Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Sewn boats, ancient and modern

I've known about Arab sewn boats (literally, boats and ships where the planks are sewn together with cord, rather than fastened with nails or dowels) for some time, ever since reading Tim Severin's fascinating book 'The Sinbad Voyage'. For those of you who haven't read it, you'll find an article about it here, which covers the voyage in somewhat less detail. I highly recommend the book, as well as all his other books, most of which are in my library.

Briefly, Tim Severin believed that the Arabian tales of Sinbad the Sailor probably had some basis in fact. He organized the building of a replica Arab trading ship, sewn together in the traditional manner, then sailed the ship, Sohar, with an Omani and Indian crew, from Oman to China in 1980, along the ancient trade routes through South-East Asia.

In doing so, he demonstrated that the Sinbad stories were, indeed, founded on fact. Sohar was later shipped back to Oman, where she's on display to this day.

Then, in 1998, a German company was given permission to excavate the wreck of a 9th-century Arab trading ship that was discovered off the coast of the island of Belitung in Indonesia. It proved to contain an archaeological treasure-trove.

With the wreck of the sunken vessel were found 60,000 pieces of rare Chinese porcelain. The collection became known as the Tang Treasure.

The Tang Treasure was identified as having been produced in kilns in what is now the Chinese province of Hunan. It was probably intended for export to Malaysia, India and Arabia.

The Tang Treasure includes blue and white porcelain, tricolored glazed pottery from the Tang dynasty, and three early Qinghua plates, the best preserved of their kind ever found. Inscriptions found on some of the pieces suggest that the pottery was produced and transported in the early 9th century, and carbon dating has confirmed this. Islamic inscriptions, written in Arabic calligraphy, also reflects trading relations between China and the nations of the Arab world.

The discovery of the shipwreck and its cargo is significant, therefore, as it indicates that a maritime trade route existed between Arabia and the Far East as early as the 9th century.

The shipwreck itself also revealed much about Arab shipbuilding and navigation from the period. Well-preserved fragments of the ship showed that stitching was used by Arab craftsmen to bind the timber of the hull, while tests on the ship’s wood revealed its origin. The location of the wreck, furthermore, offers insight into the nature of routes taken by 9th century navigators to and from China.

The discovery prompted a joint project between the Governments of Singapore and Oman to build a replica of the Belitung ship and sail it from Oman to Singapore. The ship, Jewel of Muscat, began its voyage earlier this month, and will take approximately 26 weeks to reach Singapore.

Like Sohar, it's built of wood planks sewn together with fiber, in the traditional Arab ship-building style. There are many pictures, video clips and details of the ongoing voyage on the project's Web site.

While reading more about the Jewel of Muscat, and traditional Arab ship-building techniques, I happened to stumble across an article about the kettuvallam houseboats (really converted rice barges) of Kerala, in southern India.

It seems that these, too, are of sewn construction, clearly a cross-pollination between the Persian Gulf and the Indian sub-continent many centuries ago. I wonder who developed the technique first, the Indians or the Arabs?

There are apparently several hundred of these kettuvalams on the rivers and lakes of Kerala, and they're popular with tourists (particularly as a honeymoon destination). They seem to be luxuriously equipped, too - a far cry from the rice-lugging barges that they once were!

Here's a video clip from the Kerala tourist authorities showing some of the kettuvalams on their waterways. I found it interesting (and, I must admit, I like the music they selected for the soundtrack as well!).

I hope you enjoyed this whimsical wander through the world of sewn boats. I found it an enjoyable ride, anyway!


1 comment:

Owen said...


Do they tar the seams? This is very similar to modern Stitch and Glue construction, where the planks are wired together, and then sealed with epoxy.