The Dover Bronze-Age Boat
A beautifully preserved boat, made around 3,000 years ago and discovered by chance in a muddy hole, has had a profound impact on archaeological research.
It was 1992. In England, workmen were building a new road through the heart of Dover, to connect the ancient port and the Channel Tunnel, which, when it opened just two years later, was to be the first land link between Britain and Europe for over 10,000 years. A small team from the Canterbury Archaeological Trust (CAT) worked alongside the workmen, recording new discoveries bought to light by the machines.
At the base of the deep shaft six meters below the modern streets, a wooden structure was revealed. Cleaning away the waterlogged site overlying the timbers, archaeologists realized its true nature. They had found a prehistoric boat, preserved by the type of sediment in which it was buried. It was then named by Dover Bronze- Age Boat.
About nine meters of the boat’s length was recovered; one end lay beyond the excavation and had to be left. What survived consisted essentially of four intricately carved oak planks: two on the bottom, joined along a central seam by a complicated system of wedges and stitched to the others. The seams had been made watertight by pads of moss, fixed by wedges and yew stitches.
The timbers that closed the recovered end of the boat had been removed in antiquity when it was abandoned, but much about its original shape could be deduced. There was also evidence for missing upper side planks. The boat was not a wreck, but had been deliberately discarded, dismantled and broken. Perhaps it had been “ritually killed” at the end of its life, like other Bronze-Age objects.
With hindsight, it was significant that the boat was found and studied by mainstream archaeologists who naturally focused on its cultural context. At the time, ancient boats were often considered only from a narrower technological perspective, but news about the Dover boat reached a broad audience. In 2002, on the tenth anniversary of the discovery, the Dover Bronze-Age Boat Trust hosted a conference, where this meeting of different traditions became apparent. Alongside technical papers about the boat, other speakers explored its social and economic contexts, and the religious perceptions of boats in Bronze- Age societies. Many speakers came from overseas, and debate about cultural connections was renewed.