Mesopotamian Boats

The paucity of pictorial representation of Mesopotamian boats makes comparisons difficult. Their watercraft, as presently known, did not survive the ages. Despite advances in the maritime archaeology around the world, the ships and boats of Mesopotamia remain elusive. The little information we have is currently limited to iconography and texts.

Representations of Mesopotamian boats are found on seals, in reliefs, and as models. Usually these lack details that would enable fuller understanding of their technologies. Studies such as Quall’s Boats of Mesopotamia Before 2000 B.C., and The Ships of the Ancient Near East (c. 2000-500 BC) by Marie-Christine De Graeve, Departement Oriëntalistiek, Leuven, 1981 contribute poorly to our understanding.

Mesopotamian texts with lists of boat parts and materials can help increase knowledge of watercraft, yet these texts are poorly understood. In the early days of Assyriology few details of boat building in antiquity were known. Thus, scholars relied heavily upon modern boat-building techniques to interpret those texts.

The major study of boats in Mesopotamian texts is found in Die Wasserfahrzeuge in Babylonien, Nach Sumerisch-Akkadischen Quellen (mit besonderer Berücksichigung der 4. Tafel der serie H A R-rahubullu) Eine lexikalische und kulturgeschichtliche Untersuchung, von Armas Salonen. (Mit 43 Tafeln und 5 Zeichnungen)
Helsingforsiae, Societas Orientalis Fennica, 1939.

This work has become the seminal source for the interpretation of Akkadian and Sumerian boat texts. The Chicago Assyrian Dictionary relies on Salonen’s work for boat and ship terms.

However, a few clues do exist, that provide some idea of how those regions influenced Egypt.

The first picture shows a square boat with two gods (?) or two leaders superimposed on the upright ends of the boat. This may represent some iconography the meaning of which is now lost on us. That this is a boat is shown by the wavy lines beneath. The animals and other object above may denote the cargo. A man sitting on a chair with hat and an object in his hand may denote that he commissioned the boat or takes other authority over it. We cannot say from the little detail we have.

The second picture shows a boat as part of a parade of people. On the right we have a man sitting on a chair (throne). Next is a man with an animal on a tether. Next is a man with a rod or walking stick. Then a man sitting on the deck of the boat. Again we see wavy lines beneath the boat. This probably is a sickle boat.

This third picture shows a sickle boat. It has incursive ends, with standards, and a single rower. The purpose of the rod in the man's hand is not easily discernible. The boat appears to be approaching a palace.

The next boat is far more interesting. It appears to be an incurved square boat with objects we find in Egyptian boats. This boat is transporting cattle, (with objects strapped to the back of the bovine), has a cabin, has a Chief, and two protrusions extending from the stern, as in Egyptian boats.



The fifth boat shows joining planks along the length of the entire boat. It has a cabin, and two oars sticking down from the stern of the boat. We do not know the reason for the fowl.

Here is a model wooden sickle boat with high ends.