Magan Boat of the UAE Brought to Life in Research Collaboration

Photo by Emily Harris, Zayed National Museum.

An 18-metre long reproduction of a Magan boat has successfully sailed off the coast of Abu Dhabi, marking a major milestone for Zayed National Museum’s research program. The project is a collaborative initiative between NYU Abu Dhabi and Zayed University which seeks to shed light on the UAE's rich maritime heritage and Bronze Age trade.

The vessel, called a ‘Magan Boat’ in ancient times, was built with raw materials described on an ancient clay tablet and using techniques dating back to 2100 BCE. The boat passed several rigorous tests and covered a distance of 50 nautical miles (92.6km)in the Arabian Gulf. Captained by Emirati sailors with a team of shipwrights from the broader region and accompanied by the UAE Coastguard, the ship passed two days of sea trials, reaching speeds of up to 5.6 knots under a sail made of goat hair. 

Shipwrights specializing in historical replicas worked closely with the researchers to build the boat using raw materials and traditional hand tools. The outer hull of the boat was made from 15 tons of locally sourced reeds that were soaked, stripped of their leaves, crushed and tied into long bundles using date palm fibre rope. The reed bundles were lashed to an internal structure of wood frames and coated in bitumen – a waterproofing technique used by ancient ship makers in this region. Archaeologists have recently discovered similar examples of bitumen on the island of Umm an-Nar which match sources from Mesopotamia. 

The ‘Magan Boat’ project is an experimental archaeology initiative from Zayed National Museum in partnership with NYU Abu Dhabi and Zayed University. Launched in 2021, the project aims to deepen understanding of how people in the region lived over 4,000 years ago, as well as preserve the UAE’s maritime heritage and traditional crafts and foster Emirati pride. 

Specialists from several disciplines – including archaeology, anthropology, digital humanities, engineering, and science – came together to design and construct the ship. Hundreds of experiments were undertaken in the construction of the boat, including testing the bitumen mixture and the strength of the reed bundles. Students from the partner universities were also involved in the project, offering them the opportunity to develop research skills and delve into the region’s rich maritime heritage by applying knowledge gained in the classroom to real-world, hands-on creation.

“Appreciating the maritime history of the Arabian Gulf is key to understanding the importance of Abu Dhabi in the ancient world. From ancient shipbuilders to today’s archaeologists, the launch of this impressive Magan boat reconstruction represents thousands of years of Emirati innovation and exploration, and a long legacy of forging regional and international connections. It is an excellent example of Abu Dhabi’s educational institutions coming together to deepen our knowledge of the past and bring history to life for everyone to learn from and enjoy.”

Chairman of the Department of Culture and Tourism – Abu Dhabi HE Mohamed Khalifa Al Mubarak

“The Dhakira Ancient BoatLab at NYUAD, established in 2018 in collaboration with Zayed University, began as a small experimental research space dedicated to exploring the region's maritime heritage. Seed funding from both universities allowed us to evolve the project into an international program of research-based learning and public outreach. This unique program thrives thanks to the enthusiastic contributions of boatbuilders, experts, students, and faculty. The reconstruction of the Magan boats is part of a broader experimental research initiative, led in collaboration with Prof. Georgi Derlugyan (co-director of the Dhakira Center), focusing on the Bronze Age as the first period of globalization.”

Director of the Dhakira Center for Heritage Studies and Program Head Heritage and Museum Studies at NYUAD Robert Parthesius

“I started my career as maritime heritage scholar with the reconstruction of the 400-year-old European ship Batavia, now after 40 years of research on many locations worldwide, we were able to look into the word of the first globalization through bronze 4000 years ago," Parthesius added.

This is the largest reconstruction of its kind ever attempted, serving to deepen our understanding of how Bronze Age societies lived and unlock secrets of traditional craftsmanship which helped create connections between the UAE and the rest of the world. In ancient texts, these boats were called Magan boats, the ancient name for the UAE and part of Oman. The use of this term reflected that the UAE was famous for its role in maritime trade over 4,000 years ago. Ships of this size and strength allowed people living in the UAE to trade with communities as far away as Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq) and South Asia.

The boat was designed by a team of over 20 specialists, including engineers and archaeologists, who seek to uncover knowledge about the past by experimenting with ancient technology using traditional techniques. The shape of the vessel was based on ancient illustrations of boats and the reconstruction was based on a capacity of 120 Gur which is equivalent to 36 tons. The length, width, and depth were determined by a naval engineer using hydrostatic analysis to provide dimensions that would enable the boat to float once the estimated weight of cargo, boat and crew were added. A crew of more than 20 people was needed to lift the sail and rigging as pulleys did not exist in the Bronze Age.

Visitors will see the Magan Boat on display when Zayed National Museum opens on Saadiyat Island.