This book, often referred to as “Volume 1”, is regarded as the definitive work on the subject. The plan shows just over 1550 numbered fittings in positions where they were found on excavation.
The initial work involved mapping all the fixings shown on the Volume 1 plan. I found the original numbering system to include some quirks – which made the task harder than it might have been.
I developed a bespoke numbering system that could be applied to both the fixings shown on the Volume 1 plans of the Sutton Hoo ship, and those used in the reconstruction. This system uses a unique combination of characters for each fixing which collectively provide a reference specifying the type and precise position of the fixing on the ship.
The final stage involved allocating numbers generated using the new system, to all the fixings shown in the Volume 1 plan and the corresponding fixings on the plans for the reconstruction.
The numbers used to identify the fixings on the reconstruction during its build will not only simplify the recording of what fixing goes where but will also enable sponsors of individual fixings to pinpoint exactly where on the ship their fixing was used.
Our aim is to input all the above data into a digital system which will simplify the process of providing an answer to any sponsor who asks ‘Where’s my fixing?’.
The Sutton Hoo ship is generally regarded as having a ‘plank’ keel. The British Museum suggestion for the cross-section in the middle of the keel published in 1975, is in the image above.
It’s broader than it’s deep, and the same goes for the projection of the keel below the bottom of the ship.
A clinker ship has rows of planking on each side, called ‘strakes’. These can be numbered, starting at the bottom. A plank keel is essentially ‘strake zero’, and its contribution to the strength of the hull arises from being part of an integral shell.
Later Viking ships tended towards a ‘beam’ keel, not so wide, but deeper. This provided additional longitudinal stiffness, and countered hogging and sagging along the length of the ship. The projection below the bottom of the hull was also deeper, which helped the ship to resist the wind pushing sideways across the water when sailing. The Vikings still valued a shallow draught, but the beam keel was a key step in the way their ships evolved.
The Oseberg ship, early Viking, was built around AD 800. Here is a section, from Vibeke Bischoff:
I don’t know anyone who really believes the Sutton Hoo ship had a beam keel. But the lack of evidence from underneath the ship makes it difficult to rule this out completely.
One niggling piece of context is the keel of the Kvalsund 1 ship. It has the characteristics of a ‘thin beam’. Generally dated around AD 690, this is less than one hundred years after the AD 600 date usually suggested for Sutton Hoo.
Remains and models can be seen in the Historical Museum in Bergen. The piece of wood bottom left is part of the keel:
However, a recent paper by Nordeide, Bonde and Thun re-examines the tree-ring analysis of the wood from the Kvalsund ships. It moves their dates about one hundred years forward, to around AD 790. This is now early Viking and scarcely different from the time of the Oseberg ship.
Should this affect my view of the likelihood of a beam keel for Sutton Hoo? Psychologically, I am swayed. It does seem to reduce it further. But am I being epistemologically naïve? What really counts when using data to try and extend knowledge? Why should the weakening of one tentative parallel piece of information really make any logical difference?
A way out of this sort of situation is sometimes ‘ask Damian’. Dr Damian Goodburn, little expecting to be quoted, replied:
“…The first beam form keels seen in NW European waters were used in Roman Mediterranean style sailing vessels. These ventured into the North Sea which also bordered SW Scandinavia. Some Scandinavians also seem to have served as mercenaries in the Roman empire or at least their near neighbours just to the south did. And of course we have the Varangian guard etc. in the eastern Roman empire….. So unless the practical sea folk kept their eyes closed they would have seen beam form keels…. So not adopting them must have been related to practical needs, such as hauling out etc but rowing requirements must have been a dominant factor, I would guess. Only one of the late Saxon period keel timbers found reused in London, had a beam-like form, so presumably by then they were not considered a central feature of regional clinker boat building.
Really we need more vessel finds from the 6th to 8th centuries in NW Europe…”
The film “The Dig” understandably focuses on the team Charles Phillips put together to handle the burial chamber and its contents. It omits the team he organised to survey the ship.
Phillips first met Mrs Pretty, at Sutton Hoo, on 6 June 1939. He made phone calls on her behalf to the British Museum and to the government (the Office of Works) that day. The government formally asked him to take over the excavation project at the end of June.
The survey team was led by Lieut-Commander J K D Hutchison, aged 38, married with no children, the Keeper of the Department of Ship Models at the Science Museum and a retired naval officer. His second, also from the museum, was A S Crosley, aged 45 or 46, with (from research by Dr Caryl Dane) at least three daughters up to the age of 10. Crosley was an active member of the Newcomen Society and presented a paper about the ship to them in 1943. The other member of the team was young Frank Gillman.
Hutchison first visited the excavation site at Sutton Hoo on 12 July 1939, the day before serious work began on the burial chamber. After an inspection, he explained to Mrs Pretty what a survey of the ship would require, and she agreed to his proposals. On the afternoon of Tuesday 8 August the team of three arrived and “…..orders were given in Woodbridge for the construction of the necessary wooden apparatus for the survey”. This was one week after the work on the burial chamber had finished.
Mercie Lack and Barbara Wagstaff also arrived on 8 August. They were on holiday in the area. Schoolmistresses and companions, were very capable photographers with good equipment. They made an invaluable record and were among the last excavators to leave, on 25 August.
In his Newcomen Society paper, Crosley describes how the survey team measured the positions of certain rivets near each rib, relative to a datum line with plumb bobs hanging from it. This was a laborious three-man operation. Where that approach was not practicable, at the bow and stern, measurements and sketches were made from a bosun’s chair suspended above the excavation. Southampton University used this data as the basis of research to derive the plan that SHSC are using to reconstruct the Ship.
Hutchison and Phillips seem to have got on well. Hutchison took charge of most of the work at the site, while Phillips “was able to consider the problems of the ship at leisure and discuss them with Commander Hutchison”.
They pursued a number of investigations together – into the keel, for example, and how it connected to the stem and sternpost.
Hutchison’s signature can be seen on the legend for a tracing of the 1939 ‘provisional drawing’ done by Crosley – which can be seen in Ipswich Museum.
Hutchison died ‘of illness’ in July 1944. He was Acting Commander of HMS President, which I believe was a training establishment on the lower Thames. All his papers were burnt by his widow.
It was said that Crosley and Gillman did not like him. Perhaps he was a hidebound officer who rather stood on ceremony. At the end of his paper, Crosley says: “I thank the Director of the Science Museum for having allowed me to undertake this interesting survey and for permission to publish the results. In making the survey I would like to put on record the valuable help given by my colleagues, Messrs. Gillman and [John] Jacob, who showed untiring energy under difficult conditions.” There is a notable omission…
It is important for SHSC to have a scientific record of the components of the ship, as part of our experimental archaeology programme. As things progress, we need to be able to look back at the materials we used and what we did. Photogrammetry is the science of creating a three dimensional model from a series of standard two dimensional photographs. It is clearly the right thing for us to do.
What I have learned so far is that photogrammetry can be tricky!
I was already involved in The Ship’s Company as a volunteer, and as someone with an interest in photography starting off the photogrammetry project played to my strengths. In an initial meeting a group of interested volunteers discussed the use of photogrammetry to create 3D models of the ship, its parts and the tools we would use in constructing it. Subsequently we were kindly given access (by Felix Pedrotti of Southampton University) to some online tutorials about using software and how to upload and convert the images into a 3D model. I also did some research online and contacted Julian Whitewright for advice (there is a profile of Julian in the February 2021 newsletter).
Most people would choose to start with something relatively small that could be photographed under ideal conditions – like the clamp shown at the top of this post. However, we decided that the first photogrammetry project for the SHSC records should be the log that will form the keel of the ship. The keel log is 13 metres long and currently stored in a poorly lit barn. Our project was no small task!
In January, fellow volunteer David Keeble and I made our first attempt to record the keel log and a second log that will be used for the stem and stern. We had to decide on the section to be covered in each picture, and on how many to take down the length of the whole log. There would need to be a large enough overlap in each picture so that the software creating the 3D image can work out how each picture sits in relation to the next – and from that build a 3D model. Clever software!
We marked out locations about a metre apart with white tape down the length of each log , and about the same distance from the sides. We decided that three photographs would be needed at each location: close to the floor, about 75cm above the floor and looking down onto the log as close to vertically as possible.
The image below shows the plan that I sent Julian for advice on the angles we needed to cover.
On Julian’s advice we set more locations for pictures to be taken from each end of the log that would help the software interpret the images. So we marked 36 locations around each log and took three pictures from each one, starting off at the lower level and then going round the entire log again at the second and third heights.
The right levels of light are important so it was challenging at times – low light levels meant long exposures and in places we had to use extra lighting but too bright a light also causes problems. We ended up with 216 carefully taken photographs!
We sent all the images of to Julian to upload using the Agisoft computer programme at Southampton University. But after all the our efforts the software couldn’t create a 3D model. We needed even more pictures, especially at the ends and from the top.
So, we are going back to try again with more lights. I will fix the lens on the camera so that the zoom doesn’t change and we will need to work out the maximum possible distance that we can get from the trunk where space is limited. Hopefully second time lucky!
The photo below and video link show how well the technique can work.
This is the fourth in Joe’s series of speculative posts – click here for links to parts 1, 2 and 3
Edwin Gifford built a half-length replica of the Sutton Hoo ship in 1993 – Sæ Wylfing (moored outside the Longshed in the photo above). He was fed up with people saying that the shape of the hull meant that it could not sail in much the same way as the classic Viking ships.
He was not seeking authenticity in materials, building techniques, and so on, but he did take care over the shape of the hull. The weight of Sæ Wylfing is 675 kg. Crudely, you would then expect the full-size ship to weigh 2 x 2 x 2 = 8 times this, or nearly five and a half tonnes. The hull and the ribs of the reconstructed ship are indeed expected to come close to this, but the thwarts, other internal supports, and a deck will add further weight. Actually we are expecting it to weigh in at about 9 tonnes.
And of course he rigged a mast, and a yard and a sail to go up it.
Gifford gave the central thwart a thicker support in the middle, and some reinforcement where the front of the mast pushed against it. In the image below, down between the oars you can see a lengthways member, with a recess in it. This is called a keelson, and the hole is a mast step, where the bottom of the mast fits. The main force the mast exerts on the hull is downwards, and the job of the keelson is to distribute this.
Gifford recounts some of the adventures he had in Sae Wylfing between 1993 and 1995. All the pictures show him at the helm, and I suspect this was always the case. He made some small additions to the keel in the winter of 1993/4. In 1994, when he was double-reefed in a wind gusting to 22 knots, he found he could make no progress to windward. He “decided to lower mast, first time afloat, and row.” This must have been terrifying. The dedication and composure of his crew was admirable.
His best result sailing to windward was at the Maldon Festival in 1995.
“…we covered three nautical miles direct to windward in 3.5 hours, despite many short tacks and loss of ground in crowded anchorages.”
This is just under one knot for ‘course made good’. For a land lubber that’s about one mile an hour. And the effort of enforced tacks would have been a huge task for the crew.
The full-size reconstructed ship will be eight times as big as Sae Wylfing….Rowing (and paddling) it will be our priority. The first trials will be on the Deben; then the time will come to cross the bar and go out to sea.
When the trials in a seaway are complete, and the ship is much better understood, we can explore how the hull performs with a big sail and the wind from the side.
It’s here. We have a the keel log we have been waiting for!
What a story of suspense, from first identifying the tree in a Forestry England site in Wiltshire nearly a year ago, through delays in felling, postponements because of Covid, a carrier who failed to bring back the goods, to finally manoeuvring the artic into the shed and then craning off the logs.
The log – or logs, for as well as the straight part of the keel we have the curved one for the two ends of the ship – are now safely ensconced in a barn near Woodbridge where the team will be able, soon, to do preparatory work before we bring them to the Longshed, hopefully to great fanfares. Even without fanfares, the arrival at the barn was really quite special. A huge articulated truck complete with (very necessary) accommodation in the cab rolled up one damp chilly January morning, into a giant barn.
Brian Amos, the driver, had been on the road the day before and spent the night in a lay by south of Woodbridge. He demonstrated great skill in manipulating the huge logs off the trailer; the barn owner observed that at one point the apex of the crane was within 15cm of the barn roof but both logs were quickly manoeuvred with pin point precision onto the waiting supports.
This was an occasion where practicality ruled out any attempt at Anglo-Saxon authenticity! Perhaps their log movements would have been more like the description of a nineteenth century timber delivery in this extract from Thomas Hardy’s The Woodlanders
The proud trunks were taken up from the silent spot which had known them through the buddings and sheddings of their growth for the foregoing hundred years; chained down like slaves to a heavy timber carriage with enormous red wheels, and four of the most powerful of Melbury’s horses were harnessed in front to draw them.
The horses wore their bells that day. There were sixteen to the team, carried on a frame above each animal’s shoulders, and tuned to scale, so as to form two octaves, running from the highest note on the right or off-side of the leader to the lowest on the left or near-side of the shaft-horse. Melbury was among the last to retain horse-bells in that neighbourhood; for, living at Little Hintock, where the lanes yet remained as narrow as before the days of turnpike roads, these sound-signals were still as useful to him and his neighbours as they had ever been in former times. Much backing was saved in the course of a year by the warning notes they cast ahead; moreover, the tones of all the teams in the district being known to the carters of each, they could tell a long way off on a dark night whether they were about to encounter friends or strangers.
In the Ship’s Company we often calmly say that “our project to re-create the Sutton Hoo Mound One Ship is the biggest experimental archaeology project in the UK/Europe/the northern hemisphere/the world” just depending on how modest we are feeling. But what are we talking about when we say that?
Many of you will know that as well as being a current Director of the Ship’s Company and Director of the third Sutton Hoo excavation, Professor Martin Carver is just a brilliant communicator. And, admittedly, it was off the cuff in an unscripted interview for one of the SHSC films, but he has also given the most succinct definition of experimental archaeology that I have heard. Martin said “we try things out to see if they work”.
A lot is implied in that simple statement. Coates et al in the paper Experimental Boat and Ship Archaeology: Principles and Methods,state “….to learn more from [excavations] than is immediately obvious ….it is necessary to formulate hypotheses about past technologies, artefacts and cultures…. In Maritime Archaeology such experiments can take the form of building, on a full or reduced scale, models, or making other simulations of ancient boats or ships and testing them in repeatable sea trials, real or simulated.”
We have to try to build what the archaeologists found. We can’t diverge from that – except where the data is flaky or for example the resulting boat wouldn’t float, or wouldn’t float the right way up. And we need to have clear aims, that might be, as Professor Sean McGrail suggested “to use authentic methods and materials to establish how an ancient craft was built and to estimate performance”. (Experimental boat archaeology some methodological considerations 1986)
That is what we are trying our best to achieve. Of course the Anglo-Saxons didn’t build their vessels under electric light in a shed with a smooth concrete floor – and a dry shed with a hard floor is not always an advantage when working green oak with axes!
The photos below show examples of some of the tools that we are using – tools that would have been available to the Anglo-Saxons when they built the original ship.
For our project, what both saves us from blind alleys – but causes a lot of discussion in planning – is the incompleteness of the data. The Ship cannot be re-excavated and we inevitably have to interpret the data in what is a limited record.
But we do have clear aims, stated superbly and succinctly later on in Martin’s interview:
“The construction is to be undertaken with the utmost circumspection and attention to detail. Every action taken that relates to the materials, their assembly, and their adjustment in the ship’s structure is to be recorded so that a trail can be followed to and from every decision made by the shipwright and their advisors.
While no-one can today build an accurate representation of an ancient vessel, we propose to build an experimental craft informed by as much archeological information, previous experience, and science as we can muster.”
The data that we acquire about the implications and consequences of building such a large ship, and the feasibility of its performance on river, sea, and land [hauling between rivers] will move the collective knowledge on Anlgo-Saxon sea-faring from a level of weak generalisation to a new platform of likelihood.”