The Boat Models from Eridu: Sailing or Spinning during the 'Ubaid Period?

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Investigations at Eridu (Tell Abu Shahrein) in southern Mesopotamia during the 1940s discovered clay vessels that were interpreted as models of sailing-boats [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURES 1 AND 2 OMITTED] (Lloyd & Safar 1948: 118 & plate 5; Safar et al. 1981: 230 & figure 111). A complete example came from the 'Ubaid cemetery in the southwest side of the tell, and a restored version from the contemporary settlement. The models figure prominently in the literature as very early representations of sailing-boats (Adams 1981: 323-4; Barnett 1956: 79; Barnett 1958: 221 & plate 21b; Casson 1971: 22 & figure 20; 1991: plate 2; Clark 1962: 91; De Graeve 1981: 177, 182, figure 148; Jawad 1974: 29 & n. 41; Lloyd 1948: 303, figure 4; Mallowan 1970: 347; Moorey 1994: 10; Oates 1993: 410; Oates et al. 1977: 233; Roar 1990: 122; Roux 1980: 73; Van Buren 1949: 124 & figure 7; Wright in Henrickson & Thuesen 1989: 416; see also Postgate 1992: 230). This essay examines the models in the light of recent research on prehistoric textiles, and suggests the vessels are not boat models but spinning bowls used in textile production. By depleting the already meagre evidence for boat construction during the 6th millennium BP, this reinterpretation instead provides very early evidence for the use of spinning bowls.

The vessels were found during the second season (1947-48) of excavations at Eridu, when the investigators unearthed almost 200 burials of a large 'Ubaid cemetery and reported (Safar et al. 1981: 230):

A model of a sailing boat, in greenish buff clay, each end rounded and curving inwards, with holes for fastening the mast by strings, and a socket for the mast. It is 26 cm. long, 15.5 cm. wide, 10 cm. [sic. high] found near the surface at the Ubaid cemetery above burial no. 51 (IM. 54900). . . .

Another model of an ordinary boat, incomplete and restored, in terra-cotta, measuring 23x13x12 cm. was found in the Ubaid settlement situated to the southeast of the Ubaid cemetery (IM. 55118).

Another fragment from the end of another sailing boat was also discovered.

The objects date to the 'Ubaid 3 or 4 period (c. 6250-5450 b.p.; Lloyd 1978: table 3; see also Oates 1983). Qualls (1981: 12-14) reports a fragment of earlier date ('Ubaid 1 or Eridu period) also from Eridu, which is uncatalogued and unpublished, and two others (one complete and one fragmentary) contemporary with the 'Ubaid 3-4 examples. The other well-known and roughly contemporary representation of a boat (sailing-boat or otherwise) is on an Egyptian pre-Dynastic vase in the British Museum (Anderson & Anderson 1947: 18; Barnett 1958: 222; Casson 1991: plate 1). Both the Egyptian example and the Mesopotamian vessels commonly appear in the literature on ancient sea-faring as the earliest representations of sailing-boats. There is little doubt that the Egyptian vase depiction represents a sailing-boat, but this essay questions the interpretation of the vessels from Eridu.

The vessels are elliptical with a socket and handle on the interior base, shoulder tabs at the ends of the long axis and perforations around the edges [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 2 OMITTED]. Casson (1991: 4) thought the interior socket might have held a mast, but warned that sails are 'unattested in Mesopotamia until much later' (1971: 22), and suggested it might have held a ceremonial pole. There is no evidence for interior sockets in boat models until the 2nd millennium BC (De Graeve 1981: 176-7, 179, figures 17, 103-4), and they are simply holes in clay rather than individually structured supports. The interior handle has been interpreted as a thwart (Quails 1981:14), a plank for seating across the interior of the boat. The perforations (three in one, five in the other) under the rim on all sides are usually considered to hold stays, ropes to support the mast (Barnett 1958: 221; Casson 1971: 22; 1991: 4; Lloyd & Safar 1948: 118). The tabs at the ends of the long axis are thought to sit astride the prow and stern. …