Sunday, December 11, 2011

A Few Ancient Boat-Building Techniques

Aside from terrorists, everyone loves boats. It is no surprise, then, that they represent one of the oldest modes of transportation known to date. Excavated remains in the 7,000-10,000 year old range, along with circumstantial evidence associated with the settlement of Australia and Crete (40,000 and 130,000 years, respectively), suggest that we have been nautically inclined for a good portion of our history as a species. If aliens came to Earth any earlier than the Mesolithic period, and brought advanced vehicles with them, they cleaned up after themselves fairly well. Until such evidence becomes apparent, we shall have to stick with boats. Over the centuries there have been myriad types and construction methods, each adapted to unique needs and resources, though for this entry it seems best to focus on a few types that seem particularly relevant to my own work. I have a soft spot for ancient fabrication technologies, and this is something of a wood-oriented course, so newfangled composite materials and ultra-modern construction methods have no place here.

The oldest floating stock were most likely plain logs. Eventually our early ancestors seemed to realize that by making adjustments to the shape of a large piece of wood, they could achieve increased maneuverability, greater stability and ample space for themselves and their belongings. These dugout boats, known for their durability and ease of construction, have been used throughout history (continuing to this day in many parts of the world). Production is fairly simple. After acquiring a log or tree trunk of suitable dimensions, shipwrights cut the exteriors to shape with the tools at their disposal (stone and bone, followed later on by metal). Though the keeled, pointed bow and stern configuration is common, changes were often made to the design based on intended use (those navigating shallower, calmer waters often opted for flat-bottomed designs with an asymmetrical plan). Once the exterior was shaped to specification, the interior would generally be hollowed out by notching (cutting a series of parallel grooves across the span of the hull, then chipping out material between the notches until the desired depth and profile are achieved), or by a controlled fire (in which coals are placed onto the surface of the wood until sufficient material is removed, leaving burnt wood to be removed by an adze or similar tool). Once a rough shape was attained, the interior would generally be dressed out using smaller hand tools. Once smoothed and shaped, boats were ready to be used, though outfitting was often required based on use (sea-going vessels were often fitted with sails and/or outriggers for increased stability and efficient propulsion on longer voyages).

Where the available wood was of insufficient size for dugout construction, it became necessary to use other production methods. In parts of the world, framed boats with bark (in the Americas) or stretched hide (among the Inuit of the Arctic, Bering and North Atlantic regions) hulls became common. In the ancient Near East, however, planked construction (in which planks of wood are – often, though not exclusively - attached to a timber frame for shape and structure) set what would become the standard of shipbuilding for centuries to come. In 2000, an expedition uncovered what turned out to be the oldest known planked vessels at Abydos (Upper Egypt). A fleet of 14 ships were discovered in brick graves previously thought to be architectural walls. Though much of the hulls had deteriorated, their shape was luckily preserved by the excrement of wood-eating insects, who left behind a perfect copy of the structure in their wake. Analysis of the remains determined that planks were fastened together using mortise-and-tenon joints, then sealed with reed bundles (the remains of which were found at the site). A later variation on this method, using a free tenon instead of one left attached to a plank, became the standard in the Mediterranean (though the Egyptians were never known as much of a sea-faring people). Interestingly, these boats (associated with an early dynasty) seem to have been built from the outside in and without any internal framing, which accounts for the warping seen when taken out of the water. Based on their location and orientation (facing the Nile, and roughly a mile from a set of royal tombs), these boats are thought by archaeologists to have been meant for the Pharaoh's use in the afterlife, and stand out for their ritual significance as much as for their striking construction.

You might be wondering what work I might be imagining that involves ancient boat construction, particularly dugouts and Egyptian funerary vessels. I shall leave it to this: it involves a Coptic monk, a shark-man, the apocalypse and a coyote. This has been a good semester.

A log floating in some water; this is where all the trouble started.

The Pesse Canoe
8040-7510 BCE

The Great Canoe (Haida)
American Museum of Natural History

Boat Grave 10
Abydos (Upper Egypt)
Second Dynasty (c. 2675 BCE)

Khufu Ship
Giza Pyramid Complex
c. 2500 BCE


Adams, Jonathan. "Ships and Boats as Archaeological Source Material." World Archaeology 33,

3 (February, 2001): 292-310. Accessed December 11, 2011.

Vinson, Steve. "Ships in the Mediterranean." The Biblical Archaeologist 53, 1 (March, 1990):

13-18. Accessed December 11, 2011.

Waterbolk, H.T. "Archaeology in the Netherlands: Delta Archaeology." World Archaeology 13, 2

(October, 1981): 240-254. Accessed December 11, 2011.


Jen said...

This is so intriguing! I want to build a boat.

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