Review Article

Archaeologies of seafaring and the sea

Fraser Sturt
Centre for Maritime Archaeology
Archaeology, University of Southampton
Southampton SO17 1BF, UK

Books Reviewed
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ATHOLL ANDERSON, JAMES H. BARRETT & KATHERINE V. BOYLE. The global origins and development of seafaring. xiv+330 pages, 114 illustrations, 21 tables. 2010. Cambridge: McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research; 978-1-902937-52-6 hardback £44.

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OLE CRUMLIN-PEDERSEN. Archaeology and the sea in Scandinavia and Britain: a personal account (Maritime Culture of the North 3). 184 pages, 297 b&w & colour illustrations. 2010. Roskilde: Viking Ship Museum; 978-87-85180-05-6 hardback £45.

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ROBERT VAN DE NOORT. North Sea archaeologies: a maritime biography 10 000 BC – AD 1500. xiv+282 pages, 46 illustrations. 2011. Oxford: Oxford University Press; 978-0-19-956620-4 hardback £60.

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Archaeology has long had an interest in the sea; in movements over it, resources extracted from it, and, more recently, peoples' differing relationships to it. The three volumes considered here reflect the history and development of this interest, the extent of our current knowledge, and perhaps most engagingly, the great potential that still remains to be realised.

Origins and overviews

The global origins and development of seafaring is, as the title suggests, an ambitious and wide-ranging volume. This ambition is reflected in the book's sheer size: twenty-four chapters with forty-one contributing authors, spread over three hundred and eleven A4 pages. The editors suggest that the text offers 'a fair cross-section of the current state of explanatory thinking in maritime prehistory' (p. xiv). It is to their credit that this is largely the case, particularly as the volume arose from a conference and thus reflects the range of papers given.

The book is split into four main sections: inferences of early seafaring, the development of boats and seafaring, Holocene circumstances and incentives for seafaring, and finally sailing and society. The first of these includes everything from a broad discussion of the evolution of seafaring (Erlandson) to more detailed case specific accounts: early coastal settlement, palaeoeconomy and human dispersal in Africa-Arabia (Bailey), Indo-Pacific migration (O'Connor), Pleistocene Sahul (O'Connell et al.),and seafaring along the Pacific coast of North America (Fitzhugh & Kennett). All of these are concise and well-written overviews. The final chapter in this section contrasts with those mentioned above, in that it offers a more personal account of recent fieldwork (Ammerman's work on early seafaring in the Mediterranean). It is at this point that the volume feels most like a traditional conference proceedings, rather than a coherent and closely edited text. It is not that Ammerman's chapter does not fit the topic, more that the tone changes to one of work in progress (as the author makes clear it is).

Discussion of the development of boats and seafaring is confined to two chapters, and two authors, McGrail and Crumlin-Pedersen, who have dedicated their lives to its study. Both offer condensed versions of ideas and arguments laid out at greater length in their other published works. McGrail succinctly summarises early evidence for seafaring, navigation, and how water transport can be classified. Crumlin-Pedersen considers the nature and origin of Atlantic and Baltic seafaring, in another well-written and well-illustrated chapter. Whilst no new data is presented here, the presence of these chapters helps the volume to stand as a useful reader in maritime prehistory.

Holocene circumstance and incentives for seafaring introduces another eight chapters, ranging from accounts of Pacific voyaging (Irwin) to conceptual modelling of seafaring in the North Atlantic (Dugmore et al.). However, it is difficult not to be swayed by the thrill of the new. Thus, while all of the chapters within this section were engaging, it was Junko Habu's account of the development of cultural complexity in Northeast Asia that particularly stood out for me. It introduces a rich record of maritime activity that I had not considered previously. In essence, this exemplifies one of the strengths of the volume. No matter if you are a newcomer to maritime prehistory or a seasoned researcher, the temporal and geographical breadth of coverage ensures there is likely to be something of interest. Few will have cast their net as wide as here: chapters in this section range from Carter's account of Neolithic seafaring in the Persian Gulf to Farr's excellent work on island colonisation and trade in the Mediterranean. This stands as much conceptually as it does geographically. Chapters by Dawson and Keegan offer interesting new insights and ways of approaching the record: Dawson's work on the abandonments of islands in the Mediterranean and Pacific gives a useful counterpoint to the traditional focus on colonisation alone, while Keegan's consideration of demography forces us all to think in greater detail about the specifics of population viability.

Sailing and society sees six chapters directly addressing more socially focused questions. Again, many of the contributors' names will be familiar (Clark, Broodbank, Blench, Cunliffe, Westerdahl and Barrett). Broodbank's chapter on 'Voyaging, sailing and the making of Mediterranean societies c. 3500–800 BC' is particularly well developed and engaging. Similarly Clark's account of Tongan chiefly landscapes provides a richly detailed account of how maritime activity can play a central part in social development. Westerdahl's 'Horses are strong at sea' offers a different viewpoint to that taken in the majority of chapters. Here, he continues to develop ideas on how maritime cultural landscapes form socially, with a particular emphasis on the liminal nature of the coastal zone. While not all will agree with the specifics of the interpretation provided, the chapter makes the reader think about the social impact of not only seafaring, but spending time along the water's edge.

The four sections are topped and tailed by well-written introductory and concluding chapters. These sections do much to focus what might otherwise have been a disparate volume. However, it is a shame that the five themes (time, the crew, the land, the sea, the vessel and its cargo) identified by Barrett and Anderson in their final chapter were not more strongly identified within individual contributions. This would have given greater consistency to the volume as a whole. Overall this is a well-conceived, well-edited and well-presented volume that surpasses most conference proceedings in terms of coherence. While 'global' may be an ambitious word to include in any title — and not every part of the globe is well represented — it certainly comes closer to understanding seafaring than any other book of its type has done to date.

A life with the sea

Archaeology and the sea in Scandinavia and Britain is the published version of Ole Crumlin-Pedersen's Rhind lectures, delivered in Edinburgh in 2008. The volume is very well presented, with frequent high–quality illustrations. The text flows well and has a light personal touch, reflecting Crumlin-Pedersen's experience in the discipline.

The book is structured into six chapters, the first of which addresses the scope and potential of maritime archaeology and maritime cultures, before moving on to provide an account of how maritime archaeology became established in Denmark. If anything, the account of the work carried out at the Viking Ship Museum and Centre for Maritime Archaeology in Roskilde (and thus by Crumlin-Pedersen himself) rather understates the extent of the contribution made to the discipline as a whole.

The following chapters consider evidence for boats and ships before AD 800, Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian longhships, Viking-Age and Medieval trade ships, the maritime cultural landscape and finally the ship as symbol in the Scandinavian Iron Age and Viking Age. Of these it is the sections on longships and trading ships that provide the greatest depth of detail. That being said, the account of the maritime landscape of Scandinavia is highly engaging and ensures the book will appeal to a readership wider than that comprising aficionados of boats and ships alone.

In many ways it feels churlish to end on a critical note. However, there is a very minor point to be made: the volume ends somewhat abruptly, as its format follows that of the six Rhind lectures it is based on. Had some form of concluding remarks been included, it would have helped bring things together. This really is a quibble about an otherwise excellent volume that I would encourage anyone to buy.

The life of the sea

North Sea archaeologies is an intriguing book and very different from those discussed above. Van de Noort aims to explore what we can gain from more detailed consideration of past people's interactions with the sea as well as the sea's interactions with past people. This proves to be an interesting way of focusing research. It serves to break down more conventional national boundaries by looking to what has traditionally been the blank space in the middle of maps of north-western Europe, labelled the North Sea.

The book is split into ten chapters, arranged thematically rather than chronologically. This works well, as it allows key concepts to be brought to the fore and then considered for different temporal horizons. Chapter one explores why the sea may be good to think with. Here Van de Noort stresses that through focusing on the sea an alternative heuristic space is created, which enables us to think more closely about how people related both to the land/seascape and each other. In part, he argues, this is due to the different nature of peoples' actions at sea compared to those carried out on land, as well as the nature of the record available for study. The author acknowledges that this poses problems, in terms of a lack of surviving material culture for maritime activities, but that the endeavour, while not easy, is still possible and indeed necessary.

Chapter two introduces an archaeological theory of the sea. This includes a discussion of various 'scapes', but perhaps more interestingly of hybrid geographies and non-human agency. Here Van De Noort successfully builds on recent work to break down nature/culture boundaries to the point where hybrid landscapes can be discussed and agency attributed to the sea. While not all will agree with this approach, a powerful argument is certainly made for thinking along these lines when working along the coast and at sea. In addition, chapter two also sees the idea of the boat as heterotopia introduced, a theme that is considered in more detail in chapter eight ('The daily practice of seafaring').

Chapter three develops the idea of hybrid landscapes, through discussion of the changing nature of the North Sea through time. This provides an essential environmental framework that the reader can use to place subsequent discussion and case studies within a broader context. In particular, it adds weight to the very interesting argument raised in chapter five ('Socialising coastal landscapes') and expanded in chapter six ('Islands and archipelagos') which considers how the submergence of settlement sites, monuments in low-lying coastal zones and indeed whole islands may have had an impact on past societies. In particular, Van De Noort focuses on how people may have remembered and commemorated these lost places. This stands in contrast to more traditional discussions of permanence associated with monuments and helps to highlight how different it might have been to live along a dynamic, changing coastline. This new angle on old questions reflects one of the strengths of the book, and is evidenced in most sections. Chapters four ('Fish: exploring the sea as a taskscape') and seven ('Moving across the North Sea') help to widen the discourse beyond a recent focus on the significance of marine resources in past diets alone, by showing that, while important, there is more to maritime activity than fishing.

Chapter nine ('The cultural biography of boats') returns to a more traditional maritime archaeological focus: boats. Here, Van de Noort expands and extends some of the same ideas of the ship as symbol that Crumlin-Pedersen discusses in his volume. However, Van de Noort goes further to consider how concepts of fragmentation may help us to understand prehistoric vessels, their construction, use and destruction.

For those with an interest in maritime and landscape archaeology North Sea archaeologies will prove to be a valuable book. That is not to say that all of the ideas in the book will be accepted by all; nor are they fully developed. Indeed, given the temporal scope of the volume, I do not think this would have been possible. Instead, it is best to think of it as a generous text that will provide a series of starting points for interested scholars for years to come.