The History of Leith

September 25, 2007


‘Ship-on-a-brick’, Elsinore, Denmark.

‘Ship-on-a-brick’, Elsinore, Denmark.

At first glance, this ship-on-a-brick doesn’t appear to tell us much. A closer look reveals a square main sail with a triangular (lateen mizzen) sail at the stern – and a small bow sail. The stern of the ship has an aftercastle or rear housing and there is a small forecastle at the bow end, with a large figurehead. Danish maritime archaeologist Otto Uldim believes that this graffito was not drawn from life but is a picture of a typical ship of the day, what is called a schematic representation. Nevertheless, the brick’s image tells us quite clearly what Northern European trading ships looked like in the second half of the that fifteenth century. When this evidence is measured up against evidence from other sources, an historian can get a very clear idea of how the design of trading ships changed over time. This ship is different from the other Elsinore graffiti. Otto Uldim thinks it is a one-off. It seems to represent an actual ship moored just beneath where the bricklayers were working. You can see the mooring rope at the bow and the sails seem to be furled (folded up). Again there is a forecastle with a larger-than-life figurehead and quite complicated rope rigging.

What is important about these bricks is that they fill in some gaps in historical knowledge. They provide historians with detailed pictures of various kinds of ships, their rigging, their design and their accommodation at a time when carvel built ships were new in northern Europe. The technique was imported from Britain and Western Europe and these new carvel ships replaced clinker built ships, called cogs. They led to improved trade capability in the Baltic and North Sea areas.

From-Graffiti in History – from Pompeii to Belfast

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