News Focus

When in Vietnam, Build Boats as the Romans Do

Science  21 Apr 2006:
Vol. 312, Issue 5772, pp. 360b-361b
DOI: 10.1126/science.312.5772.360b

INDO-PACIFIC PREHISTORY ASSOCIATION CONGRESS, 20–26 MARCH 2006, MANILA

In December 2004, researchers drained a canal in northern Vietnam in search of ancient textiles from graves. They found that and a whole lot more. Protruding from the canal bank at Dong Xa was a 2000-year-old log boat that had been used as a coffin. After a closer look at the woodwork, archaeologists Peter Bellwood and Judith Cameron of Australia National University in Canberra and their colleagues were astounded to find that the method for fitting planks to hull matched that used by the Roman Emperor Caligula and his contemporaries in the 1st century C.E. That shipwright technique was believed to be unique to the Mediterranean, several thousand kilometers to the west.

“It's very convincing,” says Lucy Blue, a maritime archaeologist at the University of Southampton, U.K. “They are absolutely correct in their links with comparable material in the Greco-Roman world.” It's impossible to say, however, whether the boatmaking method is a case of technology transfer across vast distances or whether it arose independently in East Asia.

The Dong Xa boat yielded a trove of artifacts: a ramie burial shroud, a cord-marked pot next to the head of the corpse with a red lacquered cup inside, and a couple of Han Dynasty wushu coins, minted from 118 B.C.E. to 220 C.E. But the big discovery was courtesy of a remarkably well-preserved hull. Along the gunwale of the 2-meter section are empty mortise and locking peg holes for attaching planks with rectangular fastenings called tenons. In this technique, planks are fitted together before a frame is added.

“The only place in the world where this construction is known is the Mediterranean,” says Bellwood, who presented the find in Manila. Shipwreck excavations show that several cultures, including the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans, employed mortise-and-tenon technology from at least 3300 years ago until around the middle of the first millennium C.E.

Hunting for similar construction in Vietnam, Bellwood and his colleagues found a museum piece made from timbers bearing the same mortise-and-tenon technique. The timbers, part of a mortuary house for an infant coffin made around 200 C.E., are planks from a boat scrapped for burial, Bellwood says. Both the mortuary house and the Dong Xa boat were found in clay deposits near the Red River.

À la Caligula.

An ancient boat from Vietnam was built using Roman techniques.

CREDIT: COURTESY OF PETER BELLWOOD

Bellwood doubts that the two cultures ever met face to face. “I don't believe we have Romans sailing to Southeast Asia,” he says. “It would be nice to say it was invented independently,” he adds, noting that the Chinese used mortise-and-tenon carpentry for houses in the Neolithic, centuries before the technique was applied to Mediterranean ships.

But how the ancient people near the Red River learned their boatmaking remains a mystery. “At present, there is just not enough evidence to support cultural influence in construction choice,” says Blue.

Bellwood favors a series of transfers across the ancient world 2 millennia ago, when the Old World was entering its first phase of true globalization. That's the “most attractive hypothesis” for now, he says—at least until a Chinese Neolithic log boat is discovered.

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