Friday, April 10, 2009

Ancient Scandinavian "Two-Horned" Boats

(click for larger image)
Reader Wade Terzia asked about Bronze Age European boats with "distinctive double-projections at the stem and stern" and known from petroglyphs. Interesting subject.

The Hjortspring boat, found on the Danish island of Als, was, according to marine historian and painter Bjorn Landstrom, "over 43 feet long and over 6 feet wide, built about 200 B.C." Very similar to the petroglyphs shown in the image below, Landstrom makes an interesting point:
The construction has caused much surprise, especially the shapes of the ends which do not appear at all natural for a boat of wood. It is the oldest find made in Scandinavia of a boat built of wood, and I believe that it was made with a hide boat as a model.

So the Hjortspring boat, shown above, was apparently derived from the skin boat, shown below, in which the end projections make perfect sense from a construction standpoint. Landstrom sees a close connection between this skin boat and umiaks, and suggests that the keel extension would allow users to drag the boat ashore with less wear to the skin covering. And the evolution to the sewn-plank boat incorporated the extensions out of habit, not for any good reason in terms of boat construction or usage. Apparently, these extensions were abandoned as soon as builders in the sewn-plank technology figured out that there was no reason to retain them.

Apologies for the poor quality of the Hjortspring image and the wretched stitching together of two scans. It is clickable, however, for a larger view. The image shows numerous planks stitched together, with a bottom member that might be a keel-like structure (but is not a dugout base) that extends beyond the stem and sternposts. The painting does not seem to show the ends to be "crotches" in the manner of the Polynesian five-part canoe: rather, the port and starboard sides of the end pieces of planking appear to be separate pieces that meet at the stem/sternposts.

A caveat: Landstrom's book was published in 1961, and there may be much more recent research that either confirms or contradicts his views. But I just love Landstrom's paintings. I received the book for my 13th birthday, and I still treasure it. If Jerry & Marie Ruebenstahl are out there somewhere, thanks again.


  1. Bob. This is really, really good stuff. Tracing the evolution of the single line of boats which may have the most influence on western boat design today. And linking it to the umiak. But I don't beleive the dating is even close w/ Hjortspring at 200 BC, and Inuit arriving much later. I don't think Dorset had umiak or any boats. Interesting for speculation, though. Maybe just 'great minds'. Thanks for this.


  2. Bob, really, really good post. Evolutionary. These are, I think, the boats which most influence our current design, though with many innovations between. Nordic skinboats and umiak don't line up in a timeline, so were probably separate developments. Good stuff!


  3. Thanks for trying to answer my question. Reviewing this a few years later, I had a thought: the projecting piece (projected dugout keel) of the keel lets the carved ends rest securely on top of the keels; possibly the upper-horn and connecting structure squeezes the carved ends together (after lashing) for perhaps a better water-seal along the keel.