THE DISCOVERY of a prehistoric boat which had been buried for more than 2,000 years beneath a farm field has already provided historians with an insight into Iron Age life in Yorkshire.
But now academics say the vessel which dates back to 300BC is also helping to show how the face of the region would change in future if the sea levels continue to rise.
As a debate rages over plans to allow land around the River Hull to revert to a swamp in an attempt to protect urban areas from a repeat of the 2007 floods, a group of scientists can provide a unique insight into what wide-spread flooding of the East Yorkshire countryside would look like.
The boat was unearthed by chance by an archaeologist on his father’s former farm in East Yorkshire while drainage work was being carried out 25 years ago.
The farm had belonged to the father of Dr Peter Halkon – who has spent 30 years studying the archaeology of the Foulness Valley in East Yorkshire where he grew up.
The boat was found in a drainage ditch on dry land but had sunk into the ground when the site was part of an estuary to the Humber.
Scientists believe a cataclysmic flood between 800 and 500BC transformed the landscape from a low-lying area of woodland into open water.
Dr Halkon, who is now an archaeology lecturer at Hull University, began his research by looking at the impacts of the Romans on this part of the East Riding.
He and fellow archaeologist Martin Millett had found a Roman pottery kiln on the farm and were surveying drainage trenches in search of artefacts.
The boat was discovered as that work was going on when they spotted a heap of timber which had been dumped by one of the large drainage machines.
Dr Halkon said: “We noticed that part of the wood had been worked and we realised it was a boat – although we didn’t realise straight away how big it was at more than 12.5m.”
Tree ring dating shows that the boat was made from a tree which had been cut down between 321 and 277BC.
Dr Halkon said: “The boat was used to transport people and goods around this part of East Yorkshire. It contained a cargo of beef and timber when it sank.
“The area is now farmland but it was once an offshoot of the River Humber, with the drier land populated with small farming settlements”.
Since the discovery the scope of the research into the Foulness Valley has stretched back to 10,000 BC with findings from the Palaeolithic age.
Historians now know that the area was once home to one of the oldest and largest pre-historic iron industries after discovering scores of iron working sites and nearby settlements.
Archaeologists have also uncovered evidence of a forest through the discovery of oak trees and remains of red deer which date back to the Bronze Age between 2500 and 700BC.
The focus of Dr Halkon’s research is looking at how people have adapted to the changing landscape as the waters rise and recede from the East Yorkshire countryside.
He said: “Rising water levels is not always a bad thing. We have found evidence of axes from Wales dating back to the Neolithic period which show that the river opened up the area for trade.
“By studying lots of clues in the ancient landscape we have been able to put together maps of the valley showing how much of the land was underwater.”
Dr Halkon says understanding how the landscape was then, can help to determine how it might be in the future.
He said: “Throughout time there has been a cycle of global warming and cooling and associated variations in sea level.
“Two thousand years ago this East Yorkshire farmland was under water as part of the Humber estuary. The present rise in global sea levels may mean that the landscape is reverting to the way it was in the Iron Age. This is a natural cycle, although according to most scientists human intervention is undoubtedly exacerbating this pattern.”
The Hasholme Boat was discovered in 1984 during drainage works near Holme-on-Spalding-Moor. The main hull of the boat is made from a single 14-meter oak log. Dendrochronology (the dating of wood by studying tree rings) has shown the boat to have been made between 322 and 277 BC. The boat could have carried a maximum crew of 18 rowers and 2 steersmen. Howevere, with a more modest crew of five it would have been able to carry about 5.5 tons of cargo. When the boat sank, it was carrying butchered meat and partly-worked timbers. The boat is currently undergoing a lengthy conservation process, with the water in its timbers being slowly replaced by a waxy chemical called polyethylene glycol (or PEG).
Millet, M. and McGrail, S. 1987. “The Archaeology of the Hasholme Logboat.” The Archaeological Journal 144: 69-155.
McGrail, S. 2007. “Assessing the performance of an ancient boat – The Hasholme logboat ” Oxford Journal of Archaeology Volume 7 Issue 1 : 35-46