Ships and seafaring are integral aspects of civilization. Waterborne
trade, resource exploitation, and migration are elements of the
development of ancient societies. In the Near East two cores of
civilization developed along rivers in Egypt and Mesopotamia. In Egypt
the climate and burial practices made possible the preservation of
ancient craft such as the "Cheop’s Boat" and the boats from
Dashur. Finds such as these, along with numerous depictions in
representational art, give scholars a strong set of data for study of
The watercraft of Mesopotamia, however, did
not survive the ages. Despite advances in the archaeology of
seafaring around the world, the ships and boats of Mesopotamia remain
elusive. The absence of their remains combined with a Euro-centric view
of maritime developments has left a gap in our knowledge of the cradle
of civilization. The little information at hand is currently
limited to iconography and texts.
Representations of Mesopotamian boats are found on seals, in reliefs,
and as models. Usually these lack definitive details that would enable
fuller understanding of the involved technologies. Resultant studies
such as Quall’s Boats of Mesopotamia Before 2000 B.C., and
de Grave’s The Ships of the Ancient Near East (c. 2000-500 B.C.),
contribute only to our theoretical
understanding of Mesopotamian vessels.
Mesopotamian texts with lists of boat parts and materials can lend
themselves to increased knowledge of watercraft, yet these texts are
poorly understood. In the early days of Assyriology few details of boat
building in antiquity were known. Thus, scholars relied upon the only information they had available: modern
Normative modern boat-construction involves the frame-first method.
In this, planking is fastened to a pre-erected framework of
timbers. This process is the reverse to that used in
antiquity. Studies of ancient shipwrecks over the past several decades have
revealed that ancient boats were built "shell first." In this,
the planking was first assembled as a shell and then the internal
framework added. The shell-first technique was common throughout the
ancient world, and it survives in areas where traditional methods have
yet to give way to modern construction practices.
The major study concerning the watercraft recorded in Mesopotamian texts
is Wasserfahrzeuge in Babylonien nach Šumerischen-Akkadischen
Quellen by Armas Salonen. Published in 1939, this work has become
the seminal source for the interpretation of Akkadian and Sumerian boat
texts. The Chicago Assyrian Dictionary relies on Salonen’s work
for boat and ship terms, and in archaeological concerns his work is an
important reference. His interpretations, however, are flawed as Salonen
used modern frame-first building Iraqi boat construction as a basis for
his analysis. This method appears along the Indian Ocean littoral only after the
arrival of the Portuguese in the late fifteenth century. Thus, by
interpreting ancient boat texts using the frame-first method as a guide,
scholars produced inaccuracies that are now ingrained in the corpus of
our knowledge of the languages and technology of the ancient Near East.
Methodology and Aims
New translations and interpretations of "boat texts" are
needed. The nature of Mesopotamian watercraft warrants re-analysis
under our current nautical knowledge.
Perhaps the best record of ancient Mesopotamian boatbuilding is
found in Tablet XI of the Epic of Gilgamesh. This, the world’s oldest
epic poem, relates the story of Gilgamesh and his adventures with his
best friend the wild man Enkidu. Through swashbuckling escapades
Gilgamesh and Enkidu fight and travel side by side until Enkidu is
struck down. Despondent over his friend’s death, Gilgamesh turns from
adventuring to seek the deeper meaning of existence. This ultimately
brings him into contact with Utnapishtim, an immortal living in the land
of Dilmun. Querying Utnapishtim on how to achieve immortality, the man
tells Gilgamesh a tale of a god-sent flood meant to destroy mankind.
The Gilgamesh flood account, discovered by Layard at Nineveh and
first translated by George Smith, has intrigued people for over 125
years due to similarities with the flood account in Genesis 6-8. Yet,
parallels with the Genesis story are in contrast to other sections quite
unlike that encountered in the Noahic account, most notably in the
lengthier and more detailed construction description.
My dissertation challenges the past assumptions concerning the
account of Utnapishtim’s boat. The application of ship-construction
data provides for a new interpretation of the Gilgamesh text. By
combining Assyriology, ethnography, history, anthropology, and nautical
archaeology the text reveals a boat typical of the Indian Ocean littoral
and noted since Classical times: the sewn boat.
Accounts of sewn boats, beginning with the first-century Periplus
of the Erythraean Sea, continuing through Medieval Arab and European
geographers, and ending with ethnographical and archaeological studies
of the twentieth century, are examined to delineate pertinent and common
sewn boat characteristics. This analysis is applied to the translation
of the Gilgamesh text in Tablet XI. The study concludes that the
vessel described is a sewn boat similar to those still found around the
By this, the technology of sewn boat construction is pushed back from two to over
three thousand years ago, when the version of Gilgamesh under
consideration is believed to have been written by the Babylonian scribe
Sewn boats on the beach at Cochin, India in 2003.
On right is a detail of the stitching inside the craft.
For more information:
Pedersen, Ralph K. “Traditional Arabian Watercraft and The Ark of the GilgameshEpic: Interpretations and Realizations.” Proceedings
of the Seminar for Arabian Studies 34
Pedersen, Ralph K. “Was Noah’s Ark
a Sewn Boat?” Biblical
Archaeology Review 31.3, May/June
Pedersen, Ralph K. The Boatbuilding Sequence in the Gilgamesh
Epic and the Sewn Boat Relation.. Ph.D. dissertation. Nautical
Archaeology Program, Texas A&M University,
College Station, Texas.
Adams, Robert. Construction and Qualitative Analysis of a Sewn
Boat of the Western Indian Ocean. Master’s Thesis, Texas A&M
Casson, Lionel. Ships and Seamanship in the Ancient World.
Princeton University Press, 1986.
_____. The Periplus maris Erythraei. Princeton University
Black, Jeremy, et al, editors. Concise Dictionary of
Akkadian. 2nd corrected printing. Harrassowitz Verlag,
De Graeve, Marie-Christine. The Ships of the Ancient Near East (c.
2000-500 B.C.). Orientalia Lovaniensia Analecta 7.
Departement Orientalalistiek, 1981.
Gardner, John, and Maier, John. Gilgamesh. Alfred A. Knopf,
George, Andrew. The Epic of Gilgamesh: A New Translation.
Penguin Books, 2000.
Ibn Battuta. Travels in Asia and Africa 1325-1354. Translated
and edited by H.A.R. Gibb. Robert M. McBride & Co., 1929.
Kovacs, Maureen Gallery. The Epic of Gilgamesh. Stanford
University Press, 1989.
Lipke, Paul. The Royal Ship of Cheops. British Archaeological
Reports International Series 225, 1984.
Patch, Diana C. and Haldane, Cheryl W. The Pharaoh’s Boat at The
Carnegie. Carnegie Museum of Natural History, 1990.
Qualls, Corethia. Boats of Mesopotamia Before 2000 B.C.
Columbia University, 1981.
Salonen, Armas. Die Wasserfahrzeuge in Babylonien nach
Šumerischen-Akkadischen Quellen. Studia Orientalia 8, part 4, 1939.
Steffy, J. Richard. Wooden Ship Building and the Interpretation of
Shipwrecks. Texas A&M University Press, 1994.