Open Seas, Closed Seas

Late last summer, I was fortunate enough to be invited to speak at ISBSA15, the 15th International Symposium on Boat and Ship Archaeology, in Marseilles, France.


A technical archaeology conference, ISBSA has, since 1976, served as a platform to publicise progress in nautical archaeology, including recent discoveries of significant ship finds, studies in ship construction, advances in research methods, experiments in nautical archaeology, and experiences in nautical ethnography. Attended by luminaries in the watery world of nautical archaeology, ISBSA is the symposium at which to share results of ship-related archaeological and technical research.



Organised by the Centre Camille Julian (a collaboration between Aix-Marseille UniversityCNRS and the French Ministry of Culture), and hosted by MuCEM, the Musée des civilisations de l’Europe et de la Méditerranée, ISBSA15’s theme was open seas and closed seas: local traditions and inter-regional traditions in shipbuilding. 


So, for the non-boat geeks amongst us, what exactly does that mean?


Simply, that each region has its own shipbuilding traditions. Traditions, that reflect the particularities of its nautical area, its geographic and economic specificities, and its political, social, and cultural characteristics. You see, the more pronounced these particularities, the stronger and more persistent the traditions. Beyond the local level, these same phenomena can also be found at a regional level and, more broadly, within the well-defined spaces of inland waters, and enclosed seas.




When the maritime space widens across the open sea, however, specificities fade to make room for more common interrelated traditions; traditions that tend to a certain universality, as maritime spaces become more and more global. lt is within this context that changes in shipbuilding traditions occur. The contradictory interplay of local or regional resistance and interregional reciprocal influences, often lead to technological hybridisation and transfer.


Depending on the size and nature of the maritime exchange, and on the extent of the maritime areas involved, these developments will be more or less rapid, and more or less complex. lt is these interactions between local and interregional traditions, across open closed seas, that ISBSA15 was designed to discuss. And what better location to talk open seas, closed seas, than at MuCEM in the magnificent Mediterranean port city of Marseilles! 



Over five days from 22-27 October 2018, delegates from as far afield as China and Croatia, Turkey and Thailand, presented papers on the technical aspects of ancient ship construction, nautical archaeology, and ethnographic boats. As is always the case, but particularly so at ISBSA, there were so many standouts, it was hard to find a favourite!


Legendary French Maritime Archaeologist, Patrice Pomey, kicked off with a keynote on fifty years of nautical archaeology at the Centre Camille Julian. Fellow Southampton alum Julian Whitewright showcased the University’s recent studies in the Black Sea. Thomas Van Damme presented a new approach for the mass documentation of archaeological ship timbers and my dear friend, Deborah Cvikel, spoke about sailing Israel’s Ma‘agan Mikhael II  replica.



But the fun didn’t stop there! 


My former supervisor, Lucy Blue, got into the mind of the boatbuilder to help us conceptualise ancient boats. Dendrochronologist, Aoife Daly, revealed the results of her research into Vasa’s Timber Supply.  Experimental archaeologist, Tom Vosmer, proffered a paper on plank sewing systems of the Indian Ocean, whilst Dutch shipwreck specialist Wendy Van Duivenvoorde, discussed double hull planking in European shipbuilding. 


The global gallivant continued as Gil Gambas talked about the transition from shell to skeleton in ancient Mediterranean ship construction. Wouter Waldus appraised the recent Dutch Cog find. Mikkel Thomsen showcased Storstømmen’s Kalverev Syd shipwreck, whilst Irena Radić Rossi’s paper on the Gnalić wreck had me – quite literally – salivating with excitement!



It was also great to see so many papers from Asia, and a special thanks must go to the organising committee for encouraging these contributions – mine included! Opening the symposium’s penultimate session, Pierre-Yves Manguin challenged our ideas on the assemblage of hulls in the Southeast Asian tradition, which I thoroughly enjoyed! I have admired Pierre-Yves from afar for many years, so it was great to finally meet you PY, and to have my little fan-girl moment! 


Following Pierre-Yves, the delightful Qiu Dandan discussed her work on the riverine wrecks of China’s Grand Canal. Paola Calanca spoke of Chinese sails and rigging, as revealed in Étienne Sigaut’s spectacular documents.  You should check these out if you ever get the chance because his drawings are artworks in themselves. Pook Komoot talked of Thailand’s 9th-Century Phanom-Surin shipwreck, after which Damien Peladan explored of the evolution of shipbuilding in Medieval Korea – a newfound love of mine – and I mused on the effects of Ming Maritime Policy on the East Asian Shipbuilding Tradition (below).



As always, the frightfully intelligent Fred Hocker deserves a special mention. Not for his insightful comments (the term ‘Hockered’ comes to mind…) but for reminding us that at ISBSA we stand on the shoulders of giants. I’m thinking Ted Wright, Honor Frost and Ole Crumlin Pederson to name but a few. They are reason we do what we do, and why – in most cases – we do it so well. These ISBSA founding family members can no longer be with us, which is the great sadness of ISBSA. It is that fine line between pleasure and pain that we walk at every ISBSA. We each try to honour those who came before us, and build on the incredible body of knowledge that they have created. I just wish we had more time to show them what we have achieved. I am sure they would be proud. Thank you Fred for allowing them to be present at ISBSA15 in small but very meaningful way. For me, it was the most moving moment of the week. And, if you made Johan Opdebeeck cry (which I know you did!), surely there wasn’t a dry eye in the house! 


ISBSA, was, as always, a wonderful opportunity to catch up with old friends, make new ones, keep up to date with current trends. I feel a bit remiss however,  in not outlining all the magnificent posters that were on display thought ISBSA15, including one prepared by my darling friend Amandine Colson on the conservation of the Bremen Cog. So grateful for being thrust at you during IKUWA6 – thanks Martijn!



ISBSA would be complete without its after parties (which, I might add are as valuable as the formal program). I was super excited to finally see the Musée Départemental Arles Antique’s nautical collection, DRASSM’s research vessel André Malraux, to hear about all of Michel L’hour’s AI creations, and to finally be in the presence of Marseille’s Roman wrecks including Jules-Verne 4, and the Bourse, which dates to second half of the 2nd century AD. If you haven’t been there, Musée d’Histoire de Marseille is a shipwreck fanatic’s ‘must do’! Of course, being shuttled across to our gala dinner at Société Nautique de Marseille on Gyptis, the replica of an archaic Greco-Massalian boat dating to the 6th century BC, was very definitely another highlight for me! In fact, the week was full of them!


Big thanks should go to the ISBSA15 Organising Committee particularly Giulia Boetto and Pierre Poveda (pictured with our absent ISBSA family below).  Giuloi and Pierre worked incredibly hard to make ISBSA the incredible success that it was and for that I salute you! Thanks also to the Centre Camille Jullian and the many supporters and sponsors including, but not limited to, MuCEMHonor Frost FoundationSociété Nautique de MarseilleIpso Facto and Labex Med.  Keep an eye open for the ISBSA15 proceedings (coming soon) and if you a boat-geek like me, get ready for ISBSA16 in Croatia in 2021 – can’t wait?!!



For more information on ISBSA15 please visit the ISBSA website, here. Thanks also to ISBSA15, Peter Campbell and Johan Opdebeeck for letting me use their incredible photos.

About Sarah Ward

I’m Sarah Ward, a maritime archaeologist, commercial diver and factual presenter with 16 years experience, both in and out of the water. I’ve investigated sites ranging from the Bronze Age to the modern, across more than 20 countries. A Visiting Professor at Dalian Maritime University and MIT Ocean Discovery Fellow, I am on a mission to bring archaeology to a broader audience, helping people to connect with the past in a meaningful way.

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  1. March 13, 2019 @ 11:48 Indiana Sarah / He, Superintendent of the Sea

    […] a previous post, I wrote that at ISBSA, we stand on the shoulders of giants. Sebastiano was a giant. An […]

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