University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

08 SEPTEMBER 2005, PHILADELPHIA, PA—On September 7, eight adventurous archaeologists are scheduled to set sail on a voyage from Oman to India on the Magan, a small boat made of reeds covered with black bitumen tar, as they seek to recreate the voyages of ancient mariners of 4,500 years ago--and prove that it is possible to travel across a 500-mile stretch of the sea in a boat made with Bronze Age technology, propelled by the wind and navigated by the sun and the stars. The reconstructed "Black Boat of Magan" was undertaken by the Joint Hadd Project of which the University of Pennsylvania Museum's curator of the Asian Section, Dr. Gregory L. Possehl. is a co-director, along with colleagues Dr. Maurizio Tosi at the University of Bologna (who is the acknowledged "god father" of the Magan Boat) and Dr. Serge Cleuziou of the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in Paris. Joined with their Omani collaborators, and Naval Architect Tom Vosmer, they have experimented for over five years with ancient reed boat technology and feel that the current craft is ready to go to sea.

"The journey," according to Justin Huggler, reporter for The Independent of London, "will be grueling. 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."

It's also a voyage sure to be in the international eye: the timing of the trip was chosen to celebrate the close historical relationship between Oman and India including 50 years of diplomatic relations.

The Co-Directors of the Joint Hadd Project will follow the progress of Captain Vosmer and the Black Boat of Magan, from on board the private ship of the Sultan of Oman, called the HMSS Fulk as-Salaam. Dr. Possehl noted: "The Black Boat is no place for 'senior scientists' to be in the way of the critical operations of managing a sailing craft that is still partly experimental, and will demand agility, speed and constant, day/night attention. Drs. Tosi, Cleuziou and I decided to leave this to the younger generation of Italian graduate students who were recruited to assist in both the building and sailing of the boat."

The historic journey, expected to run several weeks, is of far more than casual interest to Dr. Possehl. With 40 years of experience excavating evidence of the oft-elusive Indus Civilization in India and Pakistan, Dr. Possehl has recently located an archaeological site on the headland of Ra's al-Hadd in Oman with a significant amount of pottery from the Indus Civilization, as well as artifacts from the local Omani peoples. Intrigued by this new evidence of obvious overseas trade in ancient times, he has planned an excavation there for the winter of 2005-2006. This, he feels, is possibly the most exciting project of his long career: "Ten years ago archaeologists had no idea how ancient seafaring took place. Today we stand on the brink of a great experiment, testing the technology of a key period in history when man's conquest of the sea brought the peoples of the northern rim of the Arabian Sea and the Persian Gulf together in a vast commercial and ecological system."

Here is some background information provided by Dr. Possehl about his own research, and how it dovetails with this historic ancient boat journey:


Ancient texts from Mesopotamia, and archaeological materials from the Persian Gulf to India, inform us that during the third millennium BC venture capitalists sponsored maritime commerce in the ancient lands of the Persian Gulf, and Arabian Sea, reaching as far as the Indus Civilization of ancient India. The goods mentioned in the texts, and found in archaeological excavations, include copper, pearls, lapis lazuli, gold, exotic animals (peacocks, cats, dogs) and other luxurious items. These new commercial exploits brought together the peoples and economies of many Bronze Age Civilizations, including the lands of Sumer/Akkad, and places like Dilmun and Magan, as well as Meluhha, the Mesopotamian's name of ancient India.

This seaborne commerce was complemented by a significant increase in the human exploitation of maritime resources for food, as well as for raw materials. At times these activities were undertaken on a significant scale, with the massive exploitation of fish, sea turtles and maritime gastropods. Some archaeological sites have literally millions of fish bones and shells. Most of these sea creatures were eaten. But, the ancient peoples of this region also used them as sources of raw material to make a wide variety of artifacts as well. These included objects from fish hooks, to bracelets, ear ornaments, beads, pendants, ladles, containers for precious substances, even inlay for wooden objects.

These intertwined maritime activities---large scale, long-distance commerce in luxury goods and the subsistence level exploitation of the sea for food and day-to-day necessities---mark a significant technological breakthrough in an ability to sail long distances within the cultural perception of reliability. We know this because the ancient seafarers returned time and time again to the same coastal settlements over the course of a thousand years, perhaps longer.

Just like the Silk Road of later antiquity, this maritime activity was paralleled by a significant increase in overland trade and commerce that linked northern India, Pakistan, Central Asia, Afghanistan and Iran with Mesopotamia and beyond. Taken as a whole these activities have been called the "Third Millennium Middle Asian Interaction Sphere."

I have located an archaeological site on the headland of Ra's al-Hadd in Oman that has a significant amount of pottery from the Indus Civilization, as well as artifacts from the local Omani peoples. I plan to excavate there in the winter of 2005-2006. My research will seek to precisely document the Indus presence in ancient Oman, as well as their relationship with their Omani counterparts.

My interdisciplinary, international team will recover and study architecture, artifacts and the remains of ancient plants and animals using the latest excavations techniques, including "total station" laser and GPS location techniques, advanced computer technology, and digital imaging to further understand the nature of the maritime aspect of the Third Millennium Middle Asian Interaction Sphere. These new excavations will bring together Omani, French, Italian, Swiss and American students and scientists into a coordinated effort to further our understanding of ancient trade, maritime technology and international relations.

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