Má: The Ancient Boat Lab

Four thousand years ago, during the height of the Bronze Age, ships built of reeds and wood, and featuring hulls coated with bitumen, sailed along the Gulf coast and into the Indian Ocean. They ferried cargo, people, and ideas between the Fertile Crescent and the distant lands of Dilmun (Bahrain), Magan (UAE and Oman) and Meluhha (Pakistan).

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The evidence for this commerce is vast, and includes cuneiform texts, pottery, iconography, boat models, semi-precious stones, rare woods, and metal objects. Although no complete or even partial shipwreck from this period has been found, tantalizing fragments of archaeological evidence from the Gulf region have inspired a group of scholars to reconstruct such a vessel as part of the Má II Project.

The project is a joint experimental archaeology initiative between the Abu Dhabi Department of Culture and Tourism, Zayed University, and the Dhakira Center for Heritage Studies at New York University Abu Dhabi. Its guiding purpose is to offer the public and the scholarly community an opportunity to study the Gulf region during the Bronze Age, and in particular, the role that maritime technology played in expanding economic, cultural, and political networks from the Gulf to the Indian Ocean. The central goal of this effort is to design and build an 18-meter ship based on the available textual, iconographic, and archaeological evidence. Experimental archaeologists are working with a team of shipwrights from Kerala and relying on their extensive experience with traditional ship construction to build the vessel using natural materials such as native reeds, timber, cordage, palm leaves, and bitumen that were available to Bronze Age boatbuilders in the past. Once completed, the ship will reconstruct, as closely as possible, the type of vessel that sailed the waters of the Gulf during the Umm an-Nar Period (2,600 – 2,000 BCE), and will provide scholars with a clearer understanding of the appearance, structure, carrying capacity, and sailing characteristics of these ancient ships.


Co-Primary Investigator

Robert Parthesius
Program Head, Heritage Studies; Associate Professor, NYUAD

Co-Primary Investigator

Eric Staples
Assistant Professor, Zayed University