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
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?’.
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.”