Medieval Boat Timber, Arnolfini Gallery

The former warehouse building that houses the Arnolfini Gallery was constructed for Acraman, Bush, Castle and Co. in two stages between 1832 and 1837 and became known as the Bush warehouse (BUAD 1186M).

Groundworks monitored during the recent basement extension to the Arnolfini Gallery encountered blue-grey alluvial clay at a depth of 1.74m below ground floor level. This area was depicted as shipyards on Jacobus Millerd’s map of 1673 and again on his revision of c.1715. By the early 1740’s Housing and Warehouses had been constructed along the length of both Prince’s Street and Narrow Quay. Demolition deposits from these buildings, up to 900mm in depth, overlay the alluvial clay and were present across the whole of the excavated area.

The footings of three 19th century walls were partially revealed. One of these walls would have formed the original northern extent of the 1832 Bush warehouse before its extension in 1837, the other two walls were internal divisions associated with the same construction episode.

A piece of worked timber was recovered from the alluvial clay beneath the footings of the original northern wall of the Bush warehouse. The shape of the timber followed a natural curve in the tree from which it was cut unfortunately the growth-ring sequence was insufficient to facilitate dendrochronological dating. 

wood from arnolfini gallery

Smooth and well-cut surface of recovered boat timber

The timber measured 1.12m in length with a maximum width of 320mm tapering to 110mm and a thickness of approximately 100mm. One side of the timber was relatively smooth and well-cut the other was rough and pitted. The thicker end of the timber had been sawn through in antiquity. The timber may have been part of the bow or stern ‘Stem Post’ of a riverine boat without transom rather than a ship. The height and thickness of the timber suggests part of either the ‘Gripe’ or ‘Forefoot’ which would have joined to the vessels Keelson and may have come from a Gig or Cutter-type of vessel around 20 to 25 feet in length. The longer of the two edges had signs of fraying which would have occurred if the boat from which the timber came had been run up on a shore or slipway or had been used as a working platform/support.

wood rough side

Rough and pitted side of recovered boat timber

The historic value of oak as a useful commodity had evidently led to the partial salvage of the timber after the boat was dismantled and the fact that a 19th century wall rested dierectly on top of it indicates that it was re-used as a foundation raft. There are many parallels for this in London.

We can almost certainly conclude that this timber was deposited in the alluvial clay no later than the second quarter of the 19th century although the boat it once formed a part of may date from at least the late 17th century.

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