In the last week or so, two bundle boats from Oman came to my attention. First, a reader sent me a link to this travel article in Daily Kos, containing this photo:
This brought to mind the following photo of a shasha, another Omani bundle boat, from Tim Severin’s The Sinbad Voyage, which I reproduced in a post several years ago. But unlike the boat in the Daily Kos photo, this one was made from palm fronds.
|A shasha -- an Omani bundle boat made of palm fronds (Source: The Sinbad Voyage)|
The very next day, an image of another Omani bundle boat, also apparently made of palm fronds, appeared in my Facebook feed. I found it surprising that, even in the present day and within the confines of a rather small country, two methods of bundle boat construction, based on different materials, remain in use.
|Original caption: "These are fishing boats in Oman. They are filled with polystyrene and paddled out to sea. At night the catch is landed and the village builds bonfires to cook supper. Which is fish." (Posted by Jonathan Savill to the Facebook page Church of the Double-Bladed Paddle)|
Bundle boats are not really boats: they are boat-shaped rafts that derive their buoyancy from the materials of their construction, which are themselves buoyant. In contrast, true boats achieve buoyancy enclosing air within a watertight shell (or, to phrase it another way, by excluding water from a watertight shell).
In most cases, bundle boats are made from soft, flexible materials like grass, rushes, reeds, or leaves, large amounts of which are wrapped with cordage into long bundles – generally pointed at both ends – and then tied to other bundles into a boat shape – i.e., pointed at the bow (and often, at the stern), and usually with something approximating either raised gunwales, also composed of bundles, or a cockpit formed by leaving a cavity in or between bundles.
Sticks, roots or branches may also be used for construction. In most cases, these are tied into bundles in a manner similar to that used for soft, flexible materials, but in others, they are arranged and lashed side-by-side and not truly bundled. This method reduces the craft’s buoyancy and freeboard, also reducing its payload and leaving the boatman’s bottom constantly wet, but it also reduces its weight and makes it easier to dry, probably prolonging its life.
Absent gunwales or a cockpit, a bundle-built craft would have no “inside,” and lacking this characteristic, it would be a stretch to to call it boat-like. But that’s hardly a firm definition. Some models of papyrus bundle craft from ancient Egypt lack “insides” but are so boat-like in shape that it is hard to deny them the name bundle boat. (The models do have very low bundle-built toe-rails, however, which approximate the function of gunwales in a minimal way.)
|Ancient Egyptian papyrus-bundle canoes pulling a trawl between them. (Source: Hornell)|
Somewhat similar reed “boats” remain in use on Lake Titicaca, although they have substantial bundle gunwales, and thus a definite “inside.” What most distinguishes these craft from Egypt and Lake Titicaca from the Omani, Upper Nile and Lobito Bay types shown above, however, is the large volume of the bundles in comparison to the load, placing the boatman and his cargo well above the water and giving fair promise of keeping him and his cargo dry.
|A fishing balsa made of totora reeds, on Lake Titicaca (Source: Hornell)|
The bundle boat was an technological dead end in the sense that it apparently never evolved anywhere into a true boat. Although stick-built bundle boats appear superficially to be a step in that direction, they are still solidly rafts in concept.
But technological evolution is not the sole measure of past or present validity. The fact that bundle boats remain in use in more than one culture in the 21st century testifies to their practicality and the soundness of the concept.
Basil Greenhill, Archaeology of the Boat
Paul Johnstone (Ed., Sean McGrail), The Sea-Craft of Prehistory
James Hornell, Water Transport: Origins and Early Evolution
(and as noted in text)