Ark of Gilgamesh

Dissertation Abstract 

The Boatbuilding Sequence in the Gilgamesh Epic and

the Sewn Boat Relation

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.




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 Egyptian watercraft.

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 boat-building techniques.

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 Indian Ocean.

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 Sîn-liqe-unninni.

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 (2004): 231-238.

Pedersen, Ralph K.  “Was Noah’s Ark a Sewn Boat?”  Biblical Archaeology Review 31.3, May/June (2005): 18-56.

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 University, 1985.

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_____. The Periplus maris Erythraei. Princeton University Press, 1989.

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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.


Dissertation available through Proquest/UMI

© Ralph K. Pedersen, 2003