Archaeology’s Dirty Little Secrets by Sue Alcock Part 5 (Ra Boat)

Option3 Experimental archaeology.

  1.  Describe the case you have chosen. What was the object of the experiment?
  2. How was the experiment carried out? By whom? What materials were needed?
  3. Did the experiment ‘work’? Did you consider it a successful exercise and if so, why or why not?
  4. Provide a weblink (URL) to the case you have chosen.

Experimental archaeology has not always had the credibility it enjoys today. The example I have chosen is from an era when it was dismissed as a serious study. Don Ryan who was Thor’s prodigy said“It is sad that an exciting subject such as possible intercontinental contacts in ancient times has received such a poor reception in the scholarly community.”

The case is the Ra expeditions 1969/70 where Thor Heyerdahl attempted to prove that ancient people had the means to cross the ocean. “the object of the Ra voyages was merely to show that a vessel hitherto deemed to be a mere riverboat was capable of ocean voyaging, and that pre-Columbian America was inside the range of North African watercraft” Whether they did cross or not and what was the impact of such a voyage is a whole separate discussion but emanately worthy of thought.

Thor Heyerdahl was fascinated by ancient maritime travel. He undertook several voyages on a variety of craft. “Thor Heyerdahl is probably the best-known proponent of the idea of human travel and cultural exchange across the oceans in ancient times.“ He first proposed his ideas in the 1930’s but the academic world dismissed them as impossible so he set out to prove if it was possible.

The crew of the boat was very international including reed boat experts and rope experts as well as an international crew to reflect global co-operation. The crew of Ra I included a black African Muslim (one of the boat builders), an Egyptian Christian (a diver), a Soviet Russian physician, a Jewish American navigator, a Mexican anthropologist, an Italian mountain climber (good with ropes) and Thor Heyerdahl (Norwegian) was the captain.  Ra II was equally diverse with a Japanese cameraman and a Moroccan.

Thor used Ancient Egyptian pictures of boats for the design, this kind of boat is well known in many ancient civilisations but the AE art depicted it more often. The depictions showed the overall design as well as details of the ropes and ties. The Ra expeditions used reeds boats. They hoped to use papyrus from Hassan Ragab  (you can see a replica in front of the Pharaonic Village in Cairo). He was an Egyptian Ambassador who had served in China and got fascinated by the production of paper and ‘rediscovered’ the making of AE paper and had an island in Cairo where he grew the papyrus. Eventually the reeds were supplied from reeds from Lake Tana. Workman from Chad, who still used these boats, were utilised for the actual build of Ra 1, for Ra 2 Aymara reed builders from Bolivia were used. The dimensions of Ra 1 were length 39ft breadth 16ft depth 6ft and Ra 2 was 20ft shorter. Ra 1 was built on the Giza plateau and Ra 2 in Morocco.

Ra 1 travelled at approximately 2.5 knots, about 60 miles a day. Ra 2 set out 17th May 1970 and the voyage from Morocco to Barbados was completed in 57 days.

It did prove the point of ancient international travel, although it took two goes. Initially they dismissed a particular rope as merely decorative or unimportant and actually it proved vital to the stability of the boat. A second try utilizing this rope did make it across the ocean. “Which opens up the possibility of travel between North Africa pre-Columbian America was inside the range of North African watercraft.”

There were two successful achievements

1) The most obvious achievement is that we now consider travel on the oceans within the possibilities of ancient people and the implications of that are manifold. “What it did though, was to demonstrate that boats of this sort, with a wide ancient international distribution, were certainly capable and seaworthy, thus putting a damper on the notion that ancient people did not have the means to cross the oceans.” Many other similar expeditions have taken place since then completely changing our perception of world travel and discovery. Indeed there is evidence for open water travel for homo erectus.

However whilst the possibility of Trans oceanographic travel by ancient people is proved, the actuality is unknown, but the implications are mind boggling.

2) Today experimental archaeology is a serious science and has credibility “It is no longer automatically perceived as suspicious nor necessarily a novelty”. In 2012 there was an entire conference in Swansea on experimental archaeology,  so Thor’s work was ground breaking stuff.

There is a German video of the voyage  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JID–UJ7oMw

I started this exercise with personal recollections of the documentaries in the 70’s and then went here http://community.plu.edu/~ryandp/RAX.html I contacted Donald Ryan and he most kindly sent me loads of answers to my questions as well as a chapter from a book that will be coming out later this year to honour what would have been Heyerdahl’s 100th birthday. All quotes are from him. The title of the book is tentative as it is still in the editing process so I can’t quote it.

Also a lecture by Don Ryan http://www.egypt.swansea.ac.uk/index.php/events/397-technology-podcasts