Reed boat may solve riddle of the ancients with 500-mile voyage

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The Independent Online

In a latter-day version of Thor Heyerdahl's Kon-Tiki expedition, a team of archaeologists is to set sail from Oman to India in a small boat made of reeds, steering by the stars and sun, with nothing but the wind to propel them.

The voyage, set to begin on 7 September, is an attempt to prove that there was an ancient trade route linking India, Mesopotamia and the Arabian peninsula 4,000 years ago.

The eight-man mission is hoping to re-create the voyages of the ancient mariners, proving that it is possible to travel 500 nautical miles across the sea in a boat made with Bronze Age technology.

Their vessel, the Magan Boat, is just 12 metres long, constructed with reeds bound together with rope made from date palm fibre.

The sails are hand-woven from sheep's wool, and the ropes that hold them are made of goat hair. Bitumen, imported from Iraq, the site of ancient Mesopotamia, has been used for water-proofing. The craft's few wooden parts are made from teak.

Every feature of the vessel has been built with materials and skills that were available to man 4,000 years ago.

The eight-man crew expect the journey from Sur, on the coast of Oman, to Dwarka in the Indian state of Gujarat, to take 15 days. They will sail on the monsoon trade winds that were the only means of crossing the sea available to their ancient predecessors.

The journey will be gruelling. The crew will live on a diet of dates, dried fish, pulses, honey and water. They will be exposed to the elements, forced to share each other's company on a tiny boat with the empty sea all around.

"One has to be mentally tough to undertake such a journey and I am prepared," Dr Alok Tripathi, a marine archaeologist and Indian member of the crew, told The Indian Express.

The boat has been designed by Dr Tom Vosner, an Australian nautical archaeologist, who has enough faith in his design to be one of the crew. On the voyage, the crew plan to study ancient navigation techniques, and what the life of Bronze Age sailors was like.

The cargo being carried on the Madan Boat is planned to be handed over to Indian representatives at a ceremony in Mandvi in Gujarat. The timing of the voyage has been chosen to celebrate 50 years of ties between modern Oman and India, by celebrating ancient ties that are believed to go back 5,000 years.

The project began after an Omani-French-Italian team of archaeologists found fragments of bitumen with the imprints of ropes on one side and barnacles on the other in Oman in the early Nineties. The fragments were evidence that ships linked some of the earliest human civilisations 5,000 years ago.

Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley, in modern-day Pakistan, are regarded as two of the cradles of modern civilisation. But the evidence of how they were linked was found in the Arabian peninsula. The ancient Arabs are believed to have been some of humanity's earliest sailors.