Mesopotamian Reed Boats Changed the Stone Age

Close up of reeds on the water during sunset.

Emily Hopper / Pexels

Mesopotamian reed boats constitute the earliest known evidence for deliberately constructed sailing ships, dated to the early Neolithic Ubaid culture of Mesopotamia, about 5500 B.C.E. The small, masted Mesopotamian boats are believed to have facilitated minor but significant long-distance trade between the emerging villages of the Fertile Crescent and the Arabian Neolithic communities of the Persian Gulf. Boatmen followed the Tigris and Euphrates rivers down into the Persian Gulf and along the coasts of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Qatar. The first evidence of Ubaidian boat traffic into the Persian Gulf was recognized in the mid-20th century when examples of Ubaidian pottery were found in scores of coastal Persian gulf sites.

However, it is best to keep in mind that the history of sea-faring is quite ancient. Archaeologists are convinced that both the human settlement of Australia (about 50,000 years ago) and the Americas (about 20,000 years ago) must have been assisted by some sort of watercraft to assist moving people along the coastlines and across large bodies of water. It is quite likely that we will find older ships than those of Mesopotamia. Scholars are not even necessarily certain that Ubaid boat-making originated there. But at present, the Mesopotamian boats are the oldest known.

Ubaid Boats, the Mesopotamian Ships

Archaeologists have assembled quite a bit of evidence about the ships themselves. Ceramic boat models have been found at numerous Ubaid sites, including Ubaid, Eridu, Oueili, Uruk, Uqair, and Mashnaqa, as well as at the Arabian Neolithic sites of H3 located on the northern coast of Kuwait and Dalma in Abu Dhabi. Based on the boat models, the boats were similar in form to bellums (spelled bellams in some texts) used today on the Persian Gulf: small, canoe-shaped boats with upturned and sometimes elaborately decorated bow tips.

Unlike wooden planked bellams, Ubaid ships were made from bundles of reeds roped together and covered with a thick layer of bituminous material for water-proofing. An impression of string on one of several bitumen slabs found at H3 suggests that the boats may have had a lattice of ropes stretched across the hull, similar to that used in later Bronze Age ships from the region.

In addition, bellams are usually pushed along by poles, and at least some of the Ubaid boats were apparently had masts to enable them to hoist sails to catch the wind. An image of a boat on a reworked Ubaid 3 sherd (a ceramic fragment) at the H3 site in coastal Kuwait had two masts.

Trade Items

Very few explicitly Ubaidian artifacts have been found in the Arabian Neolithic sites apart from bitumen chunks, black-on-buff pottery, and boat effigies, and those are fairly rare. Trade items might have been perishables, perhaps textiles or grain, but the trade efforts were likely minimal, consisting of small boats dropping in at Arabian coastal towns. It was a fairly long distance between the Ubaid communities and the Arabian coastline, approximately 450 kilometers (280 miles) between Ur and Kuwait. Trade does not seem to have played a significant role in either culture.

It is possible that the trade included bitumen, a type of asphalt. Bitumen tested from Early Ubaid Chogha Mish, Tell el'Oueili, and Tell Sabi Abyad all come from a wide variety of different sources. Some come from northwestern Iran, northern Iraq, and southern Turkey. Bitumen from H3 was identified as having an origin at Burgan Hill in Kuwait. Some of the other Arabian Neolithic sites in the Persian Gulf imported their bitumen from the Mosul area of Iraq, and it is possible that boats were involved in that. Lapis lazuli, turquoise, and copper were exotics in the Mesopotamian Ubaid sites that potentially could have been imported, in small amounts, using boat traffic.

Boat Repair and Gilgamesh

Bitumen caulking of the reed boats was made by applying a heated mixture of bitumen, vegetal matter, and mineral additives and allowing it to dry and cool to a tough, elastic covering. Unfortunately, that had to be replaced frequently. Hundreds of slabs of reed-impressed bitumen have been recovered from several sites in the Persian Gulf. It may be that the H3 site in Kuwait represents a place where boats were repaired, although no additional evidence (such as woodworking tools) was recovered to support that.

Interestingly, reed boats are an important part of Near Eastern mythologies. In the Mesopotamian Gilgamesh myth, Sargon the Great of Akkad is described as having floated as an infant in a bitumen-coated reed basket down the Euphrates River. This must be the original form of the legend found in the Old Testament book of Exodus where the infant Moses floated down the Nile in a reed basket daubed with bitumen and pitch.

Sources

Carter, Robert A. (Editor). "Beyond the Ubaid: Transformation and Integration in the Late Prehistoric Societies of the Middle East." Studies in Ancient Oriental Civilizations, Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, September 15, 2010.

Connan, Jacques. "An overview of bitumen trade in the Near East from the Neolithic (c.8000 BC) to the early Islamic period." Thomas Van de Velde, Arabian Archaeology and Epigraphy, Wiley Online Library, April 7, 2010.

Oron, Asaf. "Early Maritime Activity on the Dead Sea: Bitumen Harvesting and the Possible Use of Reed Watercraft." Ehud Galili, Gideon Hadas, et al., Journal of Maritime Archaeology, Volume 10, Issue 1, The SAO/NASA Astrophysics Data System, April 2015.

Stein, Gil J. "Oriental Institute 2009-2010 Annual Report." Oriental Institute, The University of Chicago, 2009-2010, Chicago, IL.

Wilkinson, T. J. (Editor). "Models of Mesopotamian Landscapes: How small-scale processes contributed to the growth of early civilizations." BAR International Series, McGuire Gibson (Editor), Magnus Widell (Editor), British Archaeological Reports, October 20, 2013.