Skip to 0 minutes and 6 seconds JESSE RANSLEY: Hello. I’m Dr. Jesse Ransley. And today I’m going to be talking to you about studying boat building traditions. Maritime archaeologists are increasingly interested in studying, thinking with and about boat building traditions that are active in the world today. We’re interested in the multiplicity and diversity of those traditions. And the specific geographical and social worlds that created different boat technology. For example, in Ireland, different rivers have different kind of currachs or skin boats that are suited to the particular local environment of that river.
Skip to 0 minutes and 39 seconds And in South Asia, you have a type of technology which we call sewn boats that has different variations all the way from the southwest coast in Kerala round to Sri Lanka and Orissa on the Bay of Bengal. Increasingly, maritime archaeologists are working with boat builders and users on and by the water to learn from the people involved. This means we record diverse boat building traditions and skills, some of which are dying out as fewer people use and make particular kinds of boats. But it also enables us to think about the skills, the choices, the bodily practises, and the knowledges of materials, tools, and the water itself, which are all involved in making boats.
Skip to 1 minute and 19 seconds What it does is help us put the people back into the study of boat building and boat technology. This kind of work has a slightly strange back story, however. Some of which we need to consider carefully. A large body of research about boat building traditions around the world was created in the late 19th and early 20th century. This work was steeped in the empiricism of the Victorian and Edwardian era and the colonial imperative to survey, document, record, and somehow thereby know the world. Notable among these early scholars was James Hornell. Hornell was interested in recording the construction, propulsion, function, and use of traditional boats.
Skip to 1 minute and 57 seconds He sketched, planned, and photographed boats as he worked his way around the British empire in the 1920s and ’30s. He produced a detailed but very particular data set. One which is culturally and historically situated, though it was presented as scientifically objective. This kind of categorisation and survey work has been called boat ethnography. And more recently people have termed it boat ethnoarchaeology. The archaeology part in that new phrase is an important shift. In the ’80s, McGrail was the first to make the shift and to promote traditional boat studies as a source for the interpretation of archaeological finds. He advocated, in particular, recording contemporary traditional boats for the benefit of archaeological interpretation. His words were, “to be of maximum use to archaeologists.”
Skip to 2 minutes and 46 seconds And in effect, he suggested we should look at the construction detail of sewn boats in, for example, India in 2014, and use them as analogies to fill in the blanks in piecing together the construction of ancient sewn boats. In practise, this is very rarely been done because it’s difficult to see how these guys and their boats will tell us anything about the building, use, and context of something like the Bronze Age Dover Boat which was built 3,000 years ago and about 5,200 miles away. Perhaps more importantly, we need to be cautious about the underlying assumptions in the proposal that McGrail made. The first assumption is the idea of a linear development or an evolution of technology.
Skip to 3 minutes and 30 seconds This is the notion that all technology becomes more complex as we move forward in time. And that, therefore, simpler technology is older or even more primitive. This clearly isn’t the case. Some technologies grow more complex over time as we refine, adapt, and repurpose them. But others remain largely unchanged precisely because they are simple and beautifully designed. Or because they have cultural or religious value just as they are. Not all of our choices are purely functional. As a result, we can see kayaks and canoes alongside sailing dinghies, yachts, and motorboats on most rivers and lakes today.
Skip to 4 minutes and 10 seconds The second assumption that McGrail makes is that it is possible to study technology apart from the social world and physical context in which it is created. We need to ask ourselves if transferring technological observations across time and space is really a valid methodology for archaeological interpretation. These two underlying problematic ideas frame traditional boat building and more importantly the people that make and use those boats as timeless or ahistorical. They equate their present with the past. And as a result, frame these people as of the past, or not modern, or even as primitive. And though this might not be the intention, it’s a very problematic result.
Skip to 4 minutes and 56 seconds Viewing boats and the people who make them as equivalent to a long past stage in our own technological development, takes us into methodological and morally sticky ground. Instead, if we’re interested in engaging more fully with boat builders, their boats, and those who use them, and therefore with the skills and knowledges that they possess, we can bring very different sorts of ideas to archaeological interpretation. Julian Thomas suggests there is a great importance in exploring other ways of doing things. Other ways, in our case, of building and using boats. He suggests this is important because when we interpret the past, archaeologists need to remember that the social practises and values of the modern West are not shared by the whole of humanity.
Skip to 5 minutes and 40 seconds So though we clearly need to think about those assumptions that underlie the idea of boat ethnoarcheology, there is real value in studying traditional boat building for its own sake. It can help us think about the people that are involved in boat building and seafaring. It helps us think about the processes and practises and the skills and knowledge involved. It’s very different thinking about those sorts of things to just thinking about boat technology. In fact, what it really does is help us put the people back.
Studying boat building traditions
In this video, Dr Jesse Ransley talks about studying boats being built around the world today.
She highlights the ways in which studying diverse boat building traditions can help archaeologists think about the processes and practices involved in making boats, as well as the skills and knowledges of the people who make and use them – insights which are very different from just thinking about boat technology.
Throughout the video, she discusses the importance of context.
It is tempting to equate boats from different times, places and cultures when we see similarities in construction or raw materials. It is equally easy to attribute our own ideas about maritime society and seafaring logic to the past – about the ‘best’ way to sail or about shipboard life, about seafaring superstitions or the motivations and logic behind transoceanic voyages, or even beliefs and feelings about the sea itself. When we study the past, we need to be vigilant of the danger of mixing the past and present in our interpretations and narratives.
© University of Southampton, 2017