4,000 years ago, a ship sank in the bed of a canal of the Euphrates, near the ancient city of Uruk. Today, archaeologists working in present-day southern Iraq were forced to conduct an emergency salvage excavation to protect his remains.
Discovering a Mesopotamian boat in the desert
The team of Iraqi-German archaeologists, from the Orient Department of the German Archaeological Institute and the German Iraqi Mission of the National Council of Antiquities, discovered the boat during the documentation of the buffer zone surrounding the ruins of Uruk, also known as Warka in Arabic. , in 2018.
The boat was originally made of palm fronds, wood and reed. It was then covered with bitumen, also called tar or asphalt, a kind of semi-solid oil that was used in Mesopotamia in the construction of buildings and for sealing reed boats. According ThoughtCo. “Bitumen is a ‘natural organic by-product of decomposed plants’ that humans have used for at least 40,000 years.
A reconstruction of what an ancient Mesopotamian city might have looked like. ( Graphics by Jeff Brown )
At the time of discovery, the ancient Mesopotamian boat was documented by photogrammetry. However, being located close to road traffic, the team decided that it was imperative to carry out an archaeological rescue mission to ensure the preservation of these unique remains. The boat was 7 meters (23 ft) long and 1.4 meters (4.59 ft) wide, and was buried in sediment after sinking to the bottom of the river 4,000 years ago.
The remains are particularly fragile, although surprisingly well preserved, even though they had been partially exposed in recent years and were visible above ground. Organic remains, such as in palm fronds, wood and reed, have decayed over time, but their imprint is still visible today in the bitumen. Arkeo news report that during the excavations, “the top of the boat was covered with clay and plaster to stabilize it, and thus it was possible to save the whole boat”.
Ancient Mesopotamian boat structure visible from above. (Mayssoun Iss / Deutsches Archaeological Institute )
What is a boat doing in the middle of the desert?
It may not seem like it today, but Uruk was once the largest human settlement in southern Mesopotamia. Today, the remains of the city lie in a dusty desert, several kilometers east of the current Euphrates River. 241 km south of Baghdad, Uruk was built beside what are now the dried up remains of an ancient river channel.
This region was once home to some of the oldest cities in the world, which developed around fundamental water sources and irrigation schemes and, as Apollo Review described, Uruk itself was once “surrounded by freshwater reed marshes, fertile alluvial soils, and waterways providing access to nearby towns and the Arabian Gulf”. Hence the sunken boat.
Archaeologists believe that Uruk-Warka was one of the world’s first cities, in the region the Greeks named Mesopotamia, a word meaning “the land between the rivers” because of its location between the Euphrates at the west and the Tigris to the east. .
History of Uruk: A City of Firsts
As described by Apollo Review ” Uruk was home to thousands of people whose lives were based on fishing and herding cattle, sheep and goats, as well as growing wheat, barley, apples, figs and groves of date palms . The city was the largest of the settlements that had developed in a landscape of floodplains formed by the branches of the Tigris and Euphrates in the southern half of what is often called Mesopotamia.
Uruk is remembered as a city of firsts. The first real city, the first example of stone architecture, the home of the first ziggurat, the place where writing originated and the first city to create the cylinder seal. Around 2900 BC. AD, it is believed that Uruk was home to up to 80,000 people, living in the walled city which covered around 6 km2 (2.32 sq mi).
Over time, and thanks to the effects of climate change, the Euphrates Canal dried up, while the main river itself also changed course and moved away. After a period of constant warfare, there was a devastating drought around 2250 BC. BC, after which the importance of not only Uruk, but all of southern Mesopotamia, declined. The ancient city continued to be sparsely inhabited until the Islamic conquest of around AD 633–638, when it was completely abandoned.
Current remains of the ancient city of Uruk. (SAC Andy Holmes / OGL v1.0 )
German excavations at Uruk
The first excavations of Uruk-Warka were conducted in the 1850s by British explorer William Loftus. Lacking the exciting finds made at other sites in northern Mesopotamia, it was soon abandoned, and since 1912 the archaeological site has been excavated by a long-term project run by the German Archaeological Institute.
In December 2021, Al Monitor reported that various European archaeological teams were making important discoveries in Iraq. According to Laith Majid Hussein, director of the Iraqi State Council for Antiquities and Heritage, these European archaeologists are actively training Iraqi archaeologists in projects across the country, hoping to create “a generation of well-experienced and professional excavators “.
The excavation of the Mesopotamian boat is one such project. A very small percentage of ancient Uruk has been excavated so far, most of it consisting of mud brick architecture. Many of the discoveries that have been made at Uruk since the start of the German project in 1912 have been published in a book titled Uruk: first city of the ancient world .
After several decades of conflict and looting, if one bears in mind that until 1969 it was common to divide finds between foreign excavators and Iraq, the Iraqi archaeological landscape seems to be changing. The recently unearthed Mesopotamian boat has been transferred to the Iraqi Museum in Baghdad for further preservation and analysis in accordance with current Iraqi antiquities laws.
Top image: Ancient Mesopotamian ship discovered near Uruk. Source: Julia Nador – Deutsches Archaeologisches Institut / CC-BY-NC-ND
By Cecilia Bogaard