Model Boats in the Context of Maritime Archaeology

Alistair Roach, a long time VG member, is just completing an M Phil in Maritime Archaeology. Beneath is a very brief article that he has written. It appeared in The Archaeologist, the Journal of the Institute of Field Archaeologists, No 53 (Summer 2004) , p 33-34. We are grateful for permission to reproduce it here.

Static funereal, votive and shipbuilder's model boats have been well documented in the past but little research has been undertaken into wooden models that could have actually floated or sailed and the reasons they were made.

Toys as research resource
If one concentrates on just those models that have been discovered during archaeological excavations in north-west Europe, there have been at least 165 found that date from the ninth to the nineteenth centuries, obviously only a fraction of the total. The details of those found tend to be relegated to a minor section of some excavation report, and with little analytical rigour regarding their possible importance. A study of these 'toys' is not just a study of objects among the minor arts but it reflects a far more important aspect, i.e. a source for interpreting remains of full-sized vessels, the hypothetical reconstruction of hull forms and exploration of new ways of defining unknown vessel types.

1 Seventeenth century model boat found during excavations at Poole, Dorset. Photo Alistair Roach, courtesy of Poole Museum Service.

Current knowledge of medieval vessels is sparse and, apart from remains of a few ships, most information relies on two-dimensional representations in paintings, stained glass windows, manuscripts or town seals. Such images more likely show important ships than working boats or everyday transport. It is far more likely that a child's toy may depict his/ her father's fishing boat or barge as opposed to some royal ship, so model boats may represent the only three-dimensional evidence that can relate to full-size boat design and development in certain periods of history. There is also much to be learnt about the regional and national variants, particularly with regard to small boats.

3 Twelfth century wooden boat model (360 mm) from Dublin,(courtesy of the National Museum of Ireland.)

4 Viking children playing with a toy boat. Artist's impression by Jane Brayne, based on a twelfth century find from Dublin.

Crude models from Gdansk
The Gdansk finds from Poland (106 models) are particularly important, for there is a huge range of vessels depicted, from small boats to fishing vessels as well as possible cargo and warships. It appears that the six distinct groups into which finds have been categorised have yet to he fully researched, particularly when comparing them to the full-sized vessels of the Baltic region. Although these crude models could not be accepted as unequivocal real evidence of ship or boat design, they do at least suggest that in the tenth to thirteenth centuries there was a range of vessels in addition to known classic examples. The shapes of some models do have full-sized counterparts, but they also reflect other forms. This suggests that known wrecks reflect only part of the types built at that time.

Fragments or parts of model boats can pose some interesting questions. The 'dismountable' model stem tops and the model boat bow originally equipped with a loose stem top found in the Bryggen excavations in Norway have no full sized counterpart. The saga of King Håkon Håkonsson mentions this type of stem and the Bryggen 'carved fleet' graffiti appears to corroborate it but the miniatures found are the only three-dimensional contemporary evidence available to archaeologists and historians for further research.

2 Graffiti carved on a thirteenth century rune stave found at Bryggen, Norway, showing the stems of a great Viking fleet. 9Bryggen Museums, Bergen, Norway)

5 Model boat reconstruction based on medieval fragments excavated from a bog in Vestfold, Norway. (author)

Lugsails and spritsails

Medieval model boat fragments from a bog in Båsmyr, Vestfold in Norway illustrate another interesting conundrum. The fragments show that the mast was stepped well forward from the central position where a square sail would most likely have been rigged. If a classic square sail configuration were used from this mast position there would have been serious steering problems, except perhaps when running or on a broad reach. It is more likely that this model was rigged with a fore-and-aft sail, i.e.a lugsail or a spritsail. As the lugsail was probably not used in north-west Europe until the sixteenth century but the spritsail was used from the fourteenth or perhaps earlier, the model may show that medieval vessels with this hull form were sometimes rigged with a spritsail, particularly if they were perhaps engaged in riverine or estuary work, where manoeuvrability in confined spaces was all important.

With such examples in mind there must still be a great deal of information, embracing the whole subject of model and toy boats, as yet to be discovered, recorded and correctly interpreted. This information will add to the continued research of boat and ship design in antiquity.

Alistair Roach

The illustrations that follow are not part of the article published in The Archaeologist but are other examples of toy boats and reconstructions which Alastair has made as part of his studies.