- - - - -

Thursday, December 26, 2013

More Pacific Northwest Canoe Items: Peabody Museum #5

This post, the fifth in a series on exhibits at Harvard University's Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnologyhighlights more canoe-related items from North America's Pacific Northwest. Earlier, the series looked at Baffinland InuitAleut, other Alaskan Eskimo, and other Pacific Northwest exhibits. Quotations in the photo captions are from the exhibit display cards.


Chinook canoe model
The Chinook people traditionally lived along the Columbia River in Oregon and Washington. "The form of the canoe existed in the eighteenth century (and probably earlier), but the presence of glass beads in the design suggests that the model dates to the early nineteenth century. Had it been made earlier, sea otter teeth would have been used in forming the decorative patterns." (Click any image to enlarge.)
Model of a Tlingit or Haida "head" canoe
Tlingit or Haida canoe model, collected about 1849. Both groups traditionally lived around the present-day border between British Columbia and Alaksa. "The style of this vessel is called a 'head canoe.' It is only known from models, since it went out of fashion in the early nineteenth centry. This model is probably made of yellow cedar and has an unsual beak, perhaps relating to a Thunderbird, although it could signify any of a number of creatures. The rest of the design is also ambiguous."
Bow detail of a model Tlingit or Haida "head" canoe
Detail of the bow of the head canoe in the previous photo, showing two "head" images, one painted, the other painted and carved.
Coast Salish adze
Hand adze from the Quinault group of the Coast Salish people of western Washington state. "The adze is a principal wood-working tool among Northwest Coast Indians. Traditionally the blade was made of stone, but steel substituted in the eighteenth century. The handles of these tools, however, show strong continuities in form and decoration through time. The handle of this D-shaped adze is carved out of whalebone, while the blade is cut down from a small ax head. The lashings may be of twisted whale or sea lion sinew....(P)robably dates to the early nineteenth century."
Clayoquot canoe bailer
Canoe bailer from the Clayoquot region of British Columbia, collected before 1905. "Bailers of square form were common among the Westcoast Indians... It once had attached to it a handle of twisted cedar withes."
Nootka paddle, Tlingit or Chugach bow and arrow
Left: Canoe paddle, yew wood, collected in Nootka Sound, 1794. "Standard Westcoast features include the delicate form of the blade, the square cross-section of the grip, and the separately carved handle attached by pegs. The surface of the paddle is blackened with pitch and oil. A wrapping of kelp...served as both a grip as well as a pad where the paddle rubbed against the gunwales...."  Center and right: Bow, quiver, and arrow; either Yakutat Tlingit or Chugach Eskimo, prior to 1905. Sea otters remained abundant in Tlingit country in the 19th century, after they had been virtually exterminated in other areas of the Pacific Northwest. Although guns were in common use there, "(b)ows and arrows continued to be used for hunting sea otter, because of their silence. One gunshot would scatter a herd."   
Grips of Nootka paddle, Tlingit or Chugach bow and arrow
Details of the grips of the paddle and bow in the previous photo.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Nootka, Haida, Kwakiutl Dwellings and Canoes: Peabody Museum #4

Let's look at more maritime-related dioramas at Harvard University's Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, these depicting cultures of the Pacific Northwest of North America. (Previous posts about the Peabody's exhibits include coverage of Baffinland Inuit, Aleuts and other Alaskan Eskimo.) 

Nootka whaling diorama
The Nuu-chah-nulth people, formerly known as the Nootka, traditionally lived on Vancouver Island, where whaling, as shown in this diorama, constituted one of their important economic activities. The aboveground house is entirely built of planks, with stones weighting down the roof planks. I don't know the purpose of the horizontal log raised on log uprights just to the right of the house. (Click any image to enlarge.)
Nootka diorama whaling scene
Three Nuu-chah-nulth dugout canoes gather around a whale kill. Probably all three helped tow the carcass into shore after it had died from multiple harpoon wounds. With their clear head and tail, the canoes' overall shape is zoomorphic, i.e., shaped to depict or imitate an animal.
Nootka whaling canoe and gear
A close-up of one of the whaling canoes and its associated gear. In the bow is a coiled line attached to a triangular piece of wood, the purpose of which I don't know. (Help please, readers.) Moving aft, there's a square wooden box, an inflated skin float, three paddles with lanceolate blades and T-grips, and atop it all a very large harpoon, with the head separated from the shaft and attached to a line. To the right, the whale shows multiple harpoon wounds, and several floats are still attached by lines to embedded harpoon heads. 
Nootka canoe with harpoon
Another canoe close-up, with the harpoon head attached to the shaft, and several paddles. The canoes were built of a single hollowed log which was "expanded" to increase the beam. In this process, the hollowed log was filled with water; fire-heated stones were placed inside until the water boiled; as they cooled, stones were regularly replaced with newly heated ones to keep the water temperature high; when the wood had softened sufficiently, thwarts were forced between the gunwales to force the sides apart. This would commonly add some rocker to the hull. 
Haida fishing canoe model
Moving on to another Pacific Northwest culture: the traditional home of the Haida people was coastal northern British Columbia and southern Alaska. The basic canoe-building process was the same as that of the Nuu-chah-nulth, but the boats exhibit striking differences. Most notable is the forward skeg: the boat's bow is to the right, and what appears to be a conventional stern skeg is actually a kind of cutwater. This is a fishing canoe. In the stern is what appears to be a leister, a fish spear whose head has a central point on which the fish is impaled, and two prongs on either side that prevent it from escaping. In the bow is a long-handled dip net. The decorated paddles have broad, rounded blades somewhat like beavertails, and a grip reminiscent of the Maine Northwoods style. The woman immediately behind the canoe holds a box that appears to be carved from a solid block of wood. The person to her left wears a bentwood hat.   
Haida fishing canoe, exterior painting
Close-up of the same canoe, showing details of painted decoration and the bow skeg. At extreme right, a dip net of a different pattern rests against the house wall. The houses display massive timber  perimeter framing.
Kawkiutl village diorama
The traditional range of the Kwakwa̱ka̱’wakw people (formerly and incorrectly known as the Kwakiutl, who were actually just one of the tribes of the Kwakwa̱ka̱’wakw culture) was northern Vancouver Island and the nearby mainland and smaller islands. From the exhibit's display card: "As with most Northwest Coast tribes, Kwakiutl villages are found along the shoreline. This is because the sea traditionally furnished their principal foods, including various species of fish, sea mammals, and molluscs. A memorial pole stands before two permanent houses in this scene. Prior to the introduction of commercial lumber, the Kwakiutl made boards of split planks of red cedar. This wood was of particular importance to these Indians for many items of manufacture. The completed house has an elaborate design on its front which identifies the crests of the family. The framework for these houses consists of heavy beams and posts, all of which were carved and notched prior to raising. The roof boards are split so that their edges turn up. When placed on the rafter, the lower boards are set concave side up so that they serve as gutters. Heavy stones are set on one of these roofs as an added precaution to keep the planks from blowing off during inclement weather."
Kawkiutl dugout canoe model
Close-up of a Kwakwaka'wakw dugout canoe with leister and paddle. This top view shows a hull that is symmetrical fore-and-aft, including the end decorations. The paddle has a long, narrow, rounded blade and an elaborate form of T-grip.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

More Alaska Eskimo Maritime Items: Peabody Museum #3

Let's look at more Aleut and other Alaskan Eskimo maritime and related cultural items at Harvard University's Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology. (See previous posts on the museum's Baffinland Inuit and other Aleut exhibits.) All quotations are from exhibit display cards.


"Diorama of Alaska Eskimo House Group" is, unfortunately, all the information given, so the specific locale is a mystery to me. At right is a cutaway view of a semi-subterranean, multi-family house, fairly similar to the Aleut one shown in the previous post, except that this one has its entrance through the side, rather than through the roof. Planks are used to extend the walls above ground level and as roof structure, then the whole is covered with a thick layer of earth. At center are plank-built structures: I believe the one in the foreground is a fishing shack that would be set up right at the edge of the shore, and the one behind it either for gear storage or ceremonial use. In the background are several food cache structures. (Click any image to enlarge.)
Close-up of the diorama's right side. At left is a man with a fish trap. To his right are drying racks for split fish, likely cod or halibut. A paddle on the ground beside the kayak has a single blade of an unusual shape. 
Close-up of the kayak at the far left of the top photo. According to Harvey Golden, founder of the Lincoln Street Kayak & Canoe Museum in Portland, Oregon, it's "a Central Yup'ik kayak-- the type used on the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta and adjacent coasts and Islands (including Nunivak Island)." (Almost simultaneously, this blog received a comment from "John," also identifying it as a Central Yupik type. John's comment is worth reading.)

The Yupik kayak as shown in Adney & Chappelle's The Bark Canoes and Skin Boats of North America. As Harvey Golden notes, "the scale drawings of these types make them look massive and blocky, but as the model shows, they are rather elegant craft." Harvey has built a wonderful replica of this kayak, and he reports that another is near completion.
Man's hat, typical of the Aleutians and southwest Alaska, early 19th century. "The caribou effigies at the top of the ivory wing pieces are unusual, because sea hunting equipment rarely depicts land animals."
A wooden helmet from Kodiak Island, collection before 1869. This was worn on top of the head when hunting seals on the sea ice. Hunters would typically hide behind rocks or ice blocks, peering carefully while disguised as a seal and awaiting the moment when a real seal was far enough from open water to dash out of cover and make the kill with either a spear or a club.
Model of a three-hole kayak, similar to those in the previous post. The bow paddler wears a gutskin paddling jacket and a decorated bentwood hat topped with a bird effigy -- possibly a sign of status. The other men wear wooden visors. The man in the center cockpit is about to hurl a harpoon with a throwing board.
Upper left: whale amulet, stone, Point Barrow, prior to 1894. Lower left: sea otter amulet, walrus ivory. "It was probably tied to the inside of a kayak rim where it improved the fortune of the hunter. Bristol Bay or Aleutian region, prior to 1867. Center: Whaling harpoon rest from north Alaska. "The large heads carved out of walrus ivory are polar bears, while the smaller ones are either white fox or, possibly, sea otter. The wide U-shaped opening rested on the gunwales of an umiak during the whale hunt, so only the small inoffensive animals could be 'seen' by the whales. Early 19th century. Upper right: ivory toggle in the shape of a seal: possibly a clothing fastener. Collected on Norton Sound prior to 1888. Lower right: amulet of a bear jaw: probably carried for protection when hunting bear.
A floating seal lure, collected prior to 1894. "This sea mammal effigy is made out of wood and fossil ivory. It rattled when it bobbed around in the water, thus attracting a seal.... (It) was collected at Point Barrow, but it is more ornate than what is usually found in that area." 
Two tobacco pipes of walrus ivory. The bowl of the upper one is in the form of a walrus's head (lying on its back, facing upward), and the spike attached by a carved chain of ivory is a probably representational, not functional, pipe cleaner. Both show many incised carvings of sea mammals, birds, game, hunting scenes, fish and fishing, and umiaks. On the upper edge of the lower pipe, about halfway between bowl and mouthpiece and shown upside-down, is a boat (probably an umiak) with a mast supporting a mainsail and topsail. Partially visible in the upper left is an ivory bow from a bow drill collected mid-19th century from Norton Sound and almost certainly nonfunctional. All of these were probably produced for sale to outsiders.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Alaskan/Aleut Diorama, Kayaks: Peabody Museum #2

Here's a look at a display of Alaskan, and specifically Aleut, items at Harvard's Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology. (We previously blogged about the Peabody's fine diorama of a Baffinland Inuit settlement.) I apologize for the quality of the photography, which was shot on my mobile phone, through glass, without a flash.


The diorama shows a "typical late18th century Unangan (Aleut) settlement in the eastern Aleutian Islands... . Some Unangan village settlements were occupied continuously for over 4,000 years. The houses depicted here are rectangular, semi-subterranean, and are accessed through a hole in the roof. They were inhabited by a number of families which occupy separate areas along the sides and ends." The white object left of center is a seal or sea lion skin stretched on a frame. It is being prepared for use as part of the cover of a kayak. (The quotation is from the display card. Click any image to enlarge.)   
To the diorama's right of center, a man works on his overturned kayak, of a type typical of Kodiak Island and displaying the distinctive Aleut stern. His double-bladed paddle is much shorter than the Eastern Inuit paddle shown in the previous post, and the blades are broader. The function of the different colors of the two blades is, I presume, purely decorative.
The man in the previous photo wears a paddling hat much like this one, collected in 1867 or '68. To quote the display card: "This hat is an effigy of some unknown creature. It is made of bent wood (probably spruce) and held together using baleen stitches. The wing ornaments are made of bone, and there are attachments of fur, feathers, and multicolored thread....The red flannel once held sea-lion whiskers." 
The kayak at the diorama's center shows a full complement of deck gear, including paddle, harpoon, possibly a throwing stick (i.e., atl atl) and what I believe are javelins on the aft deck. A bent-wood box is also seen.
Kayaks are stored fairly low off the ground on wood supports. Unlike the Baffinland Inuit, the Kodiak Island Aleuts had no dogs from which they needed to protect the boats' skin covers.
Model of an Kodiak Island 3-hole kayak. The three-person baidarka came into use after the coming of Russian fur traders, who typically sat in the center cockpit and did not paddle. 
Model showing the frame of a three-hole kayak similar to the one above, displaying the distinctive bifurcated stem and vertical sternpost. The kayak is very roomy, suitable for carrying large cargoes of fur -- especially of the favored sea otter.
From the display card: "This adult parka, or kamleika, is fashioned from seal intestine sewn with caribou sinew. The parka's detail is elaborate, and it lacks a drawstring for kayaking, which suggests it may have been used for a special occasion. Elaborate parkas were used in dance ceremonies before launching kayaks for hunting trips." The small child's kamleika features details of hair of a type unspecified, and also lacks a drawstring. 

Because strips of intestine are so narrow, a great deal of sewing was required to produce garments of this type. If the kamleika was intended for kayaking, not show, that sewing must have required the most painstaking effort to ensure water-tightness.  

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Baffinland Inuit Kayaks, Settlement: Peabody Museum #1

This is the first of several planned posts featuring boat-related displays at the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University. This post focuses on a single diorama of a late 19th-century Eskimo (Inuit) settlement in Baffinland, typical of the culture north and northwest of Hudson's Bay. As this was a distinctly maritime culture, I feel it's appropriate to include discussion of some elements that are not strictly boat-related, such as their housing arrangements.


The Baffinland Eskimo diorama at the Peabody Museum, Harvard University (click any image to enlarge).

The left side of diorama shows the settlement in summer, with the ground bare of snow. In the background is a semi-subterranean, prehistoric dwelling that has been reconditioned for re-use with a covering consisting of two layers of skin, with a layer of heather in between as insulation. Rocks hold the skin against the ground. Note the long, narrow, stone-covered trench entryway.
Near the entry is an inflated sealskin float attached by a long line to a harpoon. When an Eskimo succeeded in harpooning a seal, sea lion, walrus or whale, the float slowed the prey's flight, served as a marker for its location, and prevented it from diving deeply (thus making it an easier target for additional harpoon strikes), or sinking when it died.

Closeup of the previous scene: When not in use during the summer, kayaks were stored well aboveground on stone pillars, to protect their covers from being eaten by hungry dogs.

The right side of the diorama shows a different part of the same settlement in winter, with snow on the ground. The pillars on which the kayaks are stored are made of snow blocks here. In addition to protecting them from hungry dogs, this also prevents them from being covered by snow drifts.
Left background: meat and blubber storage on a platform of granite blocks.
Center background: an igloo under construction. From the display card: "The entryway in the house under construction slopes down gently before abruptly rising into the main vault. This design serves as an effective cold trap for frigid air, enabling the living area to remain warm and comfortable."
To that igloo's right, a man cuts blocks of snow for its construction. Care was taken to cut the blocks from drifts that accumulated during a single storm. This ensured that the blocks were of consistent composition, and avoided layered blocks that might split apart when cut.
Close-up of the right side of the diorama, with the display card's description: "This structure houses two families who share one entrance. The small protruberances along the entryway are storage rooms for either clothing, spare meat, or blubber. The main vault for these winter quarters could be as much as twelve feet high and twelve to fifteen feet in diameter."
The igloos are lined with hide, barely visible around the base of the cutaway structure at right rear. Cords tied to the wooden toggles visible on the exterior of that igloo and the one to its left pass through the snow-block walls to secure the lining.  
Close-up of the three kayaks on the diorama's right side.
The deck gear on the upright kayak includes a sealskin float on the rear deck and, on the foredeck, a shallow, round container that holds the line attached to a harpoon. A very long paddle with very narrow blades, apparently tipped with bone or ivory, rests across the bottoms of the other two overturned boats.  
The kayaks in the diorama are similar in many respects to the Baffin Island kayak from Cape Dorset shown in Adney and Chapelle's The Bark Canoes and Skin Boats of North America. The boats' bottoms are flat in transverse section; the back of the cockpit coamings are straight; the aft decks are low and flat; and the stems are extremely raked and very long above the waterline. 
The Peabody Museum houses excellent permanent and temporary exhibits and collections, mostly of American cultures but also including some other parts of the world. It's attached to a museum of natural history that's included in the price of admission, and both are well worth a visit. 

Thursday, October 17, 2013

"The Boyne Currach" -- A Review


The Boyne Currach: From beneath the shadows of Newgrange, by Claidhgh (I understand it's pronounced "Clive") O' Gibne has received quite positive reviews. (Here's one, by Wade Tarzia.) I'm disappointed that I can't add to them. I find the book gravely flawed and seriously wanting.

The Boyne is a river in County Meath, Ireland, running generally toward the east and entering the Irish Sea north of Dublin. The river's common fishing boat was the currach, a small, nearly round leather-on-frame craft that in most of the British Isles is known as a coracle. (O' Gibne addresses the naming controversy.) The large landowners along the Boyne used to jealously guard their exclusive rights to fish the river, maintaining their own small fleets of currachs and hiring men to fish for salmon with seine nets. As O' Gibne tells it, in spite of privately-employed wardens and monitoring by the local police, poaching by private currach owners was widespread (but we'll make no puns -- none! -- about poached fish).

The Boyne Currach describes this local history. It also delves into the history and mythology of skin-on-frame craft in general; the history and folkways of the Boyne Valley; the ancient history of the Celts and Ireland; and the history of modern currach preservation efforts. There's a chapter (just one) on how to build a Boyne currach; another about the Boyne Currach Centre, which O' Gibne founded and maintains to perpetuate the craft of the craft; and a section about the Newgrange Currach Project, referring to an entirely different form of currach (the more familiar boat-shaped type, somewhat similar to Tim Severin's Brendan) which O' Gibne had under construction at the time of the book's publication.
Boyne currachs, 1848
(All images from The Boyne Currach. Click any image to enlarge)

This great variety of material is, in my opinion, one of the flaws of The Boyne Currach: it attempts too much in its 164 pages and loses coherence along the way. I would have liked more detail on the boatbuilding methods for both the types discussed. O' Gibne's description of the building process for the coracle-style currach is confusing and perfunctory (especially concerning leather tanning), and he merely glosses the construction of the larger boat-shaped vessel. There are, however, enough excellent photographs and (perhaps) enough usable illustrations so that one could build a coracle-style currach by referring to them and perhaps gleaning sufficient tidbits from the text to supplement them.
In this 1910 photo of a Boyne currach, the gentleman in the bowler hat is J.P. Holland, inventor of the first practical submarine. 
In addition to its historical photos and illustrations, The Boyne Currach contains sketches by O' Gibne. These, though, are often mere decorations, and even among those that attempt to be informative, many are full of distracting, nouveau-Celtic imagery and other New-Agey psychedelia and therefore lacking in clarity.
Purportedly showing to how twist willow rods to make the rope that supports the seat in a currach.
When it comes to the history of currach folk on the Boyne, O' Gibne is indiscriminate, mixing history and anecdotes about fishing and poaching with irrelevancies about milking cows and riding bicycles. These decades-old bits of gossip may be of interest to local residents who recognize their neighbors' great-grandparents in them, but they're of little value to readers who's primary interest is the boats themselves.

Most significantly, The Boyne Currach needed an editor. The language is often idiomatic or just plain unclear, the organization disjointed, too many of the how-to explanations are sketchy, and the content frequently drifts off-topic. I find this inexcusable in a book that was peer-reviewed, as its publisher, Four Courts Press, claims all its books are.

I understand that this is harsh, and I take no pleasure in slamming what was a sincere and worthy effort. O' Gibne's research concerning the historical use of the Boyne currach is worthwhile to historians and students of folkways. His dedication to learning traditional currach-building skills and perfecting his own is commendable, and the boats he builds are lovely in the way that simple tools and antique technologies can be. That he has taken his love for the currach and turned it into a vibrant cultural-and-boating organization (The Boyne Currach Centre) is admirable. Thanks to O' Gibne, there are now many boaters campaigning their home-built currachs on the Boyne and elsewhere, and that's just flat-out wonderful.

The Boyne Currach is not entirely lacking in value. As noted, it contains much that will be of use to historians, and its historical photos and illustrations are quite revealing of the currach's construction and use. It is, however, difficult to read and lacking in the clarity and detail that could have made it much more useful to boatbuilders and boat history enthusiasts.

NOTE: I know The Boyne Currach is well-liked by some of my readers. I welcome opposing viewpoints in the Comments.

Friday, October 4, 2013

A Personal-Commercial Note to My Readers

Dear Readers,

I've been informed by Amazon that my Amazon Associates account will be terminated after Sunday, October 6, along with the accounts of all other Amazon Associates in Maine. This is Amazon's response to a new Maine law which creates nexus for companies that engage in internet affiliate marketing relationships. In other words, the state of Maine will now require Amazon to collect sales tax if it has affiliates here, and Amazon's response was discontinue affiliate marketing in the state.

This blog is an Amazon Associate, promoting products on Amazon through the Indigenous Boats Store and through occasional product-specific ads at the bottom on some posts (like this recent post about long voyages in folding kayaks). I'm not sure if Amazon plans to take down the Indigenous Boats Store altogether, or simply stop paying referral fees for sales that originate there. But in any case, this source of (very limited) supplemental income is about to disappear for me.

If you had planned any purchases of books on canoes, kayaks, rafts, sampans, umiaks, coracles, or any other subject covered by this blog, please consider doing it through the Indigenous Boats Store before October 7. I will receive a small commission on your purchase, which will be priced the same price as if you went directly to Amazon. Orders and returns are also handled the same way.

FYI: You can also access the Indigenous Boats Store via the advertising band that appears just below this blog's header when viewed in a standard browser. It does not appear in Blogger's mobile version.

Many thanks,
Bob Holtzman, blogger

p.s., For those with an interest in affiliate marketing, here's Amazon's letter: 
Greetings from the Amazon Associates Program. 
We're writing from the Amazon Associates Program to notify you that your Associates account will be closed and your Amazon Services LLC Associates Program Operating Agreement will be terminated effective October 6, 2013. This is a direct result of the unconstitutional Maine state tax collection legislation passed by the state legislature and signed by Governor LePage on June 5, 2013, with an effective date of October 9, 2013. As a result, we will no longer pay any advertising fees for customers referred to an Amazon Site after October 6, nor will we accept new applications for the Associates Program from Maine residents. 
Please be assured that all qualifying advertising fees earned prior to October 7, 2013, will be processed and paid in full in accordance with your regular advertising fee schedule.  Based on your account closure date of October 6, 2013, any final payments will be paid by December 31, 2013. 
While we oppose this unconstitutional state legislation, we strongly support the federal Marketplace Fairness Act now pending before Congress. Congressional legislation is the only way to create a simplified, constitutional framework to resolve interstate sales tax issues and it would allow us to re-open our Associates program to Maine residents. 
We thank you for being part of the Amazon Associates Program, and look forward to re-opening our program when Congress passes the Marketplace Fairness Act. 
 Sincerely,
The Amazon Associates Team
UPDATE, 5 October, 2013: This post was updated to more accurately reflect Maine's new tax law. A previous statement here concerning a sales tax on affiliate advertising was incorrect. Thanks to Cate Monroe, CPA, for the clarification.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Ancient (?) Dugout Canoe Found in Florida

AP photo. Click to enlarge.
According to an AP article carried by Fox News (among others), a well-preserved dugout canoe was recently recovered from a lake near Ocala, Florida. The article includes little detail about the boat, other than its approximate length ("nearly" 20 feet), but it is generally factual, and it makes no assumptions, wild or otherwise, as in the case of a possibly-marine-related finding reported in Wales

In spite of the AP reporter's good efforts, however, the Fox headline writer felt compelled to juice the news, calling the find an "ancient" canoe when, in fact, its age is unknown. While "ancient" isn't an objective term, I think most would agree that it shouldn't be applied to archaeological finds in North America dating to the 19th century or later. Until carbon dating is completed, it's impossible to say whether the canoe at hand is any older than that. 

It could, in fact, be younger. From the photo, it looks to be in excellent condition. The caption to the AP photo refers to a "burn mark" on the inside of the boat, but doesn't indicate whether this was an artifact of the construction process. Burning was a common method used to hollow out a logboat, especially prior to the introduction of steel tools by Europeans into the Americas, but other explanations for the mark are possible.

As I observed in the previous post about the finding in Wales, the general news media is often a poor source of science information. This is often due, I'm sure, to the lack of science training among general-news reporters, and to the tight deadlines they face which prevent them from carefully checking and clarifying facts and statements. In the present case, however, it was the headline writer who's at fault, trying to make more of a story than is really there.

That this was Fox's doing can be easily demonstrated. Google the first sentence of the AP article, and you'll see the story reported verbatim by many news sources. Only Fox inserted the word "ancient" into the headline.

(Thanks to Anneli Skaar for pointing out the article.)

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

A Catamaran with an Outrigger?

A recent BBC story concerning a possibly marine-related archaeological discovery in Wales reports some off-the-wall speculation about the find's significance. (Before going further, I must acknowledge that general news media like the BBC are often poor sources of information on scientific issues, and the reporting might badly misstate the facts.)


Three closely-spaced channels were discovered dug into the ground near the site of a vanished lake in Monmouth. All are 30m long; two adjacent ones are 1m wide, and the third beside them is narrower. The channels appeared over a mound of charcoal that has been carbon-dated to the Bronze Age (2,500 to 800 BCE in Britain).

According to Stephen Clarke of the Monmouth Archaeological Society, the find represents a kind of launching ramp for a Bronze boatbuilding facility. Although no boat remains or evidence of woodworking have been found at the site, artistic reconstructions show the site used to launch a canoe with twin dugout hulls and an outrigger.

Everything about this interpretation seems misinformed. To start with the boat:
  • The use of monohull dugouts in Bronze Age Britain is well proven. There is no prior evidence for multi-hulls.
  • A twin-hulled canoe of the size and breadth shown in the reconstruction would provide more than enough stability for any conceivable conditions on a lake. The outrigger serves no conceivable purpose. (Has any boat anywhere, used on any waters, ever had two main hulls plus an outrigger? I doubt it.) 
  • If the site was indeed a boat launch, three alternatives offer more likely and practical interpretations: i. three monohulls (two wide, one narrow); ii. a twin-hulled canoe and a narrow monohull; or iii. an outrigger canoe and a wide monohull.
  • There is also no evidence for the use of sails in Britain's Bronze Age, although a mast is shown in both reconstructions, and a sail in the line drawing.

But even the notion that the site represents a boatbuilding facility, or any sort of boat-related facility, cannot be accepted so easily. Aside from the absence of woodworking or boat-related artifacts, the trenches make little sense for the purpose of boat launching. If one wanted to drag a heavy boat up and down the shore, the last thing he would do is carve channels that would increase friction around the hulls. Friction would be much lower if the rounded hulls rested on a flat plane, and flat ground would also permit the use of rollers or, if the ground was too soft or sticky, launching ways similar to Hawaiian canoe ladders.

Even if the trenches did make sense as a launch ramp, there is no reason for them to have been so long. Assuming that the color illustration is accurate in its depiction of the slope of the shore and the trenches' location relative to the water level, the trenches extend much farther than necessary to haul the boat(s) entirely out of the (non-tidal) lake. The amount of extra work that would have been required to dig the trenches, and to haul the boat any farther than just out of the water, makes its use as a boat launch unlikely.

One final item: since the trenches were found above the charcoal, they must be of more recent origin. Britain's Bronze Age lasted for 1700 years or so, and the article doesn't report the exact carbon-dated age of the charcoal, but from the information available, it seems possible that the trenches were dug after the end of the Bronze Age.

I have no better, alternate interpretation for the find, but the current one seems to be based on a poor understanding of boats and how they are used. The BBC article claims that Mr. Clarke has a book on the subject in the works: this promises to be a fanciful piece of pseudo-archaeology, akin, perhaps, to the laughable and inexplicably well-known The Life and Death of a Druid Prince.

(Thanks to Edwin Deady for pointing out the BBC article.)
(Both images are from the BBC article.)

Update (2 Oct., 2013): This article by the Daily Mail contradicts some details of the BBC article, and provides useful photos of the excavated channels. It states that the channels were cut through the charcoal deposits (dated to the early Bronze age), not over them. And it reports possible evidence of woodworking at the site, in the form of "sharp flakes of imported flint found alongside the channels." The article claims that "Prehistoric cave drawings in Scandanavia (sic) have been discovered depicting outrigger boats like the one built at Monmouth," but provides no backup for this statement. The images it shows of "similar" boats of the historic period depict double canoes and single-outrigger canoes, but no double canoes with outriggers.
(Thanks to Tom Rankin for pointing out the Daily Mail article.)

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Folding Kayaks and "Indigeneity"

Soon after posting the previous article about ocean voyages in folding kayaks, I began questioning its relevance to the larger subject of indigenous boats. Allow me to ramble:

While the subhead of this blog is "small craft outside the western tradition," in conversation, I usually expand that to "outside the western tradition of plank-on-frame boatbuilding." By "western," I mean specifically the European plank-on-frame tradition and the American tradition that derived directly from it. This allows this blog to explore the indigenous craft of North America (e.g., birchbark canoes), even though they are of the western hemisphere. It also makes available topics like European dugouts (not plank-on-frame), ancient Greek mortise-and-tenon-planked ships (plank on frame, but of a style outside of existing European construction methods), and dhows of the Indian Ocean (plank on frame, but non-"western" and of a style outside of existing European construction methods). All this supports the original and still current motivation for this blog, which is to write about a wide variety of boats that aren't being extensively covered by numerous other blogs. Others cover the likes of Viking ships, whitehalls, Concordia yawls, Iain Oughtred, et al, quite well and thoroughly, and the world doesn't need yet another blog about these beautiful, traditional and traditionally-inspired boats of the Euro-American sort.

Getting back to folding kayaks and their ir/relevance to this blog: they're obviously not of plank-on-frame construction. But are they "western," and are they, or are they derived from, a culture or tradition that we might call "indigenous"? 

It's often claimed that modern folding kayaks are direct descendants of the original Eskimo kayak. One source among many where I've seen this argument is Complete Folding Kayaker by Ralph Diaz:
"(K)ayaks are truer descendants of the Eskimo kayak than are rigid kayaks. Foldables can make that claim, because they adhere more closely to the design and materials principles of the kayaks developed by Northern peoples some 10,000 years ago."
In my opinion, this is only half-true: the half about the "materials principles." As a skin-on-frame structure, folding kayaks are indeed closer to their original Eskimo forebears than any kayak made of plywood, planks, plastic or composites. But as to "design," I object.

By most accounts, recreational paddling got its start in the 1860s in England, popularized by John MacGregor and his voyages in the double-paddle canoe Rob Roy. Although Rob Roy was decked and propelled like a kayak, it also had a substantial European-style sail rig, and the hull design owed more to the shape of "Canadian" canoes (i.e., open canoes of the birchbark sort). Construction was conventional English lapstrake, except that it was unprecedentedly light in its scantlings.
John MacGregor in the decked canoe  Rob Roy (click any image to enlarge)
Canoes based on this model became the norm for recreation, and they remained popular into the early years of the 20th century. The folding kayak, which was invented in 1905, followed the same model. While I don't know it for a fact, it's reasonable to assume that its inventor, in seeking to create a more portable boat, took inspiration from the Eskimo method of skin-on-frame construction. It's possible, though, that the inspiration came from the skin-on-frame tradition of another culture -- possibly even early European. Although materials and the engineering of the frame have changed over the years, the hull form of most folding kayaks (including the kayaks used by the three German adventurers featured in the previous post) is still quite similar to that of open canoes, and it is much wider than most Eskimo or Aleut kayak designs.

Lines of a decked canoe of the Rob Roy type. The sections and waterlines are clearly modeled on those of bark canoes.
Frame of a Klepper folding kayak. The sections are similar to those of the old Rob-Roy style canoe, which was itself based on the bark canoe, not the Eskimo kayak.

Summary of observations:
  • The modern folding kayak is outside of the plank-on-frame tradition.
  • The hullform of most folding kayaks (including the German boats discussed in the previous blog post) owes little to Eskimo kayak designs, but is based on the design of the bark canoes of more southern indigenous Native Americans.
  • The structure of the modern folding kayak might or might not have been inspired by Eskimo technology, but in all probability it took its inspiration from some indigenous skin-on-frame tradition.
  • Eskimo kayaks provided the model for a decked canoe propelled by a double paddle.

Conclusion:
While most modern folding kayaks owe little in terms of hullform or materials to an Eskimo or Aleut forebear, several of their aspects (double-paddle propulsion, decking, skin-on-frame construction, hullform following the bark canoe model) are derived from an indigenous nonwestern tradition, and this justifies their discussion in this blog.