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The Earliest Ships, subtitled The evolution of boats into ships, is the final contribution to Conways 12-volume series on shipping through the ages. Ironically, as the title indicates, it is chronologically the first, hence my own interest in it. It is definitely a work of reference, and the various contributing authors assume you have, or can acquire, a working knowledge of basic terminology about boats and ships. So if you dont know what scarfing is, or a sheer line, or deadweight, then you may need to do some quick online searches to find out.In passing, the authors basic distinction between boat and ship is that a ship requires social interaction and engagement, and has a benefit of some kind to the community as a whole, whether for war or peace. A boat is more of a personal impulse or endeavour. This distinction does become blurred the further back in time you go. For most of the vessels this book focuses on, it is impossible to decide, since our main evidence is archaeological or pictorial rather than textual.Hence the subtitle - during the span from the last Ice Age to the Viking era, river- and sea-going vessels clearly made this transition, even if we cannot be certain when and how this happened. The earliest boats - skins stretched over a frame of mixed antlers and wood just big enough for a single person - were probably personal. But as boat technology extended to hollowed and planked wooden boats, driven by many oarsmen or by sails needing specialised handling, we enter into ship territory.Now, I acquired this book quite specifically for research purposes, as I wanted better insight into both Mediterranean and northern European ships of the Late Bronze and early Iron Ages. For this purpose it was excellent, though the year of publication (1996) meant that some recent finds were inevitably not present. Most material here covers these old-world spheres, but there is a section written by an exert on Asian and far Eastern shipping of the ancient world.But as well as the content I was looking for, I discovered a wealth of insight into many other issues. There were some fascinating explorations of the ways in which social development was shaped by the different patterns of river routes in northern as contrasted with southern Europe. There were some case studies of reconstructed vessels which I found fascinating, mostly for their insights into speed and cargo capacity. However, there were also more inspirational tales, such as the Saga Siglar (a replica of the Skuldevev 1 archaeological find) which completed a circumnavigation of the world. In doing so, she became the first recorded open vessel with no permanent weather deck to perform this feat. This ship was eventually lost a few years later in a fierce Mediterranean storm - which with winds exceeding 100mph would have been a challenge for many more modern ships.I imagine that the other volumes in the series are as rich in detail as this one, and if so would recommend them to anyone who is interested either in actual research or just an overview of the state of shipping at various times past.
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