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Readers familiar with François Beaudoin's Bateaux des fleuves de France (1985) which describes the extraordinary range of river transport surviving there until the last century will welcome this analysis of regional differences already existing in Roman times and evident from widespread archaeological discoveries in the rivers, lakes and polders of northern Europe. Éric Rieth's masterly synthesis, Des bateux et des fleuves. Archéologie de la batellerie du néolithique aux Temps Modernes en France appeared in 1998 since when there have been major discoveries. The number of new barge-finds at Arles, Lyon and on the Lower Rhine triggered a seminar organized by the Centre Camille Julian on the theme of Gallo-Roman boats and inland navigation: regional practices and Mediterranean maritime influences. This publication is the outcome and will perhaps go some way to stimulate redress of what the editors feel is the low status of river craft in a field dominated by shipwreck archaeology.

Barges are the specific subject here; those hefty constructions of limited draught, as much as 34 m long, which, as it were, oiled the wheels of the Empire, carrying building materials and agricultural produce on a scale previously unknown. There are nine self-contained chapters, two in English, with a ‘Foreword’ by the editors and ‘Introduction’ by Patrice Pomey; each has résumés in both languages. The English subtitles with their authors in brackets are usefully listed: ‘Gallo-Roman boats of the Neuchâtel Lake in the abyssal zone of ship construction’ (Béat Arnold); ‘Recent research on Roman Shipfinds from the Netherlands’ (André van Holk); ‘Technological Transfer from the Mediterranean to the Northern Provinces’ (Ronald Bockius); ‘The shipwreck of the Gallo-Roman barge of the Place Tolozan in Lyon: approach of a regional tradition of ‘bottom based’ construction in relation to Mediterranean maritime naval architecture’ (Éric Rieth); ‘The Parc Saint-Georges shipwrecks in Lyon’ (Marc Guyon and Éric Rieth, with sections on waterfront installations and textiles contributed by colleagues); ‘The barge of the Roman bridge of Chalon-sur-Sâone: considerations about the watertightness system’ (Catherine Lonchambon); ‘The Arles-Rhône 3 shipwreck’ (Sabrina Marlier, with its dendrochronology contributed by Sandra Greck and Frédéric Guibal); ‘The Conque des Salins shipwreck… a lagoonal boat’ (Marie-Pierre Jézégou); ‘The Lipe (Ljubljana, Slovenia) river barge and the ‘bottom based’ construction from South-eastern Europe: what Mediterranean influences?’ (Giulia Boetto and Corinne Rousse).

Pomey outlines those key finds in northern Europe over the past half century which have enabled scholars to distinguish Gallo-Roman shipbuilding techniques as Rhine or Alpine. However, it was the discovery of six Roman-period wrecks at Lyon and another at Arles which focused attention on southern Gaul and the existence of a Rhône-Sâone tradition, while old and new finds from Slovenia, Croatia and Serbia, all likewise of bottom-based construction (construction sur sole), may be classified as Romano-Illyrian. In addition to these Rieth has pointed to a possible Atlantic tradition deduced from the characteristics of the Gallo-Roman wreck of Taillebourg found in the river Charente.

The increasing body of evidence for river transport in the Roman period now resembles a huge partly completed jigsaw: the main picture is emerging after a long struggle to make sense of the pieces, but the place of future discoveries will readily be found and enrich our understanding of the whole. Most importantly, it is only a wider viewpoint and meticulous study of the remains which enable indigenous boatbuilding traditions to be distinguished from those transmitted by craftsmen drafted in from all corners of the Roman Empire. Greek and oriental funerary inscriptions from Lyon, for instance, underline how cosmopolitan that emporium was. For Bockius the challenge is to deduce vestiges of earlier influential contacts and identify the Iron Age predecessors of the vessels, specimens of which, as Pomey observes, we are cruelly in need.

Inevitably some earlier assumptions require revision. A case in point is made by van Holk: in the Netherlands the river frontier of the Roman Empire is rich in barge-finds, and dendrochronological study of the De Meern-1 and -4 and the Woerden-7 barges shows that Dutch oak was used in their construction. Consequently some barge-building is likely to have taken place locally and not in central Germany as the Zwammerdam-2 and -6 barges had suggested. De Meern-1 has an extreme length-to-breadth ratio of 9.1:1 showing that it could access narrow waterways with a maximum cargo. One has to wonder if that is the reason it foundered. Fortunately for us this disaster led to the (rare) survival of personal possessions and tools. These suggest that the skipper was a Roman army veteran.

The overall picture deduced from surviving wood is likely to be complicated by evidence of dismantling and reuse. This was found in the shipyard at Avenches where, as Arnold indicates, dozens of shipwrights constructed hundreds of barges for the transport of thousands of tonnes of quarried limestone to build the Helvetic capital. On an altogether different scale the Conque des Salins wreck provides a rare glimpse of a little vessel of mortise-and-tenon construction converted to local use on Lake Thau in the Roman period.

The chapters on the discoveries at Chalon-sur-Sâone, Lyon and Arles form, as it were, the core of the book and present data on which the similarities and differences of the Rhône-Sâone group can be evaluated by the reader. Modern large-scale development in the context of heritage responsibility entails archaeological excavation on an unprecedented scale. The construction of an underground car park at Lyon was preceded by 20 months of excavation of the underlying fossil bed of the Sâone. The result was the discovery of 16 wrecks including six barges of Gallo-Roman type. The latter lay beached at the same angle to the ancient right bank of the river and date from the 1st to 3rd centuries AD. All were of bottom-based construction and add substance to the port of Lugdunum situated at a strategic point on the confluence of Sâone and Rhône. The currents and flood waters of the latter made it unsuitable for port facilities. However, in 1990 a logboat extended in a bottom-based method and dating to c.AD 30 was found on the fossil right bank of the Rhône. Mortise-and-tenon construction combined with diagonal nailing and luting of woolen cloth impregnated with pitch were evaluated by Rieth 20 years ago, and, unlike Marten de Weerd and Dietrich Hakelberg (Zwammerdam), detected an interaction between local and Roman barge builders rather than wholesale adoption of Roman designs.

A 30-m barge, Arles-Rhône 3, was found during archaeological mapping of a huge dump of amphora and ceramic sherds on the bank of the fast-moving river. It proved to have heeled over at an angle of 35°, partly spilling its cargo of stone and this, with the current, made underwater excavation (incomplete at the time of writing) extremely difficult. The stern portion comprised a galley and a workshop containing tools and wooden billets. Two South Gaulish plates narrowed the date of its loss to the mid 1st century AD. Survival of internal fittings and the full height of one side make it one of the best-preserved barges from the Rhône basin. It is constructed of pine and oak with halved logs forming the chine, a vestigial element paralleled in barge-2 from Pommeroeul, Belgium. The junction is reinforced internally by a square-sectioned stringer (tasseau) spiked in place. The name of the owner, or the builder, appears to be marked by the neat lettering ‘C. L. POSTV’ at its starboard end. In common with eight other examples from the area plus those from the Parc St Georges, Lyon, impregnated cloth or vegetable material was used as luting in contrast to moss caulking in the Zwammerdam barges. However, Arles-Rhône 3 lacked features found in other members of the group, such as tenons in the pre-assembly of its bottom planking, and diagonal nails. It seems clear that the use of log chines found on some but not all of the group was a practical solution to the need for longitudinal strength and rigidity as well as increasing buoyancy when heavy cargoes were transported.

The publication will be of immense value to students of the subject since it compresses a mass of complex information into a single very readable and well-illustrated volume. For specialists also it will be a vademecum. Henceforward the cargo-carriers of the Empire's rivers must surely merit as much attention as the vessels which transported its products across the sea.