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Saturday, July 31, 2010

Birchbark Canoe at Abbe Museum

The Abbe Museum in Bar Harbor, on Mt. Desert Island, Maine, is dedicated to showing the history and culture of Maine's Native Americans. Set right in the center of town (which is a zoo on a summer weekend), it's new, slick, somewhat on the small side, somewhat political in nature, and it has a few canoe-related artifacts. This post will focus on the museum's only full-size birchbark canoe. The next one will look at its collection of models and other canoe depictions. (As always, click any image to enlarge.) 

I'll introduce the canoe by quoting the exhibit signage:
Canoe: Atikamekw (probably Manawan First Nation), Late 1800s
This canoe was built at St. Alexis des Monts, Province of Quebec, in the late 1800s. Algonkian in design and construction, it is similar to canoes that were used by the Passamaquoddy and Penobscot Indians of Maine.
Roughly similar, perhaps. There are many notable differences between this Algonquin canoe and the Wabanaki canoes of Maine, but I guess the museum couldn't get its hands on an authentic and historical Maine Indian canoe, so this one had to do.


The signage goes on to list materials: Sheathing, ribs, gunwales, "bulkheads" (i.e., headboards), bow and stern posts (i.e., stem and stern posts): all cedar, type not specified. Lashings: Split spruce root. Seam sealer: spruce or pine pitch, ground charcoal, tallow. Cover: single sheet of birch bark

Stem protectors are leather. Note the rather sharp turn of the stem or sternpost from horizontal to past vertical. (Is this the characteristic that Chapelle called "chin"?) This is quite a different profile than the Penobscot bark canoe built by Steve Cayard last year at Penobscot Marine Museum. (By the way, Steve just finished another bark canoe yesterday at Penobscot Marine Museum.)


The headboards are unusual in having a strong convex curve inboard. Most curved headboards curve the other direction. This one is the bow, I believe.
Stern headboard. I like the rounded top, maybe symbolizing a man's head.

Note how the sternpost rises above the gunwales. Also note the wulegessis, the decorative flap/deck of bark that is sandwiched between the gunwales and the hull. 

Only the thwarts were lashed. The gunwales and their connection with the bark covering were assembled with nails.

The bow, I believe.

Top view of the wulegessis, showing treatment of the gunwales, caps, and headboard lashing arrangement.

Quarter-thwart, deeply curved with the concave face facing the end of the canoe.

Interior, showing two paddles made by Joe Mell, Passamaquoddy, in 1904.

One of the paddles has a conventional Penobscot-style grip.

The other paddle has an unusual, attractive ovoid bulge with a sharp line, rather than a smooth transition, where it meets the flat base of the grip.

Exhibit signage: an image from Scribners Monthly, 1880, showing how Mt. Desert Island's Native Americans used bark canoes to hunt porpoises with spears...

...and with guns. This would take some pretty steady shooting and a lot of trust in your stern paddler.

Both of the Scribners images also appear in the new book Indians in Eden, about the Native Americans of Mt. Desert Island. (Eden was Bar Harbor's original name.) The book has significant content about their use of birchbark canoes for both traditional economic activities, and for employment in MDI's early tourist economy.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Wooden Canoe Heritage Association Assembly 2010

As a first-time attendee of the Wooden Canoe Heritage Association's annual Assembly, I was boggled by the number, diversity, and quality of canoes on display. This year's event was held July 14-18 at Franklin Pierce University in Rindge, New Hampshire.

The photos below show just a sampling. Some are owned by private individuals and were for sale; others for display only, although it's said that most of the "not for sale" boats would sell if the right price were offered. Still others were displayed by small canoe businesses -- builders and/or restorers of new and/or replica boats. (Click any photo to enlarge.)

Boats on display in "Cedar City" ranged from near-basket cases to pristine. While cedar-canvas construction predominated, strippers, lapstrake, board-and-batten, birchbark, and dugouts were also present.
Another view of Cedar City.
Fancy paintwork on a nice pair of courting canoes.
Long mahogany decks on a courting canoe.
This 20-foot dugout was built recently by a WCHA member from poplar. It weighs 200 lbs. Just visible to the left is a birchbark canoe.
This E.M. White was my favorite of the show. It has a wonderfully smooth matte-finish paint job. The boat's name, Elizabeth, also appears transliterated into American Indian syllabics (sorry, I don't know which language) and this made for an appealing graphic. Note the unusual sheet brass stem protectors and end caps on the gunwales.
I love the shape of the White's decks and the way the gunwale caps cover its edges and provide color contrast.
The classic E.M. White bowed stern seat. Note the brass seat hanger.
Stern of the White, with a traditional Indian symbol. Note also the brass protectors on the gunwale ends.
One of the show's needier basket cases. Many of these could be picked up for just a hundred dollars or so.
A wide-board-and-batten canoe in need of work.
Builder/restorer Kevin Martin of Epping, New Hampshire, was delivering this new construction to a delighted client at the show. Wonderful work, but I worry about the onanistic implications of a solo courting canoe.
Another view of the Kevin Martin courting canoe. The thwart is wide enough to use as a kneeling thwart, although you'd be facing the stern to use it.
The event included several vendors of related goods. This display of pack baskets was particularly attractive.

I'm fond of this tubby little Old Town, only 11 or 12 feet long.
A 20-foot square stern freighter-type canoe built by Rollin Thurlow and Peter Wallace of Northwoods Canoe Co., Atkinson, Maine.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Not So Conservative

We've all heard it said – said so often that it's a truism – that boatbuilders and sailors are conservative. When I came across such statements in two of my most recent reads, however, I gave it some thought, as all truisms deserve. And while it may be true in a limited sense, I now say that, by and large, it's nonsense, and it's time we stopped perpetuating the myth of maritime conservatism.


The first instances appeared in The boat beneath the pyramid: King Cheops' royal ship, by Nancy Jenkins. She writes, "Boatbuilders, we have already noted, are extraordinarily conservative by nature, and their basic principles have remained much the same throughout the millennia that men and women have been putting to sea."

Now, Jenkins seems to be a pretty fair journalist, but not a serious student of boat origins, so perhaps we can forgive her for merely parroting the truism of conservatism that she picked up somewhere – perhaps from a learned source, perhaps not. (By the way, I can't find the previous allusion to conservatism that she refers to, but that might be her editor's sin, and not hers. There are subsequent mentions of it, and perhaps her editor moved things around.) But her statement in its context just doesn't hold water. The "basic principles" of boatbuilding, whether viewed over the millennia or across the globe, are quite diverse. Even in the context of her own book, she notes that the earliest Egyptian boats were papyrus reed floats and that, by the time of King Cheops, wooden boats existed alongside them.

Right there, we see two entirely different concepts of boatbuilding, side by side in a historical venue. The reed-bundle vessel floats because it is composed entirely of buoyant materials. The planked boat floats according to a different principle, by displacing water. Some centuries, possibly millennia, before Cheops had his ship built around 2600 BC, some boatbuilder came by this innovation by an incredible leap of intellect. And many of his colleagues saw the advantages of his new technology and copied it – hardly a conservative response. This is more especially so when one considers that boatbuilding lumber was unavailable in Egypt and had to be imported at great cost from what is now Lebanon, requiring that new trade routes and relationships be established.

And as for the boatbuilders who persisted in making reed boats (or, properly, rafts)? Those boats remained practical: cheap and easily built of materials available locally (possibly free), requiring far less specialized skill and few if any specialized tools. For anyone below the level of a noble, and for any purpose other than war, ceremony, or international trade, the reed boat remained not only practical, but in all probability, the only type available. In a very limited sense of the word, this might be termed "conservative," in that it retained an old practice. But there is no reason to think that the builders and users of these reed boats did do so out of any predisposition toward old ways; they did it out of pragmatism. And conservatism is not pragmatic: it is predisposed to the past on emotional or ideological grounds. When circumstances change, the conservative resists changing his methods.

Let's get back to Jenkins' assertion about the basic principles of boatbuilding remaining nearly unchanged. In addition to the reed raft and the plank-built hull constructed in the ancient Egyptian manner, pre-industrial boatbuilding methods included:

• skin boats

• log rafts

• rafts supported by inflated skins or by pottery vessels

• bark canoes

• dugouts and their variants

• numerous other plank-building methods



The list is not exhaustive, but it should suffice to disprove the notion that boatbuilding methods are, or were in antiquity, limited or static.

Paul Johnstone, in The Sea-Craft of Prehistory, also addresses the development of the papyriform wooden boat in Egypt. He notes how the long bow overhang, which is a natural feature of a reed boat, was also a practical feature on the Nile, where the boat could be run up on the shore for ease of loading and unloading dry-shod. He continues:

"Perhaps, however, it was found in time that while the overhang forward was convenient, it was safer if the after extremity was curved up to give some protection when running before the wind. Since reed structures are not self-supporting like wooden ones, the simplest way to achieve rigidity was to bend the aftermost reed bundle as far forward as it would go and then lash it to the hull. Such is the conservatism of sailors and ship-builders (a factor that runs constantly through this book), that this stern bent over toward the bow survived in the Mediterranean right through Greek and Roman times and even in recent Venetian small craft." [The parenthetical phrase is Johnstone's.]


It is hard to see the conservatism that Johnstone asserts. If the raised stern provided protection to Egyptian helmsmen even on the calm and protected Nile, surely it provided the same advantages to Greek and Roman helmsmen on the open Mediterranean – in addition, possibly, to protecting them from the arrows of pirates or other enemies.

Assembling a model of Cheops' ship. The blades that support the decorative stempost are shown clearly. (Photo from Jenkins)

The Cheops ship being reassembled. The huge, hollow stem piece is shown directly below the blades over which it will be fitted. (Photo from Jenkins)

Mounting the tall, raised stem- and sternposts on papyriform wooden ships involved some special engineering, given the boats' long overhangs and the weight of those decorative appendages. Planks were added that extended several feet beyond the enclosed hull fore and aft, forming "wings" over which the stem and sternpost were socketed. While we have few artifacts to prove it, I think it certain that the first wooden boats devised by Egyptian boatwrights did not have the papyriform shape, the challenge of creating the first wooden displacement hull from first principles presenting more than enough difficulties for any one boat project. If we agree that the first Egyptian wooden boat must have been fairly simple in shape, then the papyriform hull, with its special features to support the soaring stem- and sternposts, must have been a later innovation. Far from being a holdover from earlier reed-building practice (and it could not have been that, the methods of construction being too entirely different between reed boats and timber hulls to allow any direct transfer of methods), the papyriform ends were a conscious replication or mimicry of the reed boat's shape for symbolic purposes. This was technical innovation in boatbuilding in the service of what may have been a conservative aesthetic or religious impulse.

Johnstone later describes the Portuguese beach boats known as saveiros or xavegas, and what he calls their "smaller southern brother, the meia lua." (We discussed the xavega in a previous post.) Noting the types' distinctive design and construction details (flat bottom, extreme sheer and extremely high ends, keelless construction over frames), he cites T.C. Lethbridge, who in 1952 suggested that the types were quite ancient, and possibly ancestors of the ancient planked vessels of Celtic influence found in England and northern Europe (such as the Blackfriars ship). Johnstone writes:

[Lethbridge] supported this thesis by pointing out the important difference between beach and estuary boats. Beach craft always face a specific situation – through the breakers from a flat shore. A suitable form for this, with a flat bottom and at least one high extremity to face the breaking waves, could have been evolved many centuries ago and survive in a remarkably unvaried shape, except occasionally for the stern, from Gibraltar to Cape Wrath. No such conservatism was forced on the estuary boatman. He had no surf to worry about and no limitation on launching weight or depth of keel. Moreover, he had sheltered water in which to try out new ideas and these again might be stimulated by seeing strangers and visiting craft who would seek shelter on occasion in an estuary or inlet, whereas they would never except in an emergency run ashore on an open beach. Saveiros are launched from beaches into the open Atlantic on wooden rollers by oxen pushing on a wooden fork against the stern post, and Lethbridge's theory of beach conservatism indicates that they may be an ancient design. Shortage of resources, isolation and the need to be absolutely certain of the performance of their craft in the open Atlantic would perpetuate this conservatism."


A saveiro. Just visible at the right is the business end of the forked pole against the sternpost. Oxen push against the other end of the pole to launch the boat. (Photo from Johnstone.)

The logic here is mostly backwards. No fisherman would have risked launching and landing through Atlantic breakers without some strong motivation – such as being excluded from the safer estuaries by competition. Boats for calm estuaries, therefore, preceded the saveiro, and these estuary boats quickly proved themselves unequal to the challenge – and hence they evolved out of necessity, gaining high ends and perhaps internal frames in the process. It is the saveiro, therefore, that demonstrates innovation. If the design be an ancient one, that is because it is also a good one. One cannot know how many attempted "improvements" on the saveiro proved to be less well-suited to conditions, but surely many such attempts were made before the boats' users decided to let well enough alone. Again, this is not conservatism, but pragmatism.

Read any history of Western boat- and shipbuilding, and one sees constant change, constant divergence into new types. Look at a survey of the vessels of any large region or country (some examples: Canoes of Oceania (Special Publications - Bernice P. Bishop Museum; 27-29), Haddon & Hornell; American Small Sailing Craft, Chapelle; Working Boats of Britain, McKee; The Junks and Sampans of the Yangtze, Worcester), and one finds an amazing number and variety of types, each one of which evolved for some particular purpose or in response to some unusual factor of sea conditions.

Finally, view boatbuilding against nearly any other complex endeavor that has persisted for millennia, and boatbuilding comes out looking positively dynamic. Did architecture, agriculture, or government change more dramatically than boatbuilding over the centuries? Did the wheeled vehicle, or infantry tactics, or road building evolve further and into a greater number of directions? Has religion been more adaptive to changing circumstances? (LOL) With the coming of the industrial revolution and, later, of modern science, was boatbuilding behindhand in adopting new forms of propulsion, new materials, the benefits of microprocessor technology?

On the contrary. Boatbuilding has always been notably innovative. It's time to put the old "boatbuilding is conservative" myth to rest. Next time you hear it, speak up.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Cheops' Royal Ship

A large boat discovered disassembled in a pit at the base of the Great Pyramid of Cheops is at once the oldest, largest, and most elaborate prehistoric vessel known. Unusual in so many respects and unexplained in many more, it is worth a look.

The Pharaoh Cheops, also known as Khufu, built the largest of the Egyptian pyramids, around 2600 BC. At its base, a long, narrow pit was excavated into the bedrock, and a ship, carefully disassembled, was deposited in it. The pieces were laid in logical order, as if the ship were meant to be reassembled for use in the king's afterlife. The pit was then sealed so effectively that the wood, and much of the rope and other fibrous material remained in excellent condition when the pit was discovered and opened in 1954. After years of study, the boat was reassembled and is now housed in a purpose-built museum directly over the original storage pit.

At 143 feet  LOA and 19.5 feet beam, with outrageously long overhangs, this is still an impressive vessel, and its size and elaborate construction bear proof that it was the result of centuries of technological evolution. It is clear, therefore, that Egyptian plank-built boats go back to an unknown antiquity -- certainly into the 4th millennium BC.  With its sharply upturned stem rising high above the waterline, and its sternpost that rises even higher and bends sharply toward the bow, its shape is described as "papyriform," meaning that it mimics the shape of papyrus reed boats (i.e., rafts, or floats). It is not believed that it was a technological descendant of the reed float -- their construction bear no similarity at all to each other -- but rather, it copied the well-known shape of the reed float for ceremonial or religious purposes. Several of the culture's deities, including the sun god who was closely associated with the king himself, were said to make voyages on reed vessels, which obviously predated planked ones as -- one can safely conclude -- did the stories about them.)

I feel comfortable addressing this plank-built boat here because its construction is decidedly outside the western plank-on-frame tradition. It was shell-built of short but very thick planks of cedar, imported from Lebanon. As shown in the planking diagram, the planks were nibbed to interlock, providing some longitudinal strength to the shell. Planks were edge-joined with dowels, and then lashed to one other with ropes passing through holes bored on the insides of the planks in an over-under stitch. The holes do not penetrate the thickness of the planks, but form U-shaped "tunnels" which enter and exit on the same, interior, face. Half-round battens were placed on the inside of the plank seams and were held in place by the same rope lashings. Caulking was apparently not used, but I speculate that caulking material may have been necessary, and simply was not included in the boat burial.

Widely-spaced frames supported stringers at their upper ends, and stanchions that rested on the middle of the frames supported a central stringer. These provided the majority of the longitudinal strength, and deck beams , notched into the central stringer but only butted against and lashed directly to the planking at their ends, provided most of the transverse strength.

Planking "wings" at both ends extended far beyond the planks of the hull's displacement shell, providing a fastening base for the large papyriform stem- and stern-posts. 

While the basic method of shell construction was, and still is, used throughout the Indian Ocean region (especially in the construction of dhows) and elsewhere, its details in this case seem not to have been transmitted into any surviving boatbuilding tradition. To call it a dead end seems unfair, as it was a tremendous technological achievement for a people who had limited access to good boatbuilding lumber, and who created an extremely sophisticated boat literally millennia before any evidence of any planked boatbuilding elsewhere whatsoever, but in fact it seems not to have contributed significantly to the evolution of later boatbuidling methods.

(Apologies for the split where the image crossed a page spread in my source.)

The boat's purpose is a matter of debate. It shows evidence of at least some use, and it may have been used by the king for ceremonial voyages on the Nile. Or it may have been used for a single voyage -- to deposit the king's remains at the pyramid. It may have been intended to represent the sun god's "solar bark," or may have been intended for the king's use in the afterlife. A combination of some of these purposes is by no means unlikely.

It was equipped with 10 long oars, obviously to be used standing up on top of the midships canopy and facing forward. It is doubtful, however, whether this provided sufficient propulsion to move such a large vessel. The oars may have been mainly for looks and ceremony, and the boat, if indeed it was used on the river, may have been towed.

The all-glass museum in which the boat resides was the cause of scandal, as it was not originally equipped with air conditioning, and the extremes of temperature which built up inside imposed greater danger to the restored artifact in a few years than millenia underground had done. In fact, the museum was not open to the public for many years for good reason: imagine visiting a greenhouse in the Egyptian desert! But an article in Wikipedia seems to indicate that the museum is now open to the public, so perhaps the climate control issue has been sorted out.

All images in this post are from The boat beneath the pyramid: King Cheops' royal ship
by Nancy Jenkins. As always, click any image for a larger view.