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The Jealousy of Small Boats: Under-representation of fishing, service and near shore boats in the archaeological record

Image (1): One of the world’s shortest-journey-time ferry belongs to this unnamed ferry, serving between Namshengwai (南生圍)and Shanbui (山貝)village in Northwest of Hong Kong.

The Kublai Khan’s fleet, RMS Titanic and HMS Victory shipwrecks – they are always more important than the smaller, and somewhat more ‘local’ small-scale service boats. In Hong Kong, too, the mysteries around the remains of HMS Tamar, or the shards of Ming-dynasty blue-and-white porcelains from a mercantile shipwreck from the High Island Reservoir are always considered more 'important' than the missing ‘Three Planks’ after a typhoon. A small boat is always less important than bigger ships – hey ho, that is just what the mainstream narratives demonstrate. 
A confession – as a Hongkonger, the author hardly takes profound note on the fruitful history of the fishing communities in this once thriving maritime port. Fishing junks, such as the three planks ‘sampans’ , are still visible and occasionally usable as of to date, although the classical portrayal of the city’s history was fixated on its vivid colonial affiliation, in particular the transformation from a poor village of ‘nothingness’ to a thriving international entrepôt, ‘gifted by’ the British Government since their arrival. This simple case of eluding the fishing communities from the maritime landscape, albeit conspicuously aware of its significance to the agricultural economy and anthropological studies, was just a microscopic outlook of the tenacity of embracing mainstream or institutional narratives and marginalizing alternative, and somewhat individualistic nuances. Zooming into the viewpoints on maritime societies, for instance, the celebrated ‘Sailortown’ by Stan Hugill (1967), an ex-sailor and then historian, talks about whalemen and sealmen and their social interactions within the sailor community, but there is hardly a section devoted to fishermen, near-shore boats, or in general fishing and small-scale service boats’ practices.

What about small boats?

In the discipline of maritime archaeology, too, there have been uncountable instances where there is fair number of archaeologists focusing on large shipwrecks, big sunken boats and wartime watercrafts, but there are far too few who would cater to the minorities of regional near-shore vessels, small fishing junks or local service boats. Carmen Alfaro Giner, in ‘Net and Fishing Gear in Classical Antiquity: A first approach’, talks about the typography, manufacture and usage of nets amongst seafarers and fishermen, but he only manages to use three Hispanic samples for the archaeological analysis (55-81 ); Carlo Beltrame, who wrote on fishing technologies and identified 52 objects out of 177 excavated items related to fishing, but still yet to yield ‘archaeological proof of offshore fishing for the market in ancient times’; Dario Bernal Casasola, who critiques on the incompetency of iconographical and historical records in recognizing fishing communities or local vessels while admitting the insufficiency of the more ‘empirical evidence’ over ancient equipment for fishing.

Small Boats in Maritime Archaeology

It comes to my attention, as an inexperienced student, that the under-representation of fishing and nearshore boats in the archaeological records is not an uncommon thing to do in maritime archaeology. I argue that this under-representation of fishing and nearshore service boats is a deliberate choice of action. Such omission, however, should not be viewed as distorting our understanding of the maritime societies, but rather as an indication of the innate characteristic of archaeological perspectives as being interpretative rather than empirical. There are also a multitude of potential biases, or motivations, of under-representing the fishing and near shore boats in archaeological records, accordingly, for political reasons, technical difficulty in evidence collation and presentation, and pragmatic issues on funding.

Image (2): This small scale ferry is said to be one of the world’s shortest ferry services to date: only brief 30-45 seconds per trip.

Conscious V.S. Unconscious  

Some, such as my older self, possibly with a Freudian perspective, would argue that this under-representation of the fishing, service or offshore in archaeological records might not be a deliberate act – it might be a sheer coincident or a decision made unconsciously. We will not get into the philosophical debates with Sigmund Freud on the power of the unconscious mind (1922). However, from an archaeological perspective, of which the interpretations are driven by evidence from available records and collated material remains (Trigger, 1989), it is generally believed that when a certain pattern observed not just in one sector, but in multiple regions and that the identified numbers dominated the overview or has taken up the majority of the landscape in-question, then it is quite likely that such pattern, in our case the under-representation of fishing and nearshore boats, might not be as simply as a coincident. In fact, Dario Bernal Casasola (2010), in his conclusion about fishing tackle in Hispania, mentions that ‘it should be stressed that other types of fishermen’s implements have intentionally been omitted from this study’. This conscious omission is also seen in Sean McGrail’s ‘Ancient Boats in North-West Europe’, where he reasons his selective focus on the technical aspects of water transports as ‘it is too early to write a comprehensive work on Maritime Archaeology’.


To comment further on the conscious choice of presentation, it is worth explaining that I put the component ‘under’ inside a bracket for two reasons. The first is to signal an awareness of it being an evaluative product derived from comparison, where current archaeological and historical records display an inclination over ‘big shipwreck’ or ‘grand voyages’ over ‘small’ boats and ‘primitive’ (Gallent, 1985) fishermen – the Mary Rose warship, the Intan shipwreck, the Nanhai No.1 shipwreck, or the endless list of voyagers and mariners such as Zeng He (1371 – 1433), Wei Yuan (1794 – 1857) from China, or Bill Adams the praised ‘Honourable Needle-Watcher’ in Japan (1564 – 1620), the legendary Captain James Cook (1728 – 1779) from Britain orChristopher Columbus (1451 – 1506) from Spain – all circulate on the topics of grand voyages, trading, navigation technology, but hardly fishing or small boats that went around it. Another point I wish to make by bracketing ‘under’ is to draw our attention to the evaluative-ness of this choice of diction. In Christropher Tilley’s ‘Interpretative Archaeology’ published in 1991, he states already in the beginning that there is no such thing as interpretative archaeology because there is no non-interpretative archaeology, suggesting that archaeological records are interpretative by nature. In McGrail Sean’s 1998 publication on ancient boats in north west Europe, he points out that ‘any answer [as represented through the archaeological records, or in general other kinds of carefully-extrapolated analytical perspectives] will be probabilistic rather than definitive’.

Changing views towards small boats in maritime archaeology

In other words, viewing the fishing communities and near shore services boats as being worth of representation is itself an interpretation, and such an interpretation is always open to challenge as more iconographical, historical and archaeological evidence are being collated over the years and to be retrieved in the future, and hence all presentations made through so-called archaeological records is, given the non-omniscient and corruptible status of our knowledge, essentially-contested. With that ground being laid, we should then easily propose that the under-representation of fishing and nearshore boats in archaeological or other affiliated records should not be viewed as distortion to our understanding of the maritime societies. Rather, it should be considered as an alternative, tentative and contestable perception of what lies within or associates with maritime societies. A more important question, then, is to ask ‘what are the factors that could have contributed to the current semiotics of the under-representation of the fishing and nearshore service boats’ – the ‘why’. This will be a question that maritime archaeologist will need to address more often as we embrace a more holistic depiction and understanding of the maritime cultural landscape.