In our spare time archaeologists sometimes like to help run Young Archaeologist’s Club branches. The Young Archaeologist’s Club (YAC) was set up in 1972 as Young Rescue to provide opportunities for young people who were no longer able to dig on archaeological sites so easily as archaeology became more professional, and risky. It is a national club run by the Council for British Archaeology with local branches which run once a month and are run by volunteers.
Both Graham and Towse Harrison of Sunjester and Kim and Edward Biddulph (see About us) have helped run YAC branches, and last weekend Kim was at Aylesbury YAC branch to help at a session run by the former County Archaeologist, Mike Farley, who, as a keen sea kayaker, has an interest in prehistoric boats. He made and paddled a replica ‘skin’ coracle on Aylesbury’s canal some years ago and he had prepared some materials for our members to create their own craft, albeit not really big enough to sit in!
Coracles are used around the world and are made in various styles and shapes, though they are often circular or oval. Sometimes they have a flat bow and a rounded stern like these boats on the River Teifi near Cardigan in Wales in 1972. They were generally made by weaving an open basket shape from flexible lengths of wood, often willow in Britain, and then covered in animal skin. No prehistoric coracles have been found, as they are quite fragile craft, but paddles have been. It is assumed that coracles were probably used throughout prehistory on inland waterways and lakes. They wouldn’t withstand much sea travel.
So, on to making your own model coracles. Mike got some wooden board about 20cm x 30cm and drilled six holes in in an almost diamond arrangement. He also used lengths of willow; about 50cm long would be plenty long enough. You will need some garden wire or twine to hold the joints together, and some ‘skin’ material. An old raincoat cut up worked really well. Finally, you will need some thick cotton thread and some bodkins (large blunt needles) for sewing the skin onto the coracle frame.
Firstly, the willow wands need to be bent and slotted through two holes, one wand going lengthways and the other three widthways.
Take more willow wands and weave them around the bottom of the boat, where the willow wands go through the wooden board. You will need three or four lines of woven wands to make sure the coracle is secure. To make it extra safe, wind garden wire round the base of each willow wand where it goes through the wooden board, and where each wand crosses another.
Trim some of the excess willow from under the board and you are ready to take the boat out. With any luck it will hold together. Now is the time to take a thin piece of hardboard and cut it to size for a seat. It should be secured between the woven lengths of willow.
Take the ‘skin’ material and cut it down to shape. Fold it over the top of the boat and sew it into place under the woven band.
The final test is floating the boat in water. We found that the shallower the boat the better it floated. If the boat is too deep, you can try putting some stones in the bottom to weight it down. This would be a great point of discussion about displacement and surface area.