The second article by Dawson to grace the pages of the Sussex Archaeological Collections for 1894 concerned the discovery and interpretation of an ancient boat. This vessel had, according to Dawson, first been discovered thirty years ago, embedded in the blue Wealden clay on the sea shore, west of Bexhill. The boat had been exposed in the 1860s, during a violent storm, by a coastguard walking the stretch of the shore. Dawson observed that the vessel had been periodically revealed and submerged until the winter of 1887, when a massive displacement of sand exposed it entirely. At that point the vessel was noticed by a Mr Jessie Young, a boat builder, of Bexhill. Having extracted the vessel, Young appears to have lost all interest in the project, leaving it to quietly decay outside his workshop…the wood had already begun to shrink rapidly, and an attempt to preserve some of the least decayed portions by soaking in a strong solution of alum yielded no satisfactory results” (Dawson 1894b, 161-2). Dawson recognised the object and, understanding its potential significance, made a note of its details and restored it as much as was possible.
Dawson’s illustration is undeniably impressive, though it appears to indicate a very well preserved vessel, with none of the evident decay that Dawson himself ascribed to it. That no record of the broken was made is to be regretted, for now it is impossible to provide an objective statement as to the validity of the finished reconstruction. Dawson, however, was convinced he had understood the complexities of the boat, which to him, appeared to “furnish an interesting link in the history of boat building”.
Dawson remained guarded as to the date and purpose of the boat. Its basic form, he conceded, appeared to indicate “a link between the coracle and ‘burnt out’ boat” of popular ancient British tradition, with “the more modern type depicted in the Bayeux tapestry”. Its importance then was increased as a transitional form, or ‘missing-link’ in the whole history of British and northern European boat building traditions.
The evidence supplied by Dawson for the Bexhill Boat is, as with that surrounding Blackmore’s hafted stone axe, not at all convincing. A lack of any statement regarding the state of preservation of the boat prior to any attempt at reconstruction at once destroys the validity of Dawson’s arguments, leaving the reader unsure as to whether Dawson is inferring the survival of specific features or accurately recording their presence. The long delay in Dawson’s assessment of the vessel and his reporting of it in the pages of the Sussex Archaeological Collections would have further clouded the matter as, by 1894, there was probably little of the boat left to inspect. As we are not in possession of any alternative witness statement as to the nature, survival and basic form of the boat, between its finding in 1887 and its publication in 1894, it is possible that the story could once again have become distorted, inflated or irrevocably garbled.