The Pallasboy Vessel – Modular Transport in the Iron Age?

Niall Gregory, Gregory Archaeology & Safety

O’Sullivan’s recent blog on the Pallasboy Vessel (O’Sullivan, 2015) is both an enlightening and compelling account of the potential function of this unique Irish discovery. Following my visit to the Meitheal Mara boatyard in Cork, where everyone was busy in mid-construction of the replica and my espousing alternative theories on construction and use of the original vessel, I was delighted to be invited to write this short piece. I will not attempt to detail the excavation or description of the original vessel as to do so would fall short of O’Sullivan’s (2015) finely crafted account and Murray’s (2000) publication based on her excavation.

O’Sullivan plausibly cites ritual bathing as a likely function of the original vessel, which can be further supported by various instances in the archaeological and historical record. His account notes secondary and tertiary functions during the life-cycle of this vessel. As the structural condition of the vessel changed through its life, so too did its function and thus its meaning and relevance to its patrons.

An alternative theory is presented here on its initial function, which differs from that of O’Sullivan. This is not a detraction on the plausibility of O’Sullivan’s narrative, but rather an alternative interpretation that is worthy of consideration. When I first saw the photographs of the original vessel, my background in maritime archaeology, naturally and perhaps unsurprisingly led me in the direction of considering flotation as functionality of the artefact. The manner of construction accords perfectly with that of the dugout boat or logboat tradition in Ireland. Yet at 1.3m, its length immediately discounts its function as that of plying Ireland’s rivers and lakes – unless as a child’s toy, for which given the effort in its construction is implausible. Until this discovery, evidence available to this writer has shown no similar artefacts in Ireland. However, McGrail’s (1978) work on the English and Welsh boats cites similar examples from our nearest neighbour. He has interpreted these vessels a possibly towed behind its larger crewed and paddled counterpart – not unlike a car with a trailer. However given the effort of construction and their general size, I consider construction of a larger dugout boat of more practical value, than that of a smaller trailer. Alder has rarely been used in the construction of dugout boats in Ireland, with oak being the predominant species used. Perhaps it is the propensity of alder to twist or distort when it is being hollowed that creates its rarity in such a vessel. This may be the occurrence cited by O’Sullivan that led to the construction crack in the Pallasboy vessel.

From a waterborne perspective, the Pallasboy vessel and other such discoveries could have been used for transporting materials. From prehistory, rivers and lakes formed a readily available conduit of travel, communication and migration, well into the medieval period and beyond. A means of conveyance on or alongside these water bodies were crucial. Much of this focus has been on boats. However, it is probable that some of this travel was by wading in the shallows or along the bank. It is possible that the small dugout floats or rafts could have been used to carry heavier or bulkier loads and materials, thus freeing the burden from the shoulders of the traveller and enabling them to tow the contents with the water supporting the load.

But what of the Pallasboy vessel used as such a form of conveyance? Based upon my observations of the replica, it retains sufficient net volume to carry materials and appropriate values of displacement to ensure the water would support the weight of the vessel and load it carries. The lower density of alder, compared to other timber, such as oak, would have assisted its buoyancy. Its rounded ends on all three planes would have reduced the values of friction generated by either towing the vessel through water or from the flow of a river dragging on the hull. More detailed observations such as measurements of base thickness relative to that of the vessel’s sides would be required to determine its values of lateral stability, namely whether it would have prone to capsizing. Or should the builders of the replica feel so inclined, they could experiment with the vessel in water…

Does the provenance of the Pallasboy vessel lend itself to this consideration of use on water? It was recovered from peatland in Westmeath, close to the border with Offaly. The water catchment of the Clodiagh River flows from Pallasboy townland to the south, while the River Brosna serves similarly to north. The Clodiagh River merges with the River Brosna some 16km to the west, with the River Brosna then discharging into the River Shannon at Shannon Harbour a further 30km to west. A dugout boat was discovered (with mooring posts and a paddle) in the Little Brosna River in 1929 (Gregory, 1997: 321), at Clonlisk townland, Co. Offaly. However, with the exception of the rivers namesakes, comparisons start to disperse. This 3m long dugout boat’s provenance is approximately 75km to southwest and in a different river. One comparison can be drawn from both rivers being of similar size at the respective find locations. Unless site-specific environmental analysis is undertaken, original profiles of rivers are notoriously difficult to compare with that of prehistory, as alterations occur over time through natural changes in the landscape or through human interventions. It is plausible that the River Brosna, at Pallasboy was originally larger and could support navigable craft. O’Sullivan cites secondary and tertiary use of the vessel. This equally applies to this interpretation as it does not discount the possibility of a waterborne vessel being its original function. Certainly its location of discovery was not that of its original use.

Application of naval architectural analysis or engaging with experimentation on water of the Pallasboy replica may dismiss or add support to this theory. Hopefully time will tell whether this interpretation holds water…

Some further reading

Gregory, N. 1997 ‘A comparative study of Irish and Scottish Logboats’. D.Phil Thesis. University of Edinburgh.

McGrail, S. 1978a ‘Logboats of England and Wales’ British Archaeological Reports, 51. Oxford.

Murray, C. 2000 ‘A wooden vessel from Co. Westmeath, Ireland’, NewsWARP 28, 7–8.

O’Sullivan, A. 2015 ‘What stories can we tell about the Iron Age Pallasboy Vessel?’ The Pallasboy Vessel. (accessed 25th September 2015).

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