ON THE WATERFRONT: Canoe’s history still a mystery

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An ancient dugout boat hewn from an oak tree trunk has intrigued generations of visitors to Sunderland Museum.

But, the origin of this primitive method of waterborne transport is not so clear-cut.

In 1885, when the River Wear Commissioners (RWC) were dredging between High Pallion and Hylton, celebrated diver-hero Harry Watts made an unusual find while removing large stones said to be the remains of a bridge reputed to have once crossed the Wear at Hylton.

Embedded beneath a layer of alluvial mud and shingle, he discovered what at first he believed to be an old wooden horse trough.

Although human skeletal remains were inside and stones shaped like axe heads lay nearby, Watts seemed not to appreciate their significance and threw them back into the water.

Nevertheless, he had the “trough” taken to the Commissioners’ yard at South Docks. There, while breaking it up for firewood with a sledgehammer, he was abruptly stopped by RWC Engineer Henry Hay Wake - but not before one side had been partly knocked out.

Mr Wake quickly recognised the relic’s archaeological importance as an early dugout canoe. When museum officials initially declined to accept the boat, it lay suspended in storehouse rafters for quarter of a century until a casual visit by Sunderland Museum Curator, John Alfred Charlton Deas in 1910.

Excited by what he saw, Mr Deas sent the boat to the museum that same afternoon; and there it has remained ever since.

At the time, antiquarians thought that the craft had prehistoric origins, perhaps being 2,000 to 4,000 years old. But today, experts are more guarded in dating its age as Martin Routledge, Keeper of History at Sunderland Museum explains.

He said: “Research of similar boats around the country has suggested that many are often from the Middle Ages, about 700 years ago.

“Unfortunately, conservation of the wood in the past means that its age cannot now be scientifically tested.”

With rounded prow and squared stern, the craft measures 11 feet long by two feet broad and is one foot six inches deep.

Now deformed with age, its twisted and curled up shape belies what was once a remarkable craft, while small holes near the stern at the top of each side have aroused considerable curiosity.

Martin said: “One possible explanation for these is that a wooden, stretched animal skin or cloth seat would have been fastened between the sides of the boat.”

In 1872 remains of a 13-foot-long canoe hollowed from an oak trunk were dredged from the river opposite Hylton Dene. Then in 1874, another 11-foot six-inch dugout was recovered by RWC divers at Claxheugh.

What became of these is not known, but how many more remain undiscovered?