18. Out of the Ice Age: Skin Boats of the North
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18 Out of the Ice Age Skin Boats of the North Small boats . . . covered with the skin of a slain ox. . . . In such craft, the Venetian navigates the flooded Po and the Briton his wide ocean. —Lucan, first century AD Although rafts were effective in many ways, their very nature provided little potential for further evolution. Later in time than rafts but still very anciently, displacement-­ hulled craft came into existence, ultimately ramifying into a variety of kinds of vessels, in­ clud­ ing those that led up to modern wooden ships. There are only a few major traditions of preindustrial hulled-­ watercraft construction , and most of these have largely coherent geographic ranges reflecting both physical-­environmental and his­ tori­cal factors. One of these traditions, associated largely with the far and moderately far North in both hemispheres (where the material has a relatively long life expectancy), is that of elongate hide-­covered pole-­ framework boats. Simple skin boats seem to go back to Upper Paleolithic Magdalenian times (16,000–10,000 BC) in Eurasia, although multiple-­ hide ones may have awaited the Mesolithic. The oldest known depictions of seagoing watercraft—petroglyphs of boats resembling Inuit umiaks—date to about 4000 to 6000 BC or more on the Isle of Sørøya in north­ ernmost Norway. An ivory from far east­ ern Russia’s Chukotka circa 1000 BC depicts whale hunting from an umiak. The oldest archaeological possible boat remains discovered so far are what may be a frame fragment from a skin craft, found in Schleswig-­ Holstein, Germany, and dating to the ninth millennium BC.1 Circa 600 BC, the Carthaginian captain Himlicar mentioned Breton hide craft voyaging to Ireland, and three centuries later the Greek traveler Pytheas of Massalia saw such craft in the north as well. Probably based on Pytheas’s account referring to around 320 BC, Pliny wrote of six-­day tin-­trade voyaging from Britain to Brittany in hide boats.2 Rufius Festus Avienus (fourth century AD) wrote of the Cornish, in Ora Maritima, “They fit their vessels with united hides / And of­ ten traverse the deep in a hide.”3 The Classical authors Lucan, Caesar, Strabo, and Solinus also mention animal-­ skin craft and voyaging in them upon the Irish Sea and the English Channel. Franks are said to have been ranging Skin Boats of the North / 193 widely and raiding their neighbors in skin “ships” during the third century AD, and the sixth-­ century Atlantic voyages of the Irish abbot (Saint) Brendan were undertaken in a hide-­ covered sailing-­ vessel called a currach (described below). Skin-­ boat construction involves a framework of bent and lashed poles, laths, and/or wickerwork,4 which is then covered with tanned, greased, stitched-­ together hides, sometimes in multiple layers (if the hides are not greased, as among Aleuts, they become waterlogged within a couple of days and begin to deteriorate if not beached and dried). Skin boats include (1) largely riverine and estuarine basket-­ like round coracles or “bullboats” (conceivably derived from dome-­ shaped skin-­ covered huts), apparently originating in South­ west Asia, likely in Paleolithic times and spreading with the earliest farmers of the Neolithic; and (2) framework craft longer than wide, which were perhaps influenced by bark-­ canoe forms and which developed in the north of Eurasia, later spreading to arctic America. Some European seagoing hide boats were provided with keels, reached lengths of over 71 feet (about 80 feet is the theoretical maximum length), and were capable of carrying at least twelve persons (fig­ ure 18.1). The Cambridge archaeologist Grahame Clark averred, “The keeled skin-­ covered boat represents in effect a perfect adjustment in the sphere of sea-­ transport between an economy based to some extent on the pursuit of sea mammals and an ecology deficient in trees capable of providing the timber needed for solid dug-­ out canoes” or bark for bark canoes.5 Elongated skin boats, most propelled by paddling, are still used from Kamchatka to Greenland, the best-­ known examples being the Inuit’s small, covered kayak, the east­ern Siberians’ equivalent called the baidarka, and the larger, open but seaworthy umiak, which linguistics implies have minimum ages of 4,000– 5,000 years and archaeological attestation dates to even earlier. Umiaks range up to 60 feet in length, with even 40-­ foot ones having a capacity of 5 tons of cargo and sixty persons, and at least in historic times they sometimes employed a square sail. Without a load...


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