Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Corfu's Reed Raft, the Papyrella

Corfiot papyrella, a reed raft
The papyrella built for the Exeter Maritime Museum, now held by the National Maritime Museum of Poland, photographed in Suffolk, England by Bob Holtzman (click any image to enlarge).
Rafts made of reeds are among the oldest types of watercraft, and remained in use in many areas through the end of the previous millennium “wherever there is a good supply of reeds” (McGrail, 2001:21, 104). Papyrus, among the most common reeds used for raft building, may have been among the earliest as well. Papyrus rafts are known from Egyptian tomb carvings, paintings, and funerary models as early as the Fifth Dynasty (2492-2345 BCE) (Hornell, 1970:47-48; McGrail, 2001:22), and these appear quite finely modeled and highly developed, so that much earlier use can be safely assumed (Hornell, 1970:48-49).
Reed raft under construction in an Egyptian 5th Dynasty tomb relief
Papyrus reed raft under construction in an Egyptian 5th Dynasty tomb relief (McGrail 2001:21).
Modern examples of papyrus rafts are known from Lake Tsana (i.e., Tana) in Ethiopia; among the Buduma and Kuri people on Lake Chad; in Palestine; and elsewhere (Hornell, 1970:53-56). Among the last European reed rafts was the papyrella of Corfu, whose use apparently petered out only in the 1970s. Although the Corfiot name papyrella is clearly etymologically related to papyrus, the reeds from which they were built is disputed. They have been identified as giant fennel, Ferula Communs L. (Tzamtis, 1990:329), although a later observer states that they were Scirpus lacustris L. ssp lacustris, of the same Cyperacea family as Egyptian Cyperus papyrus (Tzalas, 1995:456).

The basic papyrus raft can be built with no tool other than a stone blade for cutting reeds, and with no specialized techniques other than rope-making (McGrail, 2001:21-22), and this goes a long way to explain the papyrus raft’s early appearance in history. The papyrella, however, is a unique hybrid design incorporating some wooden components and requiring a few additional tools and techniques.

Construction began with six to eight light cypress saplings about 3m long. These were tied together at their narrow ends – the end that would be the bow – and splayed to a width of 1.1-1.3m at the stern. Three broad planks were laid beneath this framework, one at the stern, one about a meter back from the bow end, and one halfway between. Papyrus reeds were gathered into bundles with their butt ends all aligned and tied with cordage, so that the bundles were roughly 20cm in diameter at the butt end, narrower at the other end. These bundles were laid over the frame, perhaps six or seven bundles across, in two layers. Three more planks were then placed on top of the bundles, directly above the lower planks. The two layers of planks were then lashed with heavy rope passing through two holes in both ends of each plank, sandwiching the reed bundles and holding them in place. More reeds were bundled and tied into a horseshoe shape on top of the raft to serve as a coaming or gunwale. Finally, the saplings at the bow were bent upward and back and tied in place to form a prow (Tzamtis, 1990:330).

Papyrus is delicate and easily crushed and abraded, and when damaged, it absorbs water readily and loses its buoyancy. To protect the reeds on the bottom of the bundles when the boat was grounded, “common reeds” of a more durable type than papyrus were sometimes placed between the cypress bottom poles. A second set of cypress poles, tied like the first set, was sometimes placed on top of the reed bundles and beneath the top set of planks (Tzamtis, 1990:330). This might have been done to stiffen the structure, although it is unclear if rafts without this feature were subject to excessive flexing. Since the poles run mostly parallel with the bundles, it does not appear to be useful for containing them. A third modification sometimes present was the substitution of short cypress poles for the transverse boards (Tzamtis, 1990:330).

Papyrella raft stern view
Stern of the papyrella (photo: Bob Holtzman)
Descriptions of a few aspects of construction are ambiguous. Tzamtis states that the bottom cross-planks were placed beneath the cypress longitudinals (1990:330), which would hold the saplings in place sandwich-wise. In the example shown, however, the planks are on top of the longitudinals, so the saplings had to have been tied to the boards to remain in place. As one of the final steps, “two cypresses were placed on the stern, and bound there from the bottom to around the top, thus completing the caging in of the papyri bundles” (Tzamtis, 1990:330). This feature did not appear on the example I examined, and the disposition of these two poles on the stern is unclear. Also, the cypress base poles which extended beyond the reed bundles at the bow, were bent up and back and tied in place to bring the tips out of the water and create somewhat of a prow shape. Tzamtis (1990:330) indicates that this was done as the very last step in construction, but Tzalas (1995:444) states they were bent into this shape when green and held under pressure until the wood dried, after which they held the shape on their own. It is unclear if the square stern was the natural result of aligning the bottoms of the bundles, or if the aft ends of the bundles were all sheared even and square after being bound together. There is an account of papyrellas with a rounded stern (Tzamtis, 1990:330), which surely would have been cut to shape after the bundles were bound together.

The entire building process took two to three days. Finished rafts were 2.5-3m LOA, with their greatest beam of 1.1-1.3m at the stern and maximum thickness of 45-50cm, also at the stern (Tzamtis, 1990:330; Tzalas, 1995:443-445).

Papyrella were used for fishing in sheltered waters, “confined to lakes and bogs, rarely faring out to sea and far from the coast” (Tzamtis, 1990:330). Reports refer to their use for lobster fishing, but it would be surprising if other forms of fishing did not occur. There are reports that double-length papyrellas of 5-6m LOA were built by joining two single boats stern-to-stern, and that these larger boats would venture offshore for lobster fishing, but no such boats have been properly documented. Long poles were used to hold the two boats together, but it is unclear if the poles were forced through the bundles of both boats or lashed to their exterior surfaces or frameworks (Tzamtis, 1990:330-331).

Papyrella raft in Corfu with standing paddler using a double-bladed paddle
Papyrella under way in Corfu by a standing paddler using a double-bladed paddle (Tzalas 1995:466)
The standard “single” papyrella was a one-man craft, propelled from a standing position with a double-bladed paddle 2.3-2.5m long, including the two 50cm blades (Tzamtis, 1990:330; Tzalas, 1995:449). With the paddler standing, the gunwales would have done nothing to protect him from waves, so their purpose must have been to protect his gear and his catch.

Fisherman standing a papyrella on end to dry
Fisherman standing a papyrella on end to dry (Tzalas 1995:465)
The more tightly the bundles are tied, the better a reed raft will resist waterlogging and decay (McGrail, 2001:22, 104). The bundles in the example examined were still tightly bound some 50 years after the raft was built. Another key to longevity was to dry the bundles after every use by pulling the raft out of the water and standing it on its stern end. Treated this way, the bundles might last two to three years, while the framework could be used over and over (Tzalas, 1995:443).

Regular use of the papyrella continued into the late 1970s or early 1980s, at which time a single user remained in Palaiokastritsa, in northwest Corfu (Tzalas, 1995:443). During the 1970s, three had been built for museums – one in Corfu, one in Piraeus, and one in Exeter, England (Tzalas, 1995:443), the original home of the papyrella I examined. The Exeter collection was subsequently transferred to the World of Boats collection in Eyemouth, England, and when that museum closed abruptly in 2017, the papyrella and a few other craft were purchased at auction by Valerie Fenwick, a renowned British maritime archaeologist who kept them secure in a barn in Suffolk until a proper caretaker organization could be found. This is where I photographed it and documented its basic features in concert with the fellow student who appears in the photos. The papyrella, along with the rest of the small collection, was recently transferred to the National Maritime Museum in Gdansk, Poland, where, one hopes, it will be stabilized and displayed (Fenwick and Pink, 2020).

For a 50-some-odd-year-old reed raft, it remains in quite good condition. The reeds are beginning to disintegrate, however, and lightweight monofilament fishnet has been fastened over them in an attempt to hold them together. It is unclear if the bundles at the bow were originally larger than in the photos or if they extended further forward. Some of the ropework is sloppy and haphazard, the result, I suspect, of attempted repairs by an individual unskilled in knots.

Harry Tzalas's raft Papyrella
Harry Tzalas's double-ended papyrella, named Papyrella (Sampson, 2018:23)
Certainly the most famous individual papyrella was one named Papyrella and used in an experimental voyage from the Greek island of Melos to the mainland in 1988 (Tzalas, 1995). Seafaring by Mesolithic people has been indirectly but firmly established by the presence on the Peloponnesian mainland of obsidian from Melos, and Harry Tzalas (following Tzamtis’s lead) hypothesized that this was mostly likely accomplished by means of a reed raft. Tzalas had a double-length, double-ended papyrella built which he and five crew paddled from the mainland to Melos over the course of 16 days (Tzalas, 1995). Tzalas claimed that this voyage supported his hypothesis, but I and some others (Cherry and Leppard, 2015:745) find the experiment to be fraught with errors of theory, logic, and methodology and view its results as dubious.

map: route of reed raft Papyrella from Melos to Greek mainland
The route of Papyrella from Melos to the Greek mainland (Cherry and Leppard, 2015:746)


Cherry, J. F. and Leppard, T. P. (2015) ‘Experimental archaeology and the earliest seagoing: the limitations of inference’, World Archaeology. Routledge, 47(5), pp. 740–755. doi: 10.1080/00438243.2015.1078739.

Fenwick, V. and Pink, J. (2020) ‘The Fate of the ISCA Collection: The World’s Largest Collection of Traditional and Vernacular Boats’, Nautical Archaeology Society. Available at: (Accessed: 12 February 2020).

Hornell, J. (1970) Water transport: origins & early evolution. Newton Abbot: David & Charles.

McGrail, S. (2001) Boats of the World: from the Stone Age to Medieval times. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Sampson, A. (2018) ‘The Mesolithic Hunter-Gatherers in the Southeastern Mediterranean and Their Contribution in the Neolithisation of the Aegean’, Archaeology and Culture, 1(1), pp. 11–36. doi: 10.22158/ac.v1n1p11.

Tzalas, H. E. (1995) ‘On the Obsidian Trail with a papyrus raft in the Cyclades’, in Tzalas, H. E. (ed.) Tropis III: 3rd International Symposium on Ship Construction in Antiquity. Athens: Hellenic Institute for the Preservation of Nautical Tradition, pp. 441–470.

Tzamtis, A. I. (1990) ‘Papyrella: remote descendant of a middle stone age craft?’, in Tzalas, H. E. (ed.) Tropis II: 2nd International Symposium on Ship Construction in Antiquity Proceedings (1987). Delphi: Hellenic Institute for the Preservation of Nautical Tradition, pp. 329–332.