Sunday, August 7, 2011

The Ancient, and Occasionally Huge, Coracle

It's quite possible that the coracle was the first true boat -- certainly, it was among the earliest, for it is among the quickest and easiest to build with a minimum of very simple tools and with raw materials that are easily gathered in most regions. Round in plan and made from a simple framework of flexible sticks tied together, the smallest, like the bull boat of the Mandan and Lakota Indians, could be covered and made waterproof with a single hide of a large mammal.

The best known coracles are those of the British Isles, where they remained in practical use until well into the 20th century. According to Lionel Casson, "Julius Caesar was the first to report seeing them there, and they are frequently mentioned by later writers. Other areas, too, found them of service, for they have also been reported in the Po Valley, along the north coast of Spain, in the Red Sea, on Lake Maeotis in the Crimea."

Assyrian quffa, with four oarsmen and a load of large building stone. Note the fishermen astride inflated hide floats to the left and right. (From Lionel Casson, Ships and Seamanship in the Ancient World) Click to enlarge image.
But the coracle has an even more ancient pedigree. The quffa, a coracle of the lower Euphrates that, like the British version, was used in the 20th century, is shown on Assyrian reliefs dating as far back as the 9th century BCE. The one pictured above has four oarsmen transporting a large cargo of building stone, so it is certain that smaller, simpler versions must have predated this image by several centuries -- quite possibly by millennia. According to Casson, 20th-century quffas were as much as 13 feet in diameter and 7.5 feet deep - a veritable Hormuzmax Coracle!

Later than the quffa but still ancient was the Egyptian pakton, described by Strabo (64/63 BCE – ca. 24 CE) based on direct observation. Used on the Nile, these were "originally very small craft made of woven branches; they must have been like the coracles of basket work used on the lower Euphrates, and like them must have been liberally pitched over to be made watertight," according to Casson. Later versions, made all of wood, were capable of carrying as much as 13 tons.

A modern British coracle.


  1. Claidh (Clive) O'Gibhne (O'Give-ne) (sorry if my Gaelic spelling is off) keeps the coracle building tradition alive at his shop on the south side of the river Boyne, not far from the Newgrange museum and tourist center. He is also building an ocean-going currach that is much more "neolithic" in building style (saplings used for the frame, and rawhide for stitching) than Tim Severin's ocean curragh (which used sawn lathes and saddle stitching, though I am NOT criticizing Severin's groundbreaking archaeological reconstruction). His archaeological projects would benefit from some financial support from solvent boat lovers.

  2. Wade - Thanks for this info. Is O'Gibhne's project online somewhere for us to see? And/or, do you have contact info. by which folks could query to support the project?
    BTW: I happen to be re-reading Severin's "The Brendan Voyage" and may have some comments on it soon.

  3. I'm sorry I missed your reply. His website can be found by googling The Newgrange Currach Centre. He has also just published a great book with Four Courts Press titled, "The Boyne Currach." I reviewed it informally on my blog, at Here is most of it:

    “The Boyne Currach” by Claidhbh O Gibne is not your usual wooden-boat book, but instead combines ethnography, scholarship, personal memoir, technical instruction, and artistry. To call it “charming” would not sound quite right; to call it “jack of all trades” is getting close; I settle for “utterly fascinating.”

    The banks of the River Boyne in Ireland, particularly where they wend through Co. Meath, were home to the small-currach fishing culture, a technique of mixed subsistence wherein the local people might own a farm near the river but like many other creatures also cross into another realm to make a different kind of living, shooting nets from the river banks and navigating the remains of weirs and canal architecture. It was a hard living between the usual challenges of work and nature and the added ones of industrialization of the river by both government and the local greeds of English-descended landlords. The small currach was the ideal amphibious adaptation to the river, the fish, and the obstacles of life.

    The Boyne gave them part of their living and much of their materials. The currach-folk chose their withes from the hazel and the willow, scribed their patterns in the ground, bent their stakes, shaped and lashed them, and made rawhide and tanned hulls and later tarred canvas ones. It is too easy to wax romantic over what was in a reality hard living; yet how can we not admire a life in one sense more complete than most of our own – the knowledge of local resources, the skills to use them, the more total “say” they had in their daily getting-on aside from death and taxes?

    O Gibne recognizes the threat of romanticizing, and it’s good to see reflections such as: “It has been suggested that the skin currach has little negative impact on the environment because it is made of totally renewable materials. I would argue that there has never been another industry before the twentieth century that impacted so severely on the world’s landscape as the production of leather.” The author has his mind firmly planted in the real environment of which he writes.

    ... He has found what old natives he could, got some of their accounts, sometimes their photographs. He has done the research (his bibliography is good, and as Irish folklife and history was one of my academic interests, I will vouch for that). He has done the building and paddling. O Gibne is now at work on his ~36 foot bull-hide covered, rawhide lashed currach designed for sea trials.

    You will find the usual historical photographs and technical-ish drawings alongside practical photographs and the author’s own wonderful sketches that merge natural landscapes with tools, artifacts, and mythological icons of Ireland. The author unites what I think of as the skills of the whole person – the thinker, dreamer, storyteller, explorer, reader, talker, maker, and doer. My students will tell you that I grumble most often about the loss of humanity in our inevitable specializations and the not-too-covert lures of lifestyle-“narcotics” perfectly legal and available in our average households; they are not all necessarily sinister in moderation, but when were we enmasse ever moderate? So “The Newgrange Currach” is in that class of solutions out of which we “see how it is done,” and by now you know I mean more than just building a currach.

  4. "It's quite possible that the coracle was the first true boat -- certainly, it was among the earliest"

    I agree with that entirely; coracles were propelled by current and punted (possibly pulled) long before specialized dugouts, bundled rafts etc. were constructed, after grasping lateral movement through water and wind.

    I hadn't known of the Nile Pakton, delighted to find out that coracles were indeed used in Africa. I did find linguistic links between the Indian woven coracle [harigolu/daytime bowl] and the Congo Mbuti woven dome hut [mongolu/nighttime bowl] and the Tibetan khudru/coracle, Karnataka kudu/fish basket trap and African kudu/antelope (skin).