Archaeology Magazine Archive

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

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World's Oldest Ship?? Volume 50 Number 4, July/August 1997
by Angela M.H. Schuster

Divers have found timbers they believe to be remains of the world's oldest known ship off Hayling Island near Portsmouth, England. Radiocarbon dated to 6,431 years ago, the timbers were discovered in 30 feet of water by a team led by British sport diver Don Boullivant. "We have been searching the area for quite some time, looking for Roman wrecks," says Boullivant. "When we came across the worked oak timbers, we were certain that we had finally found one. To our great surprise the wood is older by 4,000 years."

If the find is confirmed, the ship will predate the earliest known depictions of boats from predynastic Egypt, which date to the mid-fourth millennium B.C., by more than 1,000 years, and the earliest known Northern European ship by 3,000 years. Until now the oldest vessel from Northern Europe has been a 3,300-year-old, 50-foot-long boat discovered at Dover, England, in 1992.

According to Boullivant, sidescan sonar images of the wooden remains suggest that the vessel may have been more than 100 feet long, an extraordinary size for the period. "If in fact we have a boat," he says "it is most likely some sort of raft, constructed of partially worked timbers lashed together."

British maritime archaeologist Valerie Fenwick, who discovered the Dover boat, points out that "several submerged forests have been found in the area, and the extraordinary length of the ship reported by Boullivant suggests that fallen trees cannot be ruled out." Just such a discovery was made last year. "Another possibility may be that the planks are the remains of a prehistoric wooden causeway of a type dating to 4,000-5,000 years ago and found on the nearby Isle of Wight," says Fenwick. "But if this discovery is what it purports to be, we will have found a true maritime treasure."

© 1997 by the Archaeological Institute of America