This month, we have been concentrating on converting the timber which was delivered at the end of September to replace the damaged underloute at the aft end of the keel

Tim Kirk with Jonathan Jukes of the Woodland Trust holding the underloute pattern against a potential tree at Hainault Ancient Forest

To recap, the backbone of the Ship comprises five sections; the Stem, the Bow Underloute, the Keel, the Stern Underloute and the Sternpost. These two Underloute timbers (literally ‘extension piece’) extend the Keel to its full length of around 60 feet (18m)

Original Stern Underloute

During the original excavation in 1939, only a very short time was available to excavate the keel area of the Ship to try to find construction details. This amounted to a day and a half with the afternoon of the 23rd and all of the 24th of August 1939 (see Bruce-Mitford, 1975:375).

At the forward (Bow) end of the Ship, neither fastenings nor scarf locations could be deduced. But at the aft (Stern) end, three long iron rivets (or ‘bolts’ in the academic vernacular) were seen and the period photographs show this location to be between frames 21 and 22. These were assumed to be scarf fastenings for the Keel to the Sternpost joint. However, this location provides us something of a contradiction because at this point the keel has already begun to curve upwards in a transition to the Sternpost (and, by association, the Stem at the forward end of the Ship has done the same). To have a keel of some 48ft (14.6m) length with moderate bends at both ends seems unlikely – as trees don’t tend to grow like that – and yet a keel of this length still leaves both Stem and Sternpost as significantly long (at 20-24 feet / 6.1-7.3m including additional length for scarfs).

The 1967 excavation could add very little information to this due to the deterioration of the site in the intervening period. Thus, we are left with a few options.

  • The Keel could have been the full 60 feet of the waterline length with simple scarfs into the Stem and Sternpost
  • Or these nails might not have been indicating a joint in the backbone at all, but rather a repair to the keel
  • Or the nail pattern in the adjacent area on the plank alongside which could indicate the location of a ‘tingle’ (a patch applied to the planking)
  • Or the true location of the keel scarfs just could not be found, leaving us with a decision to take as to where to locate these scarfs based on data from other Ships.

Later Viking Ships often used a ‘double-scarf’, indicating that intermediate timbers had been used to add length to the Keel. The earlier Nydam Oak boat and the later Graveney boat (both shorter than Sutton Hoo, the Graveney boat significantly so) both had short, horizontal scarfs at each end of the keel.

In the end, the decision came down simply to timber availability. We could not find a sixty-foot-long Oak trunk which led to the use of a shorter 40ft (12m) Keel with extensions – or ‘Underloutes’ – to above the waterline endings and simple curved posts for Stem and Sternpost.

The necessity to use ‘green’ (unseasoned) timber in order that the timber is soft enough to be worked by axes led to a split occurring in the Stern Underloute. After much discussion between staff, volunteers, Trustees, Boatbuilders and Marine Surveyors the decision was taken to replace this timber.

Last month’s report details the sourcing and delivery of this timber (actually three logs suitable as potential replacements. Hopefully, the other two will be used for framing in the Ship

The first two faces successfully cut

The first two faces were cut successfully, but as we proceeded to cut the third face (the Port, or left, side) we uncovered dark staining and then a branch within the heartwood of the timber. We could even count the rings of this branch, which confirmed that it had broken off or been removed at seventeen years of age and that the tree had then proceeded to grow completely over this wound leaving no sign of its existence in the bark or even the sapwood of the tree.

Fortunately, we were able to cut out almost all of the damaged timber, leaving just a disturbed grain pattern. However, further, along the timber, several small knots can be seen which may, or may not, intrude into the side of the timber where the planking will attach. Until the timber is fully shaped, we will not know how much of a problem these might be.

The offending branch was removed, leaving only the stained section. This is believed to be caused by the Beefsteak fungus

This story shows how difficult and frustrating the build can be at times. At least ten different volunteers have already put over two hundred hours of labour into this piece of timber and we are still not sure whether or not we will be able to use it. We keep a tally board of hours so that we know how much time has been spent overall and thus how much the Ship might have been worth to the Anglo-Saxons.

Parts of the canopy of the Hainault underloute trees are being used to make frames for the Midships Model (the forward half of the burial chamber) which we are building as both a training and an experimental tool. These curved or ‘grown’ timbers have extra strength compared to straight timber and will be incorporated into the model. This gives the volunteers experience in converting and fitting curved timbers and allows us to experiment with the resources that we have available compared to the Anglo-Saxons. We have seen that a significant percentage of these ‘branches’ have internal damage due to breakage and growth patterns when they are competing for light. The complicated grain patterns make the timber more difficult to convert with axes.

Tim Kirk, Master Shipwright