Spotted by drone: an ancient logboat in the river Boyne at Drogheda

Anthony Murphy speaks about his latest 'find' using his drone - what appears to be an ancient logboat or dugout canoe in the bed of the river Boyne in Drogheda.

Drone technology has proven to be fabulously useful for aerial reconnaisance – and discovery of – archaeological remains, monuments and hidden features of human activity from the past on the surface on the earth. 

The most dramatic moment in my droning life came in July 2018 when I discovered the footprint of an enormous late Neolithic ceremonial enclosure or henge, close to Newgrange. As discoveries go, it was the equivalent of winning a Euromillions jackpot. I don't expect I'll ever top that discovery, but drones – even inexpensive "hobby" drones – have continued to prove their worth in the field of archaeology.

The river Boyne in Drogheda.
Aerial view of the river Boyne in Drogheda.

 

On Sunday, I flew my new DJI Mini 2 drone at several locations in the Drogheda area to try out its camera and video capabilities. In the late afternoon, accompanied by my youngest son, I decided to head down to the river Boyne, where the sighting of a bottle-nosed dolphin called Kevin has caused quite a stir in the past week or so.

I flew over the Boyne but didn't see Kevin. When I got home, I examined my aerial photos from the drone on my computer. I noticed what I might call a couple of "anomalies" or items of interest. So I decided to return to the same spot at low tide on Monday to take a closer look.

The object in the shallow water (circled) immediately drew my interest. 

 

With the drone flying a short distance above the river, I noticed an object in the shallow low-tide water of the Boyne. I took some photos of it. I brought the drone down as close as was safe to do so, and could see that the object was made of wood and was roughly rectangular in shape.

A closer view of the potential find, enchanced using computer software.

 

I thought it looked suspiciously like a logboat or dugout canoe. I was aware that one such logboat had been discovered in this stretch of the river in 2016, and that boat turned out to be Neolithic in date, making it around 5,000 years old!

So I captured more photos and a short bit of video footage with the drone and headed home.

I sent two photos and 51 seconds of video footage to some archaeologist friends. The immediate response was that the object was interesting and that it was a potential or even probable logboat. Steve Davis of UCD was exited about the likelihood of it being a manmade boat, and passed my email on to some colleagues. Geraldine Stout of the National Monuments Service, a long-time friend, indicated by email that it was "definitely a log boat".

At low tide this evening, the boat was partially visible above the surface from the river bank.

"That's a dugout boat!"

My email containing the photos and video link was forwarded to several specialists. One, a foremost expert on the logboats, Dr. Niall Gregory, said the following:

"That's a dugout boat - absolutely no doubt about it."

How old could it be, I asked him.

Well, that's where we run into a sort of "how-long-is-a-piece-of-string" kind of answer. The earliest date for dugout logboats is Neolithic, but this type of boat was in use for a very long period of time, with the youngest example dating from 1793AD!

I returned to the Boyne this evening at low tide to capture further images. I estimate the craft to be approximately 2ft wide and possibly 6ft to 8ft long.

A close-up drone photo of the logboat. 

 

The find has been reported to the Underwater Archaeology Unit of the National Monuments Service (NMS), who confirmed by email that it is "definitely a logboat so well spotted!"

I'm chuffed.

The dugout boat viewed from directly above. There appears to be a sack or some item made from fabric sitting on it.

 

NMS indicates that they are aware of several logboats in the Boyne. Is this one of them? One example was found 1.2km west (upstream) of my find. The Neolithic example previously mentioned was found just one kilometre further upriver of that one, at Oldbridge, close to the M1 motorway bridge. 

Further assessment

Specialists are expected to visit the scene in the next couple of days to examine the boat at close quarters, to take measurements of it and to assess its position in the river and the potential for it to be removed and preserved at some stage.

The river level at low tide is particularly low following a prolonged period in which there has been little or no rain.

Recent studies

A recent programme of reconnaissance of the bed of the Boyne near the Brú na Bóinne complex (about 5-7km upstream of the latest find) revealed features that may represent log boats or manmade quays. The programme was led by Steve Davis of UCD and funded by the Targeted World Heritage Scheme, Royal Irish Academy, via the National Monuments Service.

A sonar survey carried out by Dr. Kieran Westley of University of Ulster and Annalisa Christie of University College Dublin identified around one hundred "anomalous features", some of which were likely to have been created as a result of past human activity. Read more here.

Updates

Further updates will be provided as they happen! 

A short video of the logboat can be seen here:

 

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This page was last updated on 27th April 2021 @ 10:18 PM