Archaeologia Maris Baltici et Septentrionalis

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Conceptual Evolution in Shipbuilding


Descent with modification? A smooth conceptual transition from the expanded and extended dugout to the plank-boat: Haapio/esping before and after expansion (above) and the smaller of the Kvalsund boats from ca. 700 (below) (after Crumlin-Pedersen 1970).

It is often argued that typology is the archaeological equivalent to the biological taxonomy. This analogy has prompted many archaeologist to refer to allegedly hereditary patterns in shipbuilding by using terms like “extended family of boats”, an “archetype”, “cross-fertilization of shipbuilding traditions” or “hybrid types”.

While the metaphorical use of such terms is very popular, any admittance of the validity of the underlying concept is frowned upon. Thijs Maarleveld (1995, 4) most notably asserted that even those who do use such terminology “will promptly deny the suggestion that ships are liable to produce offspring”, while emphasizing instead “human decisions regarding continuity or adaptations”. At first glance, positions in favour of evolutionary analogies are ridiculed by this reductio ad absurdum. Upon closer consideration however, one will have to appreciate the extent to which human behaviour is restricted to tradition – i.e. inheritable practise. While things cannot reproduce, ideas can, and the latter become fossilized in the former.

Therefore this case study re-examines the validity of conceptual evolution in shipbuilding traditions. There is a latent environmental determinism implied in evolutionary theory, but this is a reductionalist approach. The theory is far broader, and can help us to understand the underlying mechanisms in change or innovation, but also in conservatism and equilibrium.

Some of the topics discussed include:

  • the role of social learning (apprenticeship) in a shipbuilding tradition (heritage constraint)
  • maladaptive features as indicators of a biased transmission
  • prestige-biased transmissions in shipbuilding
  • homologous features and atavisms in shipbuilding
  • cultural transmission of maladaptive social norms in shipbuilding (dual inheritance theory)
  • type-fallacies and imagined conceptual lineages



Zwick, D., 2014: Conceptual Evolution in Ancient Shipbuilding: An Attempt to Reinvigorate a Shunned Theoretical Framework. In: J. Adams & J. Rönnby (eds.), Interpreting Shipwrecks: Maritime Archaeology Approaches (Southampton Monographs in Archaeology New Series 4). Southampton: Highfield Press.


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