17-2018-115, 3, p. 567-597 - Michel PHILIPPE –  Un état des connaissances sur la navigation préhistorique en Europe atlantique

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17-2018-115, 3, p. 567-597 - Michel PHILIPPE – Un état des connaissances sur la navigation préhistorique en Europe atlantique

Que ce soit en mer ou dans les eaux intérieures, l’usage des moyens de transport nautiques par les populations préhistoriques ne se laisse pas aisément approcher. On doit en effet composer avec la grande rareté des principaux témoins : les embarcations sur lesquelles se sont effectuées les navigations. Malgré cette limite posée par la documentation, il est possible de préciser certains aspects chronologiques et fonctionnels à partir des sources indirectes qui nous sont accessibles dans l’enregistrement archéologique et en analysant les témoins directs que constituent les rares épaves, équipements et représentations qui nous sont parvenus.

Pour ce qui concerne l’Europe atlantique, sur laquelle est centrée cette étude, nous pouvons aussi préciser quelques données concernant le rythme et les contraintes qui s’y appliquaient sans doute en nous appuyant sur la connaissance des milieux dans lesquels évoluaient les embarcations, et auxquels elles étaient fortement soumises en termes d’adaptation de leur système technique. L’analogie diachronique avec l’histoire plus récente de ces moyens de transport peut aussi nous ouvrir quelques pistes quant aux modalités de déplacement plausibles.

Si la revue de tous ces faisceaux d’indices ne permet pas de définir la nature exacte de toutes les embarcations alors utilisées, on peut cependant ouvrir et délimiter le champ des possibles. Il inclut une large variété typologique réalisée à partir de perches, de fûts, de planches et de fagots végétaux, parfois revêtus de peaux tendues, composant différents types d’architectures : radeaux, pirogues, bateaux de peaux, bateaux de planches assemblées. À l’exception du dernier type, qui n’apparaît vraisemblablement que vers la fin de la Préhistoire européenne, ces dispositifs ont pu, pour la plupart, naviguer au même moment et parfois sur les mêmes voies d’eaux, mais probablement pas pour les mêmes usages.


Mots-clés : archéologie nautique, milieux nautiques, navigation, bateaux, radeaux, pirogues, curraghs, coracles, umiaks, tradition « à bordages ligaturés ».


Whether at sea or on inland waters, the use of water transport by the prehistoric populations of north-western Atlantic Europe is not a particularly amenable subject. This is largely due to a lack of key pieces of evidence in the archaeological record, namely the boats themselves, on which such journeys were made. This lack is primarily due to differential preservation. But other sources can contribute; ethnological and historical studies suggest that after abandonment the components of many boats were often recovered for recycling, resulting in the disappearance of many of them. In addition, some less substantial boat remains are unlikely to be recognised during excavation because only dugouts and plank-built boats survive in an easily recognisable form. Despite the limitations of the evidence, it is possible to clarify some chronological and functional aspects of prehistoric navigation practices from numerous indirect sources in the archaeological record. The pioneering colonisation of islands and certain coastlines constitutes primary evidence of the first maritime navigation, whilst faunal data provide indicators of the intensity, even the rhythm of navigation. Fishing, on the other hand, is always difficult to interpret as evidence for navigation per se.

As far as northern Atlantic Europe is concerned, which we have chosen to focus on in this study because of the quality of the relevant data, we can also clarify some modalities and probable rhythms of navigation based on our understanding of the environments in which the boats evolved and by which they were strongly constrained in terms of their technical development. Diachronic analogy with the more recent history of such vessels, in different nautical environments, can also offer some clues to plausible modes of transport. In this way, one can approach the non-instrumental methods that were undoubtedly used when travelling at sea out of sight of land, whilst at the same time suggesting that maritime navigation mainly involved cabotage, keeping the coast in sight. Estuaries, at the same time havens of maritime refuge and the link between sea-going routes and the river networks, came to be nodal points for navigation. In northern Atlantic Europe, the density and omnipresence of watercourses creates a unique system ideally suited to travel by boat. For long-distance journeys, there was a break in the travel pattern as cargoes had to be transported from the rivers of one drainage basin to another, an integral part of transport network recorded in the earliest documents available. The continental transport system was no doubt conceived as a sort of ‘amphibious‘ affair.

In addition to indirect evidence and environmental studies, analysis of direct evidence such as the infrequent remains of boats themselves, their equipment and visual representations where they have survived is of course a fundamental source for this subject. But we are still limited by significant gaps in  our understanding of this field; despite thousands of years of boat use and even more thousands of kilometres of coast, river course and lake, we can only identify a few examples of architectural ‘families’, drawing together groups of boats related by morphology, structure and components, in addition to historical association. With the exception of dug-outs, each of these ‘families’ is represented by only a few remnants. Furthermore, this understanding is biased in favour of more recent boats made of wood, better preserved than their counterparts made from hides stretched over an organic frame, if they existed at the same time.

Given the paucity of direct evidence for this period, it is impossible to define the exact nature of all the boats then used, nor to attribute them to a natural environment prescribing a particular evolution. One can however open and delimit the field of possibilities, based on an analytical method put forward by S. McGrail in various publications. In inland waters, in addition to dugouts, which constitute the best known technical tradition, one might come across rafts used as platforms, containers or means of transport for downstream navigation. But the biggest absence in the archaeological record, although probably present in all marine and riverine contexts, perhaps even before dugouts, is that of boats of skin stretched over a pre-assembled organic frame. Their paradoxical absence is no doubt due to the eminently perishable nature of their components, the reason for their disappearance without trace. It was not until the end of the 3rd millennium BC that the great boats of the ‘sewn plank’ tradition appeared, introducing a type of boat with the promise of a bright future.

With the exception of the latter, all these vessels could have been in use at the same time and sometimes on the same waterways, though probably not for the same uses.


Keywords: nautical archaeology, nautical environments, navigation, boats, rafts, dugouts, curraghs, coracles, umiaks, ‘sewn plank’ boats.