Early Ships and Seafaring: European Water Transport – Seán McGrail

Early Ships and Seafaring: European Water Transport Book Cover Early Ships and Seafaring: European Water Transport
Seán McGrail
Pen & Sword Archaeology
December 3, 2014

At first glance, this first volume in Professor McGrail's two-volume treatment of early ships and seafaring may seem too short to give the subject matter proper coverage. We must, however, keep in mind that it is just that, the first out of two.

In Early Ship and Seafaring: European Water Transport, we are presented with a concise though well-informed look at what knowledge the relatively young field of nautical archaeology has amassed in relation to the water transport of early Europe. Professor McGrail is one of the leading experts on this topic, having first served in the Royal Navy, then later as the Chief Archaeologist at the National Maritime Museum and as Professor of Archaeology at Oxford.

In this volume, McGrail devotes the opening chapter to a discussion of the relevant concepts and techniques that must be grasped in the pursuit of understanding about maritime history. These could be discussed ad nauseam were that the author's intent, but I felt that he did a fine job including the basic knowledge needed to understand the later discussions of individual shipwreck finds and the archaeological conclusions to be drawn. Some major topics in this first chapter include early shipbuilding techniques, naval architecture and scientific principles, and navigation without instrumental aid. Oh, and he also tackles the age-old question: boat or ship?

Chapters 2 and 3 are the bulk of this book and in them we are taken on a tour of the early watercraft of the Mediterranean and Atlantic Europe. In both regions, the book examines the existing evidence that reveals the use of boats and ships from prehistory up through medieval times. This evidence is examined in its various forms: physical remains, written accounts, and iconographic depictions. Specific shipwrecks and excavations illuminate our understanding of boat construction techniques, in addition to what they reveal about how ancient ships would have fared on the seas.

In addition to a focus on individual remains and their interpretation, McGrail also discusses the geography and unique navigational attributes of each region. Thus, this book does indeed give the reader a succinct overview of the early ships and seafaring traditions of Europe and the Mediterranean. The particular strength of this book, in my opinion, is the generous use of images, diagrams, maps, and illustrations. These all contribute to a better understanding of the concepts and ships being discussed, something that is quite useful for a novice to the subject matter. All in all, this volume is a useful introduction to the topic for the uninitiated, and a concise reference for the learned.


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