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Article Historic Ships Conference 2012

Article by Pamela Irving for the Historic Ship Conference: 

The importance of valuing historic ships

The use of water transport is truly international. It is so old it is not known in which of the many possible locations this was first developed. Access to water transport has been prerequisite and a major factor in the spread of civilisation around the world from the earliest times. Only as recently as in the past 200 years  have road, rail, and air transport become sufficiently advanced to have substantially supplanted it. For thousands of years the only practical alternatives to feet were either a horse and cart or a boat.

Shipbuilding was a mature profession in the ancient world long before ships were either r built or had made landfall in Britain.  However native British boatbuilding still also an ancient art. High-bulk low-value materials cannot have been as profitable as they obviously were  in ancient times without the possibility of  water transportation. Certainly the hand-axes produced in quarries in Langdale, Cumbria from around 4000 to 2000 BC, used in Cornwall and Wessex to the south, and in Scotland in the north, the copper ores extracted from the Great Orme Llandudno, Conwy around 4000 years ago, and the flints mined at Grimes Graves in Norfolk between 3000 and 2000 BC are likely to have been transported  by river and sea and the  Cornish tin extracted and traded  from the earliest  Bronze Age around 2,150 BC,  are most likely to  have been transported using river and sea trade networks .  

 Boats are known to have been used on inland waterways in Bronze Age Britain. These include the sequence of six found at Must Farm Cambridgeshire in 2012.  Properly-constructed boat, were in use in Britain as early as 2030 and 1780 BC, as demonstrated that the recent radiocarbon dates for the remains of the three boats discovered at Ferreby in the Humber Estuary in the 1960s. At least one of these could be reconstructed and shown to be potentially of use at sea as well as inland on the river.  The Middle Bronze Age Dover boat dating to around 1500 BC was also for use as sea transport. People also moved around by water. The Amesbury Archer, found in one of the richest Bronze Age graves so far know, dating to around 2,300BC, was shown by isotope analysis of his teeth to have spent his early life somewhere in central Europe.  He certainly did not walk all the way from there to Wiltshire.

The development of seamanship  requires the skills  to understand and cope with uncertain weather,  prevailing sea conditions, and  to achieve accurate navigation. Before these could be developed someone somewhere had to first build a boat!  Viable boats that the builder, potential crew, and passengers were willing to trust with their lives, are therefore a prerequisite for  the spread of civilisation around the world. Surely naval architecture, if it is perhaps not the quite the oldest profession, certainly can claim to be among the few ancient professional skills still practiced and developing today.

The responsibility for preserving historic ships is onerous, involving both an understanding of how they have been constructed, and access to specialist skills and techniques, high standards of workmanship, and difficult to source original materials needed to secure their preservation. All of this involved a substantial cost of time and money.  The recognition that there is a need to take on this responsibility is of relatively recent origin in comparison with land-based heritage assets .There are few sources of public funding,  and so the work  relies heavily on the support of philanthropists and voluntary groups of enthusiasts donating their time and expertise.  Because ships are essentially mobile, and operate internationally the legislative framework protecting them is complex and uncertain.

This situation is unlikely to change significantly in the current economic downturn, but in many parts of the world valiant attempts are being made to grapple with the constraints and issues we face today , and working hard to do whatever remains possible  within the currently prevailing conditions to try to prevent  irretrievable loss  of  valuable and irreplaceable historic ships.

It is therefore entirely suitable that the Royal Institution of Naval Architects should sponsor these biannual conferences  bringing  together  international specialists  to help to promote and foster a wide development and appreciation of all aspects of the understanding, preservation, interpretation and  presentation to the general public of our international maritime heritage as represented by the historic ships they have been involved in creating since the dawn of the spread of human development.

The involvement of the RINA suggests a focus on the technical aspects of how  historic ships can be understood and preserved.  In this the third of these events, a balanced programme brought together international experts discussing  the evolution and structural  and architectural development over time of  shipping  in the ancient world, in Europe and  in China.  Examples of public sector support for maritime heritage presented by representatives of  the Australian National Museum, Sydney and the Polish National Maritime Museum, Gdan̕sk gave rise to some envy from UK those  UK representatives of specialist societies or charitable trusts doing sterling work  grappling with the financial as well as technical  complexities of  preserving the UKs varied maritime heritage, These ranged  from   historic Naval vessels  like the Mary Rose,  the Victory and  the Warrior at Portsmouth,  the WWII submarine Alliance, through to the short lived but innovative hovercraft.

Appreciation of maritime heritage is a relatively recent development of the heritage sector, and  a presentation by Alison James of English Heritage Maritime Archaeology Team explained the practical aspects of managing designated wreck sites while promoting responsible diver activity and promoting public appreciation and access, while representatives of NHSUK explained how that body is working to support the sector by establishing best practice and common terms of reference in evaluating the historic value of heritage vessels, in providing accurate and reliable information  in their on-line  Historic Ships Register, and working with other bodies to provide appropriate skill training.  While the recently established International Historic and Traditional Ships Panel is reviewing international legislation affecting the operators of working historic vessels , in an initiative which will make it easier for the operators of them to bring their experiences to a wider specialist and public audience.

Contributors from the Centre for Numerical Modelling and Process Analysis at the University of Greenwich demonstrated that preservation of historic ships has the potential to contribute to the resolution of modern commercial industrial issues, Computer mathematical modelling devised to resolve issues around the restoration and display of the Cutty Sark has potential wider applications in evaluating the strength of materials and structures in use or under construction today.

The two days provided a valuable opportunity for the participants to demonstrate the breadth of specialist expertise and the complex requirements  necessary for an understanding of,  preservation and promotion of a wider appreciation of  our irreplaceable international maritime heritage.

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