Festival of Archaeology 2022: Warrington’s Spoon Shaped Dinghies

Since 1893, no less than six dug-out canoes have been discovered within a reasonable distance of Warrington Bridge (Figure 1). Warrington Museum and Art Gallery are privileged enough to be able to have a selection of fragments from these vessels in our collections. For those of you who are thinking “what on earth is a dug-out canoe?”; these were early methods of transport used predominantly on rivers as a means for carrying out essential activities including fishing and the transporting of goods. It is these unusual and enigmatic objects that I would like to focus today’s blog post on to link into this year’s Festival of Archaeology theme ‘Journeys’ (16th to 31st July).

Figure.1  Fragment of log boat from Gateworth, Warrington (Warrington Museum and Art Gallery)

What is a Dug-Out Canoe or Log Boat?

These early boats are not confined to any one period of history, but have survived from the late Stone Age, through the Bronze and Iron Ages and even to very recent times, changing little in some areas in structure and form. A dug-out canoe or log boat is simply a canoe that has been created from a hollowed-out tree. You may also see them referred to as ‘monoxylon’ (a Greek word that breaks down to mean ‘one tree’). Dug-out canoes are the oldest boat type archaeologists have found, dating back almost 8,000 years.

How are they constructed?

The standard means of construction for these vessels is from large pieces of wood, the size of which has very much aided their ability to be preserved within the archaeological record. The first step in construction is to select a tree of suitable dimensions i.e., one that has sufficient length, width and depth. A section of wood then needs to be removed from the trunk, to make the vessel relatively light in weight to make it buoyant, and with the structure and strength to be able to carry both a crew and goods. The wood that was selected for the vessels was an important and influential decision, it needed to have natural strength, durability and density to ensure that it was fit to serve it’s purpose. The final shape used on these vessels was the preferred designed to reduce drag in the water with sharper ends at the bow and stern.

The bark of the trunk would be removed, which prior to the invention of metal tools, was often achieved using fire (Figure 2). Burning the areas of wood that needed to be removed, allowed for larger sections of the trunk to be made softer and these could then be easily removed using an adze to be then smoothed with a knife.  The more primitive designs would retain the tree’s original dimensions, keeping a round bottom. The construction of the canoes was determined by their intended use, i.e. whether they were to be used for short or long journeys. For longer  journeys an outrigger could be fitted, making them able to travel through rougher ocean waters.

Figure 2. Etching showing native American people making a dug-out canoe circa 1590 (Public Domain)

Where are dug-out canoes found?

Dug-out canoes have been found all over the world including Germany, Czech Republic, Netherlands, Switzerland, Ireland, Wales and Kiev to name a few countries. We know that dug-out canoes were also used by the indigenous people throughout the Americas as well as countries much further afield such as Oceania, New Zealand and Australia (Figure 3).

                               Figure 3. Photograph of canoe from Lake Chalian, Jura (Public Domain)

Six spoon shaped dinghies from Warrington

There has been a total of six dug-out canoes recovered within the surrounding area of Warrington (Figure 4) two of which were recovered on the banks of the River Mersey at Arpley. Early in September 1893, during the completion of the new course of the Mersey across Arpley meadows, one of the dredgers came across the remains of a dug-out canoe buried in the sediment. Later, on 28th March 1894, another larger canoe was discovered at a location slightly East of where the first canoe had been found and close to the West End of Walton Lock. Each canoe lay 20 to 25 yards North of the former bank of the River Mersey at a depth of about 18 feet below the surface of the ground. On their discovery, both canoes were carefully removed and preserved under the direction of the Manchester Ship Canal Company and were eventually presented for the collections at Warrington Museum and Art Gallery.

 

                                      Figure 4. Photograph showing a fragment of dug-out canoe in situ

Charles Madeley one of Warrington Museum’s past Directors produced a publication called ‘On Two Ancient Boats, Found Near Warrington’ within which he included plans and drawings of the dug-out canoe fragments (Figure 5).

The evidence of log-boats that have been found are often associated with what are known as lake-dwellings and crannogs although they have also been found in locations where crannogs do not exist.  In the five instances of canoes, stakes have been associated with them, which are thought to be fishing implements, hence it is possible to conclude that the boats found in the Mersey Valley were constructed for use with the fishing industry.

The six log boats found in the Warrington have been sited from the following recovery sites and dates; Arpley (1893), Walton Lock (1894), Howley (1908), Fairclough (1922), Arpley (1929) and West-Lane (1930). The craft vary in length from 9 feet 6 inches to 16 feet 6 inches and in breadth from 2 feet 4 inches to 3 feet 6 inches.

Figure 5. Extract from publication ‘On Two Ancient Boats, Found Near Warrington’ by Charles Madeley

We hope that you have enjoyed this short introduction to Warrington’s own log-boats and we hope that it has allowed you to start thinking about some of the vast types of journeys that human beings have made throughout history and the reasons and means by which, we make these ‘journeys’.

To find out more about this year’s Festival of Archaeology running from 16th to 31st July, why not visit the official website and social media platforms here:

https://www.archaeologyuk.org/festival.html

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@archaeologyuk #FestivalofArchaeology