The earliest attestations of water transportation in the Ancient Near East (today’s Middle-East) are seal impressions and ship models dating from the late 4th millennium and even earlier. In the archaic texts from Uruk (Warka in southern Iraq), the oldest texts of mankind history (dating as well from the end of the 4th millennium), an ideogram for “ship” is already attested, and in the inscriptions of the kings of the first dynasty of Lagash (modern al-Hibā also in southern Iraq) ships are mentioned for the first time in connection with maritime trade (approx. 2500–2350 BCE). A variety of water crafts are attested on cylinder seals and wall-reliefs, as models and in the written cuneiform sources, from rafts on inflated skins, basket-like water crafts covered with leather, and boats made of reed up to different types of freighters which were used for river or maritime transport, and warships.
The boat journey of the god Ea (cylinder seal impression, ca. 2300–2150 BCE)
Source: W. H. Ward, The Seal Cylinders of Western Asia, Washington, 1910, 40, fig. 102.
Crescent-shaped boat with two boatmen equipped with round paddles (seal impression, Early Dynastic, from Ur).
Source: L. Legrain, Archaic Seal-Impressions, New York, 1936 (Ur Excavations III), plate 28, 492.
Boat with high horn-like stern and prow decorated with leaf ornaments. The boatman is armed with a long pole. (seal impression, Early Dynastic, from Ur).
Source: L. Legrain, Archaic Seal-Impressions, New York, 1936 (Ur Excavations III), plate 16, 300.
Round basket-like boat with hide covering (wall relief, Nineveh)
Source: A. H. Layard, A Second Series of the Monuments of Nineveh, London, 1853, plate 12
Assyrian raft made of wood and inflated skins (wall relief, Nineveh, South-West Palace, Hall VI, slab 54, reign of Sennacherib, 704–681 BCE).
Source: A. H. Layard, A Second Series of the Monuments of Nineveh, London, 1853, plate 13.
Ancient Near Eastern written sources are attested from the last quarter of the third to the end of the first millennium BCE, with some late tablets dating from the second century CE. Different languages – with their corresponding stages and dialects – were written in a variety of writing systems: cuneiform script (Akkadian, Sumerian, Ugaritic), linear script (Aramaic, Hebrew, Phoenician) and hieroglyphic script (Luwian). Furthermore Ancient Near Eastern sources comprise a great number of genres: royal inscriptions, administrative texts, legal documents, letters, lexical texts, catalogues, as well as historiographical, literary and religious texts among others. The already huge corpus of cuneiform sources is open, because only part of it was already published (some thousands only as autographs) and because new excavations enlarge the corpus permanently. These written sources (principally the cuneiform ones) together with the archaeological material are a precious source for the study of Ancient Near Eastern ships and shipbuilding, waiting for comprehensive lexical and technical-historical studies.
2. THE ELEPPU PROJECT
Convinced of the importance of shipbuilding and navigation for the Ancient Near East as well of its relevant and pioneering role in nautical history we started 2010 an ambitious project in the frame of the research group «Patrimoine, Histoire des Sciences et des Techniques» (PaHST) at the Université de Bretagne Occidentale (UBO) in Brest. The enterprise was named “The Eleppu Project: Ships and Shipbuilding in the Ancient Near East”. eleppu is the Akkadian word for ship; the Sumerian word is ma written ĝešma2 with the preceding determinative for wooden objects and the cuneiform sign ma2). Since 2012 the Eleppu Project is anchored at the both renowned Centre François Viète d’épistémologie et d’histoire des sciences et des techniques (Université de Bretagne Occidentale, Brest/Université de Nantes, France) and Assyriological Institute at the University of Heidelberg (Germany).
After a first preliminary overview of selected written and archaeological sources and of the secondary literature, it was clear first, that an important gap in nautical history merited to be closed; second, that the variety and extent of the Ancient Near Eastern sources allowed such a study and promised interesting results; third, that reconstructions of ships and boats were possible; fourth, that the study of Mesopotamian harbours was at its beginnings, and finally, that the great amount of sources comprising different languages – not uniform distributed along all the involved historical periods as well as the iconographical material, required a long-term study, chronologically organized according to the different historical periods. Considering the interests and fields of research of the two directors, Ariel M. Bagg was entrusted with the third (and later with the first) millennium BCE and Grégory Chambon with the second millennium BCE, working both in contact with professional model makers, graphic designers and specially in close collaboration with naval architects, as the Eleppu Project and its institutional frame provide a fruitful environment for productive interdisciplinary research.
The aim of Eleppu is a comprehensive study of watercraft and navigation in the Ancient Near East from the late 4th to the end of the 1st millennium BCE on the base of the original cuneiform sources and the archaeological evidence combining the perspectives of Assyriology and History of Technology. According to the available sources, the research will be focused in a first phase on ancient Mesopotamia (nowadays mainly Iraq and Syria).
In spite of the great variety and number of sources containing technological information, the achievements of Ancient Near Eastern cultures have been almost ignored by historians of technology and knowledge. In the case of ships and shipping, a relatively well studied subject in relation to (some) preindustrial cultures, is such omission unreckoned. However, there is an explanation for this situation: because of the particular stand of publication of the cuneiform sources, non-specialists can neither get an overview nor access easily to them. Even when selected texts are used, outdated translations frequently induce misinterpretations. Taken into account that the sources attest to the high technological level of Ancient Near Eastern shipbuilders and mariners, a study of the technical terminology according to the original sources is a first indispensable step.
Furthermore, the research project aims to make available relevant sources to scholars from other disciplines, allowing comparative studies. The research focuses not only on construction techniques and ships typologies, but also on how the required technological knowledge was acquired, preserved and transmitted as well as on the social and historical conditions which make shipping possible.
The knowledge gained through the analysis of the written and archaeological sources should provide enough information for digital reconstructions, 3D-animations and modelling. These powerful tools allow checking the outcome from written and archaeological sources. In the case of Ancient Near Eastern ships – as well as in almost all technical subjects – the available information is not complete. Therefore, the inexistent data must be substituted by hypothetical assumptions. Computer-aided design and modelling allow to test the plausibility of the proposed hypothesis and to correct them in order to improve the results. Furthermore, 3D-animations and scale models permit to see and test the objects in action, namely how they move, how can they be operated, how they interact with the natural environment and with people.
The Ancient Near Eastern written and archaeological sources represent a valuable, not yet exhausted material for the study of an important period in the history of the shipbuilding and harbour construction which deserves and earns a comprehensive treatment.