The Dover Bronze Age boat
Hailed as one of the greatest archaeological discoveries of the 20th century, the Dover Bronze Age boat is one of the oldest sea-going boats in the world. It is around 3,500 years old, having been built around the time that the final touches were being made to Stonehenge, fifteen centuries before the Romans arrived in Britain and 2,300 years before the Vikings ventured across the North Sea in their longships.
The boat is made of oak planks hewn from massive oak logs, pegged together with oak wedges and stitched with twisted twigs of yew wood. The technology of its construction is totally unlike the shipbuilding techniques of later periods. The complexity and sophistication of its design has stunned modern-day experts and is testament to the intelligence and virtuoso skills of our distant ancestors. The full scientific report on the boat can be downloaded for free here.
Originally the boat was around 18 metres (60 feet) long and around 2.5 metres (8 feet) broad, and weighed about 8 tonnes. It was probably crewed by around 20 paddlers and could carry approximately 2 tonnes of cargo. No-one knows for sure what the boat was used for, though it seems most likely that it travelled along the southern coast to Dorset and Cornwall, where it could pick up supplies of tin and bronze (the raw materials for making bronze) and bringing it back to supply Bronze Age communities on both sides of the English Channel. The raw materials for making bronze do not exist in the Transmanche area; all of the metal for the thousands of bronze tools and weapons excavated in southern Britain, northern France and the Low Countries had to be imported across huge distances in the Bronze Age.
The boat was found quite by chance by archaeologists from the Canterbury Archaeological Trust monitoring roadworks in 1992. The boat was found lying 6 metres (20 feet) below the modern streets of Dover, miraculously preserved by the oxygen-free silts in which it had lain for three and a half millennia. About half the boat (9 metres or 30 feet) was recovered and this globally important find is now on display in Dover Museum in the heart of this historic port.
In 2012, a half-size reconstruction of the Dover Bronze Age boat was built in the grounds just outside Dover Museum. As an exercise in experimental archaeology, the boatbuilding team had to solve many problems, reverse-engineering from the original timbers of the boat to realise the best possible solution. In the end, the reconstructed boat proved to be very stable, highly manoeuvrable and seaworthy. A small team of volunteers take the boat for regular trips around Dover Harbour, longer sea voyages and has twice taken part in the Great River Race, a gruelling marathon of nearly 22 miles along the River Thames through central London from London Docklands to Ham in Surrey. The reconstructed boat is also taken to boat regattas and maritime festivals both in the UK and on the continent, where it always proves to be a very popular attraction and an ideal starting point for reflection on our mutual heritage on both sides of the Channel.
The Bronze Age boat on display at Dover Museum.
Clark, P (ed) 2004 The Dover Bronze Age boat in context: Society and water transport in prehistoric Europe, Oxford: Oxbow books
Clark, P (ed) 2004 The Dover Bronze Age boat, with illustrations by Caroline Caldwell, Swindon: English Heritage
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Clark, P 2019 ‘The Dover Bronze Age boat as a ‘Non-place’: Some reflections on maritime mobility in the Bronze Age of the Transmanche’, in C Gibson, K Cleary and C Frieman (eds), Making Journeys: Archaeologies of Mobility, Oxford: Oxbow Books
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Sanders, D 2007 ‘The Dover Boat; some responses to Ole Crumlin-Pedersen and Seán McGrail, concerning its propulsion, hull form, and assembly and some observations on the reappraisal process’, The International Journal of Nautical Archaeology, 36 (1), 184–192
Von der Porten, E 2006 ‘Minimal, Intermediate, and Maximum Reconstructions of the Dover Boat’, The International Journal of Nautical Archaeology, 35 (2), 332–333
Out for a paddle on the half-size replica Bronze Age boat.