NT Times obit
NT Times obit
June 10, 2001
Edward Wright, Who Unearthed Ancient Boats on England's Coast, Dies at 82
By DOUGLAS MARTIN
Edward Wright, whose youthful curiosity about three oak planks poking out of the English beach where he and his brother searched for dinosaur bones led to the discovery of the oldest seaworthy boats found in northern Europe, died on May 18 in a hospital in Gloucester. He was 82.
Mr. Wright, who lived in nearby Amberley, died of complications of treatment for prostate cancer, said Wendy Dobbs, chairwoman of the Ferriby Historical Trust, which was formed to protect the site of Mr. Wright's find.
From the first discovery at Ferriby on the Yorkshire coast in 1937 until this March - when sophisticated new dating techniques added as much as 500 years to the age of the three boats he discovered, making one over 4,000 years old - Mr. Wright epitomized the tantalizing possibilities of amateur archaeology. He found his second boat while on leave from the army. He found his third while working as a top executive for an international pharmaceuticals company.
His achievement was to provide a tangible answer to the question of how mid-European Bronze Age tools found their way to England. Fifty- foot-long boats - like the three for which Mr. Wright found major parts - may have brought Britain's first domestic animals. Similar boats may have carried stone slabs from Wales to England during the construction of Stonehenge.
"The Ferriby boats are of worldwide importance, being surpassed in age only by the third-millennium- B.C. planked boats from the vicinity of the royal pyramids at Giza and the Danshur in Egypt," Sean McGrail, an Oxford archaeologist wrote in the introduction to Mr. Wright's book, "The Ferriby Boats: Seacraft of the Bronze Age" (Routledge, 1990).
One book for the general audience has gone so far as to suggest that the Ferriby boats and those in the pyramids are the same. Lorraine Evans, a publicist by trade, argued in "Kingdom of the Ark" (Simon & Schuster, 2000) that Egyptians used boats similar to the Ferriby boats to settle in Britain during the Bronze Age.
Few scholars raced to embrace this idea, if only because the Egyptian boats show a considerably higher level of craftsmanship. Moreover, the most logical use of the boats would have been as local ferries. But the comparisons the Wrights themselves made to still-used traditional boats of similar construction, like those in Sri Lanka, were considered shrewdly insightful.
"In their use of such archaeological techniques, the Wright brothers were as much in advance of their times as were their namesakes in aviation," Mr. McGrail wrote. Edward's brother, Claude, found the first boat with him and worked with him intermittently for the first decade of the project.
Edward Vere Wright was born on June 21, 1918, in Elloughton. His father was the chairman of British Oil and Cake Mills. His great-grandfather, Sir William Wright, was chairman of the Hull Dock company.
In September 1937, the brothers, on college vacation, went on one of their regular collecting walks along the tidal estuary of the Humber River, pursuing their joint passions of biology, geology and, particularly, paleontology. Together, they had published an article in a local journal, The Naturalist, on insects, mollusks and animal bones found in the area.
"I saw the ends of the three massive wooden planks projecting at a shallow angle from the clay and called across to my brother, who was examining the edge of the peat a short distance away, that I had found a `Viking ship,' " Mr. Wright wrote.
Claude was initially skeptical, but as the young men began digging with trowels they realized they had indeed found something very interesting. The wooden planks were stitched together with plant material, and they were quite large.
"The finds had characteristics of size and complexity comparable with those of fossil dinosaurs and we treated them accordingly," Mr. Wright wrote. "When we started, our ignorance of boats and boat-building was total and we learned as we went along with the project."
Fitting in archaeology around their studies, the young men excavated the find between terms. During World War II, when both were in the army, they continued as time permitted. Edward, who was a tank commander, found a second boat at Ferriby while on leave. He went on to participate in the invasion of Normandy and ended his service as a major.
After the war, Edward spent more than a year excavating the two boats, likening the task to "getting slices of crumbly cheese out of glue." He said dealing with hardship in war equipped him for the dirty, painstaking work.
In 1947, he joined Reckitt & Coleman, a pharmaceuticals concern, where he rose to become chairman of the company's overseas operations. In 1963, while walking with his son Roderick, then 7, on the Ferrriby beach, the boy stumbled on a third boat.
As Roderick stood in the mud in the middle of the boat, Mr. Wright suddenly realized what it was. "Stay where you are," he ordered, "or you'll trample the evidence."
The boats surfaced after four millenniums because the River Humber had changed its path. They were made from oak and adder trees, both of which once covered the river banks.
The trees would have been cut down with axes made of bronze, archaeologists say. They would have been split into planks by hammering wooden wedges into the trunks with big wooden mallets. Long before metal nails were used, the planks were stitched together with tough yew branches. Moss was packed into the seams to make them watertight. There was room for 18 paddles and, possibly, a mast.
Why the boats were left on the bank is uncertain, scientists say. They may have been replaced by newer ones, or were damaged or worn out. The people who used the boats may have moved away, leaving them behind. Those with particularly fanciful imaginations picture new immigrants from Egypt abandoning their means of transit as they began life in a new land.
But it is certain the age of the boats is greater than originally estimated. This March, the boat discovered in 1963 was found to be more than 4,000 years old, dating back to the early Bronze Age. The determination was made after the use of a new kind of radiocarbon dating that needs only a small amount of material. Earlier methods required large uncontaminated samples, but these were impossible to get because of damage from original conservation methods.
The time of the construction of the boat is now estimated at between 2030 B.C. and 1780 B.C., with 95 percent certainty; the earlier end of the range is considered most likely. The two other boats are estimated to be several hundred years younger.
"It's pretty exciting at the age of 82 to find out you made one of the most significant discoveries in British archaeology," a delighted Mr. Wright said at a news conference.
His wife, Jane, died in 1993. He is survived by his brother, who lives in Burford; a daughter, Caroline, of Amberley; his sons Jonathan, of Melbourne, Australia; Timothy, of Sydney, Australia; Roderick, of Gloucestershire; and Quintin, of London; and 11 grandchildren.
Mr. Wright recently remarked that he liked finding old things. "It's like finding treasure, but I've never found gold unfortunately yet - unlike some of the luckier archaeologists," he said.