Eyewitness: Kuwait's clues to mankind's maritime experiments

April 20, 2001

North of Kuwait City towards the Iraqi border, the road rises over the Mutlaa Ridge, a sandstone scarp that provides the only relief in the flat desert landscape. Here, the final, bloody and one-sided engagement of the Gulf war took place. Along the ridge, 35 miles to the east, around the north shore of Kuwait Bay, is Subiya, where a much more ancient past has been uncovered.

Two months ago, a British-Kuwaiti archaeological team was in its third season of work on a Neolithic site at Subiya. The dig, sponsored by Shell Kuwait, had already unearthed fragments of pottery from the Ubaid period (7000-5000BC), low-walled buildings made from sandstone slabs and an array of axes, arrowheads, drills and jewellery made from flint, quartz and seashells. The settlement traded beads and jewellery for pottery from Mesopotamia and for animal and other products from the Arabian peninsula.

One day, the team dug up small pieces of bitumen, grooved on one side by the impression of bunches of reeds and encrusted with barnacles on the other.

"We believe these formed part of mankind's first experiments in building ocean-going boats," said Robert Carter, of University College London's Institute of Archaeology, who led the team.

"What makes this find so exciting is that we also found a model boat from the same period, which gives us a lot of information about how these Stone Age people built their real boats. It shows lines coming down from the prow and the stern, which may be the junction of reed bundles or ropes. And it has two dips at either end, which may be where planks were laid across the hull."

This month, Tom Vosmer, a contemporary boat expert from Curtin University in Australia, will examine the finds to establish the age and the origins of the bitumen. The work could lead to the reconstruction of a Stone Age boat. "There's been a lot of work done on reed-impressed bitumen from a Bronze Age site in Oman," Dr Carter said. "That's 2500BC, so ours is a good 2,500 years before that."

So far, no human remains of the world's first boat-builders have been found at the Subiya site. The search will resume next year, as long as funding becomes available. "We'll be trying to tap maritime museum trusts," Dr Carter said. "You just have to look everywhere."

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