Excavating the CA archive: Ship archaeology

5 mins read

Joe Flatman explores half a century of reports from the past.

A selection of articles mentioned by Joe Flatman in this month’s column below can be accessed for free for one month via Exact Editions, from 2 September. Use the links within the text to jump to the individual articles, or click on the covers below. Print subscribers can add digital access to their account for just £12 a year – this includes everything from the last 50 years, right back to Issue 1! Call our dedicated subscriptions team on 020 8819 5580, quoting DIGI380, to add digital access to your account, or click here for more information.

I interrupt my sequence of county-based reviews in this latest column to turn temporarily to the subject of ship archaeology. This break is brought about by the sad news of the death in June 2021 of Seán McGrail, one of the key figures of this area of study since its formal emergence in the 1970s. Seán was a globally influential figure who led a fascinating life, travelling widely and publishing prodigiously. But he was little-known within either mainstream archaeology or popular culture. I take this opportunity to celebrate his life and to mourn his passing by highlighting some of the sites and projects he worked on, and individuals and teams with whom he worked and to whom he offered advice over the years.

Seán McGrail (1928-2021): Royal Navy pilot, Master Mariner, and distinguished professor of archaeology. Image: The estate of Seán McGrail.


By way of an introduction, I draw your attention to CA 101 (August 1986), which includes a brief biography of the man himself, including his pre-archaeological experience. Seán served for 22 years in the Royal Navy as a pilot in the Fleet Air Arm and as a Master Mariner (the highest-qualified grade of seafarer), before he entered archaeology as a mature student in 1968. To this can be added details not previously mentioned in Current Archaeology: his naval career included extensive active service, including hazardous carrier duty during the Korean War, and he ended up as a professor of archaeology, first at Oxford and later at Southampton, having also put in a lengthy stint as head of archaeology at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. A quiet and unassuming man, it is easy to underestimate his impact, but Seán literally lived two lives in one. 

If there is a starting point to the story, though, it is CA 65 (February 1979), which features reports on a recent revamp of the National Maritime Museum, including full-scale reconstructions of three of the most important ship-finds known in Britain at the time – the Bronze Age Ferriby Boat 1, and the Anglo-Saxon Graveney and Sutton Hoo vessels. Seán was energetically establishing an Archaeological Research Centre at the museum in this period, working in close collaboration with contemporaries abroad, most notably Ole Crumlin-Pedersen at the Danish National Museum, with whom he developed a lifelong friendship. CA 65 also provides a handy guide for archaeologists of ‘boat finds on land’, written by Seán and his team, which is informed by finds made in the UK, such as the Bronze Age raft from Brigg in Lincolnshire, as well as others made abroad, including the Viking Age ships’ timbers discovered during the redevelopment of Wood Quay in central Dublin (this site is also discussed in CA 328, July 2017).

One of Seán’s global legacies to archaeology is mentioned here: the International Symposium on Boat and Ship Archaeology (ISBSA), which he was instrumental in establishing following a conference hosted by the National Maritime Museum in 1976. This gathering still takes place roughly every four years, hosted by a different nation and different committee each time. The next such meeting – the 16th symposium – is scheduled (COVID-19 permitting) to moor in Zadar, Croatia, roughly as we go to press.


A significant archaeological discovery in which Seán was instrumental appeared in CA 99 (February 1986): the late Iron Age boat (750-390 BC) from Hasholme in the East Riding of Yorkshire, which also features in CA 115 (June 1989). Found in 1984 as part of a wider research programme by the East Riding Archaeological Society around Holme-on-Spalding, the boat was carefully lifted and conserved, and is now in the care of Hull and East Riding Museum.

It was boat- and ship-finds like this that led Seán to interact with a host of different teams and sites featured in Current Archaeology over the following years. CA 133 (April 1993), for example, reported on the discovery of a Bronze Age boat deep beneath the streets of modern-day Dover, one of the most exciting prehistoric finds of this type ever made in the UK. The magazine reported on work on the vessel in this and subsequent issues – CA 287 and 295 (February and October 2014) – and its discovery sits alongside the Bronze Age ships found at Ferriby in East Yorkshire as one of the most important such prehistoric maritime finds in Europe. Subsequent dating of these vessels places the Dover boat at 1575-1520 BC, and the Ferriby boats even further back, making them the oldest such finds currently known in Europe: Ferriby Boat 1 dating to 1880-1680 BC; Boat 2 to 1940-1720 BC; and Boat 3 to 2030-1780 BC. CA 191 (April 2004) told the full story of the latter, fascinating site in a report on the experimental reconstruction of Boat 1.

More recently, CA 295 (October 2014) provided an in-depth update on our understanding of Bronze Age seafaring, especially the deployment of experimental replicas and reconstructions to inform our knowledge of early boats. Work of this type was something that Seán was involved in throughout his life, leading him to collaborate with teams operating around the world. This included ethnographic research into different forms of shipbuilding, especially the construction of vessels without the use of metal fasteners, which took Seán and his colleagues to sites near and far, from the west coast of Ireland to the east coast of India.   


Ship-finds come in all shapes and sizes. So far, this column has focused on prehistoric vessels, but Current Archaeology has also reported on, and Seán was involved in, discoveries from a much wider date-range. I have already mentioned the 9th- or 10th- century Graveney boat from Kent and the internationally famous 7th-century Sutton Hoo ship from Suffolk. Seán was involved in analyses of both. I focused in a previous column on the latter in CA 339 (June 2018), while the latest experimental reconstructions of the boat were explored in CA 356 (November 2019) and CA 377 (August 2021).

But Current Archaeology’s coverage runs wider still. CA 149 (September 1996) reported on the significant discovery, and subsequent recovery, of a 13th-century vessel at Magor Pill on the Welsh coast of the Severn Estuary, a project in which Seán was directly involved. CA 181 and 184 (September 2002 and February 2003) reported on an even later medieval find made nearby at this time, the superbly preserved mid-15th-century ship from Newport. The context of these finds was evocatively discussed in CA 358 (January 2020), when CA’s contributing editor Chris Catling reviewed a superb new survey of Wales’ maritime past, the book Wales and the Sea: 10,000 years of Welsh maritime history.

A later medieval vessel: the excavation of the 15th-century Newport ship appeared on the cover of CA 181.

Thus ends my diversionary dive into ship archaeology. I will return to my geographic explorations in the next issue, moving from south-east England to the east Midlands, visiting first Nottinghamshire, then Lincolnshire, and in turn Leicestershire. These counties hold many archaeological glories, including some superb prehistoric, Anglo-Saxon, and Viking Age sites and finds that link nicely to the contents of this timber-jointed, mud-soaked column. Farewell Seán: you are missed, and you are remembered.

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About the author
Joe Flatman completed a PhD in medieval archaeology at the University of Southampton in 2003, and since then has held positions in universities, and local and most recently –central government. Since March 2019, he has been a Consultancy Manager in the National Trust’s London and South-East Region, leading a team working on Trust sites across Hampshire and the Isle of Wight. You can follow him on Twitter @joeflatman.

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