Examining pre-colonial Southeast Asian boatbuilding: An archaeological study of the Butuan Boats and the use of edge-joined planking in local and regional construction techniques

Ligaya Lacsina (gaylacsina@gmail.com)
School of Humanities and Creative Arts, Flinders University
December, 2016
 

Abstract

While the earliest descriptions of Southeast Asian watercraft written by Chinese and European observers were generally brief, many noted that they were constructed without using a single metal nail. Another trait mentioned in only the most detailed historical accounts, but recognisable in the material evidence, is the series of drilled lugs protruding from the insides of the boats’ planks. The lugs functioned to secure frames and thwarts to the hull by means of lashing rope or rattan strands through the lugs’ holes. Published research provides confirmation that edge-joined and lashed-lug boats are the oldest plank-built watercraft in the region’s archaeological record. The earliest is the Pontian Boat found in Peninsular Malaysia, dating to between the third and fifth centuries A.D. Contemporary sources suggest such boats may still be in use today by a community on the remote island of Lembata, Indonesia. In 1976, looters unearthed the incomplete remains of what is now referred to as Butuan Boat 1 buried under approximately 1.5 m of flood deposits in Barangay Libertad, Butuan City, Philippines. According to various reports, looters have since that time come across between nine and 11 Butuan Boat remains in an area less than 1 km in radius. Archaeologists from the National Museum of the Philippines examined the remains of seven of these boats and recovered three. Excavations revealed that construction features of the Butuan Boats were characteristically Southeast Asian, as described in historical documents. The planks were edge-fastened with wooden dowels, and carved along the length of the planks of all but one of the boats were a series of rectangular lugs drilled with holes, some which still bore fragments of rope. Unfortunately, much of the early reporting of the Butuan Boat sites and related archaeological activities was unclear, and details such as locations, dimensions, and wood identification, were presented inconsistently. Construction features were only discussed in general terms, and early attempts to radiocarbon date the first three recovered boats in the 1970s and 1980s resulted in widely disparate results of fourth, thirteenth, and tenth centuries A.D., respectively. The research undertaken for this dissertation involved recording the Butuan Boats, identifying the timbers used, and obtaining more reliable radiocarbon dating results. In examining the construction of each Butuan Boat more closely, atypical features that were previously unreported or downplayed began to emerge. Using this data, along with other archaeological, historic, and ethnographic evidence from throughout Southeast Asia, broadens our understanding of lashed-lug boat construction, a practice that survived more than 1,500 years. This study aids in revealing possible reasons for the loss, persistence, or development of certain aspects of boat construction and adds significantly to the knowledge of Philippine and Southeast Asian boatbuilding technology and practices.