Amsterdam ISBSA

Since last monday I have been in Amsterdam, the city built on herring bones and reclaimed land. I was attending the week-long ISBSA conference – The International Symposium on Boat and Ship Archaeology. One of the great things about maritime archaeology is the sheer variety and scope of this field, with topics varying from an in-depth study of a single Roman barge from 60AD, found in France, to an annual project scanning to seabed of the Zuiderzee to understand the dangerous and swiftly changing tidal channels.

Although I didn’t get much work done PhD wise, succeeding only in catching a cold, I did get a few ideas for future projects and presentations of my own. One interesting project – a student’s master thesis – was about the Dutch watership, a wooden vessel that was in use from around 1600 to about 1800. It was a trawler of sorts then, with a well inside to keep a live catch. It was a popular vessel and got bigger as Amsterdam expanded and the population needed a larger food supply. Later on it was also used as a tug, before being abandoned in favour of other vessel types. Later on in the week I saw a lecture on the seabed survey that was/is being conducted in the Baltic, along where the new pipe line will run. It was interesting to note the number of shipwrecks that were discovered, as well as the suspected shipwrecks and the dis-articulated timbers that litter the seabed.

It got me to thinking less about ships and more about ship gear, as I now wonder how much gear is lying on the bottom, not just the ships themselves. Trawling is almost invisible in archaeology because the gear does not survive – or at least, that is the assumption. But how many of the random, loose timbers that are picked up, dismissed and disposed of are actually a key part of our maritime heritage? I’m sure the maritime historians – and archaeologists – would be very happy to find a 17th century beam from a beam trawl, or a pair of wooden doors from the 1880’s. The net might not survive, but it’s not impossible – rope and organic matter like fabric, leather, hemp and plant material can be found on shipwrecks of all ages, it’s just a matter of their environment and recognising what has been found…

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Gods and Fishermen

Last week I discussed some superstitions and what they tell us about human behavior, as discussed by Rob van Ginkel in his book Coastal Cultures. Of course, these were those superstitions that continued by Christian fishing communities. So I got curious and decided to look at non-Christian superstitions and religions in regards to fishing. Naturally I turned to a copy of Andres von Brandt’s Fish Catching Methods of the World. So here are a few as described by the author, and a few other sources:

Japan
Ebisu is a god who protects fishermen, workingmen and luck, as well as one of the seven gods of happiness or fortune. The Japanese Shinto religion contains the idea that all living things have souls and to kill a fish, a  living thing, brings guilt onto the fisherman. Rituals are therefore performed to apologise to the fish, and to prevent insult to any gods or ghosts. This explains the need for a shrine in Tokyo’s fish market dedicated to crayfish killed by the local restaurants. This is seen elsewhere in Japan, like the island of Saiko-to, where a ritual is performed on behalf of the souls of whales killed by whalers – a ritual observed every year since 1679. Here is a statue of Ebisu.

A statue of Ebisu in Kesennuma, Japan. Picture courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

Sub-Saharan Africa
With a long history and many different and varied population groups, lumping Africa into one short entry is a rather unfair, so I shall no doubt expand on it a later time. But some rituals and ideas are generalised over large areas, such as the idea that women cannot be on boats. For some, they cannot even be near fishing equipment. This is sometimes extended to not having sex at all during the manufacture of fishing equipment or during fishing. As a result, all rituals concerning fishing are male-only affairs, with different rituals for different types of gear. Other traditions survive, like the placing of rams’ or goats’ horns in the bow of a boat, or the placing of bottles filled with liquids.

There are numerous African traditions that have (unsurprisingly) made their way to the Americas. In Brazil, the city of Salvador (province of Bahia) celebrate the goddess Lemanja (or Yemanja). In February and December there are celebrations in her honour, In February it is customary to leave gifts for the goddess, which are collected by fishermen with baskets and taken out to sea. Gifts are feminine in nature, including items like lipstick, mirrors and combs. The two celebrations are on exactly the same two days as the celebrations of Nossa Senhora dos Navegantes – the Catholic Our Lady of Seafaring. They are public holidays too, recognising both the African deity and the Catholic. Here’s a brief description.

Offerings to Yemanja during the Salvador festival. Picture courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

Eyes (Oculi)
Eyes appear all over- they are common in the Mediterranean. They can be painted or carved on either side of the bow. the history of this goes back a long way – the Ancient Egyptians pained eyes in their boats. The eye for them was a representation of the god Horus, who lost an eye battling another god. The eye that was gouged out was recovered offered to the gods, hence becoming a symbol of protection, renewal and also sacrifice. The Romans and Ancient Greeks adopted this from the Egyptians, still using it today.  Muslim fishermen do not paint an eye, although Turkish boats are said to, out of tradition. Since Christianity the eye is meant to protect against the evil eye. In China and the Near East eyes are painted on as they were believed to be able to see their way across the sea and to find fish.

Eye of Horus. Picture courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

Blood and Animals
Eyes are not the only body part to be influential; the smashing of a bottle of wine or champagne is thought to derive from a traditional animal sacrifice on board a ship. A cock or rooster was the traditional  sacrifice, although in many counties it had to be black. The blood from the sacrifice had to be painted on the boat to ensure the best results. A practice from the English Middle Ages was to put the head of a bull on the bow, something which was done by some Portuguese fishermen up until the 19th century. A red towel on a modern Turkish fishing boat is a modern derivation of an older ritual of slaughtering a ram, the skin of which was hung from the bow to show that they had fulfilled their superstitious obligations.

A figurehead is one way to protect you ship. As time went on, they became more symbolic, representing status and identity rather than protection or luck. This one is on HMS Warrior.

There are many and varied religions and no doubt just as many superstitions to go with it – and no doubt I shall find more and collect them together for another post. To finish up, here’s a link to a lovely little statue of a Polynesian fishing deity in the British Museum.

P-I-G… and other animals

Last week I started reading a very interesting book called Coastal Cultures, by Rob van Ginkel. It’s a book that studies the anthropology of fishermen in northern Europe, which is to say it uses a lot of long complicated sentences to describe the why of things. It is a very good book, overcoming my dislike of the theoretical side of archaeology and anthropology. The bit I particularly liked was the chapter on superstition and taboos in fishing. To say that fishermen have many superstitions is like saying there are fish in the sea; there are a great many of them and they come in a great many forms.

Mr van Ginkel analyses these superstitions by looking at the form they take – he has three different categories. The first are words that cannot be said, the second things that should not be seen and the third things you should no do. He also discusses why superstitions exist – not the direct origin, but superstition in general. There are no sure conclusions, but the ideas discussed are fairly common sense: trawling is bloomin’ dangerous and superstitious behaviour is a way for the individual to control his fate, that if the ship he’s on and that of his community and livelihood. Now that trawling is safer that it was 100 years ago, and certainly a 1000 years ago, superstitions hang on partly for the same reasons as before, and through habit. After all, you wouldn’t want any bad luck by breaking with tradition.

After this comes in the debate as to why some things are the focus of superstition. words like pig, sheep, hare, rabbit, fox, rat, mouse, dog, cat, raven, seal, otter and (for some as yet unknown reason) salmon, are all not to be spoken – and most of these are not limited to one place. Most of these taboo words appear in most places in Europe, from Estonia to the Hebrides. One interesting aspect is the growth of stories that explain superstition, like one from Britanny about a cat which curses a fisherman – so cats become unlucky. One possible explanation is all these animals are the forms which witches could take – making these superstitions medieval at least. But there are many theories – some less common sense that others.

The bit on women and priests does discuss some ideas which I consider to slightly far fetched – though am neither a man or a fisherman, so I can’t really judge whether fishermen consider meeting a woman on their way to their boats bad luck because the boat is also a woman and represents a form of fertility, holding fish in the hold and providing nourishment. Much like women, the sea/boat is somewhat unpredictable… Priests are seen as outsiders, not understanding the local ways and perhaps disrupting the natural order. This is further amplified because they don’t do any hard work, unlike wives or children, who in the past would have been an indispensable labour force.

In the end, superstitions and taboos are part of what makes us human, and reflect very clearly how dangerous and uncertain our lives once were. You think your superstitions are outdated and weird? Well, I love them! They are a huge and humanising part of our past, and to let them go would be a shame. Of course, I would hope there are some sensibilities about it – I for one wouldn’t want to miss out a boat trip because the skipper said I was unlucky (I’m not… just very, very seasick!).

Not unlucky – just very, very daft.

Trawling and the Local Press (1899)

I know I forgot to post last week, but it turned out that we were a little busy… The fieldschool ended early, so we upped sticks from sunny Bagenkop and made our way back to Esbjerg – a day of packing, cleaning and travelling. On returning I found a room full of spiders and a to-do list a yard long – starting with a spring/summer clean. Having recuperated from this oh-so-arduous week, I have just begun exploring newspaper archives. This though had not occurred to me before Chris Vening, my lone commenter, brought it up in reference to some of the more bizarre patent applications I described earlier in the year.

I started with the first article that came in my search, the earliest that popped up, from the Newcastle Courant, October 4th 1899. Entitled “A Northumberland Trawling Trip”, a rather quaint piece that begins with the popular superstition about the use of the word ‘pig’ on boats (very bad luck, it appears). I am sure that someone, somewhere, has compiled all the superstitions – I’m guessing it isn’t a short work…

The author, Mr Alexander Meek, MSc, goes on to describe the beam trawl, a 22 foot wooden beam with curved iron shoes at either end. The steam trawler is out for an experiment, it seems, and Mr Meek is apparently delighted when the juvenile fish are thrown back and swim away “none the worse for their journey aboard the trawler”. The experiment consists of dragging small nets form the beam and on the surface, made of ‘a muslin-like material, called “wireino”’. An iron hoop keeps the open, and the catch made is of interest to all. The catch is designated to specimen status, and kept in bottles to await further study.

The whole experiment is to be subject to statistical and biological study, or as the author notes, for ‘the naturalist’ department – a term sadly out of use, I think. The author views the whole experience with a romantic air, being rather taken in with the whole trip, often describing the whole affair in somewhat poetic terms. But his is clearly an enthusiastic supporter of trawling and trawlers, having clearly enjoyed his experience.

I won’t post the article itself (it’s a pay-per-view service), but the link is here.

I’ll admit I spent a lot of my day not doing trawling stuff, but total stationing. I and my two lovely instructors spent an afternoon the total station and a 3D modelling software used a lot in archaeology, called Rhino. Massimiliano is the lovely lad with the locks, while Alex, being Belgian, is naturally referred to as Tintin.

The ultimate is to reproduce the anchor, in 3D. The total station is accurate in recording points to the millimeter; it can also be used to reference in objects with GPS so we not only know exactly what something looks like, but also where it is (or was – all rather important to archaeology, when so many things are so easily lost or destroyed). Data like this can be used for many things – one of things the Maritime Archaeology students learn here is how to use it to calculate hydrostatics and other important boaty-type stuff. I’m no good at hydrostatics, so I use it to get a really good 3D sense of an object – or ship construction – that I would otherwise assess from complex 2D media, like photographs, drawings and measurements. The students, when not tutoring their elders, have been working their way through the museum’s collection of 19th and 20th century fishing vessels, recording them for posterity. Next project for me? An actual boat, or even some lovely trawl doors…

A Few Good Books

I have, for the last three months or so, been steadily reading through a succession of not particularly useful, yet interesting, books about fishing. A good few have been dismissed as soon as I have seen the contents page – sometimes the ambiguous title gives little indication of what lies within…

Here are a few of the more interesting, if only faintly relevant ones:

 – The North Atlantic Fisheries: Supply, Marketing and Consumption, 1560-1990.

A collection of essays covering a wide geographic range, from Newfoundland to Spain. my favourite articles are the ones “Fish promotion in the Netherlands, c. 1690-1983” and “Creating a demand: the marketing activities of the  German fishing industry, c.1880-1990”. Another good one is “Concentration or disintegration? Vessel ownership, fish wholesaling and processing in the British trawl fisher, 1850-1939 “. They are all rather academic (as they should be, I suppose) but have lovely pictures – the marketing articles have great pictures of industry posters from the early 20th century, as well as following the changes and progression of the industry. And if you fancy a change from fishing industry, there’s a nice piece about fish consumption – aboard the 17th century Swedish warships.

The North Atlantic Fisheries: Markets and Modernisation.

This collection of essays is much like those above; covering a wide geographic range and dates. Not really relevant for the pelagic stuff, but some interesting ones. The one that was most relevant was “The impact of steam vessels on Britain’s distant water fisheries before 1914” – the changeover from sail to steam is one I find fascinating. “Modernizing the fishing: regional fisheries policy in northern Norway, 1945-1970” charts the changes and development of the industry post WW2, dealing with a rough period in European history with clarity and logic.

A History of Fishing

A really nice little book, albeit a tad out of date. Not too academic, but very much written by people who know their stuff, and covers the simple stuff simply and the more complicated stuff logically. Covers the early stuff (pre-history), the medieval stuff before giving half the book over to the 20th century and the progression from sail to steam. When the book starts into the modern stuff, it lays out statistics and the explores the development of the modern fishing industry by nation. A very useful book, I found.

A Guide to Fishing Boats and their Gear.

Published in 1968, this little gem isn’t too up to date but it is rather lovely. there are numerous hand drawings to accompany this guide to different boats, ships and fishing techniques. It is a lovely little book, and although it is of little use i am loathe to return it to the library.

So these are a few from the pile. Although they are not particularly relevant, I found them interesting and they certainly broadened my knowledge somewhat!

British Pathé

Here are a couple of rather lovely little videos I found on the British Pathé website:

“a Revolution in Fishing”

It was a certain Mr Clarence Birdseye, himself an American, who invented and revolutionised the concept of frozen food. Frozen food was a challenge then, not just because of the freezing process, but also because in order to sell frozen products, you also have to convince people to buy a freezer to put the product in. Luckily for Clarence his invention took off and he sold his patent for a ludicrously large sum of money.

Freezing had been around before – but at a relatively high temperature and quite slow. This meant when the product thawed, it was dry or mushy and of low quality. Birdseye created the technology to freeze things fast and at a much lower temperature – an idea he got from the Inuit! When he expanded his inventions to plate freezers, the application for using them on board ships became apparent. The rest, as they say, is history.

“Science in Fishing”

Echo sounder, fish finder, sonar, ASDIC – these are terms that have been common to us in the last 50 years – but sonar and ASDIC have a history that runs on to a century now. Developments were started in the 1910’s, but it was during WWI which really kick-started the whole thing with the sudden need to detect submarines. ASDIC was born and developed In 1916-17. Further developments came in WWII, and it after WWII that detection devices entered civilian usage. Strangely enough, there is no proven origin meaning for the initials ASDIC – the theory is that it was derived from the cover name for the project in WWI, it was kept so secret. Sonar came during the 1930’s, and was primarily an American development.


The one is my favourite though – and was something that had never occurred to me as a possibility in ration-stricken Britain:

“Bigger Fish Stil to Come”