Lucy Blue

November 26, 1999

How a love for old boats led to the Red Sea coast of Egypt, and the excavation of one of the ancient world's major trading centres.

For someone who has always been obsessed with old boats, a career in maritime archaeology seemed the obvious choice. However, like any academic pursuit, the path is not predictable and I have only recently secured a position as a research fellow in the department of archaeology at the University of Southampton. I left Oxford University in 1996, after completing my doctorate in harbour archaeology. At this time, the department of archaeology at Southampton was embarking on a new masters programme in maritime archaeology and employed me to teach pre-classical seafaring of the Near East.

My current research interests reflect the projects I have been involved in more recently. Four years ago, a couple of colleagues and I initiated the Boats of South Asia project, under the auspices of the Society for South Asian Studies. Our research aims to record late 20th-century water transport of South Asia, both as a record of "traditional" boat building and to throw light on the region's maritime past. So far we have documented two types of vessel: the reverse-clinker boats of Bangladesh, West Bengal and Orissa, and the frame-first boats and ships of Tamil Nadu.

Our work has made us aware of the urgency of ethnographic boat studies, particularly in the Indian subcontinent, where the construction and use of traditionally built boats is under constant threat from economic development and environmental constraints. Our future research aims to continue recording selected vessels of the region while it is still possible. We also plan to consider the factors that determine why particular craft are used in a particular context. Inquiries of this nature have traditionally adopted untested implicit assumptions as the basis of interpretation. Such an approach should present a more balanced result, relevant not only to the study of present-day craft of South Asia - it could also shed light on the prehistoric uses of coastal water transport in the region, as well as the criteria for their selection elsewhere.

February 1999 saw the first two months of excavation at the site of Quseir al-Qadim on the Red Sea coast of Egypt. The site was partially excavated some 20 years ago, revealing Roman and later Islamic occupation levels. It was undoubtedly a harbour site, although the adjacent lagoon that would formerly have functioned as the harbour is now silted. We believe that in the Roman period it was the site of Myos Hormos, the most northerly of harbour sites along this coast, which acted as an outlet of trade with the Indian Ocean.

My role as maritime director focuses on the silted harbour. Our aim is to analyse the sediments in the harbour and establish when and why the local environment changed, and how this would have affected occupation at the site. In the next three years we plan to expose part of the ancient harbour and hope to uncover the remains of a Roman vessel, either under construction or in preparation for its long voyage to India. Finds from the site and adjacent area have revealed inscriptions supporting its identification as Myos Hormos and textiles depicting Indian elephants. It appears that Quseir al-Qadim was one of the ancient world's great trading centres and its excavation will be immensely important.

For the past decade I have also been involved with UK maritime archaeology, through the work of the Nautical Archaeology Society, for which I am responsible for PR and marketing. My recent appointment to the governmental advisory committee on Historic Wreck Sites will no doubt give me further opportunity to promote and aid the protection of the UK's more important shipwreck sites.

Lucy Blue, Centre for Maritime Archaeology, department of archaeology, University of Southampton.

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