Thor Heyerdahl John Hemming - Essay

John Hemming

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In The Tigris Expedition Heyerdahl goes to] the very cradle of Western civilization for the most impressive of all his craft and the most satisfying of his theories.

This new venture, the building of a reed boat in Mesopotamia, started with few preconceived theories. Thor Heyerdahl simply wished to prove that the Sumerians were capable of building ocean-going boats from the berdi reeds that grow in such profusion in the Tigris marshes. But as the voyage progressed and the reed boat Tigris proved triumphantly seaworthy, Heyerdahl almost stumbled upon convincing answers to a series of archeological problems. The result is an excellent mix of mariner's yarn and historical detective work….

With his ship still proudly afloat after five months at sea, Thor Heyerdahl disproved the theories of Armas Salonen, the Finnish authority on Mesopotamian watercraft, who had been sure that reed boats could not sail beyond the rivers. By venturing forth so boldly, Heyerdahl gave the lie to another accepted wisdom [that voyages were possible only so long as the navigator could hug a mainland coast]. Tigris was often in danger of being smashed or grounded on hostile coasts; her crew could relax only when they were far out to sea in their unsinkable boat….

A fitting last leg for Tigris would have been to reach Egypt. This was frustrated by political upheavals around the Horn of Africa. A constant theme of this book is the contrast between ancient harmony and modern folly…. At times, Tigris was alone in oceans teeming with fish; at other times she was in danger of being rammed by speeding tankers, rotted by industrial effluents, or buzzed by aircraft of the superpowers. Trapped in Djibouti by political barriers, Tigris's crew burned their beloved vessel as an act of protest. But their gallant voyage yielded practical solutions to various archaeological questions. It also led to this delightful book, exciting, informative and challenging in the true Heyerdahl tradition.

John Hemming, "The Sea, Sumerian-style," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1980; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 4046, October 17, 1980, p. 1176.