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Thread: Ghost ship of Sutton Hoo to sail again centuries on

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    Ghost ship of Sutton Hoo to sail again centuries on

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    The gold and silver treasures of Sutton Hoo have dazzled archaeologists and the public for decades. Now experts believe that creating a working, full-size replica of the ship in which they were discovered will hold the key to understanding how the Anglo-Saxons started England’s seafaring tradition.
    The 90ft vessel, dating from the early 7th century, was found in a burial mound in Suffolk 80 years ago. It has been described as a “ghost ship” because only rows of rusted rivets and an imprint of its long-rotted timbers remained for excavators.
    Based on these, a team of archaeologists, historians and shipwrights has used computer-modelling techniques to create a 3D plan of the ship that will be used to construct a replica capable of undergoing arduous sea trials.

    Volunteer experts are erecting the frame on which the keel will be constructed, starting next month. The £1 million project will harness authentic historical materials and building techniques, including joining the oak planks of the hull in overlapping, clinker fashion, using 3,598 numbered rivets that can be sponsored by the public for £20 each to help to meet the project’s costs. Sponsors receive a pin badge and ownership card, with a number that will allow them to track “their” rivet in the final build.

    The original ship has been likened to an aircraft carrier of its day in terms of technical complexity, but many questions about its features and capabilities remain unanswered. It is not known for certain whether the vessel had a mast and sail in addition to places for about 40 rowers.

    Martin Carver, director of the Sutton Hoo Ship’s Company, which was formed to rebuild it, and former head of York University’s archaeology department, said: “We suspect that seafaring was rooted in the hearts of the Angles and Saxons that made England their home. But we know little about it. We want to see what a ship and its crew could do. Some things can be learnt from a book or a test tube; other things need learning by doing.

    The ship is thought to have been the final resting place of King Raedwald

    “Our objectives are to learn how an early English ship was built, its performance in river, lake and sea, its handling of the wind and tides; and not only to learn what’s possible and record it, but to discover what it feels like. So our project will contribute to knowledge of our shores and seas and knowledge of the earliest English, their history, way of life, their poetry.”

    The replica will be ready for sea trials by early 2022 and could be used in experimental voyages across the North Sea or farther afield. The ship may have been used for trading and in warfare before she was dragged overland to be the resting place of a man buried inside it with goods including the Sutton Hoo helmet and treasures from the British Isles, Francia and the Byzantine (Eastern Roman) empire.

    The Sutton Hoo helmet is one of the treasures stored in the ship

    The dead man is widely believed to have been King Raedwald of East Anglia, whose dynasty, the Wuffingas, has been linked to the Wulfing clan of Sweden, as featured in Beowulf. Ship burials may have been intended to carry the deceased into the afterlife. Raedwald had accepted baptism, although Bede, the Northumbrian historian, said this was “in vain” because: “He seemed at the same time to serve Christ and the gods whom he served before.”

    Computer modelling of the vessel by scientists at Southampton University is based on the remains discovered in a burial mound near Woodbridge in 1939. Julian Whitewright, a maritime archaeologist, said: “Although that doesn’t sound like much evidence, it is enough to give us a virtually complete hull shape from keel to gunwale [the topmost plank on the side], which comprises the runs of the planking, the internal frame locations and general dimensions, the curvature of the keel and ends of the ship.

    “This is far more than most archaeological reconstructions have.”

    The Sutton Hoo Ship’s Company is still seeking green-oak timber woodworkers, preferably with traditional boatbuilding experience. There are also vacancies in other roles, including recording and cataloguing data and photographing the project.


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    Whether Anglo-Saxon or early medieval Germanic ships in general already had sails, is an interesting question. The Nydam ship didn't have one in any case. That's especially pertinent to this case, because being from Jutland and deposited some time after 320 CE, it was probably an Anglo-Saxon ship.

    But I'd say that's not general evidence, that they didn't use or even less, that they didn't know the sail. They certainly knew it since the first century CE because the Romans roamed the North Sea at that time.
    More likely sailing simply wasn't necessary in the relatively calm waters around the Danish isles and a heavy mast and sail would merely have been an encumbrance and would have actually slowed the ship down on raids.
    In the same way the ancient Greek war galleys, while they generally had masts, mainly used their rowers for propulsion in the relatively calm waters of the Aegean Sea.
    It's still possible that ancient Germanics used the sail on other ships, especially precursors to knarrs.

    Too bad that the funeral hut in this case was erected exactly were the mast step/kerling would have been.
    But if the Anglo-Saxons sailed directly from Jutland/northwestern Germany to England and didn't hug the coast all the way to Calais, I don't think it's likely that they made the trip without sail. Even from Texel/Den Helder it's about 200-250 km to the nearest English coast.

    Especially on ships cramped with women, children and their belongings that seems unlikely. The ships were heavily loaded, unstable on the high seas and too cramped to be rowed. Especially since most ships were smaller than the Sutton Hoo ship.
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