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Was Noah’s Ark a Sewn Boat? Ralph K. Pedersen, BAR 31-03, May-Jun 2005.

noah's arkThe story of Noah’s Ark may be the best known of all Biblical tales. The destruction of a sinful world by an angry God, the cleansing waters of the flood and the redemption of mankind through one righteous man continues to fascinate young and old alike. With the possible exception of the Titanic, Noah’s Ark may be the most famous vessel in history or literature. Yet little is actually known of its construction. A few lines in Genesis contain all we know of it:

Make thee an ark of gopher wood; rooms shalt thou make in the ark, and shalt pitch it within and without with pitch. And this is the fashion which thou shalt make it of: The length of the ark shall be three hundred cubits, the breadth of it fifty cubits, and the height of it thirty cubits. A window shalt thou make to the ark, and in a cubit shalt thou finish it above; and the door of the ark shalt thou set in the side thereof; with lower, second, and third stories shalt thou make it.

(Genesis 6:14–16, King James Version)

This short passage reveals little beside the boat’s overall dimensions, the presence of a door and a window, the use of an unknown wood type and the application of “pitch” as a sealant.

A parallel to the Biblical Flood story appears in the eleventh tablet of the Epic of Gilgamesh, the world’s oldest epic poem. Discovered at Nineveh (in modern Iraq) in the mid-19th century, the Babylonian version of the Flood story was first translated and presented to the public by George Smith in 1873 at the British Museum. The text caused a sensation due to its similarities to Genesis. Today the Gilgamesh epic is generally viewed by scholars as the source for the Biblical account of the Flood, despite differences between the two. One of these is that the Babylonian version of the deluge contains considerably more detail concerning the construction of the ark than does the Genesis account.

These construction specifics notwithstanding, the Gilgamesh epic’s passage about building the vessel has been about as little understood as the Biblical account. Scholars have translated the Gilgamesh epic’s boat-building sequence in a variety of ways, stemming in part from a lack of knowledge of ancient boat construction. This has resulted in confusing and misleading interpretations, obscuring what is actually a straightforward description of the building of a boat.

This development is unfortunate, because the passage in the Gilgamesh epic is important not only for understanding what the Biblical Ark was like, but also because it is the only known detailed record of Mesopotamian ship construction. On this subject, archaeologists know little. Aside from iconography on seals and reliefs, and a few models of varying detail, there is little physical evidence of the watercraft of Mesopotamia, as no ancient wrecks in the Persian Gulf or in Iraqi riverbeds have been found. We do, however, have two thousand years of records of a boat type that was once common along the littoral of the western Indian Ocean: the sewn boat. A comparison of the features of this style of watercraft to the ship-building account in the Gilgamesh epic clarifies the text and gives us a new understanding of how the Ark in both the Bible and the Gilgamesh epic were built.

A sewn boat is the simplest, and perhaps earliest, technique for building wooden boats consisting of more than one type of timber. It can be built without metal tools; with soft woods, such as palmwood; and stone and bone tools are more than adequate for crafting it. The sewn boat is essentially Stone Age technology, but it is still in use in some areas around the Indian Ocean. This type of boat is known as sewn, stitched and sometimes as “laced,” although this is a misnomer as lacing is open and temporary, that is, regularly fastened and unfastened like the lacing on a shoe. Sewing closes a join and is permanent for as long the rope itself lasts (up to a decade or more when the boat is properly cared for).

To today’s typical landlubber, boats are vessels that are seemingly built by first constructing a skeleton of “ribs” and then nailing planks onto the structure. This is not, and was not, always the case, however. Classical Mediterranean watercraft were built shell first, with planking fastened to each other’s edges with mortise-and-tenon joinery; the internal structure was added afterwards. Viking ships were built shell first by fastening planks together with numerous small rivets, and Egyptian ships were constructed of a shell of planking lashed together. In the Indian Ocean and its tributaries, the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea, boats were also built shell first (and still are in some places), but with the planks stitched edge to edge much like two pieces of cloth sewn together. This method is still followed in places like Cochin, in the southern Indian state of Kerala. Here, hulls are fastened by cordage running through holes bored along the edges of each plank. The stitching inside the vessel is done in a criss-cross pattern, binding the planking seams together. This coconut-derived cordage, known as coir, also secures bundles of fibers, called wadding, over the seams, making them waterproof. The numerous stitching holes are plugged with tufts of coir to prevent leakage. On the hull’s exterior the stitching appears as single bands passing over the planking seams. There is little interior framing on these boats, as most of their strength lies in the well-fastened shell. Whatever framing exists is lashed to the planking with the coir rope. No metal nails or other such fastenings are used. Sewn craft are kept oiled and waterproofed, providing fishermen with a valuable and easily repairable boat. That these craft continue to be built in the 21st century is a testament to their reliability, economy of construction and to the conservative practices of local boatwrights.

We have records of similarly constructed boats extending back for two millennia. Until recently, sewn boats were still being built along the coasts of Yemen and Oman. In the Persian Gulf, traditional hulls were once sewn in the same manner as those in India. By the opening years of the 20th century, the method had ceased to be used in the Gulf on ocean-going craft and was reserved only for local fishing boats. Before then, sewn vessels of up to 200 tons burden sailed the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean.

In East Africa, sewn boats disappeared about one hundred years ago, but not before they were noticed by a number of Europeans. The ever-observant Sir Richard Burton who traveled to Zanzibar in 1857, wrote:

The kidau (small dow) is … generally sewn together with coir or rope of cocoa fibre, and caulked with the same. The bottom is paid over with a composition of lime and shark’s-oil, which, hardening under water, preserves the hull from sea-worms. Thus sheathed, ships which have made two feet of leakage become tight as if newly coppered.

It is the Arabian dhow, however, that was the most noted and most widespread of sewn boats. The dhow, a term not used by the Arabs and of obscure origin, was found everywhere Arab traders sailed, trafficked and settled around the Indian Ocean. Both Ibn Battuta, the 14th-century Arab traveller from the Mediterranean, and Marco Polo in the 13th century made note of these sewn vessels. According to Polo, ships at Hormuz, near the mouth of the Persian Gulf, were

only stitched together with twine made from the husk of the Indian nut. They beat this husk until it becomes like horse-hair, and from that they spin twine, and with this stitch the planks of the ships together. It keeps well, and is not corroded by the sea-water, but it will not stand well in a storm. The ships are not pitched, but are rubbed with fish-oil.

A depiction of a sewn vessel contemporary with Polo’s account shows a ship type called aboom. Appearing along the seams of planking and hooding ends (the juncture where the planks meet the stem or post) are pairs of single stitches not unlike those found on later and present-day sewn vessels of Arabia and India.

A few centuries earlier, in the tenth century, an Arab adventurer named Abu Zayd noted that

the system of ship construction with planks sewn together is a speciality of the shipwrights of Siraf … (O)il mixed with other materials … is used to pay the bottoms of sea-going ships to close the holes drilled for the sewing twine and for the caulking of the seams.There is no reason to believe these ships differed at all from the later ones. The vessels known from art and literature share the same characteristics with the small fishing vessels of Cochin: notably the crisscross stitching pattern, the sealing and the plugging of the stitching holes. Indeed, the crisscross pattern has changed little over time and is a testament to the extreme conservatism of shipbuilders throughout the Indian Ocean littoral. This stitching pattern is found on derelict, sewn hulls of southern Arabia, on a 19th-century model of an Indian vessel known as a masula and on the hull of a ninth-century wreck at Belitung Island, Indonesia. While physical evidence predating the Belitung wreck is not forthcoming, we do have ancient accounts of sewn vessels that, given the extreme conservatism of the technique, can be assumed to have been built in a quite similar manner.
A survey of the sewn boats of the various ethnographic, iconographic and archaeological accounts reveals a set of traits common to them all:

(1) Shell-first construction

(2) Stitching holes plugged with wooden pegs or tufts of fiber

(3) Stitching oiled on the interior as a preservative

(4) An anti-fouling layer made of lime and fat applied to the exterior to prevent marine organisms from boring into the hull, undermining its integrity.

These characteristics of sewn boat construction all appear in the account of the building of the ark in the Gilgamesh epic.

What is now called the Standard Version of the Gilgamesh epic is attributed to a Babylonian scribe named Sîn-liqe-unninni, the Exorcist-Priest, who lived in the 13th to 11th centuries B.C. He based part of his composition on earlier versions of the epic, completing it with new elements. While other, later editors might have contributed to the Gilgamesh story, Sîn-liqe-unninni is given credit by later scribes for the Gilgamesh epic, indicating he “made some important, perhaps definitive, contribution to its formulation … a substantial enough influence on the final form to associate his name with it permanently.” His contribution to the standard version of the Flood story is most evident in the boat building sequence. This appears in none of the earlier tales of the deluge. The details of the passage, however, indicate that they were not simply made up. The passage describing the building of the Ark, for example, was based on construction methods of the late second millennium B.C. Whether the scribe was familiar with boat building or whether he or an assistant went down to the shipyards along the riverbank and took notes is not known, but, either way, Sîn-liqe-unninni made an accurate record of the techniques of his time.

The construction of Utnapishtim’s watercraft begins in line 48 of the eleventh tablet and continues through line 79, with the Ark’s launching following:

48 All morning at daybreak
49 the land gathered …
50 the woodworkers carried …
51 the reedworkers carried …
52 … the youths …
53 the houses …
54 the children carried bitumen
55 the poor carried anything else required.
56 On the fifth day I laid her features.
57 It took up one field. Her sides rose 120 cubits high.
58 The edge of its upper-most part became proportional to the 120 cubits.
59 I laid its shape, I designed it.
60 I created 6 levels in her
61 I separated her into 7 parts
62 Her interior I divided into 9 sections
63 Indeed, I hammered the water-stoppers into it.
64 I inspected the boat-pole and I laid down the thing needed.
65 3 shar of pitch I poured into the oven
66 3 shar of bitumen … into the inside
67 3 shar of oil the basket carriers carried
68 Apart from the shar of oil that the oiling consumed,
69 the shipwright stowed away 2 shar of oil.
70 I slaughtered cows for the people.
71 I slaughtered rams daily.
72 Beer, fine beer, oil and wine12
73 the workers drank like river water.
74 They made a festival like the New Year’s day.13
75 I op[ened] … I laid my hand [to] the ointment.
76 [By sunset] the boat was complete
77 … was difficult and …
78 the boat’s bottom was moved back and forth, above and below.
79 … it went two-thirds of it.

1) Shell-First Construction

The first few lines of this passage are fragmentary, but lines 56 through 62 detail the first feature of sewn boats—shell-first construction. In these lines, Utnapishtim describes the building of the Ark’s structure. First, he states he laid out the vessel’s shape, stressing proportionality as one would expect of a boat, then implying in line 59 that the shape is complete: “I laid its shape.” Next, Utnapishtim describes the building of the interior, dividing it up into 6 levels, 7 parts, and 9 sections. Such a numerical sequence is also found in Genesis 6:16 wherein “lower, second, and third stories” are mentioned.

2) Water Plugs

Oddly, as with the Genesis account, major constructional features are not presented in the passage in Gilgamesh. No planks, no frames, no stitching process appears. There is one construction feature that Sîn-liqe-unninni did include, however, and this is a crucial feature of sewn boats.

In line 63, the author relates “Indeed, I hammered the water-stoppers into it.” This line is emphatic, as indicated by the Akkadian word lu, to assert that Utnapishtim took care to include this step.

On sewn boats, all the stitching holes need to be plugged or stoppered. In the late 1970s, a replica of a sewn boom, named Sohar, was constructed in Oman as an experiment in medieval Arabian seafaring. More than 60 feet long, the vessel required 400 miles of cordage to stitch the planking edges together and lash the framing to it. More than 20,000 plugs of wood were used to stop the holes created by this process.

Each hole drilled through the planking undermines the watertightness of a sewn hull, and if the holes were left unstopped, or even if a few were forgotten, a sewn boat would leak. Therefore, the builder must pay careful attention to this aspect of construction. Without the water plugs, or if mistakes are made, the hull will fail, causing the loss of the craft, cargo and crew.

3) Oiling

The next aspect of sewn construction in the epic is oiling, in lines 67–69: “3 shar of oil the basket carriers carried. Apart from the shar of oil that the oiling consumed, the shipwright stowed away 2 shar of oil.” This has previously been interpreted as a libation ritual for the ship and crew. However, there are two problems with this—a shar of oil, possibly a measure equal to about 8,000 gallons, is far too much for the christening of a ship, and the crew would be in danger of drowning if anointed with such an amount.

In sewn boat construction, however, vast amounts of oil are needed. The cordage holding the ship together needs to be made waterproof. On all ships, no matter how well sealed, water gets inside, ultimately collecting in the bilge. Unprotected cordage, coir or otherwise, rots quickly when wet. Oil, whether coconut or vegetable, is used on sewn boats to seal and protect the stitching. Initially, vast amounts are needed as the dry ropework soaks up the oil like a sponge. The stitching needs to be soaked in this manner twice a year. Thus treated, the stitching will last with little degradation as long as it is periodically maintained. Modern sewn boats in Cochin, India, have stitching lasting ten years and more.

In lines 67–69 a large amount of oil is used, such as would be required for the initial soaking of the stitching on a huge sewn boat. Also, we find that two-thirds of the oil supply goes unused and is instead stowed away by the shipwright. I believe this is for future maintenance of the stitching. Utnapishtim faces an unknown period on the flood waters, and in keeping with good seamanship, he brings along the oil necessary to re-treat the hull as is periodically required to keep his stitching from decaying.

4) The Paying

The final aspect, sealing the outer hull, is also referred to in the Gilgamesh epic. Sewn hulls are traditionally payed, or smeared, with a substance that acts as a sealant and an anti-fouling layer. This is important for wooden hulls of all kinds, especially because the toredo worm, a mollusk that plagues almost all saltwater areas, readily burrows into wood, creating tunnels and holes. If unstopped, toredo infestation will render a ship’s hull as useless as if it were built of Swiss cheese. Around the Indian Ocean, seafarers often use a paying of lime and oil to prevent this. The lime is usually derived from burnt seashells, while the oil can be coconut, whale, fish or shark oil, as well as animal fat. The substance is applied by hand; it has a consistency similar to an ointment or vaseline and thus does not take readily to either brush or roller. Application by hand has the added advantage of using one’s fingers to push the paying into any cracks and joints. Like the oiling inside, this outer layer also needs periodic reapplication.

The use of lime-oil paying is long attested. In the ninth century A.D., for example, builders in Siraf made paying with whale oil extracted from blubber. It was used widely from the Indian Ocean and beyond to China and the Philippines. This paying is the white “paint” that coats the lower hulls of Arabian dhows. Although dhows are no longer sewn (they are now nailed), the traditional paying is frequently used instead of modern paints, as it is both economical and effective.

A notable aspect of the paying is that festivities often accompany the application of the substance. Sometimes this is as simple as chanting, but other times involves drinking and carousing. This appears to be a way of alleviating the drudgery of an odious chore, as the paying reeks, particularly when made with fish or shark oil. A festival at this point might also celebrate the final stage of shipbuilding or maintenance. An example of this is found in Kenya, where traditional ships continue to be payed with a lime and fat mixture called shahamu. This substance is applied to the outside of hulls by hand and is accompanied by music:

The ship’s underwater timbers are … coated with a paste consisting mainly of lime and beef fat … The Nakhodas prefer camel fat to beef fat but the former was difficult to obtain … This paste is applied by hand and not by brush, and it is pressed into any crevices or other irregularities. While up to a dozen men are carrying out this work, an African drummer or two will beat out a rhythm, to which the crew chants a shanty. It is all made to seem a happy occasion and shows us that “music while you work” is a very ancient idea.This aspect of sewn hull construction, along with the incumbent festivities, is also found in the Gilgamesh flood account in lines 70 through 75:

I slaughtered cows for the people. I slaughtered rams daily. Beer, fine beer, oil and wine the workers drank like river water.They made a festival like the New Year’s day.I op[ened] … I laid my hand [to] the ointment.

It is this last sentence that is key to understanding this final aspect of the Ark’s construction. This has been interpreted in the past as Utnapishtim opening a container of ointment and then rubbing it on his hands to soothe them after several days of hard work. While this picture is attractive, it is more likely this line refers to the sealing of the outer hull with paying. The parallels to this process are strong: Utnapishtim’s ointment is applied to the accompaniment of festivities; he applies an ointment, not a paint or an oil, bringing to mind the semi-viscous nature of the lime and oil mixture; and, like generations of shipbuilders and sailors around the Indian Ocean, Utnapishtim applies the substance specifically by hand. In addition, the application of this ointment occurs just before the launching of the vessel, as related in the lines immediately following. As such, it is the final step in the Ark’s construction, just as it is in the building of a sewn boat.

Indeed, all the steps of the building of the Ark—the shell-first construction, the insertion of the waterplugs, the oiling and the paying—occur in the correct order for the building of a typical sewn watercraft. Thus a previously enigmatic passage of the Epic of Gilgamesh is clarified to reveal the Ark of the Flood as a common, albeit large, sewn boat, whose descendents can still be found plying the seas.

Unlike the Gilgamesh epic, the Genesis account contains little of how the Ark was built. Does the presence of a sewn boat in the Babylonian account mean that the Genesis Ark was also sewn? If, as most scholars believe, the Jews of the Babylonian Exile adapted the Babylonian flood story to their scriptures, then certainly the Jewish scribes would have relied on the Gilgamesh epic and Noah’s Ark would be a sewn craft. But then why was the Biblical version stripped down to so few details? The only shared characteristics include the large, multi-level construction and the internal and external sealing of the vessel. It is impossible to state whether the pitch of Genesis 6:14 is the same substance as either the oil or the ointment of the Babylonian account. Yet the similarity in applying a substance or substances to both the inside and the outside of the hull is striking.

That only a few construction details are found in Genesis should not preclude our identifying it as a sewn boat. Since Noah’s Ark was built of wood, sewing is the most likely candidate of all the ancient boat construction methods. Its simplicity in technique and design suggests that the sewing was probably the first method used in prehistory to create something better than a log boat. To construct a sewn boat, metal tools are not needed. Stone and bone implements, and perhaps the stinger from a stingray’s tail to use as a borer to make stitching holes, are all that is necessary. Given the antiquity of the Flood story, appearing first in the earliest Sumerian texts of the 16th century B.C., in an age before nails held ships together, it is logical to conclude that Noah’s Ark as pictured by the Biblical author was indeed a sewn boat.

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