Mystery of ancient boat buried under pub car park set to be cracked

Scientists find ancient boat buried under a pub car park in Meols

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The mystery of an ancient boat buried under a pub car park in Nottingham is set to be cracked — 85 years after the vessel was first discovered. Precision samples from the craft, which lies underneath the Railway Inn in Meols, on the Wirral Peninsula, will be extracted by archaeologists later this month for analysis. The research is being led by applied biochemist and Viking history expert Professor Steve Harding of the University of Nottingham.

Prof. Harding said: “The vessel was originally discovered in 1938 by workmen who partially exposed the vessel, but were told by their foreman to immediately cover it over again.

“Fortunately, one of the men made detailed notes and a sketch of it.”

This illustration, he explained, shows “a preserved vessel of clinker design — overlapping planks — a design of boat building that originated in Scandinavia.

“It is of approximate length 20–30 feet, and from the sketch possibly an old transport vessel or fishing boat.”

Radar scans undertaken by the researchers have confirmed that the vessel endures, at a depth of around nine feet beneath the surface.

According to Prof. Harding, the particular sediments in which the ancient boat became buried were instrumental for its survival.

He explained: “It is buried in waterlogged blue clay, which is an ideal preservative as bugs can’t grow and degrade the wood.

“There are very few archaeological vessels that have been found in such material.”

The team have an inkling of how such a Scandinavian-style vessel might have come to be buried underneath Nottingham.

Prof. Harding said: “It is not impossible the vessel may have derived from the time the area was heavily settled by Norsemen, or if not the descendants of these people.

“An investigation we did jointly with the University of Leicester has shown a high proportion of Y-chromosomal DNA of Scandinavian origin in the admixture of people from old families — possessing surnames prior to 1600 — in the area.

“But in all honesty, we just don’t know and are keeping an open mind.”

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The researchers plan to systematically bore some 100 narrow holes across the area in front of the Railway Inn under which the boat lies.

These holes will allow access to take tiny samples of the wooden boat — along with the surrounding clay — for analysis.

This conservative approach will minimise the risk of damaging the ancient vessel, in comparison with re-exposing the boat to the elements.

Chemical analysis of the collected samples will be undertaken between laboratories of the University of Nottingham, the British Geological Survey, the University of Oslo and the Norwegian Institute of Technology.

Prof. Harding said: “The techniques we are using will shed more light on exactly what type of boat this is and where it came from. We hope our tests will now give some definite answers and end the speculation.”

Dominga Devitt is the chair of the Wirral Archaeology Community Interest Company, which is co-leading the investigation of the boat. She said: “There has been intense local interest in this buried object for many years.

“It has been thought that the boat dates from the Viking era, but no professional investigation has ever been carried out to establish the truth, so everyone is really delighted at the prospect of what we might discover.”

Beyond his analytical and archaeological expertise, Prof. Harding’s involvement in the project has another benefit.

The biochemist is part — along with colleagues at the Cultural History Museum in Oslo — of the “Saving Oseberg” project, which is working to develop new biopolymer consolidants for the preservation of wooden artefacts, in particular the Viking-era Oseberg ship.

He concluded: “If the Meols boat is ever fully excavated it is hoped it will benefit from these new materials.”

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