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Ship Construction Notes for the Sadana Island Shipwreck

By Cheryl Ward, Ph.D.


Longer than the Statue of Liberty is tall and larger than any other machine built before the Industrial Revolution, the largest artifact at the Sadana Island site is the ship itself. Because the ship split open along its central longitudinal axis, we can look at its interior construction relatively easily, once the heavy sand overburden is removed. And, as we study its construction details and features, we produce a record of an unknown ship type.

Despite a long history of contact between Europeans, Egyptians, and others who sailed the western Indian Ocean and Red Sea, separate shipbuilding traditions continued. The Sadana Island ship can only be described as not Swedish, not British, not Portuguese or other European type, not American, not Arab, and not Mediterranean in origin. The ship measures more than 165 feet in length, and probably was at least 50 feet wide and perhaps as deep. It may have carried up to 900 tons of cargo.

The massive timbers used to build it tell us that there was an ample supply of wood near its home shipyard. This doesn't mean that huge forests had to be nearby--not only pine but even the very iron for fastening ships were imported to the shipyards at Suez. We await scientific analysis of the ship's timbers in hopes that it will help pinpoint the geographical origin of hull components.

The hull is characterized by the use of massive timbers joined by iron fastenings. Though diligently sought, no traces of sewing have been found. All that remains of the fastenings are the empty molds where the iron has completely decayed, but we can recover the measurements and locations of such fastenings. In so doing, we find the ship to be fastened rather lightly.

Frames and floor timbers are spaced somewhat farther apart than those seen in contemporary hulls, and few of them fit the hull well. Some gaps between the framing and planking were filled with shims or twigs. Most unusual are close-set stringers that literally carpet the inner surface of the hull from keel to upper deck.

Floors average 22 cm sided and 26 cm molded. They are spaced 47-52 cm apart (center-to-center). A number of the floors are composite. Stringers measure 25-30 x 22-26 cm. Near the stern, their edges nearly touch, while in the bottom of the hold at midships they lie 20 cm or more apart.

In the stern at least, two layers of planking have been recorded. The inner planking is 6 cm thick; the outer layer averages 14 cm. Immense knees emerge from the sand like tree trunks-plotting them will be critical to understanding hull construction. During the 1996 season, we identified three levels of knees that probably supported deck beams and may indicate that the ship had three separate decks.

A separate stowage compartment sectioned off by bulkheads was documented just aft of midships; large transport jars (zila') seem to have been stored here. At what seems to be the midships section, an arrangement of transverse planking supported a large shaft fastened to it by two large iron bands. Large quantities of rope up to 5 cm thick surrounded this assembly whose purpose remains obscure.

These details and more to be puzzled over during the 1998 season will let us solve the mystery of the ship's origins. One promising lead comes from historical documents describing Indian ships in the Red Sea. So far, no one has found a large Indian-built ship of the mid 18th century. No Egyptian ships of the period have been found either, so we have two entries on our list of possibilities.

One thing is certain: during the Sadana ship's last voyage, although her cargo comes from China, India and the Spice Islands, she didn't leave the Red Sea. We know this because she carries no cannon, and piracy was such that all ships sailing beyond the protected Ottoman waters had to be prepared for the worst.