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On Friday 10 May 2013, in a heritage centre recently set up within the former Angel Inn in Brigg, North Lincolnshire, England, a display of the conserved remains of the Brigg ‘raft’ was declared open by Andrew Percy, Member of Parliament for the Brigg constituency. Subsequently a memorial plaque was unveiled by the author of this paper. The event was the culmination of a process that began in the late 19th century. Within a period of four years, three important Late Bronze Age finds were uncovered near the town of Brigg: 1884—a wooden trackway (a ‘causeway’ or a ‘hard’) on the river margin at SE 992 075 (Wylie, 1884; Smith, 1958); 1886—a logboat, found while preparing the site for the erection of Brigg Gas Works at SE 997 074 (McGrail, 1978: 166–72); 1888—the so-called Brigg ‘raft’ was exposed at SE 9929 0763 by workmen digging for brick clay in a field adjacent to the brickyard in the north of Island Carr, between the Old and the New Rivers Ancholme, a mile or so (1.6 km) to the north-west of Brigg (McGrail, 1975: 7) (Fig. 1).

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Figure 1. Map of the Brigg region. (NMM)

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The three finds were all dated to the period 1000 to 800 BC, a time when the present-day, lower reaches of the River Ancholme formed a tidal arm or creek of the Humber Estuary. Where Brigg now stands was not only near the head of tide in that creek, but was also at the shortest east-west crossing of the Ancholme Valley, between the chalk Lincolnshire Wolds to the east and the limestone Lincoln Cliff to the west. At times, this natural crossing place would have been fordable (encapsulated in the earlier place-name, ‘Glanford’), hence the requirement for a ‘trackway’ or ‘causeway’; at times of deeper water, boats would have been needed. When ‘raft,’ logboat and causeway were no longer useful, they were abandoned.

After exposure in 1884, the causeway was examined but not lifted. The logboat, on the other hand, was recovered and, after a law action to decide ownership (Chitty, 1886), it was displayed in Brigg. In 1910 it was removed to Hull Museum where, under the eye of the renowned curator Thomas Sheppard, it underwent conservation—consolidation with a glue solution. In 1942 this immense, 14.8-m-long oak logboat (Atkinson, 1887) was destroyed by fire, during an air raid.

The late 19th-century excavation

  1. Top of page
  2. The late 19th-century excavation
  3. Raft or boat?
  4. 20th-century pre-excavation research
  5. The 20th-century excavation
  6. Features of the ‘raft’
  7. Post-excavation research
  8. References

The Brigg ‘raft’, the main topic of this paper, had a longer and better-documented career. In May, 1888, while still in the ground, it was recorded (at a scale of ‘5 feet to an inch’) by James Thropp, Lincolnshire's County Surveyor in those days. On his drawing (Fig. 2), Thropp (1887) unambiguously described the find as an ‘ancient ‘raft’; contemporary newspaper accounts, on the other hand, described it variously as a ‘boat,’ ‘bridge,’ ‘pontoon’ or ‘floating ford’. Twenty years later, in 1907–8, the Rev. Alfred Hunt, vicar of Welton, near Lincoln, published an account of the find under the title ‘A Viking raft or pontoon bridge made to rise and fall with the tide’. Moreover, Hunt identified the boatbuilder of this ‘raft’ as ‘Egil Skallagrimsson’, and he deduced that it had been launched in AD 937! Hunt also noted that the remains had been left in position and covered with soil; and he published a photograph showing the north-west part of the ‘raft’ (1907). An original print of this photograph cannot be traced, nor has any other early view of the ‘raft’ been found.

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Figure 2. ‘Sketch of an ancient raft discovered at Brigg’. (J. Thropp, 1887)

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Raft or boat?

  1. Top of page
  2. The late 19th-century excavation
  3. Raft or boat?
  4. 20th-century pre-excavation research
  5. The 20th-century excavation
  6. Features of the ‘raft’
  7. Post-excavation research
  8. References

The flattish nature of the find misled Hunt, and others, into believing that what had been uncovered was a raft, thereby overlooking the published opinion of the Lincoln and Nottingham Architectural and Archaeological Society who had ‘decided under competent guidance’ that this was ‘unquestionably not a raft at all but a flat-bottomed boat’ (Lincolnshire Notes and Queries, 1889, vol.1: 160). Although the term ‘raft’ continues to be used, this is certainly not a raft (a ‘flow-through’ structure, with its buoyancy derived from that of each individual element), but a boat (buoyancy derived from the whole, watertight vessel).

20th-century pre-excavation research

  1. Top of page
  2. The late 19th-century excavation
  3. Raft or boat?
  4. 20th-century pre-excavation research
  5. The 20th-century excavation
  6. Features of the ‘raft’
  7. Post-excavation research
  8. References

In a search for further information about this ‘raft’, late l9th century copies of the Hull and Lincolnshire Times, the main weekly newspaper then circulating in North Lincolnshire, were studied. Useful information about the ‘raft’ was gained: for example, the newspaper recorded that Mr Samuel Coles, one of the finders of the ‘raft’ and part-owner of the brickyard, ‘preserved most carefully the half [of the “raft”] taken up, as well as could be done’. It was also noted that the ‘raft’ had been left where it was found, exposed to the elements for at least four months of 1888, from mid February to late June. It would have been during this period that the remains began to deteriorate.

The only element that survives of those parts of the ‘raft’ that were lifted, is a single cleat (‘an integral part of a plank, projecting from its upper face’) formerly held in Lincoln Museum; now in the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich. There are also two models (scale 1:12) of the ‘raft’: one, of the partly exposed remains; the other, when all had been uncovered. These models had been made by Sam Coles for the landowner, the Earl of Yarborough (Thropp, 1887: 95). As with Thropp's scale drawing (Fig. 2), these models omit important structural features, and their great regularity does not inspire confidence in their accuracy. Nevertheless, they are a useful representation of what was exposed in 1888.

The 20th-century excavation

  1. Top of page
  2. The late 19th-century excavation
  3. Raft or boat?
  4. 20th-century pre-excavation research
  5. The 20th-century excavation
  6. Features of the ‘raft’
  7. Post-excavation research
  8. References

In mid 1973, with the co-operation of the owners of the site, the Glanford Boat Club, I set out to re-locate the remains of the ‘raft’. Placing my faith in Hunt's statement that a part of the ‘raft’ had been left in position and covered with soil, and armed with a copy of Thropp's ‘treasure map’ (Fig. 2), I paced out 90 yards southwards from Coal Dyke End, at the northern tip of Island Carr (between the old and the new Rivers Ancholme), and began a mechanical excavation. In the second trial trench, planking was located at about 1.8 m below the modern surface, on an alignment of 50° to the New River Ancholme (Fig. 1)—similar to the orientation reported by Thropp (1887). A sample from the top of a cleat, and another sample subsequently taken from the Lincoln cleat, were dated by Dr Roy Switsur of the Cambridge Radiocarbon Laboratory to 2630 bp and 2545 bp, suggesting calendar dates in the 9th century BC: the indications were that the ‘raft’ had been re-located.

The National Maritime Museum, Greenwich (NMM) undertook the main excavation of this Brigg site from April to June in 1974. Digging was done from scaffolding platforms spanning an inner trench of 12 × 3 m, using trowels, wooden spatulas and hands. The Victorian backfill, consisting of clay, stones and pockets of peat, was removed until the upper surface of the planking could be seen, leaving a thin clay layer as a buffer against environmental changes. The boat was documented in standard archaeological plans and sections compiled by Philip Holdsworth; in stereo-photogrammetry by the University College, London (Fig. 3); the National Maritime Museum photographers; and by detailed notes. The remains of the ‘raft’ were then lifted in sections of two, occasionally three, cleat-lengths, and transferred to Greenwich for further investigation and active conservation. Subsequently, the Glanford Boat Club gave the remains to the museum.

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Figure 3. Vertical photograph of the ‘raft’ taken from a hydraulic platform. (NMM)

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Features of the ‘raft’

  1. Top of page
  2. The late 19th-century excavation
  3. Raft or boat?
  4. 20th-century pre-excavation research
  5. The 20th-century excavation
  6. Features of the ‘raft’
  7. Post-excavation research
  8. References

Thropp had recorded that the ‘raft’ had five oak planks, In 1974, a sixth, narrower plank was excavated along the north-eastern side of the five bottom planks: this proved to be the remains of the boat's lowest side-strake. Holes along both edges of this strake showed that there had been at least one higher side-strake. Confirmation (if such were needed) that this was not a raft, but a boat, came from the observation that the structure had been made watertight by moss caulking between strakes, held in position by hazel (Corylus avellana) laths running longitudinally along the plank seams, with continuous sewing binding together planks, caulking and laths, using two, split-strands of poplar/willow (Populus sp./Salix sp.) twined together to form a 10 mm diameter rope.

The use of continuous sewing in this boat (and in other British boat remains from the early 1st millennium BC, McGrail, 2004: 187–189), with a rope that was only 10 mm in diameter, is a technical improvement on, and should be distinguished from, the separate, individual lashings of stouter, yew (Taxus baccata) strands used to fasten together the planking of the North Ferriby boats and other British sewn-plank boats of the 2nd millennium BC (McGrail 2004: 184–90).

A second, notable feature of the Brigg ‘raft’ was that her five bottom planks were linked together by transverse timbers passing through mortised holes in cleats that were an integral part of each plank. Those mortises had been cut in the cleats after the bottom planking had been sewn together so that the mortised holes could be aligned; subsequently, transverse timbers were fitted through each row of cleats. Without such timbers, whenever the boat took the ground, one or more planks would have had a tendency to over-run, thereby stressing, or even breaking, the sewing. Moreover, transverse timbers would have been invaluable after each annual refit, when lining-up the five bottom planks before re-sewing.

Circular holes, some 2–3 inches (55–88 mm) in diameter, that had been cut vertically through the boat's bottom planking were another feature of the Brigg ‘raft’. One of these had been formed during the excavation when a plumb bob was inadvertently dropped from the hydraulic platform from which photogrammetric recording was being undertaken, but, in another similar, but ancient, hole a hazel (Corylus avellana) stake was found pinning the ‘raft’ to the ground. This suggests that, after her useful life as a boat, the ‘raft’ had had a secondary use as a ‘hard’ to stabilize an approach to the river.

Post-excavation research

  1. Top of page
  2. The late 19th-century excavation
  3. Raft or boat?
  4. 20th-century pre-excavation research
  5. The 20th-century excavation
  6. Features of the ‘raft’
  7. Post-excavation research
  8. References

Away from the main body of the boat, fragments of planking were found, the most important being two large elements, G4 and G5, from the south-eastern end of the inner trench, more or less in line with surviving bottom planks 4 and 5 (Fig. 3). Subsequent dendrological assessments showed that these two fragments had each come from the same half log as had the corresponding bottom planks 4 and 5, thus demonstrating that these planks had not had scarfs or other joints. Further tree-ring analysis showed that bottom planks 1 and 5 were halves of one log, and strakes 3 and 4 were from a second log: thus the bottom of this boat had probably been made from only three logs, the other half of the log from which strake 2 had been split being used elsewhere in the boat.

Hypothetical reconstruction

Owain Roberts (1992) has argued that the original ‘raft’ had been a round-hulled craft, able to undertake coastal passages and short sea crossings. This interpretation was based on Robert's assumption that the five bottom planks had been found close together in the midships region, but splayed out at the ends where, he reckoned, they had sprung apart after deposition. The gaps between planks evident towards the ends of the boat were, in fact, where the planking had not only shrunk tangentially, during its exposure to the elements for five months in 1888, but also where pieces of it had deteriorated, broken away and been lost. By the time of the 1974 excavation, plank edges had not survived in those eroded parts, and most of the sewing holes had also vanished. When allowance is made for that shrinkage, and the missing planking is theoretically reconstructed, edges of adjacent planks butt against one another, thereby demonstrating that this was a flat-bottomed boat with a primary role of river ferry, rather than a sea-going, round-hulled boat (McGrail, 1994).

The reconstructed Brigg ‘raft’ has the general form of a lidless box, for which there are many present-day parallels—for example, in Poland (Fig. 4), There are also excavated examples, notably late Roman, ‘Rhine barges’, such as those from Zwammerdam (de Weerd, 1988). Sapwood had been left on the edges of each Brigg bottom plank, indicating that the Bronze Age boatbuilder aimed to maximise the usable area of planking. Moreover, plank edges were not absolutely straight, rather they were as straight as they could be, consistent with retaining the maximum breadth of each plank. Where a plank had a wavy edge because of this requirement, the adjacent plank was fashioned to match the contiguous ‘defect’.

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Figure 4. A flat-bottomed ferry transporting horses and wagon across the River Vistula near Szezvein, Poland, in the late 20th century. (NMM)

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Furthermore, by using the natural taper of the logs and laying all five half-logs with their upper (narrower) ends at one end of the boat (the north-west, as found), the Bronze Age boatbuilder produced an elongated, trapezium-shaped bottom, in plan. With that north-west end as the bow, her hydrodynamic characteristics would have been enhanced. That trapezium shape could not be maintained for the full length of the boat since all three logs had defects at their butt ends—probably caused when the trees were being felled. Thus the after third of the original boat tapered in plan towards the stern.

A simple, hypothetical reconstruction was postulated for the ‘raft’, with vertical sides and ends (Fig. 5). Such a reconstruction not only conformed with the excavated evidence, but also matched the boat's environmental context and the technological context within which she was built. A more complex reconstruction would involve much more conjecture.

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Figure 5. A 1:10 scale reconstruction model of the Brigg ‘raft’ made by Kim Allen for the NMM.

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Function of the ‘raft’

Although the Brigg ‘raft’ could have been taken down the Ancholme creek towards the main estuary, her primary use is likely to have been ferrying people, animals and goods across the upper reaches of that tidal creek, propelled and steered by paddles and (in the shallows) by poles. Depending on the reconstructed height of sides (0.34 m or 0.55 m), this boat could have carried loads ranging from 40 sheep and ten men, to 30 cattle and 20 men. As a river ferry she was not ‘second rate’, but fulfilled an important role and made a significant contribution to the economic and social well-being of the local Ancholme community.

Publication

A definitive account of the ‘raft’ was published in 1981 by the National Maritime through BAR, Oxford. This volume (McGrail, 1981) appears not to have been reviewed by the IJNA, although reviews did appear in Mededelingen (Communications of the Netherlands Society for Maritime History) 43: 46–7, and, by H. C. Bowen, in the Archaeological Journal. Subsequently, a paper on the hypothetical reconstruction of the ‘raft’ and an assessment of her performance was published in the proceedings of a Greenwich conference on sewn-plank boats (McGrail, 1985).

Results of the1974 excavation

The achievements of the 1974 excavation may be summarized:

  • (A) 
    The remains were surveyed and measured: plans and sections were drawn in situ and also at Greenwich during further examination of each individual cleat.
  • (B) 
    Environmental samples were taken underneath the ‘raft’, from the buried surface and from a 2-m-deep, vertical column. This led to the recognition of the principal features of the environment within which the boat had been deposited, and details of the site's environmental history.
  • (C) 
    It was confirmed that the remains were those of a boat, not a raft.
  • (D) 
    A sixth plank was excavated and identified as part of the boat's first side-strake.
  • (E) 
    The probable sequence of building this boat was determined
  • (F) 
    The remains were hypothetically reconstructed as a flat-bottomed boat, and her performance as a river ferry was estimated.
  • (G) 
    The boat was dated by radiocarbon assay to 825–760 cal BC.

The second part of the Brigg project began in mid 1973, thus it has taken 40 years, to work through the seven stages that are generally considered necessary for such ancient boat investigations: Research; Excavation; Record; Analysis and Conservation; Interpretation; Synthesis; Publication (McGrail, 2004: 5, fig 1.2). Eight years after excavation, most of these phases had been completed when the definitive account (McGrail, 1981) of the project was published. On the other hand, if mature thoughts (McGrail, 1985) are included, the major part of this project took 12 years.

Although publication, by articles, talks and book, was thus completed within a not-unreasonable time, publication in the sense of making the excavated boat available for public viewing could not be achieved until the remains had been fully conserved. Passive conservation of the remains began on site; active conservation at Greenwich, using Polyethylene Glycol, finished in the late 1980s. After the North Lincolnshire Council and the NMM had reached an understanding, the Council arranged for York Archaeological Trust to clean excess PEG off the timbers and to re-assemble the constituent parts. The remains were subsequently displayed (Fig. 6) in a new heritage centre within the former Angel Inn in Brigg Market Place (www.northlincs.gov.uk/leisure/briggheritagecentre for opening times). It is well worth a visit.

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Figure 6. The conserved remains of the Brigg ‘raft’ on display in the Heritage Centre, Brigg Market Place, North Lincolnshire. (Scunthorpe Museum)

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References

  1. Top of page
  2. The late 19th-century excavation
  3. Raft or boat?
  4. 20th-century pre-excavation research
  5. The 20th-century excavation
  6. Features of the ‘raft’
  7. Post-excavation research
  8. References
  • Atkinson, A., 1887, Notes on an ancient boat found at Brigg. Archaeologia 50.2, 361370.
  • Chitty, J., 1886, Elwes v. Brigg Gas Company. Chancery Division 33, 562570.
  • de Weerd, M. D., 1988, Schepen voor Zwammerdam. Haarlem.
  • Hunt, A., 1907–8, Viking raft or pontoon bridge. Saga Book of the Viking Club 5, 355362.
  • McGrail, S., 1975, Brigg ‘raft’ re-excavated’. Lincs. History and Archaeology 10, 513.
  • McGrail, S., 1978, Logboats of England & Wales. Oxford: BAR 51.
  • McGrail, S. (ed.), 1981, Brigg ‘Raft’ and her Prehistoric Environment. Oxford: BAR 89.
  • McGrail, S., 1985, Brigg ‘raft'—problems in reconstruction and in the assessment of performance, in S. McGrail and E. Kentley (eds) Sewn Plank Boats, 165194. Oxford: BAR S.276.
  • McGrail, S., 1994, Brigg ‘raft’: a flat-bottomed boat. IJNA 23, 283288.
  • McGrail, S., 2004, Boats of the World. 2nd ed. Oxford: OUP.
  • Roberts, O. T. P., 1992, ‘Brigg raft’ re-assessed as a round bilge Bronze Age boat. IJNA 21, 245258.
  • Smith, A. G., 1958, Context of some Late Bronze Age and Early Iron Age remains from Lincolnshire. Proc. Prehistoric Soc. 24, 7884.
  • Thropp, J., 1887, An ancient raft found at Brigg, Lincolnshire. Assoc. Architectural Societies Reports and Papers 19.1, 9597.
  • Wylie, W. M., 1884, A note by A. Atkinson on the Brigg trackway. Proc. Soc. Ant. N.S. 10, 110115.