Archeological discoveries at the heart of "BOAT 1550 BC"
In September 1992, during urban development in the port of Dover, archaeologists from the Canterbury Archaeological Trust (CAT) were busy working alongside the construction workers. They brought to light some oak planks, meticulously fastened together by a system of wedges and yew withies. Buried under six metres of sediment, these organic materials were exceptionally well preserved. One end of the structure was revealed, its shape splayed into a ‘y’ whilst the other end lay outside the limit of excavation. It was a boat, of which a length of just over 9m had survived! A major operation was then mounted to carefully excavate and salvage the vessel from the place where it had lain for 3,500 years. Indeed, the radiocarbon dating of its ancient timbers produced a remarkable result; it proved to be one of the oldest sea-going boats in Europe. Neolithic river-going dugout boats are known from the 4th millennium BC, but here was proof that evidence for seafaring in these distant times remains to be discovered. Archaeologists knew that people on either side of the channel were in contact by their use of similar objects, domestic architecture and burial rites. Moreover, since the development of commercial archaeology over the last 10–20 years, this type of evidence is increasing in France, southern England and Belgium. The Dover boat is a material and symbolic link to these Bronze Age connections, when the borders between peoples lay inland and the sea was not an obstacle but a highway – long before the Channel Tunnel! – that brought together the communities of the Transmanche.
In 1992 archaeologists knew they had made a major archaeological discovery. Extraordinary efforts were made to conserve the boat, to study it and to present it to the public. Dover museum created a new gallery which opened at the end of 1999, with a particular focus on education. Questions from members of the public who visited the excavation informed the design of the gallery, concentrating on the boat itself, maritime archaeology and the Bronze Age. At the same time, specialists in maritime archaeology attempted to understand the nuances of the boat, on the one hand beautifully preserved but on the other missing one end and partially dismantled at the time of its abandonment. The study was difficult, lengthy and absorbing. After fifteen years of research, archaeologists are now in a position to suggest a reconstruction of the boat and to envisage an exercise in experimental archaeology to build a replica. They also hope to go further and launch a major project to tell the little-known story of the coasts of the Channel and North Sea 3,500 years ago, reinforcing the concept of a ‘Euroregion’ in the long term.
In this way the ‘Boat 1550 BC’ project came into being, supported by the European Union (through its Interreg IV A ‘2 Seas’ programme) and led by archaeologists from three countries (England, France and Belgium). Seven partners have joined forces to raise awareness of this ancient mutual heritage through a wide range of events, focussing especially on activities aimed at children.