Boats from History

NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR: Cassandra Madden

In addition to my strong massive interest in biblical archaeology, wider middle eastern history, and the Viking and Celts, I have a passion for maritime everything – maritime History, port and maritime management, trade, shipping, logistics, supply chain, rowing, sailing, boat building etc. One of my massive and yet strange areas of interest includes the study of skin boats! I wrote up a blog post ages ago about skin boats from around the world. I discussed the coracle of wales and India, the Mandan bull boat, the Greenlandic Umiak and Kayak and the Irish Curragh. I even tried rather unsuccessfully to build my own skin boats! I used to make myself a range of things from differing cultures including a shield and jewelry. I have always had a fascination for boats and how they are made, their materials, and their uses. Therefore today I am writing briefly about some other boats from around the world and recommending some good informative history books to read too!

In our past humans needed to traverse wide and deep oceans to discover new lands. They needed to fish, cross rivers and use water as highways for trade. Therefore, they needed water transport! They used the materials they had on hand and fashioned boats out of them. Where cultures had plenty of timber, they made use of it. Where they had animal skins on hand, they used it. All the greatest civilizations needed their watercraft. Looking into history it is clear that boats are mentioned everywhere in various myths, legends, and events – including the great flood! Here Noah’s ark saved every species. That is how important boats are to us. Early evidence of Boats are also painted in caves and early rock art and described in all sorts of documents.

Some early evidence and types of watercraft

Starting with Egypt we see many references to boats including in their religion as they journey from the day to night i.e. the sun makes way for the night bark and religious ceremony. Then we also see reference to boats in their most famous expeditions, including Hatshepsut’s trade expedition to punt in 1470BCE displayed at the temple at Deir-el-Bahari (see Paine p.53 to 54). Here we see evidence they used five boats to go and trade in the far and mysterious land of punt. From early on in their history, Egyptians had watercraft they made from papyrus bundles that they used for fishing, and river transportation.  Other types of their watercraft were made from other materials lashed together including wooden planks. Most boats found from pharaonic Egypt times were plank boats. One example is the Cheops ship (see McGrail pp. 1 to 23).  The Cheops ship was excavated in 1954. It is a dismantled royal ship from 2650BC found near Cheop’s (Khufu’s) pyramid and was built from cedar planks. Therefore, it is certain the Egyptians had great boat building skills and talents as they expanded their trading and honed their boat building experience over time.

Map of Egypt showing the Nile and their coastline

In wider Arabia we also see a range of boats and designs used throughout history. In Iraq some of their early watercraft included bundle boats and hide boats. Their hide boats were made from hides lashed together over a frame and look rounded like other skin boat designs. They used a range of materials to construct their different designs including wood and reeds. They had a few different ways their craft were lashed together and made water resistant, including the use of bitumen. They were talented seafarers in Arabia and still are today.

In the Oceania region they were also talented boat builders and seafarers. In Australia, the indigenous peoples used a range of watercraft from boats made of bark through to logs lashed together. Their watercraft is discussed in the small book on maritime Australia attached here.  Where an entire chapter is dedicated to exploring their boats, and how they first arrived in Australia crossing vast and unknown oceans. They used their local materials including the bark from the stringy-bark tree.

In the Americas they also used a range of boats including the Bull boat they made of animal hide over a frame and discussed in this blog post. Other types of native boats include but are not limited to log rafts, boats made from bark, and reed raft boats.

If you have an interest in learning more about the history of boats throughout history then here are some great books to read!

Further information and readings:

McGrail, S (2015). Early ships and Seafaring. Water Transport Beyond Europe. Pen and Sword Archaeology, Yorkshire.

Paine, L (2013), The Sea and civilization: A maritime history of the world. Atlantic Books, London.

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