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

Follow the Ship

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

Photos courtesy of Jason Smith and Sam Simpson

 

Burying a skiff

I was talking to Pete Clay the other day.  As well as being a Director of the Sutton Hoo Ship’s Company AND Woodbridge Riverside Trust, he’s the doyen of the skiff builders in the Longshed. For readers who are just focused on the Sutton Hoo Shipbuild, skiff building is one of the other things going on in the Longshed and is the polar opposite in terms of build techniques and materials from “our” ship.  It’s constructed from laser cut ply frames and glued together, not riveted with iron nails. It will be painted and polished. And the St Ayle’s skiff is a lovely thing when it is rowed. 

What all that means to Pete you will have to ask him, but in our chat he was speculating what would happen to one of the St Ayle’s skiffs if it was buried at Sutton Hoo.  What would the archaeology be like a thousand or more years later? What impression would the excavators have got of 21st century civilisation? What would their speculations turn into? 

Well, it depends, doesn’t it?  Would it be buried as a grave ship, and if so what would the grave goods be to go with it?  What are the things that are highly valued. Instead of beautiful brooches there might be Apple watches and 3D printed bracelets. Instead of iron side axes there could be chainsaws. Instead of a lyre there could be an electric guitar. Then, what would be left of them after all that time?  Some oxides of metals and some glass.

And what of the skiff?  Plywood is mostly a natural material – wood – but it is bonded with synthetic resins, as the planks are then bonded to the ribs and the hull.  So, knowing how slowly plastics degrade, you could be fairly sure of finding that message from our times.

Ah well, they might say, not sure we can do a recreation of that skiff.  It would be lovely to do but…. I’ve got a message to go through the ages to them.  YES YOU CAN!

The Ship’s Co. International Symposium

On Saturday 6th October, experts from all over the world met at The Longshed in Woodbridge, Suffolk to exchange views on the ‘Phase 1’ plans for building the 29m Anglo-Saxon Ship that was buried at Sutton Hoo in the seventh Century. Whilst many parts of the plan are already reliable hypotheses, a number of questions remain. Delegates focuses on these different aspects of the project including the size and shape of the hull, the materials that it was and will be built with, how it would have moved and been navigated and what was its original purpose prior to becoming King Raedwald’s resting place.

The day generated a great deal of discussion and debate which will now be documented as part of the projects academic rigour. The following eight weeks have been earmarked for additional consultation before finalising the way forward on December 1st 2018.

Photographs courtesy of Robin and Sue Garrod, Woodbridge Camera Club