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 home >> educational resources >> getting started >> publications >> maritime folklife >> part 1

Documenting Maritime Folklife: An Introductory Guide

Part 1: What to Document

What to document:

Material Culture

"Material culture" refers to physical artifacts and the knowledge required for their creation and use. These artifacts are usually the most easily identifiable forms of traditional expression. In maritime communities, boats of all sizes and types--from small plywood row boats to large shrimp trawlers--are extremely important elements of the cultural environment. In communities where builders design and construct watercraft according to informal rules and procedures handed down over the years, boats reflect builders' evolving solutions to such problems as depth of water, prevailing winds, climate, availability of construction materials, and intended uses. Due to gradual improvement over time, many boats, such as the Apalachicola Bay oyster skiff and the Maine lobster boat, are superbly suited to local contexts.

Deer Island Light, Boston, MA Deer Island Light, Boston, ca. 1906. From Touring Turn-of-the-Century America: Phototgraphs from the Detroit Publishing Company, detail of photo #018918

Fishing gear is another rich and significant aspect of maritime material culture. Nets, traps, buoys, line trawls, spears, cane poles, hooks, lures, anchors, weights, sinkers, bait bags, and other types of equipment illustrate the methods fishermen have developed for capturing local marine species. As with boats, fishing gear often undergoes change over time in response to local conditions and materials.

Shoreside buildings of all kinds, such as houses, boat shops, boat houses, net lofts, shucking houses, and fish camps, represent a third major category of maritime material culture. Such structures illustrate the adaptation of traditional design and construction techniques to a maritime environment. They also reveal local preferences about the arrangement of interior space, and the spatial requirements of traditional activities such as oyster shucking, net making, and boat building. How the interiors of dwellings are arranged--the shapes, sizes, and locations of rooms and the type and placement of furnishings--says much about the traditional patterns people use to order their lives.

In addition to boats, fishing gear, and houses, many other artifacts illustrate a community's relationship to maritime culture. Thus, decoys and blinds are used for hunting waterfowl; specific types of boots, caps, and other items of clothing are worn by commercial fishermen; and yard decorations consist of overtly maritime objects such as salvaged anchors, ship wheels, hawsers, and shells. Artifacts also include wharves and moorings, paintings and signs, half-hull boat models used by builders to develop hull designs, and full-rigged scale models used to decorate interiors of homes or restaurants. All these items, from the fishing vessel to the painting of a lighthouse on a mailbox, can reveal much about maritime culture when viewed in relationship to other objects and human activities.


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   May 15, 2015
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