Tag Archives: coir

The Tang Shipwreck and Orkney Simmens

Examples of plant fibre and plant parts used in construction: coir from the husks of the coconut, simmens and sookens from oat straw. The Tang Shipwreck, found in the Java Sea, its hull planks sewn with coir. House roofs in Orkney protected and insulated with oat rope. Traditional uses of unprocessed plant material brought to life through museums in Singapore and Orkney.

Coconut fibre binds 9thC wooden hulled ship

The Asian Civilisations Museum in Singapore [1] hosts a major exhibition on the Tang Shipwreck, found in 1998 in the Java sea [2]. The ship carried pottery before it sank, including many porcelain bowls made during the Tang Dynasty of China (618-907), far to the east of its resting place, and intended for export and sale to the middle east. They were decorated with homely designs, trees and flowers, but also fantastic sea creatures and other beasts (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1 Images of the Tang Shipwreck: a replica of the ship among examples of pottery; (upper right) a silver medallion; (lower right) bowl with fantastic sea monster; (lower left) a large pot in which many individual bowls were packed. From Asian Civilisations Museum, Singapore (www.livingfield.co.uk).

It is not so much the surviving pottery and coins that caught the interest of the Living Field‘s roving reporters, but the way the ship’s hull was constructed. It was made of wooden planks, but they were not nailed or bound by iron. Rather they appear to have had holes bored in them through which coir fibre was passed to sew the planks together. The joints were bound with wadding and sealed with lime. The guidebook states ‘these techniques are typical of early ships made in the region of the (Arabian or Persian) Gulf and India’ [2].

The Tang ship was recreated using techniques as in the original and proved seaworthy during trials in 2010.

What of coir?

Coir comes from the husks of the coconut fruit [3]. The durability of coir can be seen in the many coconuts that are washed up on beaches throughout the region. Strands of the fibrous content of the husk appear clearer when the coconut has long exposure to salt water, during which the natural packing material disintegrates, allowing the coarse fibre to fall free.

Fig. 2 Coconut grove and palm-thatched hut typical on shores of the South China Sea (taken 1980s), discarded coconuts after food extracted (lower left), and part of a coconut in cross section showing the band of fibre about 5 cm wide (coir) between the inner kernel and the outer skin (www.curvedflatlands.co.uk).

Coconut Cocos nucifera is one of the most useful plants [3]: as food, drink, oil, medicinal, fermented alcohol, utensil, animal feed, fuel, roofing material, and more. In Europe, its flesh or ‘meat’ is widely used in oriental cooking, but more common is the coir fibre used to make mats and matting . The fibre surrounds the ‘nut’, the whole protected by an outer skin. More recent uses include the fibrous ‘compost’ in which some protected fruit crops are grown.

Orkney Simmens and sookens – oat rope

At that time of the Tang shipwreck, the Picts in Scotland were carving stones and cross-slabs, reaching a high point in European Celtic art. Like the Tang potters, they also depicted fabulous monsters. Little is known of how they built their ships, but there is no equivalent of coir here, nothing quite so strong and durable that grows ready-made on trees, except perhaps the stems of heather and worked willow.

A material moderately strong and durable was however used to make rope, and that was straw from the oat crop. The distant origins of oat-rope are uncertain, but it was still in use until recently in Orkney where it was called simmens, used in roofing and securing hay ricks [4].

Fig. 3 Inside the Corrigall and Kirkbuster Museums on Orkney Mainland [5], showing plaited oat rope or simmens, balled for storage, and a rope hanging across the room over the fireplace (www.livingfield.co.uk).

Simmens is plaited from oat straw by hand, then typically stored as balls (Fig. 3). Its most celebrated usage was as a roofing material. It was looped from one of the eaves, over the top of the roof, down the other side, secured there and then looped back again, a procedure called needling.

The simmens rope was packed tightly to form a complete covering. In some places, straw was packed between successive layers of simmens and the roof completed with a final layer weighted down at the eaves by stones.

Where roof-stones were available, it was used as sarking, an inner layer, both as insulation and to secure thatch below the stone roof tiles. Vast quantities of oat straw – probably a few kilometers of it – were needed for a single house [4]. There must have been similarly vast quantities of long-stemmed oat grown to provide the straw.

The last few roofs that used it in Orkney were examined in the 1990s, but no attempt was made to conserve original simmens and it has all but disappeared. Could simmens be recreated today? One obstacle is ‘obtaining regular supplies of uncrushed, long-stemmed straw and the skill and amount of labour required to make and apply the simmens’ [4].

Simmens is on display at the Corrigall Farm Museum and the Kirkbuster Museum in Orkney [5]. Also demonstrated (on request) is a quick method of making temporary ‘rope’ or sookans from straw using a tool shown in Fig. 4. The tool is turned by one person, straw being fed through the hook, and the twisted straw pulled through by another.

Fig. 4 Oat plants, probably bristle oat Avena strigosa, a tool used for twisting the oat straw into sookans and twisting in progress, Corrigall and Kirkbuster Museums Orkney (www.livingfield.co.uk).

Fibre unprocessed

These two plants, coconut and oat, are two of a number from which structural fibres can be extracted and used without the need for any highly technical processing (though coir extraction takes much effort and skill). They and others like them, including sisal and heather, would likely have been used from well before settled farming.

The two museums visited in 2019 are both excellent in their own way, each displaying ancient crafts and allowing people to see, and in Orkney touch, the exhibits. We have to admire how the peoples from mediaeval times back through Iron, Bronze and Stone ages built their ships, strong enough to cross some of the most dangerous seas around the Northern Isles.

Sources, links

[1] Asian Civilisations Museum is by the river in Singapore. Web site: https://www.acm.org.sg

[2] The Tang Shipwreck exhibition is on permanent display at ACM – superb layout and information. The museum offers a free guide book from which the information given here was taken, but much more detail can be found in a book sold there with the title The Tang Shipwreck and on Wikipedia at the Belitung Shipwreck (another name for it) which covers construction and contents and also the controversy surrounding excavation.

[3] Coconut fibre or coir is a protective coating between the inner ‘shell’ that shields the ‘flesh’ and milk and the outer tough skin. The fibre has become a substitute for peat in some horticultural uses, but its transport to Europe from the tropics is hardly sustainable as is sometimes claimed. The Wikipedia entry is useful: Coir. The Living Field relies for information on Burkhill’s massive treatise on the uses of plants (A Dictionary of the Economic Products of the Malay Peninsular, 1935, 1966) which describes the long process by which coir is extracted and made ready for use.

[4] Simmens (but also simmans and simmons in various modern sources) is made by plaiting oat straw. A photograph of simmens being used to thatch a roof is reproduced on the Living Field site at 5000/Fibres. The Scottish National Dictionary under Simmen gives examples of usage over the past few hundred years and indicates a Norse origin. Its use in roofing is described in the booklet:

Newman, P, Newman A. 1991. Simmens and strae: thatched roofs in Orkney. Extracted from ‘Vernacular building’ published by the Scottish Vernacular Buildings Group. Herald Printshop, Kirkwall.

[5] Orkney museums provide authoritative and very helpful and practical guidance to natural products and past farming. The main site is in Kirkwall – The Orkney Museum. The Corrigall Farm Museum at Harray and the Kirkbuster Museum Birsay are both in restored farm buildings.

Contact: geoff.squire@hutton.ac.uk or geoff.squire@outlook .com.

175 years ago today

As if to presage our various web-entries on natural fibres, oils, medicinals and culinary spices, the notes below, from the Advertiser, of 1 May 1840, reproduced in the book ‘The Trade and Shipping of Dundee 1780-1850 by Jackson & Kinnear [1], confirm Dundee’s desire to trade globally in natural products in the mid-1800s.

[Images to be added]

Arrival of the Selma at Dundee

The time (1840) was transitional for Dundee and its hinterland. It was at the beginning of a phase of international trade that gave the area status as a port and manufacturing centre. Jackson & Kinnear relate that the barque Selma arrived on that day from Calcutta … the first with cargo directly for Dundee.

Selma contained, among other things, over 1000 bales of jute, many sacks of unseed [2] and linseed, 300 bags of sugar, more than 1100 bags of rice, coir fibre from coconut and almost 2000 whole coconuts, and teak planks and bamboo; also buffalo horns; spices and condiments – preserved and dry ginger, canisters of arrowroot, tea, black pepper, cloves, nutmegs, mustard seed, castor oil, chillies and cubebs [3]; hogsheads of wine; and then borax and camphor; samples of hemp Cannabis sativa, presumably for fibre. This is an amazingly varied cargo of plant, animal and mineral goods coming into Dundee, on one ship, 175 years ago.

Half-forgotten plants and natural products

Many items in the Selma’s cargo are still in common usage today, but others may be less familiar. Are you kitchen-cupboard-ready?

Arrowroot a starch from tuberous parts of the roots of some tropical species, e.g. cassava Manihot esculenta, used as a thickening agent in cooking and to make arrowroot biscuits – biscuits your granny gave you, proper, decent, thin, no chocolate, no sugar, could be dunked in tea without falling to bits and dropping in – just biscuits.

Castor oil (beavers love it) from the castor-oil plant Ricinus communis, among other things, used as a laxative: pinch the nose, open the mouth and in with the spoon! Castor oil has many legitimate medicinal and industrial uses, but its laxative, and thereby dehydrative, properties have been used as a means of systematic punishment and torture [4]. The seed-oil is extracted by complex methods; the seeds also contain the highly poisonous ricin.

Borax (not a superhero but) a white crystalline substance made from a salty deposit when lakes in some parts of the world such as Tibet evaporate. Borax is used as a mild disinfectant and cleaner. It was put on children and other humans to cure infections like athlete’s foot and dabbed on mouth ulcers (it stings!).

Camphor. A strongly aromatic extract from some tropical trees, also found in the plant rosemary. Went into mothballs, made old drawers smell funny. Camphorated oil got rubbed onto childrens’ skin to do it good.

Cubebs from Piper cubeba a bit like black pepper corns but with a short stalk (‘pepper with a tail’), mainly grown in Indonesia, and traded for many centuries in that region; employed as an aphrodisiac in Goa as reported by the traveller Linschoten in the 1580s (Q: how did these explorers and ethnobotanists get to know such things – did they experiment?), stimulant and antiseptic, and a tonic for ‘every disease that flesh is heir to’ [3] ….. and much more.

What were they like!

The question you have to ask is what Dundee folk were up to in those days 175 years ago, at least those few that could afford all these exotic imports. Hemp, cubebs, cloves, hogsheads of wine … the ingredients of wild days and nights, and then they came down to earth with borax, camphor, castor oil and coir shirts. And what about the buffalo horns – what were they used for?

Sources and notes

  1. Jackson G, Kinnear K. 1991 The trade and shipping of Dundee 1780-1850. Publication 31, Abertay Historical Society, Dundee. Scanned 2010 and available online http://www.abertay.org.uk. The list of commodities carried on the Selma is given at page 20 and Ch 3 note 32.
  2. Unseed – this had the Living Field in a stir. Even Burkhill’s 2400 pages did not list it [see note 3]. But thanks to an online note found from an internet entity named ‘cyberpedant’, we are reassured that the original was likely ‘Linseed’ and that when documents are scanned, the shape ‘Li’ is commonly read as ‘U’. Relief! Otherwise we’d be scanning the world for unseed seed and never finding it.
  3. Cubebs. Notes above taken from Burkhill IH, 1966, A Dictionary of the economic products of the Malay Peninsular. Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives, Malaysia (2400+ pages). On the aforesaid properties, Burkhill cites Jan Huyghen van Linschoten’s Historical Voyages, published in English 1610.
  4. Castor oil. The author Umberto Eco, in the Mysterious Flame of Queen Loanna (2004), relates in Ch 12 a story of a journalist in fascist Italy being forced to swallow a bottle of castor oil as punishment. But after the first two purgings, he regained enough presence of body and mind to bottle and seal the next expulsion of oil and faeces. The bottled contents, sealed from the atmosphere, were kept in hope that the fascist tide would turn, and when it did, the means were found to trace the original perpetrator and pour the 21-year-old vintage down his throat. A delicious passage!