Early Evidence of Reed Boats from Southeast Anatolia. (News & Notes)

Article excerpt

Recent analyses of bitumen (petroleum tar) artefacts from the site of Hacinebi Tepe (Stein 1999) in the Euphrates valley in Turkey have generated new information on early boat technology. The pieces are remnants of the coating placed on early reed boats to waterproof them. The largest and earliest fragment, dated by stratigraphically associated [sup.14]C samples to 3800 BC, is c. 20x20 cm and weighs 0.66 kg. Its impressions of reed bundles lashed together with rope are similar to archaeological and ethnographic patterns of reed boats and unlike the impressions of waterproofed basketry and reed mats that also appear at Hacinebi. While they are not the earliest reed-boat fragments in the world, these are the earliest fragments from this region, demonstrating the widespread use of this technology.

The world's earliest reed-boat fragments are from the H3 site on the Subiya coastal plain in Kuwait (6th millennium BC (Crawford 2001)). The Hacinebi fragments are similar and in many cases identical to the bitumen artefacts from the site of Ra's al-Junayz in Oman identified as fragments of reed boats from 2500-2200 BC (Cleuziou & Tosi 1994). The perpendicular construction of reed and rope and the presence of barnacles demonstrate that the Ra's al-Junayz artefacts were exposed to salt water for an extended period of time as a waterproofing layer on a reed material (Cleuziou & Tosi 1994). These reed bundles were lashed together to form vessels that were either boat-shaped rafts, whose buoyancy relied on the reeds themselves, or actual boats which had the ability to displace water (Johnstone 1980; Thesiger 1964: 126-7, plate 41). This technique of construction has been noted historically and ethnographically in areas of the world ranging from Peru to New Zealand (Johnstone 1980: 7-17; Hornell 1946: 39-60) and seems to be the most efficient way to construct riverine craft using only reed and rope (Heyerdahl 1979: 15-19). While modern reconstructions of ancient reed boats including the one from Ra's al-Junayz, have accurately depicted these vessels (Vosmer 2000), bitumen was rarely used on them, making them prone to waterlogging and/or rotting (Heyerdahl 1979: 24; Tzalas 1995). The 4th-millennium inhabitants of Hacinebi however, had access to Phragmites australis (Cav.) Trin. Ex Steud., the common reed (Brown 1979), and several Anatolian bitumen sources (Schwartz et al. 1999; Lebkuchner 1969).

In the ancient Near East, bitumen was an effective waterproofing agent, also used extensively as a mortar and adhesive (Forbes 1936). Its use for waterproofing reed boats is mentioned in ancient texts from Mesopotamia (Quails 1981: 254-5; Ports 1997:130), by Strabo in the 1st century AD and by Layard and Chesney in the 19th century (Johnstone 1980:11). In addition, 5thmillennium BC clay models of bitumen-covered reed boats from the site of Eridu in Southern Mesopotamia (Safar 1981), and from the site of Tell Mashnaqa in northern Syria (Weiss 1994), further attest to the antiquity and wide geographic range of this form of transport. The discovery of these boats in Anatolia adds to our understanding of Hacinebi.


The site appears to have been a Local Anatolian Late Chalcolithic settlement on the Euphrates River with a small enclave of merchants from southern Mesopotamia during the later phase of occupation (3700-3300 BC). This community was part of a network known as the Uruk expansion, the extensive inter-regional exchange network established by the earliest city-states of southern Mesopotamia in the Uruk Period (3700-3200 BC) (Stein 1999: 117-69). However, the oldest reed-boat piece dates to the early phases of the site before any evidence of this specific trading relationship with southern Mesopotamia.

Non-local items dating to before Mesopotamian contact, such as copper, shell and chlorite, suggest that local Anatolian trade existed at the site in earlier periods (Stein 1999:137-8). …