Saturday, September 12, 2020

Book Review: The Bark Canoes and Skin Boats of Northern Eurasia, by Harri Luukkanen and William W. Fitzhugh

There are strong but superficial similarities between The Bark Canoes and Skin Boats of Northern Eurasia, a new book by Harri Luukkanen and William W. Fitzhugh, and the 1964 classic The Bark Canoes and Skin Boats of North America by Edwin Tappan Adney and Howard I. Chapelle. Obviously, there is the title, clearly meant as a respectful acknowledgement of the older work. The two books have the same publisher (Smithsonian), and the same format, both being oversize, printed in black and white, with the text laid out in two columns per page. Luukkanen and Fitzhugh even call their work a “sequel” to Adney & Chapelle. In spite of all this, Northern Eurasia really is a different sort of book from North America. This makes it no less excellent than the older work that it honors, but to appreciate this, the reader must overcome any preconceptions that the similarities might instill. Taken on its own terms, is excellent scholarship and a valuable contribution to the field of small craft studies.

The book’s Introduction contains an explicit homage to “Adney & Chapelle” and a description of that book’s origins. It then goes on to describe the rationale for the present study, which basically boils down to two facts: in spite of the vast region’s long and pervasive use of these types of watercraft, the subject has never been systematically studied; and most studies of particular boats or types in the region are not available in English – or, indeed, in any Western European language. The Introduction then defines the geographic area of the study and the types of boats under consideration.

Chapter 1 describes the geography of northern Eurasia, including overviews of its climate zones, and river systems, cultures and their histories, and a brief contextualization of the region’s archaeology and the relationship between boat studies in northern Eurasia and North America.

Chapter 2, titled “Boat Classification, Construction, and Regional Distribution”, is essentially a summary and synthesis of Chapters 3-9, each of which focuses on a different geographic sub-region of northern Eurasia. The authors present a typology of the region’s various bark canoes and skin boats, based on major construction methods and morphology, and divided along lines of geography and culture groups. The authors conclude that bark canoe types tend to be fairly consistent within major river basins, even if more than one culture is resident, and that this intra-basin consistency is greater than that found among single cultures whose territories run across two or more river basins. The authors also draw attention to the large varieties of open and decked skin boats, both of which were found to be widely distributed across the region among a great many of its cultures.

One might question the placement of this chapter before, rather than after, the presentation of data in chapters 3-9. For scholars who are knowledgable about Eurasian cultures, this will make good sense, as a summary and synthesis may be primarily what is needed, and the reader can use it as a guide to targeted reading of the following chapters. For many readers, though, it may prove confusing or frustrating, as much of the geography and many of the cultures discussed will be unfamiliar to most Westerners. For readers (myself included) who don’t know the Vepsians, the Evenks, the Yugra, the Kereks, and many other cultures mentioned, the chapter is somewhat bewildering, in spite of brief overviews in the Introduction. Such readers might be advised to read this chapter later.

The real meat of the book appears in chapters 3-9, concerning Northern Europe (Ch. 3; Germany, southern Baltics, Fennoscandia); Northeastern Europe (Ch. 4; eastern Baltics, western Urals); Western Siberia (Ch. 5); Central Siberia (Ch. 6); Eastern Siberia (Ch. 7); Pacific Siberia (Ch. 8; Chukotka, Kamchatka, and the Kuril Islands); and the Far East (Ch. 9; Manchuria, Sakhalin Island, China, and northern Japan).

As the authors note, it is ironic that northern Europe – the area probably most familiar to most readers, and the one for which there is the best historic literature – has the poorest archaeological record for bark canoes and skin boats. The reader is introduced to the authors’ method, in which data are presented in detail and analyzed at length. There are lengthy descriptions of the ethnohistorical data and the archaeological evidence. For example, prehistoric Scandinavian rock art depictions of boats have been addressed by several authors, and no agreement has yet been reached within the archaeology community as to whether these petroglyphs represent logboats, skin boats, bark canoes, or even watercraft at all. Luukkanen and Fitzhugh review the arguments in detail and at length and bring new data and interpretations to the debate, but are cautious of reaching firm conclusions. This may be disappointing for those looking for straightforward answers, but it is intellectually honest to an extent not always seen in maritime archaeology – much less in books written for non-specialist, “enthusiast” audiences.

Most chapters follow a regular organization: the geographic sub-region is introduced and the deep history of its cultures described. This is highly useful to those readers who are unfamiliar with the numerous cultures. The general archaeology for the region’s cultural history is presented, followed by separate sections on each of individual cultures to be discussed. Within each section, the archaeological evidence for boat usage – much of which is often indirect – is presented first, followed by historical and ethnohistorical data. As archaeological evidence is generally scanty, it is not until the latter stages that we typically get images of boats, details of construction, and descriptions of usage. The ethnohistorical data varies a great deal in quality, from mere mentions by early explorers or merchants of the existence of certain boat types among the various nations, to the careful (but unfortunately rare) descriptions of boat structure and construction by trained observers. Likewise, the accompanying figures vary from the highly romanticized and technically inaccurate renderings one sees in travelogues and maps from the 16th and 17th centures, to careful, precise boat surveys that show the boats’ lines and construction details, and photographs of full-size boats in use in the early 20th century and models in museum collections.

The final chapter, called an Epilogue, by Arctic boat scholar Evguenia (Jenya) Anichtchenko, addresses the relationship between the Eurasian and North American boat traditions. This presents the data and theories for diffusion between the two regions, and notes the surprisingly thin evidence for much direct influence across the narrow Bering Strait.

Overall, The Bark Canoes and Skin Boats of Northern Eurasia provides a comprehensive, fine-grained look at its subject as ethnology, concentrating on the evidence from archaeology and ethnohistory. Those expecting a Eurasian equivalent to The Bark Canoes and Skin Boats of North America may be disappointed. The older book’s strengths are in its descriptions of construction methods and structural details, and especially, in the quality of the boat plans. These were possible because Adney and Chapelle were writing about boat traditions which, although on their last legs, were still extant. Construction by individuals brought up in the indigenous traditions could still be observed and documented, and the boats themselves could still be surveyed in detail. The result was a book that has often served as a construction manual – complete with designs – for countless individuals to build their own replicas.

This was not possible for the boats of Eurasia. Most of the boats discussed disappeared generations or centuries ago – before there was a chance for much ethnographic recording. This means that construction methods are generally described in far less detail – if at all – and boat plans are few. Unfortunately for the enthusiast, those that are present are generally reproduced too small to be of practical use, and this criticism can be applied to the art program of the book in general. With few exceptions, figures are reproduced to the width of one column on the two-column pages, making legibility poor for drawings and photographs alike. Drawings produced especially for the book, mostly for the purpose of typological description or clarification, are sketchy and not of professional quality, making it difficult to understand differences in boat types. Maps, on the other hand, are excellent and are reproduced at full page width, for good legibility. All illustrations are in black and white only, which is not a liablity, since only a very few recent photos of boat models in museum collections would have been created in color.

The amount of detail and the length of some discussions can be heavy going, but they provide excellent perspectives on what is known, what can be surmised, and what is debatable. By highlighting open questions, the authors have set out challenges, or even roadmaps, to other researchers who, I expect, will respond with future research papers and possibly some PhD theses.

The Bark Canoes and Skin Boats of Northern Eurasia is a major contribution to ethnological boat studies. Particularly for those familiar mainly with the boats of North America and western Europe, it is a broad and comprehensive introduction to the archaeology and history of small craft of a region rarely discussed in the English-language literature. It will take its place as an essential reference, next to The Bark Canoes and Skin Boats of North America, not as a sequel, but in its own right.


The Bark Canoes and Skin Boats of Northern Eurasia
by Harri Luukkanen and William W. Fitzhugh
Smithsonian Books, Washington DC
$64.00; 276 pages
ISBN 978-1-58834-475-5

Sunday, July 12, 2020

“Woodskin” Canoes of Guyana

Logboats are probably the best-known Amerindian watercraft in Guyana, but another boat type in common use – at least into the first half of the 20th century – is the bark canoe. Although terminology differs among various writers, the term “woodskin” is commonly applied to all Guyanese bark canoes.

Bark canoe on the Mazaruni River, Guyana
Akawai open-ended woodskin on the Mazaruni River (Roth, W., 1924:plate 177) Click any image to enlarge.

The most common type of woodskin appears to have been the one with open ends, which was used by many of Guyana’s Amerindian peoples, both near the coast and in the inland “hinterlands”. This was usually made from the bark of the purpleheart tree (Copaifera pubiflora). Several aspects of its construction are unusual, if not unique.

The tree is felled with the bark still attached. Cuts the desired length of the canoe are then made along both sides of the trunk, then these lineal cuts are connected by circumferential cuts at both ends around the top and sides of the trunk and the bark is pried off with wood wedges. There is thus no need to roll the trunk to get at the surface that rests on the ground. Once it is off the trunk, the bark is propped open with sticks between the opposite edges to keep it from closing up again.

This is quite different from the method of harvesting birch bark for North American canoes. There, the tree is left standing and is not killed by being barked. A single slit the length of the canoe (or as long a piece as the tree allows) is made along the height of the trunk, and cuts are made around the entire circumference of the trunk at the top and bottom of the slit, so that the bark is removed in a single piece that completely surrounds the trunk, thus maximizing its width. This is possible because birch bark is relatively thin and quite flexible, while the bark of purpleheart is so thick and stiff that a full circumference could not be opened up around a single split to remove it from the trunk without cracking.

Detail of bark preparation for bark canoe, Guyana
Outer bark removed (right); inner bark folded (left) (Roth, W., 1924:615)

The purpleheart bark is of two layers – a thick, stiff outer one, and a more flexible inner one. The two are removed together from the trunk, then wedges of the outer layer are cut and removed from both edges 2-3 feet (70-100cm) in from both ends, leaving the inner layer intact. With one man standing amidships, another raises one of the ends so that the flexible inner bark folks in upon itself. Holes are punctured through the four layers of bark and the overlapping sections are stitched together with “bush rope” – presumably thin roots, withies, or possibly natural fibers taken from palm leaves or similar. The other end is treated the same way.

Fully-outfitted bark canoe, Guayana
Fully-outfitted woodskin with inwales, thwarts, spreaders and tightening ropes (Roth, W., 1924:616).

Details seem to differ from one boat to the next, or possibly according to the practices of different communities or Amerindian peoples, but one common modification is the addition of inwales, which are stitched along the upper edge of the bark amidships, and extend into the raised ends below the top edges, where they help keep the open ends elevated above the waterline. Sometimes sitting thwarts are added, suspended by hangers attached to the inwales. Beams are tied in place to keep the sides apart amidships. Conversely, ropes are used to keep the sides from spreading out too far toward the ends.

Dimensions are typically about 15-16 feet (450-500cm) LOA (although lengths of 25-30 feet/8-9m are reported), 4 feet (125cm) beam, and depth 6-8 inches (15-20cm), with freeboard a mere 3-5 inches (8-12cm).

Closed-end woodskin. Top: bark cuts.Closed-end bark canoe, Guyana: construction details.
Closed-end woodskin. Top: bark cuts. Middle: ends folded up. Bottom: outfitted. (Farabee, W. C., 1918:75)

An alternative form, used by the inland Wapisiana Arawak people, has pointed, closed ends. The bark is harvested in the same manner, but after it is removed from the trunk, the top corners at both ends are removed, so that the bark is pointed at both ends. The bark is placed open-side down over a low fire to soften it, then it is expanded and sticks are placed between the opposite sides to keep them spread apart, but apparently not as wide as in the open-ended type. The ends are then folded and raised as above, except that the wedge-shaped sections from which the stiff outer bark is removed are longer, almost touching each other from opposite sides on the bottom of the hull. This seems to produce a hull with a rounder bottom and greater freeboard than the open-ended type.

Bark canoe on Rupununi River, Guyana
Woodskin on the Rupununi River (Roth, W., 1924:plate 179)

Woodskins generally carried one to three people and were used for fishing and general transportation. They drew little water (about 3 inches/8cm), so were useful on shallow and rocky streams, and could be more easily portaged around rapids and falls than heavier logboats. Their low freeboard, however, was a disadvantage because they could afford to take on very little water, the purpleheart bark being so dense that the boat would sink if swamped. Propulsion was with single-bladed paddles, an example of which can be seen clearly in the first photo.

I have found no recent references to woodskin use, but hope to determine whether they are still in use during a planned visit. If you have “on the ground” knowledge, please contact me.



Arnold, B. (2017) Bark-canoes of South America: from Amazonia to Tierra del Fuego (English text without illustrations; French original: Les canoës en écorce d’ Amérique du Sud: de l ’Amazonie à la Terre de Feu). Le Locle: Editions G d’Encre (Le tour du monde en 80 pirogues, fascicule 3).

Brindley, M. D. (1924) ‘THE CANOES of BRITISH GUIANA’, The Mariner’s Mirror. Routledge, 10(2), pp. 124–132. doi: 10.1080/00253359.1924.10655267.

Farabee, W. C. (1918) The Central Arawaks. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Anthropological Publications. Available at:

Roth, W. E. (1924) An introductory study of the arts, crafts, and customs of the Guiana Indians. Washington DC: US Government Printing Office. Available at:

Worcester, G. R. G. (1956) ‘Notes on the canoes of British Guiana’, Mariner’s Mirror, 42(3), pp. 249–251.

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Boat Iconography at the British Museum #2: Pre-Classic

This is the second in a series of posts on ancient boat iconography at the British Museum. The first post looked at ancient Egyptian boat models. (Click any image to enlarge.)

Naqada jar with sailing ship image
Dating from the second phase of the Naqada culture (3500–3200 BC) in what is now Egypt, this is one of the earliest undoubted images of a boat with a sail from anywhere in the world. The medium-aspect squaresail, hung from a mast stepped far toward the bow, appears to have a boom along the bottom edge. As the mast crosses the sail somewhat off-center, it could conceivably have been a lugsail, although there is no good evidence for the use of lugsails in ancient Egypt, and with the mast so far forward, the boat could only have sailed before the wind in any case, so it was likely used only while traveling upstream on the Nile. No rigging is shown, but this is surely a function of the illustration’s overall paucity of detail, not an indication that none was used. The prow rises vertically very high and the stern is also raised. There is a great deal of rocker and sheer. Just behind the raised stem and beneath the leading edge of the sail is what appears to be a tiny platform: perhaps this was a pilot’s station or a base for a votive image. Aft, vertical posts support a forward-sloping platform, roof, or awning. Rectangular blocks of “waves” all around the boat represent the sea. Here is the British Museum’s record and another photo.

Naqada jar with sailing ship image
The redware pottery jar stands 58.5cm tall. 
Meopotamian bitumen boat model
This big (75cm long) model, from a grave in Ur, in southern Mesopotamia, dates to the Akkadian period (2300-2150 BC). It’s made of bitumen mixed with earth and is very similar in form to plank-built boats called taradas used in the Iraqi swamps well into the 20th century. Taradas and boats made of reeds were both coated with bitumen, which occurs naturally in the area. It’s unclear if the model represents a boat of reeds or planks, but to me it feels more like the former. Grave boats in Ur were originally loaded with containers thought to have held provisions for the afterlife, or possibly as bait to distract evil spirits. British Museum record and photos.

Bronze Age Cyprian jar with ship image
We’ve leapt forward well over a milennium, to 750 BC-600 BC. The vessel depicted on this Bronze Age Cypriot jar has its mast stepped amidships and would have been more capable than the earlier Naqada boat of sailing across or into the wind on the open Mediterranean. The furled sail, of low or medium aspect, has no boom along its bottom edge. Rigging is clearly shown but is hard to interpret. (Guess: the lower, upside-down V represents shrouds; the upper, rightside-up V represents braces.) Both bow and stern turn up abruptly and rise to great heights, with decorative flourishes at their upper ends. There is a large structure in the bow (right side), and a helmsman stands at the stern managing double steering oars or side rudders. Large amphorae, probably containing wine, oil, or fish sauce, constitute the cargo. Just out of the frame to the left side, a crewman defacates over the stern, making this probably the world’s earliest depiction of shipboard sanitary arrangements. The Nautical Archaeology Society uses this image (minus the biological function) as its logo. More about this item in this article from the International Journal of Nautical Archaeology. British Museum record and photos.

Cyprian Bronze Age boat models
Three terracotta ship models from tombs on Cyprus. Top and middle: 600BC-500BC. Bottom: 750 BC-475 BC. With no suggestion of a rig, they appear to be rowing galleys, probably warships, judging by the rams on two of them. Although they’re similar, they all differ slightly in the forms of the ram or prow, the upper extensions of the stem and sternpost, and decoration. All three have oculi and are 16-17cm long. British Museum records and photos: top, middle, bottom.

Cyprian Bronze Age boat models
The starboard sides of the Cypriot galley models.
Cyprian Bronze Age ship model
This terracotta merchant ship from Cyprus (600-500 BC) has a mast step amidship in the bottom, and the vessel was surely rigged with a square sail. The ends of the posts have fishtail-like shapes. The broken parts of the hull aft (right) may have been the location of steering oars. Where the sides bend inward at the top probably represents a bulwark, not a tumblehome hull shape. Forward is a cross-beam that probably served as catheads for anchor handling. British Museum record and photos.

Cyprian Bronze Age ship model
This more elaborate merchant ship model is also from Cyprus (750-500BC) and also has a mast step amidships. There are several cross-beams and an elaborate sterncastle and poop deck, with structures to secure steering oars or side-rudders. As this was a sailing merchant ships, the rows of holes on both sides do not represent oar ports, and they are too low and too numerous to be fastening points for shrouds. I believe they are scuppers that would have been located at deck level, at the bottom of the bulwarks. British Museum record and photos.
Cyprian copper "ox hide" ingot
Not iconography, but an example of an important type of cargo carried by Cypriot ships. This is a 37 kg copper ingot, dated to about 1200 BC. It’s thought that the distinctive "ox hide" shape made them easier to carry. Copper was the primary metal required for the establishment of the Bronze Age. British Museum record and photo.