5.1 Introduction

Given the vast number of ship and vessel remains around Scotland coasts, it is useful to attempt to categorise them, define them and identify gaps in their research and some future approaches to these vital archaeological resources. Wreck sites and surviving vessels together provide an invaluable research resource which benefits from examination in a joined-up manner. This chapter outlines the range of archaeological potential of extant vessels, discusses the range and potential of early watercraft, such as log-boats, and defines the archaeological. historical and wider potential of shipwreck archaeology. Ships of potential archaeological interest fall into five general categories:

1. Vessels still afloat and in active use with origins and/or careers of historic significance. Such vessels may have undergone extensive rebuilding and restoration during their lifetimes. Attempts will often have been made to re-create their supposed original appearances. Only by identifying and recording what is original. and working out what changes have subsequently been made (including attempts to ‘reverse’ earlier ones), can valid archaeological information be derived from such survivals.

2. Vessels no longer in use, but which, because of perceived interest whether by virtue of technical innovation or historic significance, have been preserved afloat, ashore, or in a dock. As with the previous category they will often have undergone extensive modification, repair, and attempted reversal of deterioration during their careers. In this respect they are akin to standing historic buildings, and similar techniques of structural analysis and chronological phasing should be applied to their study. Comprehensive and accurate recording of such vessels is of prime importance. Laser scanning is a valuable tool for this purpose, and has been successfully applied to the recording of the emigrant clipper ship City of Adelaide (http://www.headlandarchaeology.com/Services/consultancy/maritime_case_studies/city_of_adelaide.html) . It should be remembered that, unlike most buildings, ships are not constructed with permanence in mind, and are especially vulnerable to rot, corrosion, and mechanical stress when laid up ashore. The tasks of long-term preservation and maintenance are technically difficult, expensive, and constantly recur. Routine survey permits monitoring and the identification of problems as they arise. Should it become no longer practical or economic to preserve a vessel, the completion of as complete a record as possible recording the detail of all aspects of construction and the precise nature of all components is the only alternative.

3. Vessels abandoned on the foreshore or in the inter-tidal zone. Boats are frequently left drawn up in creeks or just clear of the beach, often with an owner’s intention of doing something with them ‘one day’. At what point good intention fades to abandonment is rarely clear, but many old vessels around our coast have progressed beyond hope of useful life and may be regarded as potential archaeological resources. The identification and recording of those deemed ‘significant’ would be a valuable exercise. Such vessels are likely to have been stripped of most of their contents and usable fittings, though they may still incorporate archaeologically relevant material other than structure. Ships grounded in the inter-tidal zone, though technically ‘wrecks’ rather than ‘abandonments’, can often be placed in the same general category, as they are likely to have been extensively salvaged to leave only a bare and often partly disintegrated hull. Examples are the large wooden wreck on Fuday, Barra, believed to be of 16th or 17th century date, which appears occasionally when sand levels are low, and the remains of a 19th century smack in the beach near Montrose.

4. Shipwrecks deposited below low water mark. These are archaeologically the most ‘pure’, since they represent the reality of a ship and its contents at the time of wrecking, though natural forces will have dispersed and degraded its once highly-organised entity to a greater or lesser extent. Later human activity, notably salvage, may also have selectively removed further material or in other ways disturbed the site’s coherence. An understanding of formation processes can often inform a hypothetical reconstuction of the ship and an understanding of its structural technicalities, while distribution patterns of artefacts and other material may reflect aspects of internal organisation. Evidence may bear on the purpose of the vessel, such as trade, resource exploitation, or warfare, and touch on related craft skills, domestic activities, and social division on board. Environmental evidence such as food remains may reflect aspects of diet and sources of supply, while human skeletal remains will often represent healthy young individuals from specialised backgrounds who would not otherwise have entered the archaeological record. A ship is in many ways a microcosm of its parent society on shore (though there are often significant differences, such as gender imbalance), so the study of a shipwreck assemblage often goes considerably beyond the immediacy of an individual vessel. The archaeology of shipwrecks should always be studied in their cultural contexts, and related to the wider history and archaeology of relevant periods and associations. In more general terms shipwrecks are often rich sources of artefact groups with unusually precise termini post quem, so their value in testing and refining typologies should not be overlooked. All these aspects are illustrated by the Duart Point wreck (see below), and it may be expected that shipwreck deposits elsewhere in our waters will offer similar opportunities for other periods and aspects of the past, maritime and terrestrial.

5. Isolated components from boatyard sites, timbers re-used in buildings, displaced relics from abandoned ships, or items deposited in wet environments for seasoning. Examples include boat timbers from medieval Perth and pieces perhaps associated with shipbuilding activities from Eigg and Rubh’an Dùnain, Skye

See ScARF case study:  Rubh’an Dùnain, Skye.


John Allan / Canalised outflow from Loch na h-Airde

ScARF case study:  Rubh’an Dùnain, Skye

ScARF Case Study: MacArthur’s Store, Dunbar

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