Joe Startin speculates about whether Anglo-Saxon sailors navigated long distances by the skies

Bede the Venerable was a Benedictine monk who lived AD672-732.  At the age of 7 he entered the Benedictine monastery at Monkwearmouth, near Sunderland.  This was a recent foundation, with an excellent library.  A few years later he transferred to a new sister monastery at nearby Jarrow.

He never travelled far, but he communicated widely.  His Latin was good, and he ranks highly as an early medieval historian.  As far as I know, he wrote nothing about navigation, I believe this is significant.

It would be good to know if in his day, sailors were deliberately making long-range crossings of the North Sea to and from England.  Doing so would demand good offshore navigation skills, based on timekeeping and observation of the sun.

Bede was fascinated by the regularities of nature and all this would have impressed him.  The opportunity to exploit the rules of nature in this way would have seemed like divine providence.  He would not have been able to resist writing about it.  As it was, he wrote nothing; so, I would argue, this level of navigation was not current.

Okay, he might have mentioned it in a work that got lost, or I might have got the man wrong.  It is always dangerous to argue on the basis of absence of evidence, but please bear with me.

Bede wrote ‘De Temporum Ratione’, (On the Reckoning of Time) in AD 725.  He describes how to count and record the passing of time; explains that the solar year is not an exact number of days, and how the Julian Calendar uses leap days to account for this; deals with why the moon appears in the different ways that it does, and how it passes through the constellations of the Zodiac. He links the moon to the tides in a more thoughtful way than anyone earlier. Eventually he moves on to the major topic, which is his favoured method for forecasting the date of Easter – using the Metonic cycle, the observation that 235 lunar months are very close to 19 solar years.  (We now know the discrepancy is only a couple of hours.)

[Image from De Temporum Ratione, translation by Faith Wallis, Liverpool University Press]

De Temporum Ratione brings together information which up until then was only piecemeal.  It was coherent and lucid, and became a standard text across Europe for three hundred years or more.

In passing, Bede explains the variation in the length of daylight through the seasons, and why this is more marked in higher latitudes.  He expects his readers to be familiar with sundials.  He points out how high tides occur at different times around the coasts of Britain, moving as a wave rather than a simultaneous surge.

Suppose sailors were using the position of the sun and time of day to work out their direction of travel.  Suppose they could spend days out of sight of land and arrive where they wanted to.  Bede would have been enthralled, revelled in the details, and found it a source of uplifting metaphor, but he wrote not a word about it.

Joe Startin

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


Anglo Saxon Tools – Part 1 Axes

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)

Figure 1. Migration period axes and other woodworking tools found at Nydam (Engelhardt, 1866; pl. XV)

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).

T-shaped axes
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).


Figure 8 . Replica Anglo Saxon felling axe, based on axes found at Nydam and Flixborough

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).

Figure 9. Replica T-shaped axe made by Hector Cole

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


Where’s my fixing ?

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?’.

Roger Hopkins

May 2021







More ship finds please… Joe Startin discusses the form of the keel for our ship

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 Other Team on “The Dig” – Joe Startin

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 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…

Joe Startin



An Experience of Photogrammetry by Andy Spencer

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.

Andy Spencer

R2 D2, an exercise in photogrammetry by David Matzliach

Joe Startin Speculates, ‘Did the Sutton Hoo Ship Sail?’ (Part 4)

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.

Sae Wylfing on the Deben 2019

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.

Joe Startin

What on earth is experimental archaeology?

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.

Digital image of the ship based on the record of where rivets were found in the original excavation – the colours indicate differing levels of certainty – black highest and blue lowest.

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.”

That is our grand aim.

.Philip Leech

News from the Director of the Institute for Digital Archaeology – Roger Michel

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.

Racing a Bermudan Gig 2017

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.

Image of the White Ship disaster

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.