Wednesday, September 07, 2005


Bronze Age-style reed boat to sail from Oman to India


Centre Daily
By Ron Todt
September 07, 2005

PHILADELPHIA - Researchers have built a reed boat modeled on vessels that plied the seas more than four millennia ago and will try to sail 600 miles across the Arabian Sea from Oman to India, following what they believe was a Bronze Age trade route.

The 40-foot Magan, named after an ancient name for Oman, is made of reeds formed into bundles, lashed together with rope made from date palm fibers and covered with a woven mat coated with black bitumen or tar to make it waterproof. The vessel will be powered by a square-rigged sail made of tightly woven wool and maneuvered using two teak steering oars.

The plan is to leave Sur in Oman on Wednesday, taking advantage of the last of the southwest monsoon winds and favorable currents, and sail east 590 miles to the historic port of Mandvi in Gujarat, India, a journey that could take up to three weeks.

But it will not be a restful voyage, said archaeologist Gregory L. Possehl, co-chairman of the project and a curator at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Philadelphia.

"There's no sleeping on this boat because the sails have to be adjusted all the time," Possehl said. The crew also will be "manning the rudders, seeing that the bitumen doesn't crack and go out of place," he said.

Crew member Tom Vosmer, the vessel's director of design and construction, noted it's an open boat with little protection from spray and waves.

"That can make living conditions difficult - constantly wet, exposed to the wind and sun," Vosmer said.

The project, funded by Oman and some private organizations, began after excavations on the easternmost point of the Saudi Arabian peninsula turned up fragments of bitumen with the impressions of bound reeds and rope lashings on one side and barnacles on the other side. The find was direct evidence, researchers said, of construction of vessels in the Arabian Sea during the Bronze Age.

The boat was built based on that evidence along with ancient texts and images. Although researchers aren't calling it a replica - there isn't enough evidence for that - it represents their best guess about how such a vessel might have been built 4,500 years ago.

Researchers hope the sea voyage will help them learn which construction techniques worked and which ones didn't, the capabilities of such vessels and the techniques to navigate in them, and even what life aboard such a vessel may have been like.

Possehl, who has excavated ancient sites in India and Pakistan, said part of the reason for the voyage is the spirit of adventure.

"Do we need this to prove the archaeological record? Probably not," he said. "Do we want to do this because it's a great adventure? Sure we do, and we'll learn things that will help us understand what the third millennium sailor had to face."

The eight-member crew will navigate by sun, moon and stars, as well as the wind, waves and colors of the sky and sea. There will be a GPS system on board as a backup, but the navigator "is never allowed to see it," Vosmer said.

Even maneuvering aboard will be hard, since crew members will be walking on cargo piled up in the bottom. The cargo is meant to be representative of trade goods of the period: copper ingots for making the bronze that gave the age its name, blocks of fine black diorite stone for carving, turtle and marine shells, pearls, frankincense, carved soapstone vessels, dates and date products, fish oil and sharkskin - an ancient sandpaper.

The crew consists of Vosmer and the navigator, both Americans; a sailing master from Australia; two Omani seamen; two Italian graduate students; and an Indian archaeologist. They will have a Bronze Age diet of dates, honey, legumes, dried fish, bread and water, but there will also be some modern munchies.

"I think it's a little bit unreasonable to throw us all into a Bronze Age diet suddenly, especially when we have to sail this strange boat across the ocean at the same time," Vosmer said.

Possehl will be shadowing the voyage aboard a ship provided by the Sultan of Oman. The other project directors, Maurizio Tosi of the University of Bologna and Serge Cleuziou of the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in Paris, will be with Possehl.

An Indian naval vessel is also to accompany the boat, and that boat will have an emergency life raft and life jackets, an emergency beacon, the GPS, navigation lights, a radar reflector and a bilge pump.

Vosmer said early Monday by phone that although wind and weather forecasts were favorable, there was always the danger of a large wave swamping the vessel. He was also concerned also about a leak that forced the crew to haul the boat out of the water for re-tarring, although that seems to have abated.

"The boat seems good, but it's completely untried," Vosmer said. "We don't know what it's going to do when we get into the big seas in the Indian Ocean."


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