Tuesday, August 01, 2006

 

A 3,000-year-old voyage of discovery

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Scotsman.com
By Jennifer Veitch
August 01, 2006


The work to extract the boat from
the river bed is slow and painstaking.
Picture: Courtesy Historic Scotland


IN ANCIENT times, when Scotland was virtually covered in dense forest, there was only one way to get around. Traveling by boat helped early Scots to find food and trade goods with their neighbours.

Now, with the excavation of a 3,000-year-old log boat, archaeologists are hoping to learn more about how prehistoric Scots used the vast network of rivers and lochs.

The Bronze Age dug-out was found in mudflats at Carpow, on the south side of the River Tay estuary, in autumn 2001. A group of three amateur archaeologists – Scott McGuckin, Martin Brooks and Robert Fotheringham – had spotted the worn but still recognisable prow of boat sticking out from the mud and peat.

Radio carbon tests conducted later dated the 30-foot-long log boat, which had been carved out of a single piece of oak, to around 1000BC. This means the Carpow boat is the second-oldest dated log boat ever found in Scotland, and it is also one of the best preserved.

While the remains of 30 log boats survive today – the oldest was a stern portion of a log boat, carbon dated to 1800BC found in Dumfriesshire in 1973 – most are in extremely poor condition. The Carpow boat is not only still in one piece but it also has an intact transom board at the stern.

David Strachan, archaeologist at the Perth and Kinross Heritage Trust (PKHT), says the log boat was a hugely significant find. "It is fantastic. Generally log boats found in Scotland tend to date from 500BC to 1000AD. This boat dates from 1000BC so that puts it in the later Bronze Age, so it's quite an early example.

"Since it was discovered, we did an initial excavation, primarily to find out how long the boat was, the date, and to find out how well-preserved the buried portion of the boat was. That showed us that the buried end is very well-preserved, including having a very intact stern board – a transom board. That is very rare."

The boat was found on an eroding peat shelf, and is only visible twice a day at low tide. Archaeologists believe it was washed downstream from either the River Tay or the River Earn, another tributary of the Tay estuary.

At first, it was decided to leave the boat where it was found, but tests showed it was being damaged by the tides and the weather. Now archaeologists from the PKHT, in partnership with Perth Museum, Historic Scotland and the National Museums of Scotland (NMS), are preparing to lift it onto dry land to be conserved.

Excavation work began in late July and – weather and tides permitting – the boat will be lifted out of the mud, using a special floating cradle. Plans to begin this critical next step are tentatively set for mid-August.

"We will take the boat out in three sections as there is a danger it may snap if it is lifted in once piece," says Strachan. "Hopefully it will tell us a lot about how Bronze Age boats were constructed."

The boat will undergo conservation work by Dr Theo Skinner of NMS – a process expected to take three years – before being put on display to the public, first at Perth Museum and then in Edinburgh.

An Historic Scotland spokesman said: "This is a tremendously exciting piece of archaeology. It will help us make new advances in understanding our prehistoric ancestors – how they lived, worked and even traded in a land which was mountainous and had no roads but had a tremendous network of rivers and lochs."

Log boats are recorded from as long ago as 7000BC in Denmark, and 150 having been discovered in Scotland. Seven log boats were discovered in the Tay area in the 19th century, but only one, dating from around 500AD, still survives and is now on display in Dundee Museum.

It is believed people would have used the boat to go fishing, hunting for wild fowl, and even to ferry people across the Tay estuary.

Barrie Andrian, managing director of the Crannog Centre, in Kenmore, Perthshire, and herself an underwater archaeologist, said: "We are very interested in this log boat. It's one of the oldest boats found in Scotland and the fact that it is so well-preserved is significant from a research point of view.

"It's a great find for Scotland."


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