(From an article that appeared in Skirmish Magazine in 2007)
The evidence, early boats:
The earliest known reference to what could be small hide-boats (coracles) is in The History of Herodotus, (about 424 BC).
This Greek historian describes boats ‘round like a shield’ travelling down the river to Babylon.
Coracles & larger Curraghs are still used in parts of Great Britain (Wales, Scotland and Ireland) and have been for centuries, despite having little archaeology to refer to. Evidence of what could be wicker framework has been identified and certainly an oak paddle have been found at Flag Fen (near Cambridge, UK) the principle hasn’t changed.
The best surviving visual evidence is the Broighter boat, amongst other objects in this impressive 1st Century BC hoard was a gold model of a nine-benched sailing boat found buried in Lough Foyle, Derry, Eire in 1896
A smooth hull and lack of any obvious keel (features associated with wooden boats) makes the gold Broighter Boat likely to be a representation of a small hide ship.
In an account Julius Caesar writes about sea currachs with sails that roved the North Sea and the Atlantic
Pharsalia (aka "The Civil War")
Caesar in Spain. War in the Adriatic Sea. Death of Curio
When Sicoris kept his banks, the shallop light
Of hoary willow bark they build, which bent
On hides of oxen, bore the weight of man
And swam the torrent. Thus on sluggish Po
Venetians float; and on th' encircling sea (8)
150 Are borne Britannia's nations; and when
Nile Fills all the land, are Memphis' thirsty reeds
Shaped into fragile boats that swim his waves.
From the early Roman empire about the time of Augustus classici, or sailors/marines, were attached to the legions.
Their role in this early capacity seemed to be solely to build and navigate boats, and undertake the duties of the pontoon train in making bridges of boats,
There are references by the later Roman writer Vegetius who describes light buoyant canoes and emphasises how vital it is to be able to cross rivers effectively on campaign - this may mainly refer mainly to wooden canoes, but references to improvised reed and animal hide rafts are also made by him.
Avienus was a Latin writer of the 4th century. (full name Postumius Rufius Festus).
He wrote Ora Maritima ("sea coasts"), based on material adapted from the type of mariners' coasting directions called a Periplus and rendered as poetry, resulting in a confused amateur's account of the coastal regions of the Mediterranean.
An assertion in Ora Maritima concerns the migration of the Celtic Oestrymni from northwestern Hispania to what is now Brittany, and the British Isles and thence to Denmark.
The poem is believed to have drawn on early sources. He clearly mentions curraghs and the movement of peoples across the sea.
Hide boats, due to their perishable organic construction will almost never have left any direct evidence of their existence in the archaeological record.
But we do have plenty of narrative (and as just mentioned, artistic) Late and Post-Roman evidence to support their existence.
Later Roman mosaics from the Middle-east feature small smooth-hulled craft often along side other clinker vessels that by contrast have the planking construction displayed, these may be reed boats, but one in particular seems to display exposed 'wands' as part of the typical structure of a curragh that we are now more familiar with.
Closer to home we can refer to St Brendan the navigator, he lived between 490AD and 570AD he is known to have sailed to Iona and an account of a long sea voyage West Navigatio Sancti Brendani Abbatis appeared 200 years after his death.
This describes a curragh made of ox-hides stretched over wooden frame and coated in wool grease carrying Brendan and 14 other monks on a voyage to ‘the promised land’.
Brendan headed North-west, if his account is to be believed he used Hesperus (the evening star) to navigate.
Descriptions of land masses, volcanoes and other features tally with St Kilda & Iceland and even the fog-bound banks of Newfoundland!!!
(A floating pillar of crystal was also described, which may have referred to an iceberg).
This was dismissed as fancy until Tim Severin and his small crew reached America in a curragh reconstruction called ‘St Brendan’ in 1976.
Recent commentators have also stated that such a journey would have been easier in St Brendan’s lifetime (6th Century AD) - when the climate was a good deal warmer, the weather less severe and the Arctic circle a good deal smaller....make of that what you will!
Leather working is known from bog deposits where actual example of leather has been found. It is also possible that lighter craft with textile coverings might have been used as the weaving skills were certainly present and so were the means to make a waterproofing tree sap based tar.
Later on in the 19th & 20th Centuries Welsh coracles of flannel and tar were used and these are les than half the weight of a hide covered versions (Geraint Jenkins, Nets and Coracles).
The ‘Currach’ or curragh, is of a more “proper” boat shape with whereas the coracle is almost round or, at best, oblong.
We sent some sketches to Peter Faulkner and he responded by saying that he more or less had ‘one like that in stock’ when we arrived at his wizards workshop we were 'kids in a sweetshop'. We were surrounded by a pile of boats, model boats, experiments with materials, pots of glue, tools, mounds of wood shavings and fascinating gadgets and all manner of things hanging from the rafters, we were taken out of our trance and led to a nearby stable and there we were introduced to our new craft with we nicknamed ‘Pegasus’ there and then - on account of where it had been living!
Peter explained that this lovely craft was a seasoned veteran, quite seaworthy and had in fact been to France and back, it was bigger than I imagined, had a socket for a sail, a large mast, rudder and paddles and lots of complicated additional components that confused a poor land lad like me no end!
On the waterfront:
We took it to the Festival of History at Kelmarsh the next day (and following a revision of our risk assessment and the purchase of some discreet ‘under tunic’ life-jackets) the staff of English Heritage were more than happy for us to take it out on the lake there.
That was after we liberally covered the hull in a gallon of a rather disgusting lanolin or ‘wool grease’ described in St Brendan, all very accurate, but all very foul.
The 18th Century House (lovely as it is) was hardly an appropriate setting for a backdrop and pictures, but it didn’t matter as the Pegasus proved a huge hit with public and fellow re-enactor alike, some members of the public begged to have a go in it (sadly we just couldn’t let them), but we had noticed that at one stage the crew seemed to be composed of cheeky Skirmish staff!!!
The sail has since been fitted, but at this stage we only intend to take the craft onto inland waterways, it sits high on the water and is far more responsive than a clinker boat, but less stable on account of having no keel (lean boards have been introduced to compensate this instability).
At many historical sites there’s often a large body of water in the form of a lake, river or large pond and we’ve often felt that such a resource should be used… and who knows we may even incorporate it into a combat scenario at one or two of our shows next year, hopefully the Festival of History again!
This reconstruction by Peter Faulkner is fitted with a mast, has already proved seaworthy and can easily bear ten adults.
Since this article appeared in Skirmish Britannia has purchased a second Curragh and two coracles from Peter Faulkner.
Research thanks to: Edwin Deady ( http://www.dark-age-boats.co.uk/)
Also- thanks to the highly skilled Peter Faulkner.
Dark Age Naval Power: A Reassessment of Frankish and Anglo-Saxon Seafaring Acitivity. John Haywood, New York. Routledge 1991 ISBN Number: 0415063744 / 9780415063746
Nets and Coracles. J. Geriant Jenkins. Publisher: David & Charles PLC (January 1975) ISBN-10: 0715365460 ISBN-13: 978-0715365465
The Brendan Voyage: A Leather Boat Tracks the Discovery of America by the Irish Sailor Saints. Tim Severin. McGraw-Hill Book Company. 1978. ISBN 0-07-056335-7.