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The Men of the Sea

10 January 2013

Robert Van de Noort, in his book North Sea Archaeologies, says that archaeologists too often ignore the role of the sea in the history of NW Europe – especially in the North Sea basin. The sea was a highway between Britain and Ireland, on the one hand, and Iberia and the Mediterranean, as well (see Barry Cunliffe, Europe Between the Oceans; 9000bc-ad2000). Funny thing but a recent issue of BBC History magazine was talking about the revolution caused by the invention and building of the railways, saying that in the end it was detrimental to Britain because they had created an empire based on the sea, widely flung out and disconnected by land routes. The coming of the railways united large blocks of land so that products and people were able to move around, favouring large single political blocks (citing the US, Germany, Russia etc). An interesting idea – did the railways bring the empire to an end rather than the normally cited reasons. On page 27 of Current Archaeology 275 (Jan/Feb 2013) there is a nice series of maps showing how our present coastlines in NW Europe evolved over time, from the Ice Ages to the present. The continental shelf was increasingly drowned, over time, and to maintain contacts it would have been necessary to resort to messing around in boats. In fact, even land locked central Europe messed around in boats, as the rivers were the highways of communication. Mesolithic people, it has been found, show a remarkable degree of genetic homogenuity across western, central and eastern Europe (Charles L Fox, University of Barcelona, Current Biology) and although they clearly ranged over a large land area it is also known, now, that they had a partially sedentary way of life, with seasonal settlements of fairly long duration. Mesolithic people appear to have lived as large mobile bands of people, or tribes, with contacts between various groups over hundreds of miles. This is not a lot different from the life style of some of the more mobile tribes of North American Indians – and perhaps this is how it is imagined. Boats and rivers seem to have played an important role as various log boats (boats created out of thick tree trunks and therefore not so easily rotted away if buried in mud and sediment) are known from the Netherlands (9th millennium), Normandy (8th millennium) and there is that Mesolithic boat yard discovered under the cliffs of the Isle of Wight, at the bottom of the Solent (7th millennium). Hollowed out logs may also have been used as coffins. Some 549 prehistoric log boats have been found by archaeologists in Europe, mostly from the rivers of central Europe – but also from Ireland, Scotland, and England. Hide boats, such as coracles and curragh, or any kind of stretched skin boat, or even birch bark canoes (which may or may not have existed) were probably too delicate to have survived.

Now, we have a situation where Mesolithic people, even in Britain and Ireland, included marine resources in their diets, but the Neolithic farmers, when they arrived, appear to have subsisted on a purely farm orientated diet (cereals, meat from cattle, sheep, pigs and goats, as well as various milk products) which would suggest an entirely new population. However, Van de Noort is puzzled, how did the farmers react to the boat people. Did they enlist them to sail from the continent to the British Isles, for example, and if they had contact with them why didn't they eat the bounty of the seas and the rivers? How did the farmers maintain contacts with the continent without making use of the boat people? Some archaeologists have consistently challenged the distinction between the Mesolithic and Neolithic populations, Francis Pryor springs to mind, as there has been a general shift in opinion and it is now thought that Neolithic people in the 3rd millennium BC were mainly pastoralists, herding animals in a fairly mobile life style. This does not of course mean they travelled over long distances but they would have had summer and winter pastures, a situation not unlike the Mesolithic people following herds of wild animals, or waylaying them in carefully fashioned clearings around water holes, or in the favoured rutting zones, on a seasonal basis. They also appear to have encouraged hazels and other foods of the woodland edge, a sort of farming of wild plants. In that perspective they were not a lot different from each other – but again that raises the question, who were the early farmers that were living in Britain and Ireland in the 4th millennium (and in central Europe from the 6th millennium), and all the way up to the far north, and where did they come from? Where do the boat people fit into all this – and the traditional fishing communities?

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