15.09.15, Adams, A Maritime Archaeology of Ships

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Anthony J. Papalas

The Medieval Review 15.09.15

Adams, Jonathan. A Maritime Archaeology of Ships: Innovation and Social Change in Medieval and Early Modern Europe. Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2013. pp. 272. ISBN: 9781842172971 (paperback).

Reviewed by:
Anthony J. Papalas
East Carolina University (emeritus)

In the first three chapters of this book Adams stresses the significance of ships and their equipment and cargoes as historical sources and makes a case for the importance of maritime archeology in the study of world cultural heritage. His focus is the Baltic, a semi-enclosed sea with low salinity, which is a primary area for shipwrecks. Archeologists have charted around 900 shipwrecks off Sweden, most of which have not yet been excavated. Adams is involved in efforts to monitor and guard them from treasure hunters who are especially interested in the valuable artifacts such as bronze guns. He also advocates the protection of older vessels that have not sunk and decries the 1949 deliberate destruction of the Implacable, a ship taken by the English in 1805 at Trafalgar, and appeals to the World Ship Trust to safeguard the maritime heritage of western civilization. Ships and the artifacts they convey not only reveal the evolution of naval technology but provide insights into their eras. For instance, Adams argues that the spatial division of vessels reflects class stratification of the period but the structures of pirate craft reflect more democratic conditions. He also ponders on whether gender bias was less prevalent at sea and cites the late eighteenth-century memoirs of Mary Lacy. Of all the women who allegedly served in the navy Mary's account is the most plausible, but there is no reason to think that the navy was nothing but a strictly male institution.

The remaining chapters of the book deal mainly with naval technology and maritime history. Throughout the Middle Age shipwrights resorted to the clinker method which consisted of overlapping planks fastened to each other. In the sixteenth century the carvel technique--planks fastened to the frame--became prominent. There is no evidence indicating where and when the carvel first appeared. Adams conjectures that shipwrights developed the carvel method for the growing Atlantic trade which required sturdier vessels. He maintains that kings such as Henry VIII (r. 1509-1547) of England and Gustav Vasa (r. 1523-1560) of Sweden built carvel navies as part of the process of centralizing state power. In earlier centuries states did not have the resources to maintain navies and were obliged in times of war to borrow clinker-built ships from their subjects. The carvel emerged as the premier warship of the sixteenth century in part because of its capacity to carry guns. The Mary Rose, an early carvel type, provides an interesting insight into this development. Henry VIII had her built in 1510 and refurbished in 1536. In 1545 during a naval battle against the French off the south coast of England, the ship sank; apparently she capsized because of her high castles and the overloading of one side with heavy artillery. After 1545 shipwrights designing carvel built warships made allowances for the deployment of heavy ordnance.

A significant influence on the development of English naval technology was the rivalry with Spain. In 1568 the English confronted the Spanish at Vera Cruz where they lost all but their two fastest ships. Adams suggests that the lessons from this battle led to quicker and more maneuverable British carvels. An example of this development may be discerned in the Sea Venture an early seventeenth-century British ship that sank in Bermuda. Scholars generally consider the circumstances associated with this shipwreck as an inspiration for Shakespeare's Tempest. The Sea Venture was a three-hundred-ton flag ship leading nine vessels to the New World and in the words of a contemporary "the strongest and newest in our fleet." In 1958 divers found a wreck in Bermuda and despite the scanty evidence scholars identified the ship as the Sea Venture. Adams expertly reappraises the data from the shipwreck and confirms the identification. He argues that the immense knowledge to build these types of ships separated the learned shipwrights from their less competent colleagues and allowed them to climb the social ladder. Mathew Baker's Fragments of Ancient Shipwrightry (c. 1572) depicts such a shipwright engaged in designing a vessel. Incidentally, Baker's shipwright illustrates the cover of the book being reviewed. This sixteenth-century shipwright is elegantly dressed, exuding effiency and professionalism. Adams is surely right in dismissing the view that Baker's aim in writing his manual was an attempt to persuade high government officials to invest in the new naval technology. His conjecture that Baker wrote it as a sort of textbook for apprentices is reasonable. Baker's work remained in manuscript form probably because the English government wished to guard its military secrets.

The history of the carvel parallels that of the trireme, the premier warship in fifth-century Greece. The Greeks developed the trireme as a ship for ceremonial purposes but not as a military vessel. The shipwright associated with developing the trireme became famous. Many of the early triremes were owned by wealthy individuals. The trireme only emerged as a warship when the state became centralized enough to afford building the ship in great numbers.

Adams is not only interested in war vessels but in regular merchant ships and maritime traffic. One of the main merchant ships of the era was the hulk. Since scholars have been unable to associate any shipwreck with a hulk they seek evidence of it in the iconographic record. Candidates for the hulk range from ships with banana-shaped hulls, single masts, or square sails. Adams argues that iconographic evidence is far from reliable because artists then did not have the techniques to accurately depicting ships particularly seen at sea. He reasonably argues that the hulk was simply any large cargo vessel perhaps of the clinker category. It must be noted that the carvel method never completely replaced the clinker, but the carvel technique survived into the nineteenth century. A good example of a late carvel is an English cargo vessel that sank in Rotterdam c. 1825. Adams sees in this ship a trend of shipwrights to make more efficient use of wood because good ship timber was becoming scarce. In the mid-nineteenth century ironclad vessels emerged in response to the introduction of exploding shells caused and warships made of wood became obsolete.

Adams possesses an enviable knowledge of ships and maritime archeology and he discusses technical issues in a lucid manner. Early modern Europe receives considerably more coverage than the medieval period and Adams devotes more analytical discussion to naval innovation than social change. We learn more about the complexities of ship technology and how ships were designed and made than about the societies that produced them. The book, which is generously illustrated with color plates, black and white photos, tables and diagrams, is not organized diachronically but rather along topical lines. While it a pleasure to read from cover to cover, some scholars may choose to use this book as a reference work.

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