Today we bring you a blog about coracles, the small, rounded, lightweight boat of the sort traditionally used in Wales, and also in parts of the West Country, Ireland and Scotland. The word "coracle" is an English spelling of the original Welsh cwrwgl, cognate with Irish and Scottish Gaelic currach, and is recorded in English text as early as the sixteenth century.
Designed for use in swiftly flowing streams, the coracle has been in use in the British Isles for millennia, having been noted by Julius Caesar in his invasion of Britain in the mid first century BC, and used in his military campaigns in Spain. Remains interpreted as a possible coracle have also been found in an Early Bronze Age grave at Barns Farm near Dalgety Bay, and others have been described at Corbridge and near North Ferriby.
The coracle's structure, which has essentially remained unchanged for centuries, is made of a framework of split and interwoven willow rods, tied with willow bark. The outer layer was originally an animal skin such as horse or bullock hide (corium), with a thin layer of tar to waterproof it – today replaced by tarred calico, canvas, or fibreglass. Oval in shape and very similar to half a walnut shell, the coracle has a keel-less flat bottom to evenly spread the load across the structure and to reduce the required depth of water – often to only a few inches. This makes it ideal for use on rivers.
They are an effective fishing vessel because, when powered by a skilled person, they hardly disturb the water or the fish, and they can be easily manoeuvred with one arm, while the other arm tends to the net; two coracles to a net.
Today, coracles are now only seen regularly in tourist areas of West Wales, with the Rivers Teifi and Tywi being the most common places to find them. On the Teifi they are most frequently seen around Cenarth, Cilgerran and Llechryd.
In 1974 a Welsh coracle piloted by Bernard Thomas of Llechryd even crossed the English Channel to France, clocking a time of just thirteen and a half hours. This journey was apparently undertaken to demonstrate how the Bull Boats of the Mandan Indians of North Dakota could have been copied from coracles introduced by Prince Madog in the 12th century. We're not sure how this feat is supposed to prove anything of the sort, but the whole Prince Madog thing is a strange and interesting story that we'll have to tell another day.
These coracles were built by James Pegrum and if you would like to see more models like this follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to see them first.
Located in The Fens of Cambridgshire are the remains of a Bronze Age settlement known as Must Farm, named after the quarry in which they were found. Discovered in 1999 when a local archaeologist noticed a series of wooden posts sticking out of the quarry’s edge, the site has since been subject to a programme of excavations, which have revealed many incredibly well preserved artefacts that give us a real glimpse into life during the Bronze Age.
The excavations paint a very different environment at Must Farm to the one that exists today. Sometime around 1,000-800BC a series of piles, or stilts, were sunk into a river channel on top of which houses were built. Around the edge of the settlement a palisade, consisting of large ash posts, was constructed in situ, leaving the debris at the bottom of the slow-moving river.
What is remarkable is that at some point, perhaps as little as six months, after the settlement was built a fire tore through it, causing the homes and to collapse and drop into the river below. In the water the flames were immediately quenched as the homes dropped to the riverbed, where they were then covered with layers of non-porous silt, preserving everything from wooden utensils to textiles. It is this degree of preservation which makes the site so special and gives us an unprecedented insight into life during the Bronze Age.
Other objects found included a large wooden wheel (reported to be the most complete and earliest of its type in Britain), eight Bronze Age log boats, glass beads from main land Europe, and a bronze sickle. Must Farm also has the largest, and finest, collection of textiles from the British Bronze Age. The fibres and fabrics are incredibly useful to study as they reflect different aspects of the production of textiles, from the initial stages through to the finished objects. The finds indicate that the occupants were not isolated but had a good connection with those living in Britain and beyond.
Analysis of the materials recovered from Must Farm are still underway and you can follow progress over at the project’s website:
Recently, Must Farm was subject to a BBC documentary, which can still be found on iPlayer and is well worth a watch:
These scenes were built by James Pegrum as part of a series of models on British history. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to see them first.
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