Although the most exciting shipwrecks ever found are large - such as the Vasa or the Mary Rose - most ships and boats built in the last 50 thousand years were comparatively quite small. But it was from this diversity of basic floating solutions that all larger vessels evolved.
Small craft are a cheap way to improvise, to attempt new solutions, to test new ideas, or to copy new technologies.
The study of small craft - both from a technical and an ethnographical viewpoint - is an important component of any study of the history of wooden shipbuilding.
Case Study: Boats of Portugal
It is difficult to summarize the rich and diverse maritime culture of the Iberian Peninsula without oversimplifying its reality. Today's Portuguese and Spanish territories constitute the extreme southwest of Europe, from which they are separated by the Pyrenees. In the form of an ox hide, according to Strabo, this stone raft, as it has been called by José Saramago, is a large plateau that slopes gently westward, into the Atlantic Ocean. Along its extensive and diverse coast the population speaks Basque, Castilian, Asturian, Galician, Portuguese, Castilian again, and Catalan.
The diversity of its cultures and populations encompasses the influences of the many visitors and invaders that have established colonies and factories on this territory. Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, Goths and Arabs left their influences in the architecture, language, agriculture, religious beliefs and many other cultural traits, including its shipbuilding techniques.
Positioned between the Mediterranean and the Baltic maritime worlds, the Iberian Peninsula developed a rich and diverse collection of watercraft, each type suited for its intended purpose, resulting from the natural resources available, the existing trade network in what pertained to imports of shipbuilding materials, and the foreign influences of the cultures to which its people was in contact at a particular time.
During the Middle Ages hundreds of types of ships and boats were referred in Portuguese documents. Admiral Quirino da Fonseca has listed 167 types for Portugal alone.
What we know of the traditional craft of the twentieth century sugests that they result from diverse shipbuilding traditions. Octavio Lixa Filgueiras suggested that some of the craft that could be found on the Douro River region was build with northern influence, perhaps from the Germanic Suevi people, which invaded the Iberian Peninsula between AD 407 and 409 together with the Vandals and Alans. The dornas from Galicia are lapstrakes, built with a clear northern influence, and so are the barcos rabelos from the Douro River, in the north of Portugal, built with flush laid planks on the bottom and lapstrake sides. The saveiros or barcos do mar from Aveiro, on the other hand, are basically plank canoes and look incredibly like a Middle Eastern model, dated to c. 2250 BC, found on one of the royal tombs of Ur.
We know that the shores of Portugal were visited by Phoenician merchants during the first millennium BC, probably sailing on their sturdy shell-first built vessels, with large mortise and tenon joints, such as the ones found on the Uluburun ship. They were followed by Greek sailors, possibly traveling on sewn boats, and later by Carthaginian and Roman mortise and tenon joined ships. In the summer of 2002 the first small plank with mortise and tenon joints found in Portugal was uncovered at the mouth of the Arade River, in the south of Portugal, during survey operations. Foreign influences probably mixed with local ones. In the first decades of the first century AD Strabo refers rafts, skin craft and dugout canoes in the Iberian Peninsula. We know that the later were extensively used. Five dugouts were found on the margins of Lima River, in the north of Portugal, between 1985 and 2003. Their dates span from the fourth or fifth centuries BC to the tenth or eleventh centuries AD.
From the less complex craft, such as dugouts and rafts, to the skeleton based Tagus working craft, built with graminhos, many traditional boats have been studied, recorded and published by scholars such as Octavio Lixa Filgueiras, Maria João Andrezes, or Ivone Magalhães, among others. We have several lists of ship's and boat's names, types, sizes, and characteristics. Some of these have been recorded or preserved, and some are lost forever.
This project was possible through the generous and competent support of Carlos Carvalho.