The Development of the Sail in the Archaeological Record
This is a diversion for this blog from the stories of lost museum ships and tales fantastical pseudoarchaeology to a topic a little larger in the realm of maritime history and archaeology, the very first sail. The development of the sail as a technology within the western maritime tradition is a contested and often overlooked topic within nautical archaeology today. This is due to the scarce and fragmentary evidence of the world’s earliest sailing vessels. Inconveniently, there have not been any shipwrecks thus discovered dating to that time and the earliest sail fragments discovered date to the Roman era. In lieu of physical evidence like a shipwreck or a sail fragment, iconography and art provide the best evidence for the earliest sailing vessels. Though the best evidence and certain interpretations of iconography are grossly outdated and require reexamination. Namely that of the discovery of the “Eridu sailboat” discovered during excavations at Eridu by archaeologists Seton Lloyd and Fuad Safar in 1947. This discovery features prominently in the literature regarding the Mesopotamian culture and remains to be considered the earliest representation of a sailing vessel. This blog is going to highlight the issues with the Eridu sailboat through a comparison of other boat iconography in Mesopotamia.
What is a Sail?
A sail is a surface typically made of fabric or other light materials, supported by a mast whose purpose is to catch the wind in order to propel a vessel forward. The sail was the first entirely manmade way to harness natural energy, wind rather than man or beast. The sail made transport across large bodies of water much faster and more efficiently than rowing. The sail lessened and eventually eliminated the physical labor or rowing a boat over long distances. Sailors would be able to travel further and faster.
“Shipbuilding, sailing and related maritime industries often represented the highest technology of their time” Richard A. Gould, Archaeology and the Social History of Ships
Understanding how this transportation technology influence early human interaction between different cultures could provide far-reaching insights into technological development and trade interaction. Much like a lithic tool could be modified into different and more efficient tools in archaeology, a sail made a boat more efficient for its purpose.
“Boats and ships represent the largest and most complex machines produced by and human society.” Johnathan Adams, Ships and Boats as Archaeological Source Material.
“Boats and ships require specific and specialized skills not only in construction but also, in their utilization.” Henry Chapman, and Benjamin Gearey, The Social Context of Seafaring in the Bronze Age Revisited.
Sailing ships were able to speed exploration and human interaction, their importance in the realm of human technological development cannot be understated.
Mesopotamian Boat Models
Clay boat models are a fairly common artifact for the Ubaid period in the Mesopotamian region. The Ubaid period is roughly 6,500-3,800 BCE and is the earliest archaeological period for the Mesopotamian region. There are many examples both published and unpublished of these ceramic boat models partially due to the fact that many of the unpublished examples were bought from dealers or came from unpublished excavations. This blog will focus on the nine published Ubaid period boat models and also include two unpublished examples and two later boat models for the sake of comparison. These models have been discovered over a wide area at both coastal and inland sites. These are clay boat models not physical remains of Mesopotamian boats, therefore, they are iconography and iconography comes with its own distinct set of challenges.
“In dealing with two and three dimensional iconography one confronts the fact that the artist may not be as skilled or careful in observation of execution as one would hope. One can expect that the maker was neither a shipwright or a sailor. In which case the artist’s interpretation can be grossly inaccurate. Perhaps the artist’s duty was not to depict the ship accurately but rather, symbolically. Certain aspects of the vessel can be emphasized or de-emphasized.” Tom Vosmer, Ships in the Ancient Arabian Sea: The Development of a Hypothetical Reed Boat.
Most of the boat models that will be discussed and discovered in this region at this time date to roughly the middle of the Ubaid period about 4,800-4,000 BCE.
The Eridu Sailboat
What has been regarded as the earliest evidence of a sailing vessel comes in the form of two boat models discovered at the site of Eridu in southern Iraq. This boat model was found over the platform of Grave 51 in the Ubaid cemetery, in the former ground level. Seton Lloyd and Fuad Safar discovered the boat model during their excavations in the 1947-1948 field seasons. The Eridu sailboat model dates to approximately 6250-5450 BCE. The original interpretation of the artifact is as follows;
“With a prominent socket amidships obviously intended for a mast, there are also holes pierced in the sides for attaching stays and another in the stern apparently for a thwart. The hooked armament at the prow and sterns has parallels among river craft in Iraq. If our inferences are correct, this model must be earlier by several centuries than any other representation of sailing hitherto unknown.” Seton Lloyd & Fuad Safar.
Based on this evidence, the Mesopotamian culture heralded as the first culture to develop a sailing vessel. A further description of the Eridu sailboat;
“A broad-beamed body has high sides and small terminals on sharply turned in ends; the ends barely rise above the level of the midpoint of the sides, a socket is placed in the bottom just forward of amidships and a thwart is placed in the stern below the tops of the sides. (If the socket is used for a mast, its position is about two-thirds of the length of the model forward means that the thwart is in the stern). There are five holes in the sides including one in each end made on the long axis of the model.” Corethia Qualls, Boats of Mesopotamia Before 2000 B.C.
The wooden mast (for the sail), plank for the stern thwart (bench for sailors to sit) and the lines for stays (lines that hold the mast into place) were added later by Seton Lloyd and Fuad Safar when the artifact was put on display in the Baghdad museum. In archaeology context is important. In archaeology, context is the where and how was the artifact found. In its original context, the Eridu sailboat was found without a mast, stern thwart, and lines for stays. Therefore aside from the curious nature of the shape of the artifact and holes arranged in the artifact, there was nothing about the context of the artifact to indicate that its really the representation of a sailboat. The interpretation of the Eridu sailboat that Lloyd & Safar made was base largely made on the artifacts shape and the socket placed offset from the middle of the artifact. It’s interesting to note that an actual sail is missing from their recreation of the sailboat that this artifact allegedly represents.
The Unpublished Eridu Boat Model and Boat Model Fragment
During their excavations at Eridu, Seton Lloyd and Fuad Safar had apparently found another artifact similar to the Eridu sailboat model and a boat model fragment. Unfortunately, neither the complete model nor the boat model fragment was ever cataloged or published. The “similar” boat model artifact dates to roughly the same time or possibly earlier than the Eridu sailboat and was discovered in the same Ubaid cemetery. It was apparently only described.
“A model of a broad-beamed boat with high sides and rounded, upturned ends sharply turned inward has one end which is significantly higher than the other. Three holes are extant in each of the sides and one each at prow and stern. The buff, grainy clay is fired hard and has medium-fine stony inclusions as well some of organic inclusions: there is a dark gray deposit on the interior bottom. It is mended from fragments and has been warped in places.” Corethia Qualls, Boats of Mesopotamia Before 2000 B.C.
Unfortunately, there are no depictions of this particular artifact. This model is also similar to the Eridu sailboat because of the holes and their arrangement in the sides of the vessel, yet this vessel seems to lack the same interior socket of the Eridu sailboat and for this reason, this artifact is unlike it. Based on the description this artifact would be cruder in its makeup than other boat model examples. The boat model fragment is interesting in that it is completely unlike the Eridu sailboat and was discovered at the floor of level 17 of the temple.
“The model of the bottom of a boat has one end upturned and preserved, the other end broken away at the beginning of the upward curve from the flattened bottom. The tip of the extant end is also missing. Raised lumps on the tops of the sides near the preserved end may be thwarts for seating. The model is made of soft unbaked but well levigated red buff clay, which was covered on all surfaces with thick bitumen paint. The original coils of clay remain visible and differentiated. The flattened bottom retains the impression of a reed mat. The model as preserved is mended from nine fragments.” Corethia Qualls, Boats of Mesopotamia Before 2000 B.C.
Even though this fragment may date to earlier than the other Eridu boat models, it is not similar in the slightest to the other two examples from Eridu. In fact, as we will see later this boat model is similar to other boat models discussed in this blog. Boat models made from bitumen are not uncommon, as there is a later boat model from Ur that is composed entirely of the petroleum-based material. Bitumen was important in the realm of Mesopotamian boat building all boats were constructed from reeds and bitumen would be used to protect and waterproof the reed materials, several shards of former bitumen coating have been discovered archaeologically as well. Some with barnacles imprinted on the bitumen suggesting ocean-going reed boats.
Tell el Oueili Boat Model Fragment
Tell el Oueili is a small Ubaid site near the ancient city of Larsa, Iraq. A French team led by Jean Louis Huot carried out excavations throughout the 1980s. The boat model is a fragment with only one end remaining and one end curved. This curved end is another attribute that many boat models from this period and later have. This boat model fragment dates to the mid-Ubaid period at approximately 4,500 BCE.
Tell al-Ubaid Boat Model
Tell al-Ubaid is a small site just to the west of Ur in southern Iraq. Henry Hall and Sir Leonard Woolley excavated the site in 1924 as part of their excavation at Ur as both sites are located adjacent to each other. This boat mode was found “Loose in soil in settlement” This model is similar to the previous at Tell el Oueili boat model in that it has a curved upturned end. The Tell al-Ubaid model dates to roughly the same date as the previous Tell El Oueili boat model. This model is also fragmentary in nature ending about halfway across the boat. The model is constructed from pink buff clay with a red paint stripe on the top of both sides of the model and on both the inside and the outside of the model. There were apparently attempts to bore holes in the side to receive thwarts.
Tell Uqair Boat Model
Tell Uqair is an archaeological site located in central Iraq, located just to the south of Baghdad. Seton Lloyd and Fuad Safar also excavated the site in the early 1940s. This model was found within a house inside the Ubaid period settlement. This boat is nearly complete and is also ceramic. The ends of the model curve steeply upward giving this boat model a sickle-like shape. This boat model is also roughly made and fired hard. The Tell Uqair boat model dates to roughly the same date as the Eridu Boat models.
Tell Mashnaqa Boat Model
Tell Mashnaqa is a site located in northeast Syria on the Khabur River, a tributary to the Euphrates River. The site of Tell Mashnaqa was excavated by a Danish Team lead by Ingolf Thuesen in the 1990s as a rescue archaeology project for the al-Hassakah Dam. Based on the style of pottery discovered, this site shows affinity to Ubaid sites located further south. This boat model was found in stratum II of the sight which is a featureless deposit with burials. This boat model was not found in context with any burials within the deposit. This boat model is also constructed from clay. The lines outside of the vessels are interpreted as indicators of the read bundles that would have made up the actual vessel the model is based on. This boat is one of the earliest representations of a boat found in Syria. The Tell Mashnaqa boat also dates contemporary to the Eridu sailboat.
Tell Abada Boat Models
The two boat models recovered at Tell Abada were recovered in the 1970s as part of a rescue archaeology project, much like the previous boat model. The site now sits underneath Lake Hamrin due to the construction of the Diyala Dam. Aside from Eridu, Tell Abada is the only site where more than one boat model was recovered. Each was discovered in Level 1 of the site. These boat models date to 4,500-4,000 BCE. Each model is complete and is of ceramic construction. Both of the Tell Abada boat models are bowl like in their shape with no upturned ends. Model A also has a painted stripe going around the sides.
Uruk Boat Model
Uruk has been continually excavated from the late 1800s until 2002 by many different teams. This boat model was discovered in the mid-1960s by a German team led by Heinrich Lenzen. This boat model is canoe-like in its shape and is fairly complete, lacking only chips from both ends. This model dates to later in the Ubaid period roughly 4,000 BCE.
As-Sabiyah (H3) Boat Model
The H3 site is located in the coastal As-Sabiyah region located on the north side of Kuwait Bay. The site of H3 was first discovered by Robert Carter in 1998 and excavated in the ensuing years. It is the earliest Ubaid boat model discovered as it dates to roughly 6,000 BCE. The H3 boat model is very similar to the later boat model from Tell Mashnaqa. The H3 boat model and the Tell Mashnaqa boat model each have incised lines that have been interpreted as lines indicated the reed bundles that made up the craft. Additionally, the As-Sabiyah boat model is similar to the Tell Mashnaqa in that each had its ends broken off in antiquity. This boat model is relatively complete; it is encrusted with salts and made of the same coarse red ceramic as other boat models from this period. This boat model has three pierced holes in the vessel, two intact and one where one of the tips had broken off. This boat model was discovered cached or discarded against a foot of a wall within chamber 15 on the western side.
Later Boat Models
All of the later boat models that are also being compared to simply to show that even though the materials used in their construction had changed, their basic design remained unchanged. The Ur Silver boat model, in particular, has accouterments such as oars that were not seen in previous boat models or even in other contemporary boat models. Two of the later boat models discussed come from the site of Ur located in southern Iraq not too far away from the site of Eridu and Tell al Ubaid. These two models are representative of many boat models found at Ur with each being composed of different materials, silver, bronze, clay, and bitumen. Each boat model discovered at Ur was discovered in a funerary context associated with burials within the Ur royal cemetery. The only previous boat model discovered in a funerary context from the earlier Ubaid period is the Eridu sailboat model. These models could possibly be an indicator of social class, with the silver and bronze boat model being associated with a king’s grave, a single clay boat model associated with a middle-class burial, and the more common bitumen models with lower-class burials. Both boat models discussed date to roughly the same time.
Ur Silver Boat Model
The Ur silver boat model is the same type of artifact but constructed from more valuable silver clearly for an upper-class person. The added details to the model of the thwarts and even oars attest to the construction of a better product for an upper-class individual. This model was discovered within the King’s grave at Ur, just inside the entrance to the tomb. A similar boat model constructed of Bronze was found alongside this model but was only fragmentary; unfortunately,. there are no photos of this model. The model nearly maintains the attributes from the previous boat models; the basic shape with upturned ends with a flat bottom. The silver boat model dates to roughly 2,600 BCE.
Ur Bitumen Boat Model
Much like the earlier boat model fragment found at Eridu. This boat model is also made from a combination of bitumen and earth. The Ur bitumen boat model was discovered in burial PG 735 in the royal cemetery at Ur. This boat model was discovered next to the body within the burial but outside of the grave. There are several other boat model examples made from Bitumen discovered at Ur. This model is similar in shape to the Ur silver boat model, long body with upcurved ends and a flat bottom. Although this model is not as detailed with thwarts and oars as the silver boat model. The lack of detail could be due to the inferiority and crudeness in the bitumen building materials of bitumen and earth. This model dates later than the silver boat model, roughly 2,300-2,100 BCE.
A Comparison of Ubaid and Later Boat models to the Eridu Sailboat.
The entire corpus of boat models that were also discovered in the Mesopotamian region and dating to the Ubaid period has features that are unlike the Eridu sailboat model. Each boat model discussed has the following features: Flat bottom, upcurved ends and etched or painted lines. The As Sabiyah model is the only other model that has holes pierced into the sides of the vessel. The flat bottom amongst Mesopotamian boat models has three possible interpretations. The first is the flat bottoms are purely for the votive nature of the artifacts; the flat bottom is so these boats can be placed for possibly symbolic reasons without moving or tilting over. The second interpretation is that the flat bottom represents a waterline model or a boat in the water. The third interpretation is that the flat bottom is the best and typical type used for river going boats. A flat bottom is perfect for use in such swift and shallow rivers like the Tigris and Euphrates. The Eridu sailboat has a wide rounded bottom and has been interpreted as being a representation of an ocean-going boat.
As stated, Mesopotamian vessels were used in the sea as attested by the barnacles found on bitumen fragments. Mesopotamian vessels were most likely developed first and foremost for riverine use though they would most likely venture into the ocean as attested by the barnacles. Based on the combination of the models and the bitumen fragments a hypothetical reed boat model was constructed by Tom Vosmer. Though it maintains aspects of Mesopotamian vessels of antiquity but not fully resembling them. This model was to serve as a proof of concept prototype for the later production of an actual vessel. During the production, the decision was made to include a bipod mast with a rectangular sail. Even though this vessel has a mast and sails it does not resemble the Eridu sailboat and it was found that putting a mast on this vessel would provide a lot of instability.
Egyptian vessels were similar in that they were constructed with flat bottoms because they were initially developed for use on the Nile River. As stated, flat bottoms are perfect for river use. This construction practice continued even after Egypt began developing vessels for use in the Mediterranean and the Red Sea. Being developed in a similar riverine environment Mesopotamian boats were most likely similar ocean-going based on the barnacles on the bitumen shards with flat bottoms. However, the broad-beamed vessel that is suggested by the Eridu sailboat would have not provided not only space for cargo but also greater stability. Compared to the rest of the Mesopotamian Ubaid boat models, Mesopotamians were not using wide, round-bottomed vessels.
The widely accepted interpretation of the upcurved ends of the Mesopotamian boat models is due to reeds being used in the construction of the boats these models were based upon. The impression of the reeds in the aforementioned bitumen shards indicates reeds being used as the primary building materials in boat construction. Reeds were lightweight, relatively easy to work with and readily available in ancient Mesopotamia. On the bitumen fragments impressions of reed bundles, the lashing that held them together and possible wood panels can be seen impressed on the bitumen
The process of building a reed vessel would involve both ends being bundled and twisted in order to obtain the rigidity of the vessel. The ends or twists would the be turned upwards giving it the common “boat” shape and appearance. Seven of the nine boat models discussed in this blog have this upturned bow and stern. Other models like the Tell Mashnaqa and the As Sabiyah had their ends broken off in Antiquity. The Eridu sailboats do not have the same upturned “boat-like” ends or as apparent as the other boat models. The prow and stern do not have parallels with other Mesopotamian boat models or river craft as Lloyd and Safar assert. Some have interpreted this to mean that the Eridu boat models represent a completely different kind of vessel with a different kind of construction than the other boat models. Though wood would be scarce for boat construction.
Many models from the Mesopotamian region such as the As Sabiyah model, Tell al Ubaid model, Tell Abada and the Tell Mashaqa model have incised or painted lines going down the side of the vessel going down the side of the boat. As stated this is interpreted to indicate the reed bundles that made up the craft. However, this practice is not present on all models. There are several ceramic boat models from Egypt with the same incised lines with the same interpretation that the incised lines represent reed construction. The Eridu sailboat does not have the same incised lines on the sides, which as previously stated, the interpretation is that the Eridu sailboat represents a boat of a different possibly wooden construction. It has also been asserted by the same author that all of these boat models represent different types of boats for different types of uses which is problematic because of all of the boat models with the exception of the Eridu sailboat including ones of a later date are all highly similar. The Eridu sailboat is anomalous in comparison. Much like many tools utilized by human cultures throughout history, Mesopotamian reed boats were most likely of one configuration with many uses. One being maritime trade across the sea as evidenced by the Bitumen fragments and the evidence of Ubaid pottery at sites down the Arabian peninsula.
One of These Things Is Not Like the Other
The Eridu sailboat represents an anomaly in comparison to the rest of the Ubaid boat models discovered in the entire region, even at the same site. It does not compare with later examples of Mesopotamian boat models. Yet the Eridu sailboat remains grouped in and remains interpreted as evidence of the world’s first sailboat. The Eridu sailboat represents technologies developed or discovered archaeologically in other regions for another thousand years. They are not boat models and need to be reevaluated. One attempt was made to reevaluate the Eridu boat as a possible spindle whorl or spinning bowl used for weaving, but that interpretation was disregarded. The scientific method demands that old interpretations are reevaluated and an interpretation made in 1947 definitely requires reevaluation especially with an artifact that is toted as representing the world’s very first sailboat. Its simply bad science to hold on to that interpretation Even the type of clay used in the construction of the Eridu sailboat is described as being greenish buff clay rather than the typical red-pink courseware that makeup all the other ceramic boat models from the same period. Seven of the models discussed are made of this ceramic material therefore, it can be considered typical. Each of the other Ubaid period and later boat models including the Ur silver boat are comparatively crude in their construct, possibly reflecting their symbolic and votive nature. In comparison, the Eridu sailboat model is more utilitarian and refined in its construction reflecting its possible nature as a tool. The Eridu sailboat represents a different type of artifact than a boat model based on the unpublished find of another similar artifact found at the Eridu cemetery. This representation is similar but lacks the socket in the center of the model but has the same shape, size, construct, and piercings in the sides. The adding of a mast and lines to this artifact was done after the artifact was recovered archaeologically and placed on display. There is nothing based on its original context to indicate that this actually a representation of a sailing vessel making it fairly dubious but this interpretation has withstood the test of time. The sail and sailing vessels were not first developed in Mesopotamia.
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