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.
Google “maul” and you will get a variety of definitions, like being clawed by a lion or clashing on the rugby field. The Merriam-Webster dictionary is the first one I looked at that defined a maul in the sense we are using it – a heavy often wooden headed hammer – which is what we asked Damian Goodburn, a very experienced user of a special version of this tool, to tell us about. All of us in SHSC have admired Damian’s own very special maul.
First of all, he added to the definition “Single piece mauls or mells are still used by some green woodworkers and hedge layers. They are generally stronger than those with separate handles and heads and this allows the handle shaft to be of thinner dimensions, which absorbs shock better than the modern separate timber handle.”
Well, how on earth can you get a hammer made from a single piece of wood? Of course, Damian has the answer
“Any tough species of timber can be used where a branch stem junction is the right shape, but if the large striking head is made of a knotty section of the main tree stem then it will last all the better.” And he knows, from experience “In my holly example the knots act as bolts holding the timber together, so it resists splitting for a long period of use. Holly is also a very hard wood and many of the branches join the main stem at about 90 degrees, just right for the job. My example is well over 20 years old and has been used for driving wooden wedges to cleave logs and driving fence stakes etc regularly during all that time. It still has some life left in it yet!”
And he ain’t just pussyfooting – “The largest log split using the maul was c. 1.2m diameter, of oak and used for making the pair of bottom planks for the research and display hull section replica of the Dover Middle Bronze Age boat.”
That seems particularly apposite because, he goes on to say – “The oldest single piece maul we have in British archaeology is an early Bronze Age example of Yew from the Somerset levels.”
Damian has recently been in action with his 20 year old maul “Most recently it was used to cleave a moderately large ash log at the Weald and Downland Museum in W Sussex during two weekends of demonstrating aspects of Saxon woodworking or ‘treewrighting’ in early September”
I hope we aren’t still going to need to be using the SHSC holly mauls in 20 years time – at least not on the current project!
Building this great ship starts with construction of the keel. What did we need to look for when identifying suitable trees?
The key point is that finding a straight, and nearly flawless, oak for the thin plank keel is a huge challenge in England today as we have no wildwood. Damian Goodburn advised that “Even in early Anglo-Saxon times after intensive Roman use of the woodlands for 350 years this would have been a big challenge. It might have been easier later once the wildwood spread out further, until the 13th century in southern England.”
A deeper section of keel that could accommodate some knots would make the challenge a little easier, but this is not an option. That’s because we are constructing a ship that does not just exist in the Shipwright’s head. Our aim is to build a ship that is as near as possible to the original ship that was buried at Sutton Hoo, and we are working to a plan that’s based on what was found in the burial mound. The evidence from the burial mound is that the original ship had the shallowest keel imaginable, as you can see from this cross section of a (rather smart) model that Damian made for the original exhibition at Sutton Hoo.
The keel is the T shaped section in the middle of this photo. It is a slight thing, but it beautifully reflects the evolution of shipbuilding, from rafts, through hollowed-out logs, to hollowed out logs with planks attached at the sides to deepen the vessel, to a plank as the keel… The keel may be slight but it is a lot more sophisticated and allows the ship to grounded without damage. What extra strength it has over a plank isn’t clear – our ship probably flexed a good deal. The strength to keep its shape also came from the thwarts – 26 cross pieces that it was probably possible to sit on whilst rowing.
Our keel hunters have found a beautiful, straight grained and knot free tree. Although finding something in southern England long enough didn’t seem likely at one stage. Even so, whilst the keel needs to be straight, the stem and stern just aren’t. Luckily we also found a tree with a curved trunk that looks like it will fit the bill. Damian has provided a practical solution as to what to do to make the best of our lovely straight log and the curved one as well.
“I suggest that the practice attested in later Viking longships and later medieval clinker vessels be uses, that is a keel with two linking pieces – ‘lots’ or ‘underlouts’, and stems above each underlout. That is the main keel of about 10-11 metres with enough for scarfs each end be scarfed to more ‘v’ shaped and curved underlouts at each end about 6 metres long which are then also scarfed to the main upper stem timbers above them around 6.5 metres long. This approach could be adapted to the actual timber obtained and adjusted as required – though symmetry was likely. The scarf locations would also be bridged by garboards and other bottom planking.”
For those who aren’t boatbuilders or maritime archaeologists, this means: at the end of the straight bit of keel under the ship, the gentle curve upwards is produced by joining the keel first to one (underlout) then another, curved piece. The overlapping joints at the end of the keel and between the two curved bits are the scarfs – as you can see the scarf joint at point F in the photo below.
And the garboards are the first planks that make up the bottom, then the sides of the vessel. You can see them in the first photograph (of Damian’s model).
Damian again: “All the parent timbers found have to be cut out well over length ie 12-14 metres for the keel and about 7 metres, with appropriate curves, including scarfs for the underlout and stem logs. As the late Saxon Graveney boat has a stern post made from half a log and this – two stems from one curved log approach – was widely used in practice in later medieval vessels, I would suggest that each selected log be divided in two, length-ways, by sawing and then hewn into shape with Saxon style axes.”
There is an element of revolution in that advice. Damian is suggesting that we use saws for some of the processes and finish the work with traditional hand tools. The heresy is to saw the logs but he makes the suggestion with good reason:
“The Anglo-Saxons did not have saws of any size. But I personally think that splitting the log for the keel is unrealistic and could be enormously time consuming as defects in the chosen log’s grain might make each log half unusable and in large timbers the defects could be hidden inside the parent logs until too late. Roskilde (our colleagues at the Viking Ship Museum in Denmark) have already shown that this is a perennial problem for keels and stems in early clinker vessels that are made without any sawing length-ways.”
So the point is, that you could do a huge amount of work and up with a keel shaped piece of wood that is totally unfit for purpose and in essence wasted. A whole oak gone for nothing. We cannot risk that. Following Damian’s advice we will record the sawing for display and publication as a technical compromise. Shaping the best keel slab with Anglo-Saxon tools will still be a great spectacle and a huge challenge.
So, how do we think that using a non-traditional method as part of the construction affects the project? Is it still and authentic reception of the Sutton Hoo King’s Ship? Our overwhelming answer is – yes, it will still be authentic. Using sawn timber to construct the keel will not affect the weight, the strength or the appearance of the ship, and very importantly, will not impact on the validity of sea trials. It will reduce time and expense, as well as probably saving us from wasting trees. There are other obvious compromises that we have already accepted: did the Anglo-Saxons build indoors on a concrete floor? Did the fell their trees with chain saws? Were their labourers volunteers, and did they have protective equipment?
We can’t conceive of all the problems that the Anglo-Saxons overcame in building their King’s Ship. Adopting the practical compromises that we are choosing to make just leaves us all the more in awe of what they achieved.
We often get asked why we are using green oak to build the Ship and why we are (where practicable) using ancient techniques. Here, Dr Damian Goodburn who knows much, much more about medieval oak than most people, provides us with many reasons why we should do so. The photo above shows Damian using a side axe.
“Simply put, green logs and roughed out timbers are very, very much easier to work with human muscles than partially, or totally seasoned timbers – especially using simple hand tools, such as axes. This is probably principally why it was used in such a green state. And there is much evidence for the use of green timber in the early medieval period for ship building (including from Sutton Hoo and large scale woodwork elsewhere) – and no evidence against it.
Experiment and experience shows that if the surfaces of the timber are worked green an axe-finished surface is smooth with little or no tearing of the grain, with widely spaced axe marks. Well-preserved surfaces on early medieval boat timbers and other heavy woodwork show a smoothness that would fit with this. The impression that the Sutton Hoo Ship left in the ground was entirely smooth. Where second-hand seasoned timbers are re-used and refinished, because of the comparative hardness of dry oak the tool marks are much rougher and closer together.
Historical sources from the end of the early medieval period, and images such as the Bayeux tapestry, and other embroidery, show that timber was worked on in the woods where it was felled. This implies rapid, green roughing out at the very least.
Later medieval ship and boatyard excavations also show roughed out timbers arrived in the yards in freshly felled condition with some work having been done at the felling sites. The lack of drying shakes (cracks running through the timber) or any marked decay supports this – though in a few cases there was also some re-use of second-hand timber taken from earlier vessels.
Systematic tree ring dating studies of early medieval woodwork and boat timbers (all a little later than the ship burial at Sutton Hoo) show very little evidence of stock piling timbers for seasoning. Where we do have historical dates for medieval buildings and vessels made largely or entirely of oak, for the vast majority of timbers evidence from tree-rings shows that felling was usually only shortly before the recorded date of construction.
A quick turnaround – using green rather than seasoned oak – has benefits from an economic perspective, and to avoid timber degradation from drying shakes, rot or insect decay. Degradation is less problematic when timbers are worked into smaller sections.
In reality the terms seasoned versus green are rather misleading extremes, even today. We might accept oak as ‘seasoned’ when moisture content is down to about 20% or less, whereas green oak has much more moisture-sap in it. In the early medieval period totally seasoned timber (other than second hand material) is likely to have been a rarity and for use in small high status items.
Wet storage inhibits decay and slows down any hardening before finishing. Some strands of archaeological evidence suggest that early medieval boat and ship builders in NW Europe were well aware of the issue of controlling seasoning. There is evidence of wet-stored rough out timbers such as the Eigg stem. Very acid bog water or salt water would probably be best.
Splitting before use may reduce drying distortion. Radial cleaving, ie splitting the trunk across the diameter then again across the radius of each piece, produces the greatest natural strength in planks. A tangential split, ie splitting off a piece not directly across the diameter is less strong. We believe that the Anglo-Saxons did not have saws of any size (unlike the Romans or later the Vikings) so splitting using one of these methods would have been used to produce planks. The cleft plank would be finished (hewn) nicely with side axes.
A close look at the Bayeux embroidery shipbuilding scenes shows that the roughed out cleft boards were put up in the tree crotches to dry after splitting. This suggests partial rapid drying of those thin hull boards. This can only achieved without massive distortion and splitting using radially cleft boards (not tangentially cleft and hewn or sawn planks). Oak that has been converted into boards the ancient way using radial cleaving shrinks much less (about 50%) because of the way the timber is structured. Splitting and distortion is also limited.
Partial drying, when the wood is still relatively green, also has the advantage of making bending easier. Think of bending a fresh stick of celery compared with a slightly wilted one – the latter is much easier, but the celery is still green. With the easy lines and gentle bends of the Sutton Hoo Ship this is only of academic interest – it probably wouldn’t have been an issue.”