The AdriaS project arises from the long term absence of the discipline of nautical archaeology from Croatian archaeological scholarship, the lack of joint archaeological and historical research in shipbuilding and seafaring issues, and the need for an up-to-date interdisciplinary approach to the research, recording and interpretation of the complexity of ships and their natural, economic, political and cultural/historical contexts.
It is difficult to explain technological change in shipbuilding history. Any particular ship-design is the result of a number of human and natural factors. Ship construction is governed by the shipbuilder’s knowledge, skills, tradition, and taste, as well as the materials, tools, and technology available. The purpose for which a ship is built must also be considered, and its means of propulsion as incorporated into the design. Often so many social, political, economic, technological, and even symbolic factors play important roles in stimulating these changes, and it is difficult to weigh their importance as determinants of a particular technological shift at any particular time. Sometimes changes can be explained by the development or adoption of a new technology, but often the questions that arise are more complex.
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We do not know much about this process of change. It is not known which shipwrights implemented the required constructional changes, how long and how expensive the introductory periods were, and perhaps more important, how the shipwrights acquired the know-how needed to implement these changes.
There are a number of questions considering the evolution of shipbuilding and seafaring technology that are still arguments of scientific discussion. The evolutionary line generally proposed for the Mediterranean is subjected to changes with every new significant find. On the other hand, the problem of local particularities, related to the natural, political, economic and cultural/historical context, represents a challenge for the researchers of shipbuilding and seafaring history in many Mediterranean regions.
The term archéologie navale (Eng. nautical archaeology) was introduced in the 19th century by the French author Augustin Jal. The discipline actually started in France three centuries earlier, with the synthesis of the existing knowledge on Greek and Roman ships and seafaring. With the intensification of the underwater archaeological research during the 1960s and 1970s, shipwrecks became an amazing resource of knowledge on the development of shipbuilding technology, history of seafaring and maritime trade. After a couple of decades, the excitement about underwater sites waned, and the discipline of nautical archaeology refocused on all the available evidence, both on land and underwater. These efforts enhanced the development of nautical archaeology as a respectable scientific discipline, and led to the creation of several research clusters focused on nautical archaeology.
The first “centre of excellence” in the research of the history and archaeology of seafaring was established by the pioneer of the underwater archaeological research, George Bass, at the Texas A&M University. Nautical archaeology developed in the Northern and Western European countries as well, providing evidence of the technological development of shipbuilding and seafaring in the Baltic Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. It also developed in Mediterranean countries, producing valuable results in France, Italy, Spain, Israel, Turkey and Greece.
Nautical archaeology research was particularly promoted by French researchers, and led to the creation of two important research groups centered around Patrice Pomey on one hand, and Eric Rieth on the other. The comprehensive contemporary nautical archaeology manual was published by Richard Steffy from the Texas A&M University, and is still considered fundamental for the research in the field. In 2005 P. Pomey (Centre Camille Jullian, CNRS - Université Aix-Marseille, UMR 7299) and E. Rieth (Université Paris-Sorbonne 3 & Musée de la Marine, Paris) published the detailed nautical archaeology manual in the French language.
The enthusiasm of the 1960s and 1970s led to a number of interesting discoveries in Croatian waters. At the entrance to the inner lagoon of the town of Nin, the pioneer of Croatian underwater archaeology Zdenko Brusić excavated and recovered two mediaeval boats. The conservation process, the reconstruction of finds in the local museum, and ultimately the construction of two boats inspired by the archaeological finds, which followed during the next two decades mark this initiative among the most interesting nautical archaeology projects of the period. Although realized with extremely limited resources and according to a methodological approach different than today, the project remains the only example of a Croatian attempt at the systematic approach to the problem of the ship, and was in line with other contemporary significant underwater and nautical archaeology projects in Mediterranean.
Discovery of two sewn (or, more properly, laced) boats in Zaton (the port of ancient Aenona or present day Nin), one in the late 1960s and the other in the late 1970s, seemed an excellent opportunity to continue the development of the discipline, but the ultimate destiny of the boats, still neither conserved nor accurately researched, confirms exactly the opposite.
The halt in Croatian progress in scientific nautical archaeology prevented the development of an appropriate methodology for recording, studying and interpreting ships’ hulls, and resulted in the lack of terminology definition in wooden shipbuilding for historical and archaeological purposes. The absence of related university programmes and courses, the lack of systematic scientific research (inadequately filled by protective and rescue work), and limited financial resources forced exclusion of research on the technological development of shipbuilding and seafaring in the Eastern Adriatic from Croatian archaeological science.
The archaeological evidence of Adriatic maritime activities, collected through past decades, is mostly published in preliminary reports or in scientific articles focused on specific groups of finds. There is only one comprehensive publication of a merchantmen from the Roman period, based on rescue archaeology and not on systematic archaeological research, and one overview of the shipwreck sites from the early Roman Imperial period, based on the results of archaeological surveys and rescue excavations. The most systematic sets of data on shipwreck sites, collected through underwater surveys and rescue excavations, were reported by Dasen Vrsalović in 1979 in his doctoral dissertation.
Until recently, the excavation of shipwrecks in Croatia focused mainly on cultural heritage protection, and most of the previously collected evidence still remains to be properly researched, interpreted and published. At the same time, most of the ships’ hulls remain unrecorded on the seabed. Despite the most active underwater work, there is not even one shipwreck in the deeper sea that has been studied from the nautical point of view. The above-mentioned shipwrecks of Nin and Zaton were found in the shallow waters close to the shore, and were probably sunk on purpose.
In 2007, the international collaboration of the University of Zadar with the French nautical archaeology group from the Centre Camille Jullian was launched. It was followed by the collaboration with Nautical Archaeology Programme of Texas A&M University, which began five years later. The initiatives aimed to recreate the Croatian nautical archaeology research potential, and proved to be a very efficient way of obtaining the desired results. The collaborative fieldwork realized in Pakoštane, and the ongoing research in the bay of Caska on the island of Pag, in Kaštel Sućurac-Trstenik and near the islet of Gnalić at the southern entrance to the Pašman Channel systematically brought to light significant amounts of new evidence. The implemented interdisciplinary work demonstrated the great potential in the reconstruction of the natural context of the sites, while the research in the historical archives and the re-examination of ancient literary sources testified to their potential for reconstructing the cultural/historical, economic and political context of Adriatic shipbuilding and seafaring through the ages. It also emphasized the importance of archival research in the process of understanding and interpreting the cognitive and practical shipbuilding sequence in the mediaeval and early modern period.