sewn Kola shnjaka project
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Experimental Archaeology Project.

Reconstruction of an ancient Russian shipbuilding technique – "sewing" or "lashing" clinker planking together without metal fastenings.

Main goals

There exist a white spot in our historical knowledge on civilization rise in Northern Europe and Asia. Waterborne communication was of extreme importance there, but one of the most common shipbuilding techniques is completely lost now, and so far could not be reproduced in any seagoing vessel replica. The technique can be described as "sewing", or "lashing" clinker planking together by means of twisted withes or roots of certain tree species. This method originates from early bronze age; it was quite wide spread during some periods – for instance, this was the way of Novgorod Rus and Northern Pomor shipbuilding in 10-17 centuries; actually it was very common all over Northern Europe. Absence of reliable data concerning seaworthiness, strength, and other capacities of these ships can seriously jeopardize any scientific analysis of economy and politics for these regions during centuries; also, a sewn ship reconstruction, based on an archaeological find, becomes extremely difficult in the absence of exhausting technical know-how on this shipbuilding tradition.

An archaeological experiment was proven to be a fruitful way to resolve this kind of problem, -- one can mention the famous Thor Heyerdahl’s voyages by "Kon-Tiki" raft and papyrus boats "Ra", or "St.Brendan" ox hide courragh’s crossing of Atlantic. Drakkars and other Viking ships replica building, popular in Scandinavia, as well as Hanse koggs and more modern tall sailships replica building in many European countries and US, helped to gain valuable data on performance and capacities of these ships.

Leading Russian foundation in this field is Centre of Maritime History and Culture (MHCC) in Petrozavodsk, which has the experience of building of more then 30 ancient ship replicas – pomor koches, lodjas, schooners, galeases, sojmas, strouges, etc., and sailing them in expeditions in different parts of the globe. Apart from these, 3 comparatively small boats were successfully built in exact accordance with ancient sewing technique, using neither modern tools (electric, chain saws, or the like), nor any of industrial materials; even planks were axe carved out of logs, split lengthwise by means of wooden wedges. Also, two or three small sewn boat copies were built in Finland, based on archaeological finds from Merkijärvi and Rääkkylä-Koiralammensuo.

Nevertheless, not a single reconstruction of a bigger seagoing sewn ship exist nowadays – all known copies are built in more modern ways with metal fastenings. The experience gathered and the know-how found give us a good opportunity to fill this gap and make a reliable full-scale reconstruction of bigger ships from Northern Pomor cultural area and ancient Rus and Novgorod, including reproduction of the whole shipbuilding technology chain. Field work and excavations in Novgorod, on Shpitzbergen, at the ancient Mangazeja site, etc., performed by Arctic department of Moscow Archaeology Institute, provide all the necessary scientific data and archaeological material concerning relevant boatfinds.

In addition to these pure scientific goals, archaeological shipbuilding experiments can serve as an excellent promotion and popularization for historical knowledge, turning this theoretical subject into vivid reality. Recruiting of young people and their education within national traditions should become one of the project top priorities. Besides, the construction site, where ancient skills and techniques are constantly demonstrated in real work, would always invoke sincere public interest, and, therefore, such an experiment can be combined with tourism or advertising business to their mutual benefit. Then, even a short trip in a vessel, sewn without a single nail, could also make a tourist attraction.

Serious attention should be paid to the detailed photo-, video, and other documentation of every experiment stage; all the data which could have potential value for scientific researches, should be properly recorded. At the same time, these photo and video materials can be used for educational, advertising, etc., purposes.

Scientific goals and realization stages and methods.

The scientific goal of the project is full-scale reconstruction of some presently lost ancient shipbuilding techniques, mainly the technique of "sewing" clinker wooden hull with withes or roots, and gathering authentic and reliable data on seaworthiness, capacities and other features for this kind of vessels.

The replica building must precisely comply with ancient methods, neither modern equipment such as electric tools or chain saws, nor any of industrial made wares should be used – otherwise the experimental recovery of a lost know-how becomes actually impossible, no labor consume evaluation can be done, and so on. When these conditions are met, the replica authenticity would impress even a non-professional tourist, unlike simulation of "age" with modern technologies, which usually looks somewhat fake even to an ignorant watcher.

It would make sense to divide the project into several stages – starting with a comparatively small well documented vessel replica, and leaving more expensive bigger ships reconstruction for the later stages. Then a later stage plan can be corrected by the experience of previous stages.

  1. First stage – summer seasons 2001-2002. Reconstruction of a shnjaka – traditional Russian vessel from Northern Pomor area. Length 12 meters, width 2.7 meters, 1.5-2.5 tons displacement; rather a simple ship, but her lines are quite nice and characteristic of Russian North. Shnjakas were commonly used in coastal regions of White and Barents seas, in Kola, around Kola peninsula and Northern Norway, in Archangelsk and Holmogory, etc., since 15-16 th centuries up to the beginning of the 20 th century. A well preserved (comparatively modern built) shnjaka from Kola is exposed in maritime museum in Oslo. (see ).
  2. Replica is planned to be sewn with spruce roots 10-12 mm diameter, twisted like withes, this technique has been already tested successfully in smaller scale, when building 2 traditional boat replicas (approx. 6 meters long).

    The planking has 5 strakes on one side, as wide as 45 cm each, the planks were sawn lengthwise with a hand saw. Stem posts and ribs are axe carved out of naturally grown curved spruce parts. White moss was used for the caulking material.

    Classical shnjaka rigging consisted of one mast with square sail, but essentially the same hull rigged with two masts carrying spritsails would make a pomor ship of another type called "sojma"; so, having one hull built, we can test and compare both types of rigging.

    Accordingly to the experience of smaller sewn boats reconstruction, labor input of a shnjaka building can be estimated at about 800-1200 working hours, that is, the ship can be finished in 2-3 months by a team of three or four; most probably it took even less to an original pomor team. But to get a realistic calendar term this estimation must be doubled, to allow for experimental hunt for know-hows and possible organization delays. Approximate budget of the first stage amounts to 3000 US dollars, taking all organization, transportation, documentation and other expenses into account.

  3. Second stage – autumn 2002 – summer 2003. Thorough testing of the built shnjaka in natural conditions, seaworthiness, strength and durability evaluation of the sewn hull. This can take form of several tourist voyages through Karelian water systems and White or Baltic sea coastal areas. The ship can carry a crew of 4-10 people, some of them can be recruited as volunteers on their summer vacation. Some short commercial trips for tourists can be organized at this stage, too.
  4. Third and later stages – years 2004—2006. The experience gained by then will facilitate a bigger ship reconstruction, -- some sewn pomor "koches" had more then 100 tons displacement, and maintained regular communication between Kola (Murmansk) and Schpitsbergen, or Grumant, -- as it was called by pomors. In 16-17 centuries koches were plying on important trade route along northern cost of Siberia to the Mangazeja colony at the river Taz mouth -- the "Mangazeja route". Sewn ships of no smaller dimensions existed on Baltic as well.

Another interesting subject is connected to the more ancient – 9-13 cent. boatfinds from Novgorod and Staraya Ladoga, many of them were sewn in a very similar way. Their reconstruction might require our recovering of some other lost techniques, such as dugout bottom expanding over fire, or plank producing by splitting logs and axe carving.


Project organization priorities

  1. To unite and coordinate the efforts an initiative group is to be organized, representing all organizations and persons interested in this archaeological experiment. Scientific and social foundations like institutes, museums, clubs, culture centers, as well as commercial firms working with tourism, advertising or video business can comprise the initiative group. Financing and sponsoring question for the project's comparatively inexpensive first stage (Kola shnjaka reconstruction) is to be resolved before any further step can be taken.
  2. A small team (2-4 people) of boatbuilders, experienced in traditional skills and navigation, is to be created. The first experiment stage can be carried out by this team alone, and on later stages they can make a bigger team's core.
  3. Serious consideration must be given to the reconstruction site location choosing, since the precise reproduction of an ancient technology will require the whole environment reproduction. It can only be done in the "natural habitat" – with an immediate access to a forest, an opportunity to take some chosen trees and other materials from there. The construction site location in a national park would be favorable from all viewpoints, as the above conditions can be met there and the facilities for scientific work, tourist demonstration, video documentation, etc., are also present.
  4. In order to test the sewn vessels thoroughly in natural conditions, several voyages are to be undertaken; at this stage some legal questions concerning the experimental vessel navigation through common waterways will arise, and will have to be resolved.
  5. Some short commercial trips for tourists can be organized at this stage.

  6. Detailed photo and video documentation of all experiment stages is to be provided; in this field the project can collaborate with a video business to the mutual benefit.
  7. Museum exhibitions about these ancient shipbuilding techniques and navigation traditions are to be organized. Exhibiting both archaeological finds and a full-scale replica ship at the same time and place would be most attractive, as a visitor can vividly compare them, and even make a short trip in the reconstructed vessel.



Project initiative Group. Activity fields of the interested foundations and persons.

  1. Arctic Archaeology Group, Institute of Archaeology, Russian Academy of Science

Dmitry Ulyanov str., 19

117036, Moscow, Russia

Phone: (007) (095) 126-47-98, (007) (095) 126-94-44

Fax: (007) (095) 126-06-30


Expeditions connected to the subject "Maritime archaeology of Russian North";

  1. Mangazeja expedition in 1968-73.
  2. Schpitsbergen expedition since 1978 to the present day.
  3. Novgorod expedition, over 60 years of continuous work.

Main publications on the subject:

  1. Dubrovin G.E., Okorokov A.V., Starkov V.F., Chernosvitov P. Y. "Mangazeja and Mangazeja trade Route", Moscow, 1979.
  2. Starkov V.F. "Outlines of Arctic exploration History", vol.2, "Russia and north-eastern Passage", Moscow, 2001.
  3. Dubrovin G.E., Okorokov A.V., Starkov V.F., Chernosvitov P. Y. "History of shipbuilding in the Russian North", Moscow, 2001.

  • Naimark Mark Leonidovich
  • Mikluho-Maklaya str., 57-1, apartment 115

    117279, Moscow, Russia

    Phone: (007) (095) 334-83-20

    E-mail: Type email manually

    Web sites: ,

    Boatbuilding "sewing" technique reconstruction and traditional Russian boats replica building in 1995-96 in "Vodlozero" National Park, Republic of Karelia; in 1999-2000 for Fotevikens maritime Center and Museum, Sweden; also, a replica building of an 8 th century grave boat of Tuna in Badelunda, within an archaeological experiment at Södertörns Högskola college in Stockholm.



    Supplement 1. Extract from Arctic archaeology group of IoA RAoS meeting protocol on 2001-05-31.

    Chairman: Starkov V.F. (signature)

    Secretary: Chernosvitov P. Y. (signature)

    1. Listened to the report by Naimark M.L., concerning experimental archaeology project of an ancient Russian shipbuilding technique reconstruction -- "sewing" or "lashing" clinker planking together without metal fastenings.
    2. Stated:

    1. The project submitted is approved, its realization is admitted worthwhile and important.
    2. Arctic archaeology group will take part in the project’s development and realization.

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