Pre-Roman shipping and trade routes

(By which I mean shipping and trade routes that crossed (at least) the English Channel with significantly-large volumes of cargo)

We live in an era of international trade, made possible by container ships, which connect distant countries and transporting huge volumes of goods in a relatively cheap and secure manner.

What’s true now has been true for thousands of years. International trade to and from Britain has depended on shipping. Well before the invention of large-scale road and rail networks (or the Channel Tunnel), the only way to move large volumes of goods a long way was by sea. Even after the invention of road and rail, it's still the most cost-effective way of moving goods. It’s only the scale of the trade that has changed. Information and knowledge moved around our planet in the same way, and so did religious beliefs.

Evidence of seagoing bronze age and iron age ships in Britain is hard to find. There are a few notable shipwrecks, like the Ferriby boats, but these are relatively small boats. In my opinion, those might only have been suitable as river or coastal boats. That's not just a theoretical opinion (based on the shallow seaboard of these boats and their volume), but also from witnessing the maiden voyage of Morgawr, a Ferriby replica built at the very good Maritime Museum in Falmouth. In the relatively flat and sheltered waters of the protected Falmouth harbour it was manageable, but did not have enough freeboard to cope with even a gentle swell or breaking waves. It was river-worthy but not seaworthy.

The volume and variety of the material found at the Salcombe bronze age wreck suggests something bigger.

Since 2004 SWMAG has located and recovered a significant number of Bronze Age artefacts that date to the Penard period and are believed to originate predominantly from France. ... One artefact in particular has proved to be of extreme archaeological interest. A Strumento con Immanicatura a Cannone (lit. “having a cannon shaped handle” – it's purpose is unknown), the artefact originated in Sicily and is the first of these items to be found in a secure context in north-west Europe. As such it represents the first conclusive evidence of trade routes that extended from the Mediterranean to the UK during the Bronze Age.
Ref : Salcombe Cannon Site

As for the actual ship involved, the best proxy we have for evidence of seagoing ships in the bronze age is the larger ships used in North Western Europe before the Romans arrived.

Veneti ships

A few happy coincidences happened while my son was studying Latin at school. Julius Caesar's account of the Gallic Wars was mentioned. I found a free eBook with it translated into English. Book Three grabbed my attention, especially his account of the naval battle with the Veniti (in the area we now know as Southern Brittany)

‘The Gauls’ [Veneti] ships were made with much flatter bottoms [than Roman ships] to help them ride shallow water caused by shoals or ebb tides. Exceptionally high bows and sterns fitted them for use in heavy seas and violent gales, and the hulls were made entirely of oak, to enable them to stand any amount of shock and rough usage. The cross-timbers, which consisted of beams a foot wide, were fastened with iron bolts as thick as a man’s thumb. The anchors were secured with chains instead of ropes. They used sails of raw hides or thin leather, either because they had no flax and were ignorant of its use, or more probably because they thought that ordinary sails would not stand the violent storms and squalls of the Atlantic and were not suitable for such heavy vessels … adapted for sailing such treacherous and stormy waters. We could not injure them by ramming because they were so solidly built, and their height made it difficult to reach them with missiles or board them with grappling irons. Moreover, when it began to blow hard and they were running before the wind, they weathered the storm more easily; they could bring in to shallow water with greater safety, and when left aground by the tide had nothing to fear from reefs or pointed rocks.’

i.e. by Caesar's own admission, these "inferior Celtic barbarians" had superior technology to the Romans. The Veneti had c.200 big ships compared to c.100 smaller ships for the Romans. But the reason the Romans beat them so easily in a naval battle was that these were trade ships, not galley warships, not equipped for close-quarter combat, and not able to manouvre when the wind dropped.

Only one day later I received a copy of The Extraordinary Voyage of Pytheas the Greek by Barry Cunliffe. It came with a bookmark in it. The page that was bookmarked has exactly the same quote from Caesar! Amazing! See CIV fanatics (Veneti) for a reconstruction of what the Veneti ships may have looked like.

Like the Asterix Ship found in St Peter Port by Bob Dean. He concludes it was based on the pre-Roman Venetic ships, and quotes the same passage from Caesar. The Veneti called for and got support from (what we would now call) Northern France and Britain, as the Veneti regularly traded with all these folk and had strong connections with them.

My father-in-law, by the family name of Nicholls, comes from an old line of seafarers with relatives in the Channel Islands, Cornwall and Wales. He explained to me why there are so many Nicholls in Cornwall and Wales, because of the high volume of shipping between the two. Shipping metal ore was a big trade. I was curious why if all the mines were in Devon and Cornwall, and the coal was in Wales, why were all the metalworks and foundries in Wales as well, and not in Devon and Cornwall? The answer is that for (say) one ton of metal ore, you need a lot more tons of coal (even if it's the finest Welsh coal) to smelt the ore. So, it is much more pragmatic to move the ore to the fuel than the other way around.

So what? (you might say).

As someone with a Gaelic ancestry, I've always been a trifle miffed with the Traditional Archaeologists (TA) toeing the party line of the Romans invading the "barbarian" north. So, OK, "barbarians" really just means the bearded ones. But the Celts had better chariots, better technology, better science. Better lots of things. It's just the Romans had better organised military muscle, and the victors write the history. Part of the TA story repeated ad-nauseum is that fine art bronze work only came to Britain from the Mediterranean area. But why? Britain had tin, it had copper, and it had the fuel to do the refining. Any megalithic manufacturers and traders worth their salt would do the sums. Move the high-bulk raw materials the minimum necessary distance before you produce the smaller higher-value items that are worth transporting over longer distances. The Megalithic British Isles had tin in Devon and Cornwall. It also had copper in a surprising number of places. Avoca, in the Wicklow Mountains of Ireland, Llandudno, Llanymynech and Machynlleth in Wales, Alderley Edge in Cheshire, Amlwch in Anglesey, also in North Wales, Shropshire, Coniston and southwest Scotland.

Next : Schools of Navigation

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