As we continue the behind-the-scenes planning to return to working in the Longshed we have, at last, been able to commence preparatory work on the timbers for the backbone of the ship.
Some time ago we took the decision to saw blanks for the keel and posts (from the logs that were delivered in January). We have made up a ladder to guide the first cut of the chainsaw mill, to avoid wasting the valuable resource that these logs represent.
The keel log will be cut at the beginning of April and transported to the Longshed so that it can be shaped and finished with axes.
The curved log for the ‘underloute’ and lower stems will get the same treatment. Fitting patterns from the lofting that we did earlier shows that this log is as near a perfect fit as could be wished for.
When all these parts are in the Longshed we will truly be able to say that the actual build of the ship has begun.
Whilst on maternity leave, NAS Education Manager Peta Knott, from the Nautical Archaeology Society, is taking a break from work and enjoying the many archaeological lectures, workshops and most recently – movies – that are currently available online.
The Dig, released on 29 January, is a new film by Netflix exploring the story of the excavation of the Great Ship Burial at Sutton Hoo in 1939. The film is based on a novel, also titled The Dig, written by John Preston. Many of the events and characters depicted in both the film and the novel are inspired by real events and real people. Read on to discover the incredible true story, and meet some of the characters involved with, one of the greatest archaeological discoveries of all time.
In this article written by Erin Blakemore for the National Geographic, the author explores whether or not the Sutton Hoo Ship was the last of its kind…
‘Archaeologists can be a careful bunch. They hedge their bets, question the data at every turn, and tend to spurn any hint of sensationalism. But bring up the ancient burial mounds of Sutton Hoo in southeast England, and even the most circumspect scholar will spout superlatives. Magnificent! Monumental! Unparalleled! .. read on
Towards the end of the article they write ‘And what exactly was the nature of the vessel? Was it a warship or more of a ship of state – a 7th-century Britannia? We may be in a better position to judge when a project to build a working full-size replica of the ship comes to fruition. It will give us a far better idea, for example, of exactly how it handles on the water. The Sutton Hoo Ship’s Company aims to have its vessel built and ready to begin trials in three years, and hopes that The Dig will generate more interest in its undertaking.’
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.”
Unfortunately, lockdown has again slowed our progress. However with the arrival of two logs for the backbone we are in a good position finally to begin the build of the Ship as restrictions ease.
We have lofted (drawn full scale) the stem and stern posts which will enable new patterns to be taken for the underlouts (between the main keel and stem/stern). The sections of the stem and sternpost and the logs for the keel can be rough sawn before delivery into the Longshed for final finishing. At present, we aim to complete the stem and stern posts in two pieces – as shown in the photo below of the model that I made.
Because of the size of the posts (some 6m long and 300mm square in section before shaping) it isn’t easy to find exact curves on a log of suitable quality.
Hopefully this will all happen around Easter time. In the meantime, stay safe and sharpen your axes.
We are building a full size version of the ship dug up by Basil Brown, Mrs Edith Pretty and Charles Phillips during the excavation celebrated in John Preston’s book and now in the Netflix film THE DIG.
THE DIG took place just across the river Deben from where our ship is taking shape. From our long shed we can see the ridge that carries the Sutton Hoo mounds and the house where Mrs Pretty lived and kept an eye on the dig through her bow window. It is a beautiful piece of Suffolk landscape now owned by the National Trust and of course visitable by the public – Covid permitting. The mounds can still be seen nestling behind Top Hat Wood with its pine trees, where the 1939 team parked its Hillman and its shepherd’s hut on wheels that acted as their HQ. Here the great line of the ship lay open to the sky – 27m long and picked out by a pattern of iron rivets that had held its planks together. Here Mrs Pretty and her visitors sat in wicker chairs observing the dig through opera glasses. Here the team brewed their tea on an open fire of pine cones. And in the shadow of those trees the finds were laid out on planks and in wooden boxes among the pine needles, the precious gold objects of the buried king packed in woodland moss in tobacco tins. The work went on all through the hot summer of 1939, when an invasion was expected from the north west European continent, the same place that had launched the Anglo-Saxons in their timber ships towards Suffolk, 15 centuries before.
These ships were pointed at both ends, with a flat keel and curving planks of oak. Our ship is authentic, based on the one found and recorded by Basil Brown, Stuart Piggot, and Commander Hutchinson. The pattern of rivets in the sand gave the basic shape of the hull as found, albeit squashed under thousands of tons of sandy mound. The rivets were the first clue that a ship lay hidden under the mound and Basil, recognising what they were, went carefully from rusty mark to rusty mark with his pastry brush revealing the lines. The planks were mostly gone leaving a thin carpet of black dust, but in the centre was a mass of woody remains – the burial chamber where the king’s coffin lay with treasure stacked around him.
Our ship is based on those records, measurements and plans and photographs and a bit of film made at the time, together with the results of another 80 years of archaeological research, on the site, in the British Museum and in the laboratories. The ship was the greatest artefact produced by the dig, and the greatest vehicle of its time – it’s an iconic vessel we want to know more about. There is still much experimental work to do before the ship can be recreated as it once was; the right oak, correctly split into planks, the right keel straight and true, the correct rivets – our aim is to do what the English shipwrights did a thousand years ago: walk the woods looking for suitable trees, craft the timber into a hull, test its seaworthiness and eventually – yes – row and sail it down the river and out to sea.
In 2019 a new team came to Sutton Hoo – not a digging crew or a ship’s crew but a film crew, with Suffolk born Ralph Fiennes and Carey Mulligan in the lead.
Their re-enactment of the 1939 dig will speak for itself and make many new friends for the great discovery that changed the story of England. But it will speak for all of us long-term researchers too. We are delighted that Ralph Fiennes is supporting our project; he said
” Working on the film The Dig has given me a compelling insight into the history of Sutton Hoo. I am very excited that a team of volunteers at The Sutton Hoo Ship’s Company are actually recreating King Raedwald’s famous vessel. I believe it will prove a remarkable aide in bringing this part of our history to life. I know a huge amount of diligence and expertise is being devoted to the project. I can’t wait to see it when it is finished. I wish everyone involved all success in this great project.”
One day our ship will be the star. Come and see us or lend a hand as soon as you can —- it is your interest and support that will push the ship ever nearer the slipway.
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.
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.
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.