Seán McGrail, Boats of the World: from the Stone Age to Medieval Times, second edition, Oxford University Press, Oxford (2003), 480 pp., £40.00
This is an uncompromising and compendious book that has absorbed, distilled and restructured the considerable array of works that have gone before. It has drawn upon the jottings of travellers and antiquarians, the theorising of academics past and present, the reports of archaeologists on land and (more recently) at sea, the observations of ethnologists or students of vernacular watercraft and, where relevant, the appraisals of 'working replicas' produced by groups with serious experimental intent. Without some experience of the burgeoning literature and research in the field, though, it will be difficult for readers to appreciate just how much order and quantification McGrail has brought to an increasingly overloaded and potentially disordered field of study.
But, despite this very real achievement, it may reasonably be asked whether such a massive work about pre-medieval boats (and ships) is really of relevance to the transport historian? Well, it most certainly is, especially if one comes to a better understanding of the premise that, whilst the forms and structures of boats are ever variable, the underlying nature of their functions - and the environments in which they work - are much less changeable. At the very least, the book may be read as a methodological tour de force.
In a concise and concentrated opening of just a dozen pages McGrail outlines the place of boat archaeology within the wider maritime subdiscipline of archaeology, reducing his immensely complex subject to the simple study of 'water transport, that is, boats, rafts and ships'. He emphasises that this study lies within the broader field of maritime archaeology, which in turn is concerned with 'the study of the nature and past behaviour of Man in his use of those special environments associated with lakes, rivers, and seas'. This second edition also provides the author with a pertinent platform for advancing the arguments that, in the same way as maritime history can now be considered to have achieved sufficient maturity to be integrated into the main discipline of history, maritime archaeology (inclusive of boat archaeology) should also gain a rightful place in mainstream archaeology.
Indeed, the author is at pains to point out that at the core of all studies of early water transport lies assiduous archaeological excavation followed by rigorous 'reconstruction and interpretation', for this two-stage process provides an objective level of understanding that is inherently lacking in the isolated use of other, if complementary, evidence: iconographie, documentary, ethnographic or indirect and inferred. Consequently, typological constructs and classifications can be evolved and functional patterns or technological shifts may also be identified, whilst matters of significant detail - for instance, building techniques - may be discussed within an agreed framework. …