Sunday, January 23, 2005

Ship types

In studying the remains of the Old Gokstad ship of Denmark, Hornell comments:

In Europe, the type of boat characterized by frames lashed to cleats on the inner side fo the skin is unknown elsewhere than from the Scandinavian region. In the countries bordering the Mediterranean the earliest plank-built boats of which we have any knowledge, those from Ancient Egypt, were actually built without frames....Neither is there trace nor suggestion of the use of inserted frames lashed to cleats among the constructional descriptions of any of the many types of boat design found in the Indian Ocean.

Cleats of the same shape with a central perforation were arranged in vertical rows in both the orembai and Gokstad ships. The frames were lashed to the cleats with cords.

(James Hornell, Water Transport: Origins and Early Evolution)

The lashed-lug construction using U-shaped frames is found also in the present-day lepa or lepa-lepa of the Badjau people of the Philippines and Borneo, the 10th century Butuan barangay ship, and in early Spanish descriptions of ships among Waray speakers of the central Philippines.

Hornell also mentions a variation of this type of construction using continuous ridges rather than cleats that was found in Fiji, Tonga and Samoa.

Another important feature found in the orembai is the double-hull bifid construction. Boats of the type abound in the Arctic region and are found as far as Scandinavia.

Bifid boats depicted on Swedish petroglyphs

Menzies has studied a number of ships that he calls "junks" and connects with Zheng He's treasure voyages. We will discuss a few of those at this time.

Firstly, the Pandanan ship mentioned earlier is described as a junk, although Dr. Dizon who carried out the investigation of the wreck describes it distinctly as "Southeast Asian." For example, unlike junks of the time, this ship was constructed entirely of wood joints and had no iron nails.

On the Pacific coast of North America, Menzies mentions two interesting "wrecks." The first was found off the beach at Neahkahnie, Oregon. It consisted mainly of a teak pulley and beeswax. According to Menzies the pulley has been radiocarbon dated to 1410. However, others claim a 1993 test found a date of 1595.

Since the rest of the ship has not been found, it cannot be classified as a junk and some experts believe it may have been a wayward Spanish galleon. However, tests of beeswax associated with the find date as early as 1500 i.e. before the start of the galleon trade in 1565.

Interestingly, pollen studies conducted by the University of Oregon show that old beeswax discoveries off the coast of Oregon are associated with holley found in the island of northern Luzon in the Philippines. At least some of this beeswax dates from the galleon trade times and is in the form of European-style candles.

The other site of interest is the so-called "Sacramento junk." This wreck is of particular interest to me since I live in Sacramento. However, the supposed ship is actually nearly 200 miles to the north of the city along the Sacramento River.

The first indications of a possible wreck came when drillers found a piece of metal near a Sacramento River channel in the 1930s. The metal, which no longer exists, was analyzed and described as possibly being a chunk of Chinese armor.

Subsequent drilling has turned up pieces of wood and apparently some grains of rice and many black seeds. Radiocarbon dating suggests the wood ranges from as early as 1100 AD to as late as 1450 AD.

The excavator John Furry also found what he believed were pottery pieces that possibly held the black seeds. He claimed that magnetic scanning of the site displayed the outline of the ship.

Maybe somewhat indicating that the zeal of the skeptics can match Menzies', each of these items has been, rather speculatively, explained away. The pottery pieces have been explained as something created by the drill, the rice and black seeds as probably something stored by a squirrel or other animal and the wood as a tree that had fallen in the water. No tests have been done apparently to analyze what type of wood was involved.

One has to wonder though exactly what Nusantao or Chinese sailors would have been doing this far up river around Sacramento.

Paul Kekai Manansala