The Graveney Boat, a hop history mystery

In the history of brewing in Britain, the Graveney Boat is an archaeological anomaly almost as great as finding the skeleton of an Anglo-Saxon warrior with a hole in his skull that could only have been made by a 17th-century musket ball.

The boat – actually a clinker-built cross-channel cargo vessel, reconstructed as some 44 feet (13.6 metres) long, 11 feet (3.4 metres) wide and just three feet  (one metre) in draught – was abandoned more than a thousand years ago. It was discovered in 1970 under six feet of soil, during the widening of the Hammond Drain, a silted-up ancient natural water course linking Graveney village, a small settlement near the coast between Faversham and Whitstable in Kent, with the Thames estuary.

Dendrochronology suggests the Graveney Boat was about 55 years old when it was abandoned, since it was built from oak timbers cut in the mid-890s, and it had apparently been left to settle into the mud some time close to 950AD. When archaeologists analysed the boat and its immediate area, searching in particular for plant remains, they found evidence that pointed strongly towards it having carried a cargo of hops.

The Graveney Boat being excavated in 1970

Yet at the time the boat was stuck up a Kentish creek, (at a period when there was still a separate Viking King of Northumbria, contending with the King of England), English brewers were not using hops to flavour their ale – or at least, there is no good evidence at all that they were doing so. Hops stay unmentioned in the history of English brewing (apart from one brief and almost equally mysterious pop-up in the 12th century, to which we will return) until the 1500s, almost 400 years later, when immigrant brewers from the Low Countries started making the upstart Continental hopped drink bere, a rival to unhopped traditional English ale. So why were there hops on board the Graveney cargo boat?

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