The watership originated from the area of North Holland and its life trajectory spanned at least four centuries. Its area of operations was the many creeks, lakes and inlets in North Holland and the Zuiderzee. This hypothesis, based on archaeological data and archival records is point of departure in this paper. Clues to the contrary have not been found yet. There is indication however that the watership also sailed the rivers in the Netherlands, and the coastal area’s including the North sea and Baltic to export live fish.
The VAL7 watership wreck, lifted from the IJ-river near Amsterdam, is a prime example of a heavy duty trawler in the Zuiderzee for the fish market in Amsterdam in a period of rapid population increase. Its design incorporates increased dimensions and better manoeuvrability, short of a keel beam and a closed stringer system. This may have made it a less capable ship for towing big oceangoing vessels across Pampus than its seventeenth century successors. Its construction is substantially different from the construction of lap-strake ships. The VAL7 wreck is the only archaeological example in the flush hull watership dataset that clearly demonstrates the use of a local style of shipbuilding i.e. the Dutch flush style. The other flush hull waterships were very likely built in the same Dutch flush style considering the strong resemblance in hull form and construction details.
Archaeological data support the perception that there was continuity in the watership design through mechanisms of tradition. However contrary to what can be observed on the surface, major technical and geometric changes were made to the watership design.
The archaeological record uniquely reveals that the life trajectory of the watership as a type in the sixteenth and seventeenth century included at least two design changes involving increased dimensions and better manoeuvrability. This is interpreted on the basis of geometric data and construction details from thirteen wrecks. And there are indications that more changes were made.
Change in design is driven by both changing functional requirements and by developments in shipbuilding economics at a local level. The economic boom of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in North-Holland was putting high demands on the watership as vessel for transport, fisherman and tug. Factors behind this drive for change in the case of the watership most likely were:
- the need to feed an fast increasing population;
- the need to tow big ships into Amsterdam (East Indies Company, Admiralty);
- increasing scale of local trade and institutions;
- rapidly growing maritime infrastructure;
- specialization and concentration of shipyards;
- land reclamation projects resulting in loss of eel trade;
- increasing scarcity of resources, timber being the most pressing one.
Although not reflected in the archaeological record yet it is expected that factors could be added to this list like industrialization and standardization when resources get dramatically scarce.
The case of VAL 7 and the watership in general supports the hypothesis that international trends in shipbuilding impact the design of ships, be it not directly but through local pressures of a socio-political and socio-economic nature. Local strategies are pursued to cope with these pressures. The watership followed a general trend to change from lap-strake hull design toward flush hull design, but the selected method was a local one. The shipwrights constructing waterships used a variation to local traditions of bottom-based shipbuilding, the Dutch flush technique.