Saturday, 31 March 2012

The Bronze Age Boat in Dover

Albion is the ancient Celtic name for Britain, and is believed to refer to Dover, home to the Bronze Age Boat

Dover during the Bronze Age
The name Dover is generally accepted as being of Celtic origin, deriving from Dubra, meaning 'the waters'. The name of Dover's river Dour stems from the same Celtic word, and is considered to mean literally 'the river'. Likewise, the name Kent is of Celtic origin; according to the Cambridge Dictionary of English Place-Names, the name comes from the Brythonic Kantion, meaning probably 'corner land'.

The ancestors of all the populations that settled in the British Isles are likely to have passed either near or through Dover. The White cliffs of Dover are the only part of Britain visible from the European continent, and so, in prehistoric times, any families attempting to cross the stretch of sea dividing Europe from Britain would have directed their small boats towards Dover's cliffs. An inlet between the cliffs formed a natural haven for sea-faring vessels, and the various arms of Dover's river Dour running into the sea made it possible for boats to move sufficiently inland to take up a safe mooring position, thus making Dover an ideal port.

Taking into account the proximity to the continent, it is reasonable to imagine Dover as being the oldest port in the British Isles, and maybe also home to the oldest settlement. Pottery dating back as far as 1800 BC has been found on the Eastern Heights near Dover Castle, and can be seen on display in Dover Museum together with numerous other Bronze Age items.

Albion and the White Cliffs of Dover

The ancient Celtic name for Britain is Albion, and is believed to refer initially to the white cliffs of Dover. Historical references to Britain prior to the first century BC are both rare and vague, and stem mainly from the ancient Greek colony of Marseilles in modern France.

The idea that Albion derives from the Latin albus, meaning white, is misleading, as the Celtic name Albion was mentioned in Greek scripts from Marseilles possibly as far back as the sixth century BC, whereas the Romans first came into contact with Britain during the middle of the first century BC. The original meaning of the Celtic name Albion remains surrounded in mystery, with various interpretations being given. It is far from clear whether the name was used only during the Iron Age, or already in the earlier Bronze Age.

The Bronze Age Boat

The Bronze Age is considered to start in Britain in the latter half of the third millennium BC, and followed the Neolithic Age. It continued to around 800 BC, when iron was introduced. At first, copper was used on its own, but within time people discovered that bronze could be obtained by adding a small quantity of tin to the copper. It was used to manufacture tools, replacing the older flint implements of the Neolithic Stone Age. Tin reserves were abundant in Cornwall and Devon, and around 1600 BC tin was being exported from Britain to Gaul.

The oldest known sea-faring vessel in the world was discovered in Dover in 1992. Dating to 1550 BC, the Bronze Age Boat was conserved owing to a protective mud case that had formed around the wood, concealing it from contact with the air. The larger part of the vessel was retrieved and is preserved in Dover Museum.

A piece of shale from Dorset was found in the boat, revealing that the vessel had travelled along the English Channel in the direction of Devon and Cornwall. The evidence shows that long before the Iron Age, cargo vessels were transiting along Britain's southern coast and crossing the Strait of Dover, operating within the context of established trading links that were vital to the Bronze Age civilisation in Britain and Europe.


  •  Cambridge Dictionary of English Place-Names, edited by Victor Watts, Cambridge University Press, 2004. 
  •  Dover Museum. 

Written by D. Alexander

The British Isles in the Neolithic Stone Age:

Celtic Origins in the British Isles:

Photo 1: Albion, the White Cliffs of Dover

Photo 2: Light Tower Church on Eastern Heights, above the Port of Dover

Photo 3: The Union Jack In High, Albion, Dover

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